What is Humanism? How significant is the Humanist worldview today? And how can Christians best love their Humanist neighbors? In this podcast and video, Sean and Scott discuss the recent book Humanly Possible, written by Sarah Bakewell, which covers 700 years of Humanist thought up to the present.

Episode Transcript

Scott: What do we mean when someone says that they are a humanist? Is that a view that's fundamentally hostile to Christian faith, or should Christians actually think of themselves as humanists themselves? We'll discuss these and more around a fascinating new book entitled, "Humanly Possible: 700 Years of Humanist Free Thinking, Inquiry, and Hope." I'm your host Scott Rae.

Sean: And I'm your co-host Sean McDowell.

Scott: This is ThinkBiblicaly from Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. So Sean, why should Christians care about the subject of humanism?

Sean: Well, because humanists are our neighbors. They're our friends, they're our family members, they're our co-workers. There are humanists amongst us as there are people of a range of different belief systems. That's the first reason. Second, humanism is a significant movement. Dare I say religion, we will get to that in due time, whether it's a religion or not. It's a movement that if our author's right, and I suspect that she is, goes back before the time of Christ, at least in terms of materialists and those who cared about human life, there's a movement in the present for humanism. And I would say if we specifically talk about secular humanism, it has a huge reach in America and beyond. So, relationally and policy-wise, humanism is a big deal today.

Scott: So, definitely a force to be reckoned with—

Sean: No question about it.

Scott: To see positive things as well as things that we want to critique.

Sean: That's right.

Scott: So, tell our audience a bit, let's just summarize, what's the book about? Okay, so our author Sarah Bakewell is telling the story of humanism, essentially. Now, she is a humanist, so she's writing this sympathetically. And it feels like she's writing a book that she's proud of. She's a part of this movement. And she really tells the last 700 years, hence the subtitle, "700 Years of Humanist Freethinking Inquiry and Hope," but says the story of humanism goes back all the way really before the time of Christ. But focuses on, kind of, 1300 forward and key thinkers, key events, all the way up to the present. So really, it's the story of humanism as a movement and her role in it.

Scott: And it seems to me that it starts when it does—although she does recognize that it has roots deeper than that—but it starts when it does around the 1300s because this was the first traces of a significant movement to understand human beings apart from any kind of supernatural or religious influence that was so dominant during that time period.

Scott: Yes. So, I think it's a combination of the way you described it, but also in kind of the renaissance as that, you know, and pre-renaissance era, you see this rebirth of kind of the classics and Greco-Roman thinking, which really the art and kind of the beauty built within it is this flourishing of human ingenuity where you start to look within. That's a very humanist trait.

Scott: Yeah, and I think we would say that folks in the classics like Plato and Aristotle and Epicurus had a lot to offer.

Sean: Of course.

Scott: In fact, we would say there's a lot of platonic thought, for example, that's quite consistent with Christian theology.

Sean: Agreed.

Scott: And that Thomas Aquinas undertook, sort of roughly speaking, a synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy and Christian theology. That was a big part of the Thomistic project. And so, I think going back is helping us appreciate those roots in the classics, I think is something that's very helpful. And I think something that—I wouldn't say we've lost it, but I think we've had a tough time regaining that.

Sean: Yeah. I think you could be right about that.

Scott: So, give our audience two or three things that you found especially interesting and maybe, you know, or something that really surprised you about this.

Sean: Yeah. So, I have spent a lot of my time over the past 10, 15 years reading the new atheists, who in some level might be a kind of humanist, maybe a secular humanist, and they just are venomous and attack the Christian faith, show no weakness in their own position and only bad stuff on the Christian side. So, I'm just used to that kind of apologetics lane. She writes this book, I think very fairly, very charitably, recognizes the strengths of certain Christian positions and weaknesses of secular positions. I think she's really aiming less to be polemical and try to prove that something is true, more so to kind of tell a story. So she points out that in France, certain seculars destroyed Christian relics. She points out how Christians preserved ancient writings in monasteries, which was huge for a lot of the classics and works we have today were it not for those Christians, we wouldn't have them today. She has a really interesting section where she talks about going back to Augustine, how some of his writings in the
“City of God” really showed that slavery is wrong going back to the fifth century, and that a lot of Christians have a better record against slavery than humanists do. That was pretty powerful.

