Why Evangelicalism and Humanism Cannot Be Friends

Why Evangelicalism and Humanism Cannot Be Friends June 8, 2013

humanistcrossI have very personal reasons for wanting to see Evangelicalism* and Humanism play well together.  You see, like an amphibian I straddle both worlds, with one foot in the former and another foot in the latter.  I am a Humanist (a more descriptive term than the more general “atheist,” which could mean a lot of things depending on context) but I live in a culture that is supersaturated with Evangelicalism.

Living in the Bible Belt is like being in church every day, everywhere you go.  People everywhere assume that you belong to the same religion as they do (95% of the time, they’re right) and they are accustomed to speaking to everyone as if that’s the case.  When you first move here, the second question you get asked (after “What do you do?”) is “Where do you go to church?”  Politicians and businessesmen wear their religious affiliations on their sleeves because it significantly boosts their credibility in places like this.  Local banks scroll daily Bible verses instead of sales pitches across their bright marquis signs, and businesses all over town pipe Christian praise music over their speakers for all their patrons to hear.  Just two nights ago I took my daughters to two different chain restaurants (a Subway and a Zaxby’s) which were playing Christian music overhead.  If I wanted, I could have also visited a yogurt place, a gas station, or a local health club all within a few minutes of my house which do the same thing.  Around here, that’s how you say, “We’re good folk.  We’re your kind of people.”

On top of that, most of the people I love dearly are evangelical Christians as well.  Everyone in my family (immediate, nuclear, and extended) is an evangelical Christian, and so are almost all of the friends I grew up with and came to know in young adulthood.  I’m positively swimming in Evangelicalism…but I myself have become a Humanist.  So I have very personal reasons to see these two worlds learn to get along.  Personally, I have confidence that people in both camps can learn to find common ground for conversation, perhaps even for cooperation towards common goals in the world to make it a better place. I say this because people are wonderfully complex, and they often can learn to rise above the restrictions placed on them by the narratives through which they were taught to interpret themselves and the world around them.  But before I can explain how I think that’s possible, I must first acknowledge a major incompatibility:

The message of Humanism is, at its core, diametrically opposed to the evangelical Christian message.  

First, let’s start with the message of Evangelicalism.  Boiled down to its essence, it says two basic things:

  1. You can’t do it.
  2. Only Jesus can.

Everything else in the evangelical Christian message essentially distills down to those two elements.  Just listen to any sermon, or read any book, or listen to any popular song produced by evangelical Christianity.  More than likely, you will hear one or both parts of this message.  First you will hear someone highlight just how bad things can get in life, how hard it is to lose that job, or how painful it is to get that diagnosis.  The first part of the message must necessarily highlight weakness, shortcomings, failures, and insufficiencies.  The Evangelical message must begin with an assertion that something is wrong with us, and that we wretched humans cannot do (fill-in-the-blank) on our own.  And I don’t just mean individually—I mean as an entire race.  We just can’t do it, whatever it is:  Live happily.  Live ethically.  Maintain marriages.  Raise healthy children.  Run a country.  Or escape eternal damnation for being…whatever it is that we are.  Then after we are convinced of our own incapabilities, only then are we ready to hear “the good news” that Jesus can be whatever it is that we’re lacking.

But the message of Humanism is just the opposite. Humanism asserts that people can better their condition through a responsible use of reason, empathy, and community built around making the world a better place.  It says, in effect, that we are capable of great things and that through our own shared strengths and resources we can improve our situation, even on a global scale.  In short, it says that we can.  It says that humans already have within themselves all the faculties they need to rise above the hardships that have hindered us along our long evolutionary history.  And that just won’t mix with the evangelical Christian message.  It cuts against the very grain.  They’re like oil and water.

Now, on the surface it appears that both ideologies are after equally good things.  It would seem at first glance that both would seek to promote human goodness wherever they find it in the world.  But those not from the evangelical world are likely unaware just how semantically loaded that word “goodness” really is.  For an Evangelical, human goodness is a lie, and it stands in the way of true salvation.  According to the evangelical Christian way of thinking, a person will never be able to receive the benefits of God’s deliverance from his or her many trials and shortcomings until he or she quits trying to “do good” or “be good” without divine assistance.  For the evangelical Christian, human goodness is the greatest enemy to God’s work in the human heart and in the world.

According to the Bible, “there is no one good; no, not even one”(Rom. 3:10-12).  When someone called Jesus a “good teacher” he shot back that “no one is good but God”(Mark 10:18).  He once admonished his followers, “I am the vine and you are the branches; apart from me you can do nothing”(John 15:5). And then there’s perhaps the boldest statement of this dualism ever made (particularly once divorced from its original context): “Anything not from faith is sin”(Rom.14:23)  Stated differently, any attempt at goodness which does not originate from within the Christian faith is not only wasted effort, but fundamentally evil in disguise.  Goodness, according to the evangelical faith, is proprietary.  It belongs to (one particular) God alone, and by proxy to those who rightly submit themselves to him in faith.  Because Humanists do not share that faith, they are at best excluded from the source of “true goodness,” and at worst they are the enemy of God because of the very benevolent aspirations which make up their core values.

