Honing Humanism: Evangelical and Humanist Views Different as Chalke and Cheese

A new entry in a series of articles exploring the Humanist worldview and tradition in an attempt to clarify what it is, how it is distinctive, and what value it has.

The recent revelation that Pastor Steve Chalke, a prominent evangelical minister in the UK, has embraced as legitimate monogomous same sex relationships, has incensed British Evangelicals into an uproar.

Chalke’s shift on this issue could be seen in terms of a shift toward a more Humanist ethic – it is certainly more humane, refusing to judge, as he now does, a subset of the population which is still oppressed  But look closely and it’s clear that Humanist views on ethics are still strikingly different.

There are two primary differences between even Chalke’s now more liberal Christian ethical outlook and a Humanist ethical outlook: first, Chalke is happy to promote blatant falsehoods in the service of his ethical ideal; and second, he still gives ethical primacy to an authoritative text (scripture) over human experience. Both these problems are evident in the following quote from Chalke’s announcement regarding his change of heart on this issue:

Promiscuity is always damaging and dehumanising. Casual and self-centred expressions of sexuality – homosexual or heterosexual – never reflect God’s faithfulness, grace and self-giving love. Only a permanent and stable relationship, in which respect and faithfulness are given and received, can offer the security in which well-being and love can thrive.

It is obviously not true that “promiscuity is always damaging and dehumanising”, nor that “only a permanent and stable relationship, in which respect and faithfulness are given and received, can offer the security in which well-being and love can thrive”. There are plenty of people in the world who are sexually promiscuous and deeply fulfilled personally, and who conduct their sexual relationships in an ethical way which neither dehumanizes nor damages any party involved. There are many, too, who find deep well-being and love in non-traditional relationships.

Chalke would know this if he were merely willing to speak with people about their sexual experience: he would find that while some have had bad experiences with promiscuity, others have not. But instead of seeking evidence to support his ethical judgment Chalke simply asserts what he believes to be true, based on the anti-sex and traditionalist views of his religious tradition. He does not seem open to the evidence in front of him, and this marks a difference to the Humanist outlook.

The second problem is deeper, and much more pernicious: Chalke’s ethical system (like most theistic ethical positions I’ve examined) is basically inverted, in that it places primary ethical authority in a text, tradition, or figure of leadership (God, in this case), rather than in human experience. Instead of looking to people and our affairs for ethical guidance he looks to God.

The quote illustrates this: Casual and self-centred expressions of sexuality – homosexual or heterosexual – never reflect God’s faithfulness, grace and self-giving love.” The necessary implication here is that how human beings conduct their romantic relationships should ideally be a reflection of some characteristics of God. And a further implication of that is that, when a person’s own genuine desires and the characteristics of God don’t match up, God should “win” the conflict and the person should be content with misery.

I would call this an essentially authoritarian ethical outlook: some authority other than human experience has been established which is to be the arbiter of ethical conduct, and against which there is essentially no appeal. Chalke’s move here – to accept a subset of gay relationships – is not a fundamental shift in his ethical outlook (thought it may seem cataclysmic to his critics) but merely a reinterpretation of the same text he has always seen as ethically authoritative.

The discussion of Chalke’s revelation on the Unbelievable? radio show last week demonstrates this very clearly: the discussants (Chalke and opposing theologians who take a different view on homosexuality) were not really discussing what is best for gay people in this life – that seemed an almost entirely irrelevant consideration to them. Rather, they were discussing differing interpretations of the Bible. The idea that Chalke might question whether we should be making ethical decisions of the basis of what he interprets to be “God’s Best” never seemed to cross his mind. For him, “God’s best” comes before “Humankind’s Best” and is the yardstick of ethical judgment.

This is extremely dangerous. In any authoritarian ethical system people’s experience – their desires, their feelings, their autonomy, their rights – is placed lower on the list of considerations than whatever is considered to be authoritative. As I’ve written before, this reduces the process of ethical deliberation essentially to a form of literary criticism: a deadly form, since people’s lives and happiness hangs in the balance.