The other thing I kind of enjoyed, I don't know why it struck me, is that so many times, even yesterday in my class that I teach here at Biola, on the resurrection, people are still writing papers on Hume, right? 18th century agnostic. And he's oftentimes portrayed as the villain and the bad guy because he has this methodology that rules out revelation and of course just wrote a biting critique of the possibility of miracles. So he's kind of the villain, so to speak, when Christians respond to him. She doesn't see him that way. So she does point out some of his flaws, which I appreciate, but there's a line where she said, "Hume amazed almost everyone who met him by his good nature and sheer likability." I just hadn't spent much time thinking about Hume through that lens. So, in a sense, I could say thank you to her for really humanizing him for me and taking it out of the realm of kind of ideas, so to speak.

Scott: Well, I would expect her to be humanizing. [both laugh]

Sean: I hope so.

Scott: Folks like that. So let's be clear for our viewers and listeners, what exactly is meant by the term humanism? And it's obviously a movement that includes some and excludes others. So, who's part of the in-group here?

Sean: Well, she starts a book and she says, "What is humanism?" So, it literally begins with a definition. And then she offers on page two, she says, "Many modern humanists are people who prefer to live without religious beliefs and to make their moral choices based on empathy, reason, and a sense of responsibility to other living creatures." Notice, she says, "Many prefer to live without religious beliefs." That means there's some humanists, in the way she understands it, who live with religious beliefs. She describes this group and says, "They can still be described as humanists insofar as their focus remains mostly on the lives and experiences of people on earth rather than on institutions, doctrines, or theology of the beyond." So, she has a very wide definition of humanism. Basically, you could be religious, you could be non-religious, you really emphasize reason, shared responsibility for one another and less emphasis on doctrine, universal truths, and the next life, and focus on this life. So that's broadly what she means by humanists. And in one sense, if that's what she means by humanists, I could say I could generally be in that category certainly with some qualifications and nuances, but there's not a direct contradiction between a Christian and a humanist. But I did feel like at some points when he says, "It's just people who prefer to live without religion,” that it's almost like you have a movement and you're trying to say, “How wide can we make this umbrella to make it as big and influential as it can be?” And at some point, it becomes so wide that it maybe starts to lose exactly what it means. So there's a couple of people I thought was really interesting that she included as humanists, and one was Desmond Tutu, who, of course, really, he chaired South Africa's—

Scott: Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Sean: Archbishop Tutu respect, thank you. He chaired South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the transition away from apartheid, of course, in the 1990s. Well, she says that he has this philosophy called ubuntu, which is a humanist belief that we are all tied up in each other's lives. Great. And his Christian principles as inspiration for his approach. So, I have a hard time believing that it wasn't essentially and primarily his Christian principles that motivated this. It wasn't like, "Well, he was a humanist and he was a Christian." I want to say, "No, he was a Christian." And even that idea of ubuntu and the way she describes it is very much a Christian idea that we're tied together.

So it felt broad on that one. And then she even describes Frederick Douglas as a humanist, which I thought was really interesting. And I could see why, because he fought against the abuse of blacks and slavery and dehumanization of people. So, I get where he's a humanist on one level, but he is clearly motivated by his faith and by his Christian principles. And so, I don't know that I would really categorize him as a humanist in the way it's typically taken.

Scott: Well, I do appreciate that she did not view humanism as necessarily needing to be preceded by the term secular. You can be a religious person and be a humanist. I think it means certain things that you can and cannot emphasize among your religious views. But I don't think she was interested in just ruling out categorically all religious people. Now, she does say in chapter one that the main distinguishing part of the humanist sort of faith or worldview would be that they don't operate supernaturally.

Sean: That's right.

Scott: There's no emphasis on the supernatural. And she does cite the deism of the founding fathers as being a particularly good model of how a religious person could be a humanist at the same time. I'm wondering what you think about this: I think some of the most recent and more celebrated people who have become humanists are, essentially, Christians who have deconstructed and left their faith. But still want to do good in the world, still want to have their lives count for something meaningful and so they've embraced this humanist doctrine as a substitute for the robust Christian faith that they've given up. I think somebody like Bart Campolo, for example, who calls himself a humanist. I think some of the new atheists would probably call themselves humanists when asked what they're for instead of just always what they're against.

