MANY PEOPLE WOULD RATHER DIE THAN THINK; IN FACT, MOST DO. — BERTRAND RUSSELL

Myths about humanism, evolution, the Founders

I want to take some time to address a link recently posted by a Facebook friend of mine. I was going to post it as a comment on Facebook, but the reply, as you can tell, got a bit lengthy. I thought this might be an apt forum. The friend posted a link to this article, which makes the claim that

Secular Humanism is an attempt to function as a civilized society with the exclusion of God and His moral principles. During the last several decades, Humanists have been very successful in propagating their beliefs. Their primary approach is to target the youth through the public school system.

I originally commented in Facebook that I would need a lot of “space and time” to address all the errors and misrepresentations in the aforementioned article. Before I do so, it’s important to note that a cursory look at the content of the host website, allaboutphilosophy.org, appears to be an apologetic site masquerading as a philosophical trove of data. A quick read of other articles such as this one on existentialism makes this immediately clear. As such, this seems to be a place for Christians and other believers to go and read a little about some other strains of thought, like existentialism, so they can feel as if they have “learned” something about some contradicting philosophies, when, in reality, the articles mainly present either flatly wrong interpretations of such philosophies or greatly misrepresented versions of those ideologies.

Take, for instance, this statement about existentialism:

Existentialistic ideas came out of a time in society when there was a deep sense of despair following the Great Depression and World War II. There was a spirit of optimism in society that was destroyed by World War I and its mid-century calamities. This despair has been articulated by existentialist philosophers well into the 1970s and continues on to this day as a popular way of thinking and reasoning (with the freedom to choose one’s preferred moral belief system and lifestyle).

In this paragraph, the article attempts to make the case that existentialist thought began after the Great Depression and WWII, that it was born out of despair and that it prescribes that people have the freedom to cherry pick whichever moral systems they choose. This makes it seem almost morally relativistic. To the contrary, existentialism officially sprang up in the 19th century well before the Great Depression. It is less about despair than living decent, personally responsible lives in spite of the despair that may come from realizing the apparent meaninglessness of the world. The writer of the article in question seems to be attempting to claim that existentialism is steeped in despair when really, it’s the opposite. At its core and as I understand it, existentialism is about how to live noble and sincere lives in the absence of anything else for which to live. Some noted existentialists were believers and some were not, but most of them said people were personally responsible for how they live and conduct their lives. Many sub-strains of existentialism exist, of course, and it’s a challenge to reduce the entire philosophy to one sentence, but this is my basic, working definition.

In any case, back to secular humanism. We should note in the first quote the capitalization of the personal pronoun, “His,” to refer to God. This is another clue that this article is not presenting an objective look at secular humanism but one slanted through a theistic lens.

The author’s second quote, framed as a “strategic focus” by humanists, comes from John Dunphy, who supposedly said in an “award winning” essay from 1983 titled, “The Humanist:”

The battle for humankind’s future must be waged and won in the public school classroom by teachers who correctly perceive their role as the proselytizers of a new faith: A religion of humanity — utilizing a classroom instead of a pulpit to carry humanist values into wherever they teach. The classroom must and will become an arena of conflict between the old and the new — the rotting corpse of Christianity, together with its adjacent evils and misery, and the new faith of humanism.

If Dunphy actually made this statement (I can’t confirm that he did because while I found couple essays with his name on them, I could not find one titled, “The Humanist,” anywhere except on apologetic websites, which, unsurprisingly regurgitated the quote in question), he used some unfortunate terms like “faith” and “religion” to describe humanism. Humanism is a philosophy or ideology, not a religion, that explores the concepts of human responsibility, freedom and potential. Or, simply:

any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity predominate.

Most people who describe themselves as humanists would likely cringe at being lumped into some kind of “new faith.” Humanists, to put it as succinctly as possible, have humans’ best interest at heart. They aren’t satanists or egoists or attempted demigods, as believers have, no doubt claimed.

