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The Case for Christian Humanism: a response to Stephen Law

The Case for Christian Humanism: a response to Stephen Law

Commenting on our new report, The Guardian’s Andrew Brown said “it sets out the arguments fairly, and will therefore infuriate both sides.”  It is certainly generating considerable heat: Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association has labelled it a “land grab” and an attempt to “troll a whole worldview.” 

It is important to keep a sense of perspective here. When the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1974) talked of “integral humanism” or when Benedict XVI called for an “authentic humanism” in economics, they were hardly “trolling” atheists. Rather, they were expressing a deep-rooted Christian humanism.

From the earliest days of Christianity, a large part of the Church has shared these humanistic values, and the attempt to push Christianity out of the “humanist” tent is a recent and regrettable development.  We are honest about the fact that some Christians have contributed to the problem, using the term “humanist” to refer solely to atheistic worldviews.  However, other Christians (not least recent popes) have rightly continued to use the term to describe their own ethical outlook.  

There is no land grab going on.  We are simply reminding atheist and secular humanists that they are not the only people on this spacious territory. Humanism is a broad church. 

The territory may be spacious but there is still an important debate to be had about which bit of soil provides the better foundations for humanistic values. So it is good to see the leading atheist philosopher Stephen Law joining the fray.  He finds us unconvincing.  At least part of the reason for his dismissive view of the report, however, is that he has misunderstood one of our key arguments.

We should begin with a correction. Stephen Law takes us to task for our citation of him on p. 32 of the report.  We’re happy to clarify that he does accept that some theists have a more positive view of reason, and we are glad that he regards it as “silly” to pretend all Christians reply “blindly on tradition, authority and revelation.” 

That noted, we should point out that Law then goes on to misrepresent one of our key arguments.  Responding to Chapter 4 of the report (in which we claim Christianity provides a more robust foundation for humanistic ethics than does evolutionary naturalism), Law writes:

This is standard Christian apologetics of a sort with which anyone who’s seen a Christian debater sometime during the last few decades will be familiar. Objective morality requires God! As even atheists accept objective morals exist, they should believe in God!

Saying that “even many Christian philosophers reject the moral argument,” he cites Richard Swinburne against our position.

In fact, Richard Swinburne is disagreeing with an argument we don’t make – namely, that there cannot be an objective moral order without God.  (Not only don’t we make that argument in the report, Angus Ritchie has explicitly rejected it here

So what are we arguing with respect to humanism and morality?

Chapter 4 of our report does two main things.  Firstly, it offers a detailed critique of the views of Sam Harris.  We chose Harris because the BHA has promoted him as a defender of atheist humanism.  We show that Harris’ position is in fact deeply anti-humanist, treating the dignity of each human being as something that can be traded off against the welfare of a greater number.

Now, there are many better atheist philosophers than Sam Harris (Stephen Law is a case in point.)   But it is surely a matter of concern for the BHA if it is promoting speakers whose views will ultimately undermine humanistic values!

Secondly, chapter 4 goes on to argue that there is a more fundamental problem which faces all atheist humanists, however nuanced their philosophy.  As we explain, they need to hold together two apparently irreconcilable impulses:

They need to reconcile the impulse towards realism in ethics (because moral truth does not simply change as our feelings and opinions change) with the equal and opposite impulse to anti-realism (because it is hard to explain how humans would evolve to know objective moral truths in an otherwise purposeless universe).

The issue is not that there cannot be objective moral value without God (our view – with both Law and Swinburne – is that there could be).  Rather, it is very hard to explain how humans could come to reliable knowledge of such moral value (so – contrary to Law  Swinburne thinks the argument we are actually making is a valid one).  The issue is not about the existence or otherwise of objective morality, but about the ability of evolved primates to know that morality. 

Law also thinks we are unaware of the complexities of the issue, writing that “there’s no attempt by the authors of the Theos report to deal with any of the many objections and counters that have been raised to such evolutionary debunking arguments.”

Now, there are limits to what you can pack into a 5000-word chapter on the issue – which is why our report signposts readers to the more detailed argument one of us has made elsewhere:

This is a question Angus Ritchie has pressed against atheist worldviews in his book From Morality to Metaphysics, and the accompanying Theos report From Goodness to God: why religion makes sense of our moral commitments. We can only offer a summary of those arguments here, but readers who want to explore them in greater depth can refer to those more extended statements of the position.

From Morality to Metaphysics (published by OUP in 2012) explores the most plausible non-religious accounts of ethics.  Looking at a wide range of contemporary positions – from the “error theory” of J.L. Mackie through the ‘quasi-realism’ of Simon Blackburn, the more rationalist positions of Christine Korsgaard and T.M. Scanlon to the ethical naturalism of Philippa Foot and John McDowell – the book provides an in-depth analysis of a systematic weakness in atheistic positions. Those who have reviewed the book and the accompanying report – whether they are religious or non-religious– agree it poses a significant challenge.  

Rather than accusing the authors of avoiding the serious objections and counter-arguments, Stephen Law needs to address this philosophical argument in all its academic finery, instead of the humble mufti of The Case for Christian Humanism.  At £36, the authors of this post (and one of them in particular) think the book is tremendous value. But in the spirit of festive cheer, and of a truly humanist interest in rational debate, we’re prepared to go a bit further.  If Stephen sends us his address, we will send him a copy in the post for Christmas!

Angus Ritchie and Nick Spencer

Image from Wikimedia available in the public domain


Posted 10 December 2014

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