Humanists say no to this widespread way of thinking. We take the view that ethical decisions must be made always with their effects on people, in this life, at the top of our list of priorities (we might call this an “Experiential ethics”). Chalke, in taking a step toward acceptance, has done a good thing, and is to be commended for it. But his ethical outlook is still far from Humanist: while he grants irrelevant sources ethical authority his ethics is still authoritarian.

About James Croft

James Croft is a Humanist activist and public speaker who has swiftly become one of the best-known new faces in Humanism today. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently studying for his Doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As a leader in training in the Ethical Culture movement – a national movement of Humanist congregations – he is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • LM

    “Chalke would know this if he were merely willing to speak with people about their sexual experience: he would find that while some have had bad experiences with promiscuity, others have not. But instead of seeking evidence to support his ethical judgment Chalke simply asserts what he believes to be true, based on the anti-sex and traditionalist views of his religious tradition. He does not seem open to the evidence in front of him, and this marks a difference to the Humanist outlook.”
    Whether or not promiscuity is good or bad should not rest on whether some people have had positive experiences with it. There are logical reasons why a Humanist should be opposed to promiscuity that have nothing to do with God talk or being anti-sex. Promiscuity is a public health hazard, even with birth control, condoms, and antibiotics. Similarly, it is not in society’s best interest – or the interest of an individual for that matter – to have lots of children living in broken households with no clear idea as to who their father is. Now one could say that these are problems stemming from lack of access to birth control or education – which they are – but there’s more to it than that. In many communities throughout the United States, giving birth to or fathering multiple children is the norm. Now, it’s easy to scoff when some sixteen year old talks about getting pregnant because she “wants someone to love” but it’s an attitude that is more prevalent than you would think, even among older women who should presumably know better. A logical Humanist sexual ethic realizes that sexual behavior has ramifications that extend beyond personal gratification or issues of consent.

    • James Croft

      Right – I agree that there are many more considerations in the ethics of sexual relationships than the ones I briefly dip into in this piece: considerations of potential pregnancy and health are of course important. However, in my view, the correct response to this is to provide access to birth control and measures to reduce health risks, while also offering comprehensive (Humanist) sex education.

      What I was attempting to show here was the fallacy of the blanket statement that “Promiscuity is always damaging and dehumanising.” This is simply not the case. It can be damaging and dehumanizing, as can “stable”, monogamous relationships. But whether a given form of sexual practice is objectionable or not should, I submit, ultimately rest on whether it promotes flourishing or not (i.e. in human experience, broadly construed). Chalke’s scriptural considerations are strictly irrelevant, and therefore cloud the issue.

  • smrnda

    I think there’s a big problem whenever anybody presents an ethical ideal that isn’t grounded in a practical way of making life better – it’s like saying something is good regardless of the consequences, good or ill. As a person who is a materialist, I think that whether something is good or bad is entirely a matter of consequences, and that any meaningful discussion of morality (particularly concerning public policy) should focus on this alone.

    On promiscuity, I’d imagine that college students are pretty sexually active, yet they aren’t necessarily experiencing the negative consequences that their less educated peers are, simply by knowing enough to take precautions. I would agree that unsafe sex should be discouraged, but I don’t think that Safe Sex is still so dangerous that it shouldn’t be considered an acceptable option. Understandably totally refraining from sex outside of marriages where children would be welcome would limit some potential harm, but beyond a certain point I think demanding that people refrain from doing what they want to do in the name of ‘safety’ can be a little too coercive. I like to drink booze, not necessarily every day, but it is something I do frequently, and I would really dislike someone forcing me to stop drinking and stop eating ice cream or riding a bike because it might somehow cost society something. We have to accept people doing some risky things, whether it’s sex (done safely as possible) or riding motorcycles, or else we end up making some kind of idol out of ‘statistical safety’ and making people miserable.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X