In addition to all this, each ideology seeks to focus on a different reality altogether.  For the Humanist, this world is the only one we are going to get, and this one life is the only one we are going to live, so we want to make it the best we can make it.  But for the Evangelical, both this world and this life are temporary set-ups for an infinitely longer and infinitely more important eternal reality.  For them, that more enduring reality is so much more important than the current one we’re in, and they see it as a distraction to become “overly concerned” with the matters of this world when a much larger, much more important reality awaits us…after we die, of course.  So once again our ultimate goals are at odds with one another.  Our ultimate values are the inverses of one another’s.

In light of all this, why do I even bother?  Why spend any time whatsoever trying to encourage conversation or cooperation between two camps which are so fundamentally opposed to one another at the ideological level?  I’ll tell you why.  I believe it’s worth it for two reasons:

1.  Because people are complex, and because
they are driven by a biologically-wired instinct towards solidarity with the rest of humanity, I believe it is possible to see them rise above the divisiveness of the controlling narratives which they learned from their grandparent’s knee.  I have seen people reach beyond their differences to work together when the situation demands it, and I’ve seen them successfully work together in a mutually-respectful environment.  It can be done.  Sometimes people’s care for one another takes them beyond their indoctrination.

2.  Because Evangelicalism itself is changing before our eyes.  It’s evolving as we speak.  Like all religious movements, it was a product of a particular time and that time is passing.  Something new is emerging out of evangelical Christianity and while it’s still too soon to say what it will be, it’s safe to say the old narratives are morphing into something different from what they were before.  Just pick up a book by Rob Bell, or Don Miller, or Anne Lamott, or Brian McLaren.  Pick an article, any article, by Rachel Held Evans, and you will see what I’m talking about.  There are newer, slightly better conversations emerging out of the changing culture, and with it come some new opportunities for finding common ground.  In many ways, these conversations are simply an extension of those started more than a century before.  The big difference now is that those who wish to keep to the old ways are finding less and less traction among even their own people for silencing these progressive voices.

Do I feel as an atheist that these more moderate expressions of Christianity cherry pick their beliefs, and sometimes carry over the bad habits of their forebears?  Sure.  But I’m becoming more and more of a pragmatist, and I want to encourage those newer forms of the Christian faith which want to reject the more deleterious excesses of old-school Evangelicalism.  I see some hope in these developments for cooperation and common respect between Humanists and Christians in my culture.  Granted, for many Christians such cooperation is an abomination.  The respective goals of each camp are just too contrary to one another.  But not everyone in the Christian faith thinks the same way about these things.  I think it’s worth my time to reinforce those who seek to cooperate with us instead of reject us because of the differences between the two ideologies.  Evangelicalism and Humanism are indeed oil and water, but in this case the oil is in the process of becoming something else.  Maybe we can help it along, a little ;-)


* I use the term “Evangelicalism” above as if it were virtually synonymous with Fundamentalism because in my mind they are two slightly different expressions of the same set of beliefs.  In my experience, they believe the same things.  They simply represent two different styles of expressing those identical beliefs.  A Fundamentalist will quote Bible verses to make a point while an Evangelical will quote university studies to argue the exact same point.  I often say that an Evangelical is a Fundamentalist with a bigger vocabulary.

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  • I think it is important to highlight that the Evangelicalism you describe here is specifically as it occurs in the Bible-Belt. Christians in other parts of the world who see themselves as Evangelicals do not necessarily ascribe to the exact belief system you describe here. I see myself as Evangelical, for example, but in your neck of the woods I don’t think I would be welcome either, nor would I feel comfortable in that type of religious environment.

    “For them, that more enduring reality is so much more important than the current one we’re in” I once heard someone describe this phenomenon very aptly: They are so heavenly-minded, they’re of no earthly good. I believe that that’s entirely missing the point.

  • I enjoyed reading this–I really like your writing style and your ability to explain all the parts of an idea to the end of an essay without losing any focus. That was a treat in itself. I would be very much interested in reading a similar post of yours (if by chance you happened to be so inclined to write it) that described–despite their core differences–what Humanism and Evangelicalism had in common, and what individual Humanists and Evangelicals could do in a practical way to bridge the divide. Also, is there anything about Evangelicalism that you admire? Is there anything about Humanism that Evangelicals might admire? Best wishes and much love from far away, SHJ

  • Greg Shoemaker

    Thank you for your thoughtful words. I have recently admitted to myself that I have transitioned from inherited believer to at best agnostic. It is a journey that has taken my entire adult life (I’m 52 now). Like you, the journey is continuous, but I was persuaded to a fairly intense winter of study and self searching by a conversation with a close friend about the dental missionary work he does in Africa each summer. Conversation is a kind word. I was pretty much shouted down for suggesting that perhaps his charitable dental service was not free for the patient, but required a payment in accepting Jesus Christ as their savior. I know that they do the work regardless, but imagine the pressure of needing repair of painful, agonizing oral problems without means for payment. All you can give is your soul. My neighbor admitted that he gets paid twice. Once in the heart-soaring knowledge that he handed off another saved soul to the creator, and again once he gets to heaven to bask in everlasting glory for his works on earth.