Sean: Yeah. So, I do have some thoughts about that. I think it's interesting. I've had a few public dialogues with Bart. I remember him speaking in the chapel when I was a student here in the 90s. He was a Christian evangelist at that point. And some of the dialogues I referred to him, I think I said an atheist, and he goes, "I wouldn't really use that term. I would use "humanist." I said, "Okay, fair enough. Define yourself." But what came through in the conversation as I see it is he's taking so many things from this Christian worldview, mapping them on to humanism, but they're not at home there. And we're going to get into this. Can you take the idea of moral progress, which implies a standard of change and a betterment, if there's no God and there's no objective moral good? I don't think you can. I mean, even the idea of humanism valuing humans implies that humans have dignity and right built into us apart from the rest of nature. So, I agree with Bart. I agree with her that humans are distinct, but I never saw in this book and I haven't heard any humanist give an adequate response, as I see it, why human beings have objective intrinsic value and should be treated differently than say our friend Peter Singer does with the animals or essentially with a rock. So, we see that movement, but there's so much borrowing from the Judeo-Christian roots that I don't see accounted for when that happens.

Scott: All right. We'll get to more of that—

Sean: Fair enough.

Scott: In a few minutes. So, the author’s definitely got a distinct worldview. That she's coming from and it seeps through in places. I think she's trying really hard just to be a historian and to be primarily descriptive here, not normative. But as you might expect in the way she regards Christianity, in the way she treats religion in general, there are elements of her worldview that we find just sort of seeping out. So, what are some of those elements that sort of give her away in terms of her worldview?

Sean: Yeah. And I don't know that she's necessarily trying to hide it. She says she's a humanist, and is proud of this movement many times in the book.

Scott: But you're right. It's definitely not an apologetic in the traditional sense. It's a really interesting historical and descriptive view.

Sean: I thought so too.

Scott: Anyway.

Sean: Yeah. She's trying to be a fair journalist and writer and she is, but as the apologist to me, I'm always looking for certain assumptions that are built in that I would give pause to. So these are kind of small points, but you might say it's just the worldview seeping out that I want to hit pause on. So there are a couple of things that I thought were interesting. She describes a tale told by Bocaccio and I hope I said that correctly, a 14th century humanist. And she writes that she says, "It makes a good parable for the competing truth claims of Jews, Christians, and Muslims all thinking they have the one true religion. Whereas in reality, the matter is undecidable." Now it's true that they all think they have the true religion, but it doesn't follow that it's undecidable. And I would argue that Christianity uniquely was advanced. Just look in Acts, through Peter's sermon at Pentecost saying Jesus died. He rose from the grave. We are witnesses to this. He fulfilled the prophecy. Here's the evidence. You know these things are true. So, Islam was not advanced publicly by evidence and by eyewitnesses. That was not how Islam has spread its word.

Scott: It wasn't even advanced as a historical account.

Sean: It was not advanced as a historical account. That's the huge basic difference between it. Yet Christianity says, look at the evidence and invites an investigation of the evidence. So, I think that's in part what makes Christianity unique is that it's falsifiable. If Jesus is not risen, our faith is in vain. So I thought that was a very interesting assumption that herself and many humanists think religion is about preference. It's all about value. It's about giving you community, but not something we can possibly know or investigate is true. That's true for a lot of religions, but Christianity invites an investigation and is a kind of knowledge.

Scott: Yeah, I think that's probably the only way that she can have her skepticism about the supernatural and include some religious people at the same time.

Sean: Oh, gotcha. I think you're right.

Scott: Just have that approach to religion.

Sean: I think that's what has to be fair enough. So, that's seeped out. And then there was another one here that I just thought was interesting. She doesn't spend a lot of time on this, but she says we should marvel at what science reveals about the size of the universe compared to and what is produced with beings like us, consciousness, emotion, and self-reflection. Like science creates this kind of awe in us. Then she says that atheists find it perplexing that theists believe in a God who collects tributes and cares about how we have sex opposites. Now, let me just read this to make sure I represent her fairly. She says, after this whole paragraph on, really, I agreed with it. There's 125 billion galaxies containing 100 billion stars. It's filled with 8.7 million diverse species of life. I mean, she's marveling, rightly so, at the universe and what science reveals about the universe.

