Will Humanism Save the Planet?
by Bill Lockwood
“Laws are always theologically based, whether or not they are so acknowledged,” observes Herbert Schlossberg (Idols for Destruction). This is why in the societies of the ancient Near East, laws were always associated with deity. The famous Hammurabi stele, for example, shows the sun god Shemash giving the Babylonian laws to the king. This illustrates the fact that humanity recognizes that law must have ultimacy—be recognized as the ultimate standard—if it is to give any conviction that it must be followed.
Conversely, when people lose the conviction that law must be followed as an ultimate standard, then we have societies degenerating into pragmatism—everyone does that which is right in “his own eyes” (Judges 21:25) — and the breakdown of society itself is near. Right and wrong are only questions of risk and reward and morality is only a matter of personal reflection. As atheist Richard Dawkins put it, “Absolutist moral discrimination is devastatingly undermined by the fact of evolution” (The God Delusion, 2006, p. 301).
This is why people who reject the first commandments of the Decalogue (Exodus 20) [“thou shalt have no other gods before me, etc. …] can not be expected to recognize any ultimate significance in the last six [“honor thy father and mother; thou shalt not kill …]. At a society level, when God is erased from a culture, as our political and intellectual leaders are feverishly seeking to do, chaos between people is the predicted result. This is exactly what is occurring in America.
Humanism removes God from public or private consideration. “No god will save us,” says the Humanist Manifesto. But that leaves man without any basis upon which to assess any action as ultimately right or wrong. “Ethics are situational and autonomous.” No ultimate savior and no purpose in life. However, people instinctively need a moral base and a purpose for living which cannot be supplied by Humanism itself. Therefore, from the Christian world-view, humanists bootleg some type of value into their system. Not the saving of souls, for the Manifesto boasts that there is no damnation to fear. But we must have “planetary salvation.” What is this?
Greg Epstein, who serves as the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and is Executive Director of the Humanist Hub on that campus, a place where atheists, agnostics and other unbelievers connect with each other, authored Good without God. In it (p. 148) he quoted another with approval: “This [ecological crisis] is a different kind of issue than Christians (or any other humans) have ever faced, and continuing to worship a God thought of as the omnipotent savior from all the evils of life may even impair our ability to see clearly its depths and significance … What is now needed is a reordering of the whole of human life around the globe in an ecologically sustainable manner – something heretofore never contemplated by any of our great religious (or secular) traditions.”
Whatever else might be said regarding Epstein’s sounding of the ecological alarm, it is a purposeful call to arms. His ecological “crisis” demands concerted action and he has proposals to accomplish it. He is seeking to re-infuse into a vacuous world-view some sort of ultimacy—a standard which should be followed with conviction. The words SHOULD and OUGHT are written all throughout Epstein’s manifesto. What of this?
First, this is precisely what his world-view disallows. If there is no god, and ethics are completely and truly “situational” and “autonomous”—arising solely within each individual—then Epstein’s should and ought have no more value than for him to say “I itch.” When he says “What is needed …” we must remember that his convictions on the subject are nothing more than the combination of atoms bumping into one another. Only physical sensations brought about by physical chemical reactions. There is no real value in this.
Second, as all atheists, Epstein criticizes religion and specifically a God-centered world view. Religion is somehow to blame in what he calls our current “ecological crisis.” But if Epstein is correct in his basic world-view then my religious belief is produced solely by matter in motion, just as his world belief is produced. Whatever we believe and do cannot be the fault of religion since religion is only the product of matter in motion. No moral fault can be laid at the feet of those who “continue to worship a God thought of as the omnipotent savior from all the evils of life …”
Where did his matter get the right to criticize my matter or even to speak about the earth being treated justly? Why blame Christianity? Why even speak about “global injustice?” There can be no such thing as injustice unless man is more than matter in motion. Of course, the particular arrangement of matter in motion known as Greg Epstein cannot help making these judgments since he is not a rational being but only matter responding to the brute force of matter.