    For me, the Humanist is the true provider of charity. The only reward is the betterment of another’s life and the betterment of a shared community. Both the Humanist and the Evangelical most likely experience the rush that comes with helping someone in desperate need. For the Humanist, there are less strings attached.

    Some people have this burning desire to understand the meaning of life. I have this. It’s funny, but since I no longer believe in the God of the Bible, I have a stronger desire to do good for others. I realize that I have a finite amount of time, not an eternity. What better way to bring meaning to life by service to others, to make this world a better place rather than doing it out of fear or obligation for what the afterlife may hold.

  • Well said. Thanks for sharing, Greg!

  • Godless (by the way…what is your real name??)

    First off…very thoughtful post. I have been thinking more about your other post that was “Freshly Pressed” the other day and came across this. You have more time than I do for this sort of thing! Now you have provided more thoughts for more discussion.

    As in your first post…here you focus a lot on the culture of “Christianity” around you. I do not doubt that that is a rather irksome environment to be in. As I mentioned…I live in the reverse situation…where it is assumed that most people have “gotten beyond all that”….especially true in San Francisco, I think. This is an interesting discussion…the one surrounding cultural “faith” vs. “real” faith. Cultural faith is a matter of convenience…real faith is a conviction that is carried out in daily living. But rejecting a faith because you find certain people that contradict its tenants is like rejecting a gift because you don’t like the color of the wrapping paper. Plenty of people do that because they see the hypocrisy and say, “To hell with that”…and move on. Understandable, but it’s throwing the baby out with the bath water. I am going to move on to your other thoughts though, because I don’t think that this phenomenon describes you.

    On your two “basic things” related to Evangelicalism you say that the message of the church can be boiled down to:

    1. You can’t do it

    2. Only Jesus can

    And then you say:

    The Evangelical message must begin with an assertion that something is wrong with us, and that we wretched humans cannot do (fill-in-the-blank) on our own.

    First off…I don’t think that Jesus came to say that we are all useless imps without him. He came to tell us that while we are created in the image of God and while we are, accordingly, “very good” parts of his creation, we have a very big problem. That of sin (even though there are only three letters there…this is the four letter word for most humanists I know). He didn’t say we can’t do great things. He said that in addition to the ability to do great things, we also are capable of doing terribly heinous things and that we are accountable for our actions…yet totally unprepared to pay the those actions. But he is prepared to pay…on our behalf.

    You then go on to your vision of humanism:

    But the message of Humanism is just the opposite. Humanism asserts that people can better their condition through a responsible use of reason, empathy, and community built around making the world a better place. It says, in effect, that we are capable of great things and that through our own shared strengths and resources we can improve our situation, even on a global scale. In short, it says that we can. It says that humans already have within themselves all the faculties they need to rise above the hardships that have hindered us along our long evolutionary history. And that just won’t mix with the evangelical Christian message. It cuts against the very grain. They’re like oil and water.

    I rather disagree with almost everything that is stated there with regard to the Christian faith…but let me try to explain why with a short example. Is it in the nature of a human being to want to share their resources? You have kids, I think…so do I. They really have a hard time sharing! They come out of the womb that way. Sharing is a sacrifice. So why, from a humanist perspective, should I share? I think your answer is written above: “…to rise above the hardships that have hindered us along our long evolutionary history”. That’s a loaded statement. It assumes, a priori, that all humans will be on the same page. That *exact* philosophy has been used by countless despots to discard those who “hindered us” (us being those in power) from reaching their vision of the future. I hope you see where I am headed here…let me be more clear.

    You say above that through reason, empathy, and community built around making the world a better place people can better their condition. But what of selfishness, greed, lust, hatred, enmity, etc. How does humanism respond to these things. For that matter…what is “reason” for a humanist, if my reason and your reason contradict each other. Or…put more fundamentally, do words have meaning? Why do they have meaning?

    I throw all this out there to make one point, really. Humanism, or any other world view, has to answer these questions. In the Christian faith, I think the answer to these question are all found in Christ. (Refer to the gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word….”). You may chose to totally disagree with that…but I think it is important to recognize that these foundational questions still need to be answered by anyone for any world view. Again…it is not enough to say…I am a humanist because I am not a Christian and I don’t like what Christians say.

    There are other things I would love to respond to here.,,,but I am running out of time. (Specifically…I would contest the statement, “For them, that more enduring reality is so much more important than the current one we’re in, and they see it as a distraction to become “overly concerned” with the matters of this world when a much larger, much more important reality awaits us…after we die, of course.”….perhaps I can get there another time). My wife just spent 10 days in Africa living in squalor to help the condition of the people there. Millions of people throughout history have done similar things, in the name of Jesus, because they are indeed concerned for the reality of the present.

    To your main point…I love this kind of debate and I think that Christians and Humanists can engage in meaningful, respectful debate As much as I am able, I would very much like to keep our conversation going because it helps me to more fully and clearly elucidate what I believe. I just can’t promise to do it often. This takes a lot of energy! But it is very important to discuss…so, good all around.

    All the best…and don’t let those folks down there drive you crazy!

  • I’m not sure whom you are addressing when you say “I am a humanist because I am not a Christian and I don’t like what Christians say” because that doesn’t describe my situation. Also, you are correct that it does not describe me when you mention “rejecting a faith because you find certain people that contradict its tenants.”