Scott: I was reading the 19th Psalm into that. That the heavens declare the glory of God.

Sean: Okay, okay. There you go. Which is a different way of interpreting it, but the similar awe and wonder.

Scott: That's right.

Sean: And then she writes, she says, “Atheists may find it simply perplexing that, given all this, so many people instead remain wedded to the idea of merely local gods who seem concerned mainly with collecting tributes and watching to see if we are having sex correctly.” Now, this is a brilliant explanation of her worldview in the sense that we are aweing at nature. And then there's this kind of pitiful local god who cares who I have sex with. If you're just reading this, you kind of find yourself going, yeah, in light of all that, who cares about this? But that asks a bigger question. Is there a designer and a mind and a God behind the universe, the vastness of the universe who made the galaxies, who made the stars, who made the species, and who made our bodies? And like it says in Genesis 1, does this creator say, and it is good. So, if there's a God who's made us and has a design for how we're supposed to live, the reason God cares about who we have sex with is we only actually flourish as human beings if we live according to the mind of the designer. But, with that said, I can see why if somebody says life is just about there's no afterlife. It's about maximizing pleasure or human flourishing as I see it apart from the God in this life, then of course the Christian perspective in light of the universe seems silly.

Scott: Well, I think the other question that begs, and you're headed in the right direction on that too, is this vast universe, science, reason, and rationality, which the humanist prizes also tells us that it had a beginning.

Sean: There you go.

Scott: Which suggests, as we've pointed out several times on this show, also had a beginner. And that's sort of what Bill Craig has popularized with his column, “Cosmological Argument for God,” which I find very compelling and is, I think, more supported by the most recent discoveries in theoretical physics.

Sean: That's right.

Scott: So, I think, yeah, there's some things that were, I think, sort of conveniently not addressed.

Sean: Yeah, and in fairness, that's not, again, the point of her book. So, in one sense, I agree with her. If there is no God, and this life is all they're at, we should look out at the universe in a sense and kind of marvel at all these planets in life that just have arisen by chance. You should say, what are the odds? This is incredible. And if there's no God that made us, it doesn't matter really what I do with my body. Who cares? So, I kind of saw that as a glimpse of how atheists and humanists look at the Christian worldview and tells me we got to do a better job showing that, number one, God does exist and there is a creator, but also make the connection of if there is a creator, why God does care what we do with our bodies. Maybe we haven't done a great job of making that case.

Scott: Now, we'll get to the discussion of morality here in just a minute, because that's, I think, a really important one. But one of the other things I think that she is onto, and does a good job, with are pointing out some of the ways in which the church has failed.

Sean: I agree.

Scott: And pointing out some of the shortcomings of the church's ability, I think, to be, she wouldn't put it this way, but I would, to be completely and entirely and vigorously Christian. We haven't lived out our ideals in the most socially compelling ways in the past. So what are some of the areas that I think, you know, that you think she points out that are flaws in the church or failures in the church that I think has, for a lot of people, has generated their move away from religious views and into the humanist camp.

