The Gospel According to Carl Sagan: Secular Humanism

The Gospel According to Carl Sagan: Secular Humanism

Some may be wondering, “Who is Carl Sagan?” Well, he is one of the men who had a very large part in popularizing the idea that true science only comes from a Naturalistic worldview. He became well known because of his production of the PBS science series Cosmos.

Carl Sagan was a Secular Humanist, which is a very systematized form of Naturalism. He was even the recipient of one of their highest awards. He, along with his friends and colleagues, worked very diligently to make the tenets of Secular Humanism the default religion of the United States.

Of course, he did not believe that Secular Humanism was a religion in the same way that religion is normally thought of. Rather, he believed that is was simply the doctrinal expression of the way reality actually exists. In his view, science and Naturalistic principles are one and the same. In his thinking, this applies to everything from origins to evolution to computer technology. In fact, the slogan which became one of the trademarks of his show was, “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.”

As we dig into this belief system, we must understand that Secular Humanism is not the only expression of the Naturalistic worldview and that not all people who are scientists are Secular Humanists. In fact, even though virtually all Naturalistic scientists would agree with most of the tenets of Secular Humanism, the actual number of official members of the group is relatively small.

Secular Humanism represents an actual, officially recognized non-profit organization which has membership and an officially adopted belief system. In fact, it is one of the most organized non-Christian philosophies which exists today. It is represented and defended by prominent scientists and philosophers. It has its own meetings, “clergy” and creed. It also has its own goals toward which it desires all of humanity to move.

History

Secular Humanism is the one Naturalistic philosophical system which has intentionally organized itself into a church-like structure. This is not to say that all Secular Humanists are an official part of the organized group. There are many who agree with its central beliefs but who have, for one reason or another, chosen not to become official members.

The word humanism, itself, is not necessarily a bad or anti-God concept. It is simply an emphasis on the importance of man. Secular Humanism, on the other hand, is a collection of very specific positions which are organized into a coherent system which asserts that there is no such thing as a supernatural existence. And since man is the only known creature with a capacity for personal self-awareness, he is the only creature able to create values and standards. Thus, man is the ultimate standard by which all of life is measured and judged. Values, law, justice, good, beauty and morality are all to be judged by man made rules because there is no other possibility.

Secular Humanism, as an organized philosophical system, is relatively new, but its foundations can be traced back to the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers of ancient Greece. These philosophical views looked to human beings rather than the gods to solve human problems.         Modern Secular Humanism can be traced back to a renewed emphasis on man during the Renaissance in the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries. This renewal during that era did not exclude God as man’s creator, but it did focus attention away from him.

Later during the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, with the development of modern science, philosophers began to earnestly advance humanist ideas. God was de-emphasized to the point where he was no longer seen as personally active in his creation or as Father to mankind. The result was a type of Deism which affirmed belief in a God who was not involved in the affairs of men.

Then, during the nineteenth century, Deism gave way to Naturalism which threw God out altogether. The influence of science and technology (together with various other challenges to religious faith by prominent scientists, the news media and people in the entertainment industry) brought elements of humanist philosophy even to mainline Christian churches.

The trend reached a dramatic peak with the publication of Charles Darwin’s book, On The Origin of Species, toward the end of the 19th century. With this means of asserting that there is no need to even contemplate God, Naturalistic science declared that humanity’s origin was completely natural.

Finally, in the twentieth century, scientists, philosophers, and liberal theologians began to organize in an effort to promote the humanist alternative to traditional faith-based worldviews. These early organizers classified humanism as a non-theistic religion which would fulfill the human need for an ordered ethical/philosophical system to guide people’s lives. It provided a type of “spirituality” without the supernatural.

In 1933, the Humanist Manifesto I was drafted in an attempt to develop a creed of humanist thought. But the optimism of Secular Humanists about man’s ability to create his own utopian future was greatly shattered by the events of WWII and its aftermath. It was a setback to the belief that man was capable of creating an earthly utopia by his own efforts. Despite the setback, the Naturalistic worldview continued to be widely promoted.

There was another attempt to define the humanist model in even more aggressive terms in 1973. This effort brought forth the Secular Humanist Manifesto II. Since the publication of this document, additional resolutions have been made that specifically address sexuality, euthanasia, astrology, and other matters.

In 2003, Secular Humanists felt the need to once again update their manifesto and wrote the Humanist Manifesto III. This one is not as specific in laying out particular tenets to fulfill their principles as were the previous ones. It is more a set of principles which guide its thinking.

Today, Secular Humanism exerts a great deal of influence through our public educational and political institutions, as well as through the media. We don’t know how many people specifically identify themselves as Secular Humanists, but about 25,000 people subscribe to their main magazine.