    Also, you seem to believe that Humanism ignores people’s bad behavior, but it doesn’t. It simply acknowledges the human capacity for good and seeks to celebrate that and channel it in a positive direction.

    While all animals are egocentric and seek survival and self-preservation, many also demonstrate altruism, solidarity, compassion, and even sharing of resources for no ostensible personal benefit. Humans are no different in that respect. But our higher reasoning skills give us a greater capacity for deliberately harnessing that cooperative impulse to create societies with rules and values which help us go even farther (in both good and bad directions at times) than our predecessors.

    My name is Neil, btw. Forgive me for not introducing myself :-)

  • I’m sure there are major regional differences. But I speak of the world I know. Down here, there’s a whole lot of “heavenly mindedness.” But if you suggest we should be concerned about something as “this worldly” as obesity or global warming and you’ll get shouted down fast.

  • Neil,

    He nailed it down, better than I.

    You are forgiven.



  • Neil,

    Forgive me as I give a personal example.

    I grew up on the border of Texas and Mexico. I grew up across from the famous park in Brownsville, where all the great Tejano singers and bands played. I literally fell asleep listening to Tejano music, like a lullaby.

    When I here Spanish music playing, I do not think I am in an alien land, as you seem to when you hear Christian praise music overhead. I think, I AM HOME ….

    And therein is TRUE Humanism. I am not alienated by a ‘different’ culture from ‘my culture.’ I do not need to ‘thin down the oil’ of the other culture, so I will finally be comfortable.

    I am COMFORTABLE in either culture. I understand the other culture and respect it.

    That does not mean that I am comfortable in the modern Anglo culture which denies family and country. Modern America also denies God, but, I do not require others to believe in God as I do. It is nice when they do. But, not necessary as long as they respect my right to believe.

    One problem with your polemic is your choice of ‘Humanism,’ rather than ‘Atheism.’ It would seem modern Atheists are not comfortable with who they really are, so they redefine classical terms into ‘new age’ terms.

    Erasmus, and I, would disagree with your usage of the term ‘Humanist.’ The Father of Humanism, he, a Christian Priest and scholar, he was better at those than I am, was about furthering faith in a manner that did not need the Catholic Church (yes, I am missing some of his more important points as he remained a Catholic).

    But, Humanism is the great-grandfather of the Evangelicalism (Fundamentalism). You characterize both in a manner that is using ‘straw men.’ You decide how you want your argument to unfold, and you describe both ‘Humanism’ (Humanism is a Religious term, Secular Humanism is different, is it not?) and ‘Evangelicalism’ in ways very different from their reality.

    So, you describe the ‘feeling’ of moving there. BUT, you ARE from there …. So, you are describing a character, not a reality.

    So, from a logic point of view, true logic, I find your narrative troubling. You are in conflict with YOUR culture, your family, where you are from, what you hold valuable, what you were raised with.

    I lived in California with my ‘other side of the family.’ I was in conflict out there. Secular Humanism devoid of God is a messy, very messy, thing to live with. I had so many friends, “Because you are different. You actually care about my feelings.” Ironically, I have not found that high of a concentration of friends since ….

    Me? I moved home.

    But, instead of moving home, you want everyone around you to change, you denied that in a previous comment to me, did you not?

    Why should they change? Why should they change their culture and live in a foreign land, so you can be comfortable with who you are?

    I have pointed that out before, and I think you are missing the very real core of your entire argument. That could be the reason for using straw men instead of real arguments.

    The core of your argument is that you want those great-grand children of Erasmus and his ideology to become like you. Alien to Erasmus. Alien to their childhood. Alien to what they are comfortable with.


    How is what you want them to change to good for them. THEM. Not ME. Or, YOU. True Humanism, looking outside of yourself at their needs.

    Secular Humanism has given us many not nice things. An over focus upon self. It is comforting to see modern Atheists try to mold Secular Humanism into a more human friendly version of its old self. But, I think it is only doing so to try to make Secular Humanism more like Christianity – a Religion. But, that is my personal belief, and I might be wrong on that.

    But, back to the needs of those around you. Why is it that a handful, several hundred, Atheists should benefit, so that several hundred thousand, maybe million, other people would hurt?


  • Reblogged this on thewordpressghost and commented:

    I am still trying to figure out where our friend Neil is going with his argument.

    But, it is often necessary for us to listen to or, in this case, read the argument of other people.

    He describes himself as Godless in Dixie, Atheist, and Humanist. I have informed him of the difference between Secular Humanism and Humanism, so maybe he will pick up Secular Humanist over the more religious term Humanist.

    I have pointed out how he makes me feel like he is trying to evangelize the people around him to become like he is, a Secular Humanist. And I asked a question similar to “Is it right to change the people around you, so you will feel comfortable, and they will feel alienated?”

    Let us see where the discussion leads.


  • Before I respond, could you please show me where I said I want to make everyone else like me? I will happily clarify once you show me where I indicated that.

    To be clear, I am not asking for others to see the world the same way I do. All I am asking is to be given the same level of respect that others require for their own views. I am simply asking to be seen as a regular human being instead of being seen as the caricature that those around me seem to think all atheists must be.

