Does Humanism Need Christianity? #TheosHumanism

Attended Theos event “Does Humanism need Christianity?” at Kings College, London last night

The dean introduced Nick Spencer of Theos, who in turn introduced chair, Clare Carlisle.

Christian speakers were Angus Ritchie and Alison Milbank.
Humanist speakers were Julian Baggini and Richard Norman.

The topic was a conversation in response to the Theos essay / booklet by Spencer and Ritchie “The Case for Christian Humanism” a critique of the Amsterdam declaration of Humanist values. A critique controversial amongst humanists when published last year, suggesting that, bar one anti-religious declaration, all Humanist values were shared with Christianity.

[And I have previously reviewed Spencer’s work on the shared histories of atheist humanism.]

Apparently it was recorded – so look out for the link – and @theosthinktank tweeted #theoshumanism continuously, and subsequently “storified” here – so I won’t include all my notes on the conversation. But a conversation it was. Proper dialogue rather than the standard debating to win.

For sure, the title as worded wasn’t going to be agreed with, that Humanism needs Christianity, or theistic religion in general, but it was clear humanists need christians, and muslims, and jews, and …

Humans need dialogue with humans.

My take-aways were:

Late on, Socrates’ Euthyphro arguments against the existence of god was cited (anonymously) from Plato’s Dialogues, from the audience. In fact it’s easy for each “side” to prove the other’s basis of belief is unfounded in an objectively narrow logical sense. Thing is we all as humans (really) see our rationality as something wider and deeper than this.

Transcendence – a grace or god or spiritual idea, being “somehow” one with, connected with the world, beyond the boundaries of our “self” and our “known” rationality. The Saganian “we are (all) stardust” suggestion quoted from the audience; we are an integral part of the cosmos and our terrestrial ecosystem, special only because of the responsibilities that come with our faculties. This as stated from a humanist audience member, correctly described as religious – a sentiment that binds us as humans – by Milbank.

Religious God-given stick / reward justifications for faith or the desire for absolute rational objective grounding are both ultimately misguided. And dogma is misguided in any context. The rationality of “turtles all the way down”; objective empirical, logical rationalism still ends at recursive first-cause questions of grounding. Accepting the thin ice we skate on (Baggini) might look like a kind of faith, a choosing to believe the best foundations on which we build our world view, but more an assertion we choose to believe pragmatically and contingently to live life without spending all our time in deep philosophical debate. (The trick is for us not to allow our ego and arrogance lose sight of the reality of this thin ice grounding our rational edifices.)

The real question neatly summed-up by Ritchie in his closing remarks, given we pretty much agree human values, and the nature or quality of their groundings, is “what is for the best for “conservation” of this understanding of these human values and their basis, for the future of humanity in the cosmos?”.

Turning every human value into explicit (objectively rationalised, evidence-based) human rights, might not be the best exclusive answer. Goods include transcendent sentiments and responsibilities.

A very encouraging dialogue.



ROUGH NOTES – retained until recording or transcript can be linked.

case for christian humanism essay by nick and angus

ritchie – words n language affect values and perception. humanism.

historically inclusive of human values, not simply atheistic. church problem of giving up use of the word except catholics inc pope. atheist humanists sawing off branch?

norman – humanist atheist but happy with xtians also being humanist. dependency less clear. grounding of dignity of humans is the question. common problem to both camps. real issue is basis of reason n cognitive capacity? kahneman cognitive evolution and biases. no prior underpinning morality grounded in what it is to be human can agree.

milbank – h needs transcendent “god”.meaning always exceeds our grasp through metaphor etc bound religare. there is a meta dimension whether you call it metaphysical or spiritual. poetic beauty. is secular humanism setting human as a privikeged in itself. settibg limits at boundary of self. participation as creatures. more than rational and autonomous.

baggini – turtles all the way down story. moral nothing is groubded all the way down. rational secular accept reality of this – though dogmatic might not. god of the gaps as missing foundation doesn’t actually solve it. noones human reaction to the beauty of a new born is neitger theological or rational.

Humanists don’t see need for grace to complete the human?
Lots in common but few specific disagreement ” based on Amsterdam declaration.
Stuff known by revelation in the religious is a specific difference.
Human capacity is enough grounding says Norman.
So do humanism needs to “trust” in the intuition that is ok to rely on the thin ice of human capacity. Not says Baggini more an assertion that it’s good enough- neither founded in pure reason out there cast in stone nor mere preference. This is a false dichotomy
Human appreciation of the baby?
We’re all human, but we’re not all Christian. Hard for Christian (sect) to claim universality.
Milbank Still sticking seeing humanists seeing humans end in themselves. Revelatory
No we really see that the human perspective is pragmatic limit to grounding.
Managing objects. Reacting to this is not just pomo different issues.
Does right and appropriate allow moral sentiment as well as objectively rational.
Really about theism not Christianity. Spiritual question. Genesis is Jewish anyway. Judaism has wonderful human view. Dominion is not negative. Tolkien fan!
We have Christian heritage culturally. Yes secular humans recognise complex relations beyond our autonomous self-identity.
Assertion not faith? Many affective inputs as well as rational objective. Right is morally rational.
Demands for absolute grounding of morality doesn’t win an argument against someone who fails to hold right moral view. Agreed must not cash out morality as simply result of some other.
Transcendence also shared by secular humanist views. We are stardust. We are oriented to find meaning beyond ourselves.
Humanists do need Christians! Agreed.
Anti-religious humanists made most noise for a while, but there are plenty who do recognise value in the other. Conversation not debate.
Best at protecting the values we share ” a conservatism.
No we are not certain ” we know we’re on thin ice.

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