Sean: Yeah, so whenever I read a book like this, you know, humanly possible, it's natural as a Christian to get defensive and look for the flaws in any book that's different. I try to resist that and say, okay, this person is made in the image of God and will only fully flourish when in relationship with God. What have we done as a church to fail to show that and exemplify that to the world and what critiques are offered we need to improve? And a couple bubbled up to the surface for me. One was she goes back on page 165 to the Lisbon earthquake where I think 30 or 40,000 people died in 1755. And cites Leibniz, of course, she says, has given us, he argues that God has given us a world without such things he could have, but didn't. So presumably he knew these other possible worlds would have been less good in the long run. Like God knows that somehow having a world with this kind of earthquake is the best possible world. Well, we could defend Leibniz's point, but then she goes on and says there's this hero, the story from her perspective, of course, Voltaire, who protests against this and says, this is a very human response. Who would deny someone the right to anguish against all the theodicy in the world? This right to protest was championed by a different kind of philosopher. And, of course, Voltaire comes in as the hero. Now, I don't agree with Voltaire's arguments, and I think he falls short in certain areas that we don't have to get into, but this idea of protest, this idea of being hurt and broken and seeing a massive earthquake that kills 30,000 people, and we can't cry out and say, why God, why? Actually shows some of the faults potentially in a Christian response, because I remember listening to a series on Genesis by Dennis Prager, who's Jewish, of course, as you know, and he talks about the story in Genesis 18, where Abraham protests against God for destroying Sodom. You read some of the Psalms in their complaint Psalms, like God, why? And so when I read this critique, I think there is a place for anguish, there is a place for sorrow, there's a place for saying, God, I don't get it. Why? This makes no sense. And God is okay with our questions. And so if we launch into our apologetic and don't do that well, as in her experience, as many humanists feel like, we fall short, humanly speaking of expressing those pains. And the sad part is that it actually makes sense within the Christian worldview, and we have space for that.

Scott: Yeah, I think some of our efforts at the Odyssey are actually done in an attempt actually just to put a band-aid on a really serious wound. And that, God doesn't need us to justify him and his purposes. And sometimes I think in the church, we have been more interested in justifying God as opposed to standing compassionately with human beings who have been hurt and who have been the subject of these kinds of disasters. And that's right. I think that's a very fair critique.

Sean: I agree 100%.

Scott: And I want to make sure we use books like Job and things like that, sort of the ultimate theodicy.

Sean: Lamentations. Yeah [laughs].

Scott: We see those for what they're worth. In both those places, God does not give academic rational answers for why these things have taken place. Instead, he gives us his presence as a person to walk with us through these things. The church never emphasized that back in the days that she's describing. And that's, I think, a very serious shortcoming. And I think it's a misreading of books like Job and Ecclesiastes points out that this side of eternity, there's a lot of things about God's purposes for our lives that we will never know. And I think we need to be, that's part of what it means, I think, to live by faith. That we need to be willing to look at life, this side of eternity, like the underside of that oriental rug that's got lots of knots and holes and loose ends. And you can sort of faintly make out the design. On the other side of eternity, seeing it from on top, you see this beautiful, intricate design that all fits together beautifully. And that's just this side of eternity. We haven't been given that. And I think the reason for that is because if we had been, we would ask for plan B. We would ask for some other alternative because we think we know better. Now, I think she would probably say, well, of course we know better. And that's where we'd probably part company. But I think pointing that out, I think was very insightful. And I think it's absolutely right. Any others that you would mention?

Sean: Well, I'm an apologist, so I'm looking for areas where we differ. And I don't think her worldview explains reality, but I have no problem listening going, oh, we need to do that better. We need to do that better. Like we need to have that posture as Christians. And I think that's fair. Another one she pointed out that's just painful whenever I hear examples like this is somebody who's dying and gets lectured about going to hell. You know, you and I did the show a few months ago about the pastor who left the mega church. And when he was questioned, his faith was just told, well, you're just going to go to hell. I can just a very insensitive, non-caring, for lack of a better term, judgmental fashion. So there certainly is a time to warn about hell, right? Not necessarily threaten somebody with hell. So I'm not going to say we should never bring it up. But these kinds of stories I hear frequently from humanists just are such a turn off to people that we need to do better at.

Scott: Yeah. One of the things that I found insightful that she pointed out was that for centuries, the Christian emphasis on eternity, resurrection, eternity, enabled people essentially to look so forward to eternity that they didn't care much about what went on in their society, in their culture, sort of so heavenly minded that they were no earthly good. And I think there was, in large part, I think that's a fair critique. Now, I think, again, to be fair, the folks that she's talking about during that time period had limited opportunities to actually affect social change because they lived in totalitarian or monarch systems, which were essentially totalitarian. So the idea that the average person actually had an impact or had an influence, I think, was much less than later on when democracy came into being and the individuals were empowered to make a social difference. And she cites Wilberforce, for example, who committed himself to the abolition of slavery as a very positive example of Christians who had a good view of eternity, but also recognized that there was a time and a place for social change as well.