    Finally, the reason I do not differentiate between one form of Humanism and another in my blog is because the common goals of all forms of Humanism are precisely what I want to highlight, not their differences. And I’m quite confident Erasmus wouldn’t recognize Evangelicalism, btw.

  • Neil,

    Let me be clear, Erasmus and true Humanism was and is Christian. Humanism grew into the very Christianity you complain about.

    Second, you wrote about changing the people around you. Why divert what I wrote by denying what you have written?

    You wrote: “Evangelicalism and Humanism are indeed oil and water, but in this case the oil is in the process of becoming something else. Maybe we can help it along, a little”

    Again Humanism is NOT Secular Humanism.

    I think, or at least it seems to me, you are not listening to your own voice as you write. It is called ‘writing ahead.’ You are thinking what you perceive, but what you write is a deeper set of emotions than you are admitting to yourself.

    When it is pointed out to you that you want to change those around you, you respond with, “I will happily clarify once you show me where I indicated that.”


    When I was Agnostic, I was never that out of touch with what I felt and thought.

    So, while I can empathize with some of what you write and feel, I truly am having difficulty understanding.

    I wish I could write that you are writing Greek to me, but my Greek is functional.

    I can understand your not wanting to be a caricature. But, at the same time, you make those around you into caricatures ….

    How is that respecting them? If that was only for the purpose of argument, I would ignore those caricatures. But, you say you dearly love them …. How would you describe those you do not love?

    How would you describe me? Someone you have never met?

    That was one of the struggles I had with Secular Humanism when I was Agnostic. I was not busy attacking a God and a Faith I no longer believed in ….

    In a state similar to your state, I truly just did not care.

  • I got in trouble at work in Houston (at a community college) for saying that I was a secular humanist. An evangelical prof heard me and after that I was his enemy.

  • I remember when I was big into apologetics and cults and foreign religions, there was always a lot of talk about “worldviews,” and the Secular Humanist worldview was a favorite punching bag. I was always taught they were a self-centered bunch of deluded people. Now I am one myself, LOL. I don’t feel any different…

  • Thanks Neil,

    I was meaning to be more general in that sentence, actually…but I think, based on your post it actually does apply to you (at least somewhat). I mean, you do spend a lot of time talking about all the stuff you don’t like about the way a lot of Christian people irk you, and considerably less time on why you believe what you believe. Agreed…your one paragraph in this post was rather good in this regards…it does communicate your general sense of how you feel humanism is beneficial. Perhaps in some of your other posts you get more into the details on how humanism integrates your daily experiences…if so, please point me to that post so I can be better informed.

    As far as bad behavior (aka, sin) humanism can celebrate good…but it needs to (actually it must) have a cogent response to why evil happens because bad stuff is part of life. Example, “Daddy…why did that dude in Sandy Hook kill all those kids?” Our secularized society wants to come up with every possible explanation for why it really wasn’t his “fault”…that he had a poor upbringing, that he was mentally unstable, etc. etc. There may be grains of truth in all that…but call it what it is…wrong. I believe that the Bible will unabashedly call that behavior 100%, unshakably, wrong. Read “absolutely wrong”.

    When societies “create rules and values” who is to say which rules and values are right, and which are wrong? To quote Nietzsche, if God is dead, “All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us?” Whoa…profound.

    All that to say, I believe that “values and rules” need to refer to something…they cannot be created by people. Perhaps that is a post idea for you. Answer the question of how humanism deals with and defines good and evil. That would be an interesting read.

    Sorry if I am so wordy…once I get going I sometime have a hard time stopping and editing.



    P.S. When I right these posts…I try to imagine the discussion taking place over a cup of coffee or glass of wine. If I seem to sometimes get to intense, I apologize.

  • thebigreason

    Bravo! And thank you.

  • My experience of Evangelicalism was not the Bible Belt variety, but your description rings true, nonetheless. I agree that some quarters of Evangelicalism are changing, perhaps “progressing” even. But I doubt it’s going to transform into something compatible with humanism – not significantly, at least. One reason is that evangelical culture is too deeply saturated with Calvinist philosophy. One example is the notion of Total Depravity you allude to in your post. This pervasive idea is foundational to the worldviews of a majority of Evangelicals, even those who don’t consider themselves Calvinist.

    Another reason is that many of even the more progressive Evangelicals still strive for acceptance from the nominal “church”. The deep – though frequently submerged – desire for institutional sanction is a big part of what keeps them locked in, as you say, “bad habits” of their forbears. What appears at first glance to be meaningful change often amounts to little more than unconvincing, if well-intentioned, repackaging.

    I wouldn’t waste my time trying to help bring Evangelicalism around. Tweaking the existing institutions just isn’t going to cut it because the corruption is too deeply, and structurally, instilled. On the other hand, there are an increasing number of non-evangelical Christians with whom secular humanists could form worthwhile alliances. I say “non-evangelical” not because they’ve necessarily abandoned belief in Jesus as the literally resurrected son of God, but because they’ve jettisoned nearly every other marker of Evangelicalism and have wholeheartedly embraced the implications of human formation in the image of God.

