The search for meaning and morality without God is not new. Describing such efforts as secular humanism, however, is. Many modern thinkers, in an effort to recapture the gist and gusto of the Enlightenment, have turned to secular humanism to ground morals and meaning without God. True human progress, secular humanists maintain, can be attained without God or religion, through reason and science. Though secular humanism continues to grow more popular in the West, this worldview—unlike Christianity—fails to successfully ground moral actions and duties or provide the means by which one can have real purpose in life. From the perspective of a Christian worldview, there are several relevant critiques of secular humanism that must be made.
First, a vital aspect of secular humanism is that human nature and experience alone are sufficient enough to ground moral values. Such might be true if these values are limited by geographical or chronological constraints. Nevertheless, for a secular humanist to argue that a certain moral judgment or action can be assessed as always wrong or always right, there must be something more than human values and experience grounding morality. If moral judgments and duties are equally bound on all people in all places at all times, then the source of such moral judgments and duties must transcend all people in all places at all times. If moral principles are contrived from shared human experience and values, then moral reforms (like the abolishing of slavery, etc.) make no sense. However, if moral principles are discovered by humans (and therefore originate in some other source outside of humans), even slow-moving moral reforms make sense and are even expected.
A second critique of secular humanism is based on the fact that secular humanism finds its philosophical foundation in naturalism. Secular humanists simultaneously maintain that 1) naturalism is true and 2) rationality and reason are trustworthy sources for knowledge and progress. More than that, secular humanists maintain that rationality, reason, and scientific inquiry are the sole sources for human advancement and should be trusted above every other source of knowledge. The problem with simultaneously holding naturalism and the exaltation of reason is that the two affirmations are like oil and water. As Alvin Plantinga successfully submitted in Where the Conflict Really Lies (Oxford University Press, 2011, 344-45), if naturalism is true then humans cannot trust that their cognitive faculties are reliable. On naturalism, human faculties are the result of unguided processes and may or may not be able to truly interpret reality. But secular humanism simultaneously holds that naturalism is true and that the cognitive faculties of humans are reliable enough to ground all human progress, morality, etc. In as far as secular humanism affirms naturalism while citing human reason as its guiding light to knowledge, it is self-defeating.
A third critique of secular humanism regards its presupposition that human beings are free to give meaning to their lives by their own independent thought. If one’s meaning in life is subject to one’s own feelings, thoughts, and desires, then no life has any real purpose. When meaning is determined from moment to moment based on feelings and beliefs that are subject to change, meaning can change over time, at any time, on any whim. If the meaning of one’s life is subject to the thoughts and feelings of the individual, then it would be possible for one’s life to have no meaning. If it is possible for one’s life to have no meaning, then one’s life has no objective meaning. While secular humanism attempts to provide a way for people to add their own meaning to their lives, it actually implies that one’s life has no real meaning.
Overall, secular humanism isn’t the faultless philosophy that it is often presented as. While many seek to be good, have real meaning, and achieve human progress while rejecting God, such is easier said than done. This post doesn’t prove that Christianity is true, but it does demonstrate that secular humanism isn’t the golden ticket for a good future. Part two will dive into why secular humanism’s critiques of Christianity are not true. Until then, let’s seek human progress with God’s help, not without.