Sean: I think at times, you're right, Christians have been heavenly minded, not focused on earthly goods. But you just look in American Western culture today, who gives the most time, who gives the most money, who gives the most resources? It's consistently Christians and conservative Christians. Why? Because we think you're not just a finite being, but you're an eternal, infinite being made in the image of God. And so it's like C.S. Lewis, who talked about every human being you talk to is immortal. That should give a deeper sense of respect. And it's actually reflected in our humanist type practices. So, sometimes knowing about the reality of heaven, I think the studies show, actually causes us to be more earthly focused and the data consistently backs that up.

Scott: Yeah, I think we operate in continuity today with what God is doing when the kingdom will come in its fullness. What we're doing today is a down payment. It's a kingdom for taste of what we do in the culture today, which will be fully realized when the kingdom comes in its fullness. So, I say, with that, that animates a lot of what good that has done on behalf of people who name any particular religious few. She has a significant emphasis on morality here. I mean, the humanists explicitly reject the notion that if there is no God, then all is permitted. That's right. And they have an ethic that is essentially based on their fundamental idea that we're all connected. The human family is all connected, and therefore we have obligations of reciprocity to each other. And she reframes the golden rule, essentially, to say, not so much in terms of doing positive goods for people, but not doing harm to people that you would not have done to yourself. Different than the hockey players' golden goalie rule, which is doing to others before they do unto you, but a little different twist on that. How do you assess their view of morality in general, given their, I think for the most part, materialist view of a human being?

Sean: So, in fairness, there's not a humanist defense or explanation of morality. So, if you speak with someone who's a humanist, you might just ask them, where do you think morality comes from? Where do moral duties come from? Where does human value come from? So, throughout the book, she'll give Darwin's explanation, of course. She'll walk through somebody like Jeremy Bentham, who has more of a utilitarian view. So, there's different perspectives. But in some ways, I think, first off, Christians have a lot in common with humanists in the sense that we think we have duties to our fellow man. We think human flourishing matters. We're not relativists, at least in practice. There's a lot of commonality we have, but the deeper metaphysical ontological questions, I don't find answered here or anywhere in the humanist literature in a satisfactory fashion. So, for example, this is just one. This is not critiquing all humanist worldviews, but one explanation given. Imagine that one day—and this is a particular writer she's referring to—imagine one day you're out in spot, a small child about to fall into a pond. What do you feel? Almost certainly feel an impulse to jump in and save the child. No calculation or reasoning precedes it and requires no commandment. That is your seed of a moral life, although you still have to reflect on it and develop it for it to become full ethics. So the seed or the basis of the moral life is this intuition, this feeling that wells up within me. I don't have to go to scripture. I don't need God to speak it that I should save this child. And that's true. Human beings commonly have that intuition. But C.S. Lewis famously wrote and pointed out in his book, “The Abolition of Man.” He said, "We also have competing instincts and intuitions that arise within us." Well, that child fell in the water, but there's sharks. I want to help the child, but I want self-preservation. I don't want to get wet. I don't want to ruin my phone. Whatever it is, you have instincts of self-preservation. You have instincts to help. Sometimes we have instincts to hurt somebody. Sometimes we have instincts to help somebody. And he said, unless there's something above instinct that tells us how we ought to objectively behave as human beings, and we actually have duties to one another, then you can't really say one instinct or feeling is better than another. So, I think—here's the distinction I would make. On a practical level, humanist ethics make a lot of sense because this is how we practically operate. We go, "Yes, we all know we should save the child. They don't need justification. Save the child." But when you go deeper and say, "How do we ground that instinct? Why am I bound to follow that instinct? Is it really objective or did it just bubble up through evolution to get us to survive?" That's where I think humanism cannot offer an adequate binding explanation that is any better objectively to live than somebody says, "Forget humanists. I'm out for myself."

Scott: Yeah, I think she tries to do this with their principle of reciprocity, which I think is the fundamental moral principle for the humanist. But I think for someone who holds the materialist view of a human being, I'd want to ask, Well, why the principle of reciprocity as opposed to the ethical egoist who said the principle of self-interest? I mean, what makes one superior to the other? So, I think you're right. I think the emphasis is there on morality, but it's not clear that it's adequately grounded. And I think the point you made a little bit earlier about there being such a thing as moral progress presumes that there's a standard. I think every humanist has hope and an emphasis on progress morally as well as in lots of other ways. ‘

Sean: She clearly does. Yeah, understandably.