    For such Christians, the inherent equality, value and potential of humanity isn’t simply a pretty truism or rhetorical device for projecting “relevance” – it’s a holy call to action. Not surprisingly, you’re more likely to run into such Christians at a downtown speakeasy than a suburban megachurch.

    So I guess what I’m saying is you should hang out in bars more often ; )

  • I really enjoyed your article even though I am on the other side of this unfortunate divide. It was filled with the level-headed pragmatism I am discovering more and more with humanists. I completely agree in your conclusion that the two are incompatible but your characterization of the Bible’s diagnosis of humanity is slightly off.

    You’re summary- “You can’t do it. Only Jesus can.”- is correct. But I think you are off on what “it” is. The Bible doesn’t say that humanity can’t “live happily, live ethically, maintain marriages, raise healthy children or run a country” without God. Non-Christians can and have done this. In the story of the Tower of Babel, the heavenly conversation proclaims that man “can” do most anything he puts his mind to.

    What humanity “can’t” do is what God requires – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself”. We choose consistently and intentionally to not be God-centered. That is the Bible’s diagnosis.

    This mistaken diagnosis is rampant among believers. Unfortunately, instead of teaching “God-centeredness” as the one and only goal of the gospel, Christian teachers add on happiness, ethical living, healthy marriages and children, and a prosperous country as co-goals of the gospel. These things should be hoped for as possible byproducts of God-centeredness although not guaranteed (Samuel’s parenting was a failure, Hosea’s marriage was a disaster, and the people of Israel’s government sputtered more often than it flourished). Pastor’s attempts to broaden the appeal of Christianity muddles the message.

    So the disconnect between evangelicalism and humanism is not found in man’s ability to progress personally or collectively. The disconnect is in the aim of that progress (Christianity toward God-centeredness and humanism toward human-centeredness). They are working in different directions.

    What the Bible asks that humanist ought to ponder is this:

    “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and yet lose his soul?”

    Thanks for this good read!

  • My second and more subtle point is that I should proofread my comments before posting. Sorry!

  • Excellent article.

    FYI, “humanist” should not be capitalized, just like “atheist” and “evangelical” should not be capitalized.

  • Donald Butts

    As someone previously pointed out, I think it is important to differentiate between “humanism” and “secular humanism.” When asked exactly what “secular” humanism is, I refer to the “affirmations of secular humanism” as presented here: http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=main&page=affirmations

  • My feeling on this is that I’m fine with the term “Humanist” because I have no personal reason to distance myself from other Humanists who aren’t necessarily secular. If they’re Humanists, we can probably agree on enough common ideas that we can work together on some things.

  • I always figured each of those words should be lower-case when used as adjectives but capitalized when used as a noun, referring to an established formal ideology. I’ll go check my grammar for a bit, though…

  • If it’s so then they should be shouted down every time they try to get involved in mundane issues such as abortion and gay rights.

  • ajh326

    I’m curious-what has your experience been with some of your fundamentalist friends when they have learned of your humanism? Have they been hostile, or have they simply said, “I’ll pray for you?”

  • As a former Fundamentalist, I just want to say that I love your definition for Evangelicalism. It’s perfect!

  • While most would chafe at the fundy label (they reserve that term for people with funny hairdos), their reactions have been quite strongly negative. I had a group of friends stage an intervention of sorts in which they grilled me about everything from my philosophical assumptions and scientific knowledge to whether or not I watched porn and masturbated. I could go on with some stories of reactions but it would probably embarrass them.

    …which I find FASCINATING because it shows how evangelical Christians are often themselves intellectually insulted by their own beliefs and actions. For example, they are rarely willing to openly discuss with me that they believe the Devil is behind my apostasy, at least not in front of me. But I also happen to know that when I’m not around they speak more freely with one another, claiming I am a pawn of Satan. It’s been an interesting experience, and I’ve seen a side of people I had never seen before.

  • Thanks, Rene, is it?

    Love your blog concept, btw. There need to be more joint efforts and discussions by people coming from different points of view.

  • Yep, Rene is me. :) And I agree with you; the separation, the me-verses-them mentality is just so harmful in today’s society. I believe it comes from a lack of understanding of other viewpoints and respect for them. I believe we can always find something that unites us on at least one level, aside from being humans or Americans, that can help us get along. For me and Lara, that something is single-parenthood.

  • Beautiful. Love it.

  • Dee

    I am in Africa, was raised by a Christian Mother and my life has been very eventful. I find my self questioning so many things but I think part of the reason why things are the way they are this side of the world is that some of these things were lost in translation. I have also identified my self as christian, it just makes more sense to me but I sometimes have battles within my self when I can’t make sense of certain christian teachings. I ask my self about homosexuals, all the time. That, are they are all going to burn in hell, or should I just go around casting out the devils that have possessed them? Sometimes you find that, I do not just take everything that is taught, I really listen and at times feel like the God that I know is love and he communicates with his children lovingly.

    When in doubt I always say, maybe I do not have to understand, I should just listen to my gut, I should just listen to what my spirit feels inside of me.

    African people are very spiritual, even before the introduction of Christianity, they have always believed in a greater power. When good things happen, I look up and say, Big guy…thank you. When horrible things happen, I look up again, what now?

    I am very fascinated by reason, intelligence and wisdom, but most times they fail me and then I go back to my heart, where my soul resides, and then give in to it.

