Saturday, September 08, 2007


I have started reading about humanism. A good summary is the Humanist Manifesto III. It is interesting how it is diametrically opposed to much of what I learned growing up in a Christian household. Humanism, as its name implies, has a very positive outlook on humankind, whereas Christianity takse the opposite approach: as fallen creatures we are essentially evil and can do no good unless enabled to do so by God. (Depending on one's brand of Christianity this is emphasized to a greater or lesser degree.) So which attitude is right?

Everyone would agree that humans can do much evil; that is evident by looking current or historical events. But as humans are we condemned to committing evil? Humanists are the optimists and say: No, we are capable, given the right philosophy, of doing great good and living good and productive lives. Christianity is the pessimist in this regard: due to Adam and Eve eating the fruit we are lost in a vicious circle of evil begetting more evil. Only God's intervention can enable us to do good.

Is there any way to decide between these competing claims that good is a result of human motivation or only as a result of divine intervention? Unfortunately there is no way to determine if any action was caused by divine intervention. Good (and evil) actions can be done as a result in a belief in God, but a belief in God is much different than God actually intervening. So a choice between these isn't going to be made on physical evidence (although a choice might be made on a lack of evidence for supernatural intervention).

So it seems to me that a lot depends on a choice in attitude. It is either:

  • I can live a good life on my own and will strive to do this, or

  • I can't live a good life on my own. I will need to rely on God and he will make me good.

Which of these will be more successful in living a good life? I don't think it is the second. While it might seem attractive by its apparent modesty, I think it is a false modesty. By denying our ability at the outset it instills defeatist attitude. While it is true that none of us is perfect, that doesn't mean we can't be good, despite Christian claims to the contrary.

I believe the first option will lead to a better life. By pursuing the very things that make us human: rationality, creativity, compassion and love, we can live a good life. The good life is thus the fulfillment of being a human. Surely that is worth striving to achieve.


  1. Maybe this sounds like a contradiction: but both sides could be right.

    The Bible: was it written by men with inspiration from God? I like to think that it is. Reading books like the Bible (and other wisdom books) helps one to become a better person and to do more good. So is that person inspired by other humans or by God? Presumably both.

    Of course, you could take either side to an extreme. You could say that the Bible was written by humans, so only humans are inspiring you; or you could say that the Bible is God's word, and only God is inspiring you. But if God represents a force of goodness in this world, then I think both sides are valid.

  2. If you want to think some more about doing good, especially doing good on your own effort, you could read Jacob Needleman's "Why Can't We Be Good?", a secular work discussing man's knowledge of what we ought to do and his inability to do it despite an earnest desire to do it. It doesn't take much observation to see this in practice in oneself and in others.

  3. It is difficult to define what it means to be good. Definitely humans are not perfect as we are filled with conflicting desires and impulses. As finite creatures we each have our faults and blindnesses. Nevertheless one can surely point to great and lasting good done by many who have preceeded us; people who have acted out of compassion, self-sacrifice, benevolence, long-endurance, a passion to help others, and so on. While these are not perfect people, I think we can still call them good.

    Thanks for the reference; I'm interested in reading Needleman's book and will look for it in the library.


  4. Tanya,

    I am almost finished Needleman's book. He is certainly religious and not secular as he believes in God and God creating the world, although he doesn't seem to be a Christian in particular. His main point is that we are not capable of being good, even though we are moral creatures and know what good demands, and that our chief goal is to achieve the capability of being good.

    However, I don't see the fact that we can't be good as a deep insight, as we all know humans are imperfect and weak creatures. Consider this analogous situation: many of us are overweight. We know what to do to overcome this; eat right and get enough exercise. Yet nevertheless many find this a futile struggle; they just cannot overcome the daily temptations to over-eat and not exercise. I don’t see why that dilemma is any more puzzling than the dilemma of people knowing what is good and not being able to do it.

    But I think there is hope, so let me continue with the analogy. There are also many of us who are not overweight. Due some combination of genetics, nurture and environment we have the self motivation and capability to eat right and stay fit. And there is hope for the overweight to achieve this through guidance, discipline, changing one’s environment and so forth. In the same way, I claim there are many people who are good; who love and care for others, who go to great lengths to help others and so forth. What makes some good and others not? Again it must be some combination of genetics, nurture and environment. Fortunately the second and third of these can be changed; with the right nurture and environment, many more of use can learn to be good. But I know humans are creatures of habit and are slow to change, and this kind of change may take generations. Perhaps this change can be made by the spread of humanism. I think there is hope of people becoming good when their ideals are in line with what is good.


  5. Daniel,

    I followed a link from your name and discovered your website. Interesting articles!

    I think, though, that your definition of a Christian view of humanity is true but not complete. There is also the aspect that God deeply loves all people, regardless of any differences between them, a love that is demonstrated in the crucifixion.

    Insofar as the realization that human beings are sinful not being a deep revelation, it is and it isn't. From a cursory perspective, it is easy to say "yes we are imperfect." But the deepness of the realization comes when we each, individually, realize our own personal level of depravity.

    Just some thoughts. Keep on writing!