Scott: And she does. But if there's no standard, then there's no way to assess that. So, now that we're into a little bit of what I think is a fair critique, I want to continue to be fair to her in this, but are there any other tensions for humanism that you see coming out of the way she's described it?

Sean: Yeah. And in fairness, I'm an apologist trained in philosophy, and so are you. I'm not a historian, so there's a lot of issues that come up that maybe someone else could read and say, "I agree. I disagree. That's not my lane, so I can't help but just notice." And by the way, read Christian's the same way. I'm often like, "Is there attention on this? Is there attention to my worldview?" Trying to be consistent. So a couple of things, and this just, maybe just one, I'll point out, this gets kind of the heart of humanism. You mentioned that she has a materialist worldview, and she writes on page three, really at the beginning, "We humans are made of matter, of course, like everything else around us. So we are made of matter." Now, her worldview is that we're just made of matter. Of course, we are matter and soul. But then if you read in the back these kind of humanist manifestos, they're all about reason. They're about logic. They're about science, which are not physical endeavors within themselves. How do you have inquiry and free thought, so to speak, which is not a biological process like blood flow? It requires reflection. It requires something non-material to be able to look at A, look at B, reason about it, and make a decision. That's not a physical process. So, I see this tension, so to speak, in the humanist worldview as she presents it, that we're purely material. But these things like duty, responsibility, morality, rationality, all held up as values, none of those are material. So I don't know where they come from. And I don't know how human beings get to the point where we're just material beings and we can choose and follow those in the first place. That's a huge topic of conversation, but there's a big tension there that like morality, again, I don't think is sufficiently explained.

Scott: I think one of the tensions that I would put that I think arose to me, and I think there is, I think it's true about the moral discussion. Because I think some of the things that the humanist values actually have very distinctive Christian roots to them.

Sean: I agree.

Scott: So, freedom of conscience, for example, comes straight out of the biblical discussion of human beings made in the image of God. But the other one that's really struck me is she has several places where she downplays the existence of sin. And I think to have a more realist worldview, I think this would actually make humanism a little more palatable, if it had a little bit more of a realistic assessment of human beings and human potential. The way I'd put it is I think, then this is the big tension for me, is that she understated the damage that World War I and II and the communist regimes did to the humanist project. Here's the way I would put it. World War I put the humanist project in a terminal illness. World War II put it on life support. And the abuses, the gross human rights abuses in the '50s, '60s, and '70s from Soviet and Chinese communism pulled the plug on it. And I think recovering from that without some sort of really robust notion of human sin and fallibility and realist hope for progress—that to me is to downplay that. And to be fair, she did mention it and it was discussed. But I don't think historically it was represented quite accurately as the almost mortal blow to humanism that it actually was. And the UN charter on human rights that came out of that was actually—The author of that, Jacques Maritain, was a very devout Catholic who was largely responsible for that. And it had all sorts of, maybe unexpressed, but there was definitely a Judeo-Christian animating worldview to that. And I think to call that just an entirely humanist project, I think probably would de-emphasize the cut flower nature of what the humanist project became if it disavows any kind of religious contribution to the things that it holds dear.

Sean: I think that’s a really fair critique. She does talk about in page 324, "The end of the war did not bring any smooth return to the humanist longed-for world of civility and friendship among many." Which is true, but arguably a profound understatement, as you argue. But she does say, "The end of the war also failed to stop the general human habit of behaving inhumanely." She lists the Soviet Union, what happened in China, what happened in Paul Potts, Khmer Rouge, but it's not just the human habit or the human tendency. Yes, there were challenges to Christianity. There was the death of God movement. How could God allow this to happen? Very fair question. But on the flip side, if you don't have a robust view of human sinfulness and depravity that cannot come from evolution, you don't need the level of cruelty at all for the survival of the species, then your worldview is bankrupt. And I think that in many ways was the death knell of humanism in the 20th century.

Scott: Yeah, I appreciate the desire to keep hope alive. But I think the manifestations of sin and depravity and cruelty have just taken different forms today. They are less national and more para-national than they've been in the past. But I think it's the same song, just a different verse.