In any case, if an essay titled, “The Humanist,” received some unnamed award, one would think a record of said essay would have surfaced in an Internet search result.

Moving on, here is the next passage from the article on secular humanism:

John Dewey, remembered for his efforts in establishing America’s current educational systems, was one of the chief signers of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto. It seems the Humanists have been interested in America’s education system for nearly a century. They have been absolutely successful in teaching children that God is imaginary and contrary to “science.”

It is true that Dewey signed the Humanist Manifesto, but after scanning two of Dewey’s works on the education system, “The Child and the Curriculum” and “Moral Principles in Education,” I could find no references to either “God,” “creation,”  “Darwin” or “evolution” and only a few references to “science.” The only references to science in these two works discuss it as a mere subject in the classroom and do not address a deity in any way. One would think that if humanists were so interested in taking over the classroom, one of its leading proponents would have made some reference along those lines in two of his works that address education directly.

While Dewey probably did think Darwin’s theory of natural selection was the correct one in explaining how complex life came about, I can find no evidence to suggest that he lead or supported some kind of humanist conspiracy to take over the school system in the way suggested by this article. The concept of creationism, of course, is indeed “contrary to ‘science’,” and that’s not under dispute by any serious scientist who adheres to the scientific method to draw his conclusions about how the world works.

Here is another flatly wrong statement from the secular humanism article:

Yet Evolution has not been proved. In fact, it seems that the Theory of Evolution is contrary to established science.

The article then ludicrously pulls a quote from a 1954 edition of Scientific American, supposedly from George Wald, whom the article claims was an evolutionist:

When it comes to the Origin of Life there are only two possibilities: creation or spontaneous generation. There is no third way.Spontaneous generation was disproved one hundred years ago, but that leads us to only one other conclusion, that of supernatural creation. We cannot accept that on philosophical grounds; therefore, we choose to believe the impossible: that life arose spontaneously by chance!”

Contrary to what the article says, Wald was known for his work on retinas in the eye, not for evolution. Whatever personal opinions Wald might have held on evolution are irrelevant. He was most certainly not an evolutionist, so here is another patently false statement. A look at more recent Scientific American articles, however, will provide reams of credible information about evolution. Here are some examples: 1, 2 and 3.

The scientific explanation of how life developed from simpler forms is, not only a more beautiful and marvelous explanation than creationism, it is the default explanation. People purporting creationism or intelligent design have all their work ahead of them in explaining these subversive notions. Evolution by natural selection, to say it again and for the millionth time, is a scientific theory, as firmly established as gravity. Here’s a good explanation:

A theory is a scientific explanation of an observed phenomenon.  Unlike laws, theories actually explain why things are the way they are.  Theories are what science is for.  If, then, a theory is a scientific explanation of a natural phenomena, ask yourself this: “What part of that definition excludes a theory from being a fact?”  The answer is nothing! There is no reason a theory cannot be an actual fact as well. … So there is the theory of evolution.  Then there is the FACT of evolution.  Species change– there is variation within one kind of animal. There is a predictable range of genetic variation in a species, as well as an expected rate of random mutations. …

Yes, evolution is a fact, as real as gravity. The fact that all species alive today have descended from a common ancestor can be denied, but not refuted. We know it happens because we can observe it directly in short-lived species, and for longer lived species there is genetic and fossil evidence that is unambiguous. There is no other scientific explanation for the diversity of living species.  Evolution is a very well established scientific concept with a massive amount of physical evidence for support.  It is not a guess.  Evolution is the basis of modern biology, and  universities and laboratories across the world are engaged in research that explores evolution.

To address the other part of the quote from the secular humanist article, the idea that God, like creationism, is contrary to science, I might propose the following: If a supremely intelligent and powerful being actually exists, would this not tear down everything we have learned in 300 years of serious scientific inquiry? For, he would have to be somewhere, perhaps not in this dimension but in some other dimension, a fourth or fifth dimension perhaps. Or, some heretofore unexplained “spiritual” dimension, whatever that might mean. Christians here will roll out the oft-touted claim that God must exist outside of space and time, but to say that throws God, along with the baby, out the window.

