February 24, 2011

Can Humanists Be Good?

The other day as I was reading my church's bulletin I ran in to an article about the AHA, or the American Humanist Association. The article talked about the groups recent use of adverts to push their agenda of secularizing America. Of course just saying that is a little of an oversimplification of their cause. Near as I can tell from their website their number one goal is to promote, "a progressive society where being good without gods is an accepted way to live life."

I find their goal to be an interesting one. Their point is that being good does not require a faith in Jesus, or God, or Allah, or Vishnu. They are saying that goodness is not exclusive to those with religious training. To that I can only say; I agree.

Christianity doesn't claim that you can not be good without faith, at least not in the sense we normally use the word. In fact Christianity predicts and explains why we find people who have no interest in God that act as moral as any church going Jesus loving Christian. The bible tells us that every person is made in the image of God, thus we have the capacity to love to reason to be compassionate, and to be moral. However we are also told that humanity fell, that sin corrupted our nature. Meaning we also have the capacity to be selfish, violent, and hateful. When you combined humanities dual nature with the Christian concepts of general revelation, God's prevenient grace, and God's general blessings moral atheists (or humanists, agnostics etc) are to be expected.

As far as I am concerned the AHA is either misrepresenting the Christian perspective or they misunderstand it. Which is of course just a prettied up way of saying I cannot decide if they are lairs or idiots. 

The Humanist Response to; No God No Peace, Know God Know Peace.

If they are lying I can't really help. But if the problem is they misunderstand the Christian perspective, well that I can help with.

First Christians say that goodness needs to be rooted in something. Now that something can be God, thus making good and evil rather stable concepts. Good will be good and evil will be evil no matter how individual issues do in opinion polls. 

If it is not rooted in God, goodness will be rooted in individuals or in societies. Meaning good and evil will be rather fluid concepts. What is considered good by some will be consider evil by others and the only true mediator between those two opinions will be power. 

It is entirely possible society A would set up a system that you and I would call good or moral, but it is equally possible that society B would set up a system which contains a lot of what you and I would call evil or immoral. Also it is in the realm of possibility that society C would call everything that you and I call good, bad and vice versa.

Who is truly right in that context? Goodness is decided by societies and individuals, there is no outside standard that would allow us to judge. All we can truly say is I would rather live in society A than society B, and society C wouldn't even be considered for a vacation spot.

However some people would much rather live in society B than A. And for a least for one person society C would be a very good place to live. And make no mistake that person will, if given the opportunity, set up society C.***

Second Christianity has never claimed that the problem humanity faces is ignorance of goodness. Christianity states that everyone, knows right from wrong, and good from bad. Our problem is not a lack of knowledge it is a lack of ability.

As a wise poem has said we all learned right from wrong before we left kindergarten. However human history shows us that we are not very successful at doing what we know to be good. Thus we don't need a better teacher. Surely between Plato and Confucius, Moses and Buddha, Jesus and Bahá'u'lláh, Aesop and Muhammad we have been given all the instruction we need.

Christianity's claim is not that we need a better teacher, nor that we need more determination. Our claim is that there is an outside standard of goodness that we are being measured by, by a God who cares very much about how well we measure up to said standard. Worse still while we all have some idea what that standard is, not one of us follows it perfectly all the time. We don't need more instruction, we need help. Christianity states that we need a Saviour. And there has been no part of human history that has convinced me otherwise.

Can a humanist be good, absolutely. Can they be good all the time and in all instances? No, and neither can I.

And that's why we need a Saviour. 

*** As I have said before this kind of debate is in many ways a red herring. The question ought to be; is there a God? Making the debate can I be good if there is no God masks what should be our real concern. If there is no God than we need to figure out how to live in that world, and if there is than we need to figure out how how God wants us to live. 


  1. isn't there a third option that doesn't make them liars or idiots? I would still go for the idea that they don't understand the christian viewpoint but that really isn't their fault or their responsibility. christians do a remarkably bad job of representing themselves, often actually saying things like "you can't be good without God."

  2. Griff- I would agree with you if we were talking about the average Joe humanist on the street making this argument. But the AHA is made up of people who are trying to influence public policy. If they are so sure the Christian perspective is wrong I think they are responsible to make sure they understand what the Christian perspective really says.Getting it mixed up with the poor imitations that get tossed out in online forums is not acceptable.

    Which again makes me assume they are using a straw man style argument to drive their point home.

    That being said it is worth noting that if Christians were by on large better at making our perspective known the straw man would not work at all.