Sean: So, here's the difference though. If you have a humanist worldview and humans are not innately sinful, then you have a lot of hope and optimism about this world getting better and improving. Christians don't say that. Things won't be perfected until the next world. Now there's things we can do to minimize pain and suffering, and we're called to do so. But we don't have this naive idea that human nature is going to improve along friendship lines. And so in many ways, seeing the world as broken with wars and devastation, what's going on in the world today, I look around and go, "This doesn't surprise me. This is what humans are." But this humanist project, going back 2,000 plus years, we've seen no improvement, I would argue. I know some people have argued differently, but in terms of our character and the bloodshed, we don't see that level of improvement. That's more of a problem for a worldview that doesn't have a robust view of what it means to be human.

Scott: So, maybe one final question on this. Where does Sarah Bakewell, the author here, see humanism going in the future?

Sean: Yeah, one thing I do want to point out if I can, because this hit me as I was reading it, is the question, and then we'll jump on that. Is humanism a religion? Now some humanists might be upset if I characterize it this way, but after reading this book, it's very clear that there's a humanist creed. So she starts and ends with this creed by Robert Ingersoll, right, about how you're supposed to live with happiness. There's clearly saints, people like Hume and some of the others.Bertrand Russell is a great example. They have their saints. They clearly have sin, which does not emphasize human freedom and human goodness and human rights and to focus on the next life, and their salvation through reason and through friendship. So, I think it functions in many ways as a religion. So it gives people a certain sense of belonging, a sense of identity that, of course, God has designed for us to experience within the church. Now, she says humanism is going in one of two different directions. I thought this conversation was really interesting as well. She makes distinction between posthumanism and anti-humanism. And posthumanism is kind of this apocalyptic humans are gone and they're destroyed. Maybe there's some environmental collapse. Humans are gone. And she says, it actually refers to like a kind of judgment day, which also shows that within environmentalism, there's also this religious fervor that's kind of built in the sin that we have, et cetera. And she describes this as kind of anti-humanism. And I think that's right. But then she says transhumanism, which is just, all I have to say is the tension here. She says, “Unlike post-humanists, who look forward eagerly to technologies that will first extend the human lifespan considerably and later allow our minds to be uploaded into other data-based forms so we can ditch the need for human embodiment.” Wait a minute. Are we material beings or are we now embodied beings with minds that are not physical? You bring this book full circle and it kind of lands in this space with the recognition that humans are not just bodied. We're not just physical. We are body and we are in a sense, you could say soul or mind with a yearning to live forever, with a yearning to transcend our broken present state. These are good desires that we have. Humanism is just not going to fix it. That's where ultimately you and I would say we need a savior who lived that perfect human life, modeled love for us, modeled friendship and ultimately birthed the religion that yes, it has its shortcomings that we talked about, but has actually done more good for human rights than any movement in the history of the world and that's Christianity.

Scott: And I think that's a really appropriate place to end. This has been, I think, a really interesting conversation. I want to commend to our listeners and viewers, “Humanly Possible,” Sarah Bakewell. It's a really interesting read. If you like history, you'll love it. But I think some of the critiques that we've offered, I think, I hope we've been fair.

Sean: I hope so. And let me say really quickly, whenever I recommend a book, I always just want to qualify. It's almost 400 pages long. It's not an apologetics book. It's written from humanist, mostly to humanists, to tell the historical story of how she gets into the weeds. So if you like philosophy and you like worldviews and you want a historical take, she's a very, very good, charitable writer.

Scott: We hope you've enjoyed the conversation with us about the book Humanly Possible. If you have questions or guests that you would like us to consider or issues that you'd like us to consider talking about in the future, feel free to email us at thinkbiblically@biola.edu. That's think.biblically@biola.edu.

Sean: Actually, thinkbiblically. We took the dot out.

Scott: We took the dot out. We did. I forgot about that. So, third time's the charm here. thinkbiblically@biola.edu. We hope you've had fun listening to this. Be sure and subscribe to the audio version of the podcast. Share it with a friend. And remember, think biblically about everything. Thanks for joining us. We'll see you next time.