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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