Here is former pastor Dan Barker on the subject:

To say that God does not exist within space-time is to say that God does not exist. And even if it is true that God does exist “outside of time,” despite our failure to intuitively grasp what appears to be an impossibility, then how can he possibly interact with us mere temporals? It would be similar to an author trying to interact with one of the fictional characters in his or her novel — you can’t get there from here.

My believing friends might retort that if God is all-powerful, surely he can jump into our own space-time from wherever it is he abides, thus crashing into our world to alter the thoughts, actions and outcomes of human lives. But if this is the case, he is not outside of space-time after all. Ignoring the fact that there is, by definition, nothing outside of space-time, at the very least, God would have to exist in part of this space-time in addition to partly existing in some other realm. Here, we are bordering on the absurd, but to say that he exists outside of space-time either suggests that a) he is beyond our grasp and vice versa, b) does not exist or c) is at least a part-time member of our space-time. And if he is partly a member of our space-time, he requires an explanation like any other phenomenon. And it is here that we return to futile attempt to explain how a supremely complex being came into being. As Richard Dawkins has stated, if we grant this being the power to intervene in this world, the attempt to explain his complexity then becomes a scientific endeavor.

Here is Dawkins in “The God Delusion,” writing about a couple points he made at a conference at Cambridge:

First, that if God really did communicate with humans, that fact would emphatically not lie outside of science. God comes bursting through whatever other-worldy domain is his natural abode, crashing through into our world where his messages can be intercepted by humans brains — and that phenomenon has nothing to do with science? Second, a God who is capable of sending intelligible signals to millions of humans simultaneously, and of receiving messages from all of them simultaneously, cannot be, whatever else he might be, simple. Such bandwidth!

I have only covered the first page of the allaboutphilosophy.org article. The second page trots out some quotes from a few of the Founders on religion, most notably one from John Adams, which is often summoned by conservative talking heads. It reads:

We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. … Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

This was a passage from a letter written to a brigade in Massachusetts in October 1798 and must be understood through his audience, his personal thoughts on religion and Christianity being markedly different than his “public” stance on the matter. Probably most if not all of the soldiers to whom Adams was writing were Christians, so being the statesman that he was, he framed his letter according to his audience.

But consider some of Adams’ personal correspondence:

The question before the human race is, whether the God of nature shall govern the world by his own laws, or whether priests and kings shall rule it by fictitious miracles? — letter to Thomas Jefferson, June 20, 1815

As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed? — letter to F.A. Van der Kamp, December 27, 1816

I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved — the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced! — letter to Thomas Jefferson, from George Seldes, The Great Quotations

And now, Thomas Jefferson. Notice that the final fourth and fifth quotes are addressed to John Adams himself.

I am for freedom of religion, & against all maneuvres to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another. — letter to Elbridge Gerry, 1799

I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance, or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others. — letter to Edward Dowse, April 19, 1803

Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus. — letter to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp July 30, 1816

To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise  without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence. — letter to John Adams, August 15, 1820

The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. — letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823

There is no need to go further. I think I have sufficiently made the case that allaboutphilosophy.org both gets the basic definition of secular humanism wrong, distorts basic science and trots out a very selective grouping of quotes from some Founders, whereas other quotes, which are more personal in nature, more truly represent some of our Founders’ thoughts on religion, indeed, of two of our most revered Founders, Adams and Jefferson.

About the Author

Jeremy Styron
Jeremy Styron
I am a newspaper editor, op-ed columnist and reporter working in the greater Knoxville area. This is a personal blog. Views expressed here are mine and mine alone.

Be the first to comment on "Myths about humanism, evolution, the Founders"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


*