Beyond Humanism?

Philosophy Now|June/July 2020

Beyond Humanism?
Robert Griffiths argues that humanist ethics has significant limitations.
Robert Griffiths

There are many people who do not believe in gods in any sense. Some are fervent atheists, but there are also very uninterested atheists too, non-believers who just aren’t that bothered about religion. Such people are just as uninterested in campaigns of the kind conducted by the New Atheists or the New Humanists as they are in discussions promoting the existence of God, or of gods. They just do not want to talk about God at all. They have moved beyond that discourse, perhaps to the most atheistic place there is – the place where the gods are simply forgotten. Such people are sometimes now called ‘apatheists’, and there is evidence that their number is growing, particularly among the young. Apatheists have no interest in philosophical discussions about the existence of God, in the same way that they have no interest in arguments about whether the young Arthur drew the sword from the stone. They have accepted the New Atheist arguments and moved on, or have moved on for reasons of their own. By contrast, the humanists (who are also increasing in number) have not moved on.

Public declarations of humanism always seem to begin with a conscious, even a self-conscious, rejection of religion. For instance, the Amsterdam Declaration ratified by the World Humanist Congress in 1952 declares that humanism is ‘rational’ – by which it largely means that it rejects the possibility of divine intervention. Humanists UK (formerly The British Humanist Association) sees itself primarily as ‘bringing nonreligious people together’. Contemporary humanist authors such as Richard Norman, Stephen Pinker, Stephen Law, or A.C Grayling spend a lot of time going over philosophical arguments against belief in God. Humanism therefore self defines as an anti-religious movement – so it has not yet forgotten the gods. In a sense humanists still needs gods, so they can argue against them.

The trouble with all this supposedly ‘New’ argument is that it is out of date by about two hundred years. While the New Atheists caused a clamour around the beginning of this century, they were largely repeating arguments that had been put forward by Baron d’Holbach, or more famously by David Hume, back in the eighteenth century. The New Atheists perhaps thought they were persuading us that (relatively) new scientific perspectives, such as evolutionary theory and Big Bang cosmology, were distinctively undermining religious belief, with their accounts of the origin of man and the cosmos. Yet based on the science and philosophy known even in 1770, d’Holbach had already concluded in his substantial Système de la nature ou des loix du monde physique & du monde moral of 1770 that there was no God. He would have needed no more convincing. For d’Holbach, the argument against God and the gods was already over. And for those seeking diversion, Hume’s arguments against religion are far wittier than those of Anthony Grayling; and those of d’Holbach’s contemporary, the Marquis de Sade, are more acerbic and wicked even than those of Christopher Hitchens.

In any case, the recent assault on religion on the back of new science has simply permitted sophisticated philosophers of religion to develop ever more sophisticated responses to these old attacks, needlessly perpetuating the cycle of debate as far as the apatheist is concerned. Alistair McGrath mirrored Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006) with his own The Dawkins Delusion? (2007). Richard Swinburne argued that evolutionary theory was entirely consistent with Christianity (see for instance Is There A God?, 2010), adding that why there is a world at all could not be explained by science and was better explained by theology. In this way, the modern atheism debate merely becomes a version of the debate that took place between eighteenth century atheists and eighteenth century religious apologists such as Joseph Priestley. Clearly, one can carry on this argument if one wishes; but apatheists see little end to this kind of thing, and so have decided to leave it all behind, to forget both God and those whose main concern seems to be arguing there is no God. This includes the humanists.

Humanists & Ethics

Yet humanists are not merely atheists. They are people who, having disposed of God, wish to explain what atheists should do with their lives. In this sense they are at least a little didactic. They aren’t like those who, having forgotten the gods, simply go off and live their lives, such as Meursault in Albert Camus’ novel, L’Etranger (1942).

Mersault is a good example of an apatheist. He is not interested in God, or in arguments purporting to show that He does not exist. However, Mersault is a fearful character if one is a humanist, for he regards existence as absurd, and acts on the basis of this belief.

Humanism is certainly opposed to the view that existence is absurd. Having disposed of religion to its satisfaction, humanism’s next task is to persuade us that we can still live what it often calls ‘meaningful’ lives.


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June/July 2020