    I have just decided to keep my spirituality, and Christianity to my self, some of the things that are done in the church I do not agree with, especially how I feel like some people in my side of the world are even exploited, and they go around buying miracles, and the poor are giving the little they have to the church and remain on the same level.

    I have also had personal encounters that have enabled me to believe there’s a God. And I have experienced personal healing, once upon a time, I was so emotionally worn out but I didn’t loose my mind.

    I just refuse to wear a tag, my experience of life has made me. I believe in a personal journey, whether christian, or humanist or homosexual or what ever it is. It is of no use to me to agree or disagree.

    I am just walking my path, all I try and do, is love everyone just the same. And the things I don’t understand, I do not really have to.

    (Godless, I enjoyed reading your posts, bumped into you on freshly pressed).

  • Lee


    You say above:

    But, instead of moving home, you want everyone around you to change, you denied that in a previous comment to me, did you not?

    Why should they change? Why should they change their culture and live in a foreign land, so you can be comfortable with who you are?

    I have pointed that out before, and I think you are missing the very real core of your entire argument. That could be the reason for using straw men instead of real arguments.

    The core of your argument is that you want those great-grand children of Erasmus and his ideology to become like you. Alien to Erasmus. Alien to their childhood. Alien to what they are comfortable with.

    Let me make a stretch here…

    Down through history, cultures and societies have EVOLVED when a set of beliefs or facts no longer “hold water”. When those cultures change, groups that refuse to adapt or accept a better alternative are ostracized or worse. Let’s consider the Civil Rights Movement in America. Unfortunately, the beliefs held by the majority of the South were considered the norm (what they were comfortable with) and it took strong individuals mixing it up in the hot spots to catalyze the change (see Dr. King). I believe Neil’s decision to stay put and try to reason or at least break down the wall between theists (e.g. evangelicals) and non-theists (e.g. humanists) makes absolute sense, not considering his deep ties to family and community in his hometown. I am not correlating racism with Christianity in the South (though it can be easily done), but I think the example rings true.

    Why should they change? Simply because there exist more logical, scientifically sound, socially progressive worldviews. Secularism, in my opinion, will eventually “win” once believing in the supernatural becomes socially unacceptable. I think the cogs on that machine are starting to turn and as more and more smart folks continue to grease it’s wheels, it will only turn faster and faster and faster…

  • Thanks, Lee. I had moved on but I meant to reply and clarify that I’m not really trying to change what already is. I’m celebrating and encouraging the fact that it’s ALREADY changing before our eyes. I don’t think it’s gonna go away, because these things find ways of preserving themselves. But they will become less and less influential over time.

  • ajh326

    That’s very interesting, but I’m quite sorry to hear that. Thank you.

  • I’m afraid I have an example of when your “reason” contradicts mine – one humanist solution when this happens is to use discussion (and empathy) to reach consensus. So here we go: Your example that children don’t naturally share isn’t a legitimate way to claim humans can’t easily share (and the author was never claiming that sharing isn’t a sacrifice). Young children also “come out of the womb” unable to walk and unable to understand even the most basic of rules about the world, such as when Mommy leaves the room, she doesn’t cease to exist. Children also can’t “delay gratification” and wait just a few minutes for twice the candy – then again neither can some adults! Suffice to say, using what children can and cannot do as a way to reach conclusions about our human nature is flawed. It will leave you expecting adults to act like children, and to always need a “heavenly father” for help – even if that father is a jealous, bloodthirsty rage-monster threatening eternal torture for thought-crimes… hey, he loves us when we obey!

  • Lee,

    I live where I grew up.

    I do not want ‘us’ to keep changing into something not good for us.

    And that is the difference between you and I, you see change as good even if it is negative.

    If it is negative change, I recommend going back and starting over.


    Thank you for commenting!


  • Mr. Schuster is starting the discussion on how to address Mr. Todd’s concerns.

    From Mr. Todd’s comment of June 8, 2013 at 10:16 am, he wonders how humanism can address the problem of evil. He asks, “But what of selfishness, greed, lust, hatred, enmity, etc.? How does humanism respond to these things?” In his later response, he points out, “[Humanism] needs to (actually it must) have a cogent response to why evil happens because bad stuff is part of life.”

    These are very legitimate concerns, and issues that we godless rationalists must figure out every day of our lives. Sam Harris published a book recently on the topic of scientifically-informed morality recently. I recommend it as an example of how rationalists are working on a cogent response to why evil happens. If one takes a look at the TEDEducation video on youtube where Mr. Harris presents his work, one will see that we secularists are not in agreement on how to develop reason-based morality. I say all this to make it clear that those of us without religion work constantly on figuring out how to minimize evil in human life and promote good. It’s not cut and dried. But neither is it cut and dried in religious tradition, no matter what religionists assert.

    The place to start is to understand what is “evil”? Since we are discussing humanism, we will only focus on what is evil as it applies to human life, disregarding bad things that happen to animals, and disregarding the question of whether or not rejecting the existence of any god is evil. From the human perspective, then, evil is whatever physically harms a person, deprives them of their freedom, or takes away that which belongs to them – when such acts are done by another human being. Something bad that happens to a person is only evil if it was done by another person. If a rabid dog bites you, that’s not evil. If a tsunami wipes out your city, that’s not evil. The term “evil” can only meaningfully be applied to the actions of free-willed individuals.