Basic Beliefs and Practices

The most recent expression of Secular Humanism is the Secular Humanist Manifesto III which was adopted in 2003. It is not considered a creed, as such, but is touted as a document of consensus by those who adhere to this point of view. There is no disavowal of what has been written in the two previous manifestos, but this one does tend to be more general and somewhat less strident. The main points of the current manifesto are:

  • Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis.
  • Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.
  • Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.
  • Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.
  • Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships.
  • Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.

Many of the main points of this manifesto seem rather benign at first glance. This is, no doubt, intentionally designed to pull people in. As always, the devil is in the details. You might find it useful to read the entire manifesto yourself to understand more fully what they mean by their main points.

To gain a little more perspective on the generic points of the current manifesto, it is useful to see how they expressed their ideas in manifesto #2. In addition to the more generic assertions of the current offering, previous manifestos have asserted such things as:

  • Promises of immortal salvation or fear of eternal damnation are both illusory and harmful.
  • Moral values come from human experience.
  • Reason and intelligence are the most effective instruments that humankind possesses.
  • The dignity of the individual is a central humanist value.
  • Intolerant attitudes unduly repress sexual conduct. The right to birth control, abortion, and divorce should be recognized.
  • The individual must experience a full range of civil liberties in all societies. This includes freedom of speech, press, political democracy, right of opposition to government policies, fair judicial process, religious liberty, freedom of association, artistic, scientific and cultural freedom, right to die with dignity, euthanasia and suicide.
  • There should be an open and democratic society.
  • The separation of church and state and the separation of ideology and state are imperatives.
  • The principle of moral equality must be furthered through the elimination of all discrimination based upon race, religion, sex, age or national origin. If unable to contribute to their own betterment, society should provide means to satisfy the basic economic, health and cultural needs of individuals.
  • We deplore the division of humankind on nationalistic grounds.
  • The world community must renounce the resort to violence and force as a method of solving international disputes.
  • The world community must engage in cooperative planning concerning the use of rapidly depleting resources.
  • The problems of economic growth and development are worldwide in scope and the developed nations must provide massive assistance to equalize the distribution of resources.
  • We would resist any moves to censor basic scientific research on moral, political or social grounds.
  • All travel restrictions must cease and the world must be open to diverse political, ideological and moral viewpoints.

Essential Beliefs

As a faith system, Secular Humanism does have beliefs which relate to the faith essentials. As long as people believe these essentials, they may lie within the boundaries of Secular Humanism. Set aside one of these beliefs and one steps outside the bounds of this belief system.

God

There is no supernatural God. Essentially, mankind is his own god.

Man

Man evolved from the immaterial and is responsible for his own destiny.

Salvation

Salvation consists of fulfilling one’s highest potential. There is no life after death, so achieving maximum fulfilment in this life is the highest aim.

Faith Foundation (How Secular Humanism answers the seven worldview questions.)

1. What is the most fundamental reality? (Ultimate reality)

The only thing that exists is matter which is evolving and eternal.

2. What is the nature of our material reality? (Material reality)

Matter is eternal and the universe as it now exists is the result of the eternal operation of natural laws.

3. What is a human being? (Humanity)

Human beings are nothing more than complex biological machines. They are the result of the operation of evolutionary processes over billions of years. Mankind is basically the same as any other living creature, only having evolved to a level which has made it possible to be self-aware.

4. What happens to a person at death? (Death)

At death, the individual life form simply ceases to exist.

5. Why is it possible to know anything at all? (Knowledge)

Knowledge is merely a chance happening because of a high level of evolution of the human brain.

6. How do we know what is right and wrong? (Morality)

There is no such thing as morality based on any transcendent explanation. Right and wrong are decided by individuals or social groups as they seek to determine what is best for the survival and comfort of society.

7. What is the meaning of human history? (History)

There is no transcendent meaning in history. It is, simply, a linear progression of events moving from the past to the future.

Authority

The Humanist Manifesto I

The Humanist Manifesto II (with later amendments)

The Humanist Manifesto III

Evidence for the Authority

Secular Humanist documents claim no transcendent authority, whatsoever. The Manifesto documents were drafted by groups of individuals who used their own personal ideas to establish what they felt was a reasonable approach to societal organization. There is no particular reason why this set of ideas should have precedence over any other set other than the assertions of those who adhere to them.

Conclusion

Secular Humanists are not, as a whole, evil people. In fact, they tend to be very idealistic and have a desire for humankind to live a utopian existence. To that end, they propose means by which they think mankind can accomplish this result.

The biggest problem that they run up against is that human nature acts contrary to their high ideals. Man cannot create utopia because the world is fallen and man is sinful. On top of that, they don’t acknowledge a God who can fix the problem.

As Christians, we interact with people all the time who believe in the tenets of Secular Humanism. Many of them are not official members of a Secular Humanist organization, but believe the philosophy anyway. It is up to us to understand where they are coming from so that we can be effective in sharing with them that utopia is ultimately only found in eternity based on a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

© 2009 Freddy Davis