    The first evil I described is physical harm. If someone harms me, I consider it to be evil because I wish to live, and to live without pain. Because I have imagination, and because others have told me so and I believe what they say, I have come to the understanding that other people also wish to live and live without pain. When we who wish to live and live without pain form groups and societies, we set up customs and rules that protect ourselves and each other from being killed or from having pain inflicted upon us. Exactly how we are going to do this is subject of ongoing discussion, and why we have developed governments and all the related accouterments.

    The second evil is depriving people of their freedom. (This is more of an evil in the Western philosophical tradition than it is in East Asian traditions.) If we believe in the inherent worth of the individual, we look at the actions of those who try to hinder free action of individuals as evil. We temper the value of freedom with the value of not being harmed. That is, we say that we can all have as much freedom as we wish to express, so long as our freedom does not lead to willful or negligent harm of others. We also know very well that the more people there are in the group or society, the greater the range of opinion on which freedoms should be curtailed and which should be allowed to flourish. Most of us agree that holding another person as a slave is evil, but not all of us agree that adults should be allowed to smoke marijuana, for example.

    The third evil I listed is taking away people’s property. Even a die-hard communist will agree that one person cannot strip another of their clothing on a winter day, just because the first one feels that they have a greater need for the second one’s coat and shoes. We have set up protections for people to maintain ownership of their property because owning property helps people maintain their liberty and also protects their lives. And I don’t know anyone who believes that it’s OK for others to cheat them out of their money, their time or their goods. What should be considered cheating is a matter of ongoing discussion as is when a person can be deprived of their property for the “greater good.”

    As for _why_ people chose to do evil, which I believe is what Mr. Todd really wants to know, there are many reasons. One is that some people have brain structures that are different than those of the rest of us. Their malformed brains make it impossible for them to feel empathy for others. To protect the rest of us from harm, such people need to be restrained and treated, even if doing so curtails their liberty. Related to this is people whose brain chemistry has been altered by illegal and legal drugs. People addicted to certain illegal drugs are willing to abandon what they know to be right in order to get money to buy the drugs to feed their addiction. There is also a growing body of evidence that many of the bell tower-style shooters were on anti-depressant medication. We owe it to ourselves and to those afflicted by addiction and mis-prescribed medications to learn to understand what causes their behavior and help them get the proper treatment. Another reason people do evil is because they grow up with “kill or be killed” as real part of their lives. Environment does shape a person’s behavior. Again, the rest of us owe it to them to work at changing those environments so that a person does not have to worry about being killed just because they were wearing the wrong brand of shoes. Finally, there are people in our society who do evil because they believe that the “rules of society” do not apply to them. I am describing people who are so rich that they can buy their way out of any trouble, or people who have amassed so much political power that they believe they can carry out extra-judicial killings of others without due process of law. In the first case, when people have enough money, they can be insulated from the consequences of their actions and separated from the normal feedback loop that allows the rest of us to understand how our behavior impacts others. In the latter case, some people are so enamored with their vision of “The American Way of Life,” that they will commit any act to protect it, no matter who else must suffer.

    So, other than for those whose brains were mis-wired from birth or permanently damaged by drugs or accident, we have the opportunity to change the way “evil-doers” behave by understanding their circumstances and helping them transform their environments (internal as well as external). For the rich, I suppose the best we can do is focus our praise on those rich people who do good and scorn on those who do evil. As for those in government who do evil in the name of the “greater good,” these, as history shows, are the most evil of all. We used to believe that the only way to defeat such evil was to build up armies and conquer their governments. Gandhi and Dr. King have taught us the power of non-violent resistance. Either way is better than cowering in fear and praying that they will not turn their attention on us.

    Agree? Disagree? Don’t care?

  • MJ

    In my opinion, atheistic humanism is void of reason. There is no reason to think that human beings are intrinsically a special species on the Neo-Darwinian model. Why shouldn’t animals get the same rights as human beings? They can suffer. They can feel pain. Why do human beings with dementia get rights? Why do sleeping infants get rights. They can suffer a lot less that that pig who is being tossed into a pot of boiling water in order to make pork.

    Christianity on the other hand, is the most complete humanism for it is in touch with a God who is literally a perfectionist when it comes to healing wounds the wounds of persons – persons created in His own image, with an infinitely dignified sensibility. Through Christ, God makes it as though we were never injured.

    “What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?

    As it is written:

    ‘For your sake we are being slain all the day;

    we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.’

    No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)

    There is no greater humanism than that.

    You can say you are an atheistic humanist, but in reality, you are borrowing from theistic sensibilities. By the way, this is why it matter that our country keeps “In God we Trust” on the currency.

  • Lee

    MJ, most of us would argue that Christianity simply borrowed our most basic intuitions about morals and being a good person and then perverted them to insure compliance. The reality is that mentally healthy (non-brainwashed) humans would act no differently from a moralistic perspective with or without a theistic belief.

  • ted perantinides

    are we to believe that GODhas a plan for us when our coastal cities are under water?