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Article by Giles Fraser: "Why don’t humanists give value to humans?"

Giles Fraser: "Why don’t humanists give value to humans?" Church Times, 24th October 2008.

Humanists (and by that I mean secular humanists for now) would do much more to persuade me of their world-view if they took more seriously the idea that the human is of fundamental value. Instead, secular humanists are becoming increasingly cavalier with their central belief. They have become a bit like Christians who don’t believe in God. This leads me to ponder whether human life is really all that safe in the hands of humanists.

Here, for instance, is a passage from the British Humanist Association’s website: “Religious people also often use phrases like 'the sanctity of life' to justify the view that life has intrinsic value and must not be destroyed. Humanists, too, see a special value in human life, but think that if an individual has decided on rational grounds that his life has lost its meaning and value, that evalu ation should be respected.”

Oh, how nice: humanists think life has a “special” value, whatever that means. Less sarcastically, it is clear that here is an admission that the value of human life is down graded by those who call themselves humanists. Human life is something that is deemed to have no value for the individual if that individual decides that it has not.

I am thinking, of course, about the support that so many secular hu man ists have given for the assisted suicide of Daniel James, the disabled former rugby player who felt, at the age of 23, that his life was not worth living.

My friend Jerry, at a similar age, broke his back in a motorbike accident, and could move only his head and tongue. With these he managed to woo his caregiver, marry her, have three children by IVF, and run a pizza franchise. Humanists see the difference between these cases as hanging from the fragile thread of individual choice. That is not good enough.

Baroness Warnock recently suggested that elderly people ought to offer themselves for euthanasia. “If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives — your family’s lives — and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service,” she said.

The truth is that Christians make better humanists. In the 1480s, the whole humanist revolution was kicked off by Giovanni Pico and his weighty tome An Oration to the Dignity of Man. Pico called for a public debate, insisting that human dignity derives from God. That debate needs restarting.

Not only have contemporary atheists snatched the term humanist and claimed it as their own, but — in the name of choice — they have sold out on the very value that inspired humanism in the first place: the dignity of man (and woman, too). Shame on them.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, in south London.

Letter from Stephen Law to the Church Times in response to the above article:

“Why don’t humanists give value to humans?” asks Giles Fraser. But of course we do. The disagreement between we humanists and Fraser concerns the source of that value. The humanist finds it right here in the real world – in the brief lives we live out on this planet. Fraser places the source in a mysterious, supernatural other realm. Trouble is, if Fraser’s God does not exist – and I’m afraid he doesn’t – then, it is Fraser’s view, not the humanist's, that leaves our lives without dignity or worth.

Many humanists, like many Christians, will suspect that 23-year old disabled former rugby player Daniel James’s decision to take his own life was not the right decision under the circumstances. Like most Christians, they would try to help Daniel see that perhaps he still had much to live for.

True, most humanists would say that, if Daniel had clear-headedly decided it would be best if he took his own life, then, ultimately, we should not stop him. We should not compel him to live on for decades against his own will. But I suspect that even quite a few Christians would agree with that.

“Shame on them”, says Fraser about we humanists. What is shameful is Fraser’s use of this tragedy to engage in a bit of simple-minded point-scoring against humanists. Fraser thinks he looks down on us from the moral high ground. I look down at him in the gutter.

Stephen Law

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Heythrop College, University of London
Member of the BHA's Humanist Philosophers Group.


Anonymous said…
Good response Stephen! Giles Fraser doesn't really mount any serious argument as to why atheists/humanists cannot account for ethical value. Shame about your cheap insult in the last line though. It spoils it.

Kyle Szklenski said…
I like the response overall. I even liked the insult! :)

Here's an argument you might be interested in, Stephen:
Debunking Christianity
Kyle Szklenski said…
Sorry, should have elaborated more. In that post, someone responds to John's formulation of the argument from suffering. I think you've already responded to the argument that he's using, but it would be interesting to rehash it.
Toby said…
Good reply. The Daniel James case is local to me (Worcester). Some of the coverage suggests that his quality of life reached the stage where he made the decision to die level-headedly and with the support of his family. His mother has spoken to the local paper about the anguish that is being caused commentators using the case to push their own moral agenda. There is also the social worker who referred the matter to the police despite having never met either Daniel or his family.
anticant said…
Stephen, why are you “afraid” that Fraser’s God doesn’t exist? His article is the usual Christian twaddle about euthanasia. The core of their objection is that they have such a low view of human nature they believe that if euthanasia or assisted suicide was legalised all doctors would behave like Bodkin Adams or Harold Shipman, and all relatives would hasten a sick person’s death in order to get their hands on their money and property.

The inconsistency of the Christian attitude to death never ceases to amaze me. If they really believed that the life to come is so much better than this one, they should all be tumbling over one another to see who can get there first. However, they claim to value life on earth more highly than non-believers, and seek to interfere with others’ choices about their own deaths, while Christianity has throughout history been responsible for millions of religious murders in the name of Christ. All very odd! But then, it is futile to expect logical thinking or behaviour from religious persons.
Unknown said…
Stephen, which email address did you use to write to the CT letters page?
Stephen Law said…
Thanks for link Kype P - interesting argument, yes.

I used the RIP email address - why?
Stephen Law said…
Incidentally, I think the first point I make is important. Would Fraser say that, if it turned out there's no God, he would consider humans worthless? It seems Fraser, and Christians like him, must say that, astonishingly. When they see a child suffering, and feel this is something terrible, they only feel that because they think there's a God up there? If there's no God, well, hey, why should they care?
Stephen Law said…
Having thought about it I do agree with Peter - better not to include the insult. So I've pulled the last two lines.

Of course they probably won't use it in any case....
Anonymous said…
Stephen, sorry I wasn't clear. I meant which CT email did you address your letter to. There are several on their website and none are obviously dedicated to readers' letters.

Fraser's article sickened me, and I want to have my say!
Stephen Law said…
oh I see - sorry. It was
Anonymous said…
Thanks. Here's my effort:

So Giles Fraser holds such high principles that he is willing to make others suffer for them. Oh, how nice.
Steven Carr said…
How many times must Christians say their god can kill anybody before Giles Fraser realises which belief system really values humans?
Steven Carr said…
Christians often claim they would die for their faith.

I'm sure they value their lives less than their faith.
Martin Freedman said…
I think your insult at the end was quite on tune. Apart from anything else, his whole letter was insulting. Now, of course, one needs to respond to the content of the letter and that you did quite accurately but one of its features is that it is also insulting, specifically an insult without merit.I see no reason not to pass an insult back provided, unlike his, it is one with a valid foundation, which it is, given your valid criticism of his content.

It is not just an insult but a realistic characterisation of how we see him - based on his letter. I, for one, see many of these religious moralistic claims, where the perpetrator thinks they are taking the moral high ground, as them actually taking the moral low ground and they need to be challenged on this particular point, at least so their audience can see and consider this.
anticant said…
A Christian lady rang my doorbell this morning offering me a tract and said "Would you like to know the truth?" Refusing politely, I said "I think I know it already, thank you very much."

These folk really are a pain in the posterior.
Anonymous said…
I wrote a post a week ago about this very subject of the putative moral high ground. I concluded in my usual temperate and polite way...

"Assisted suicide for the terminally ill no more cheapens or demeans life than gay marriage cheapens or demeans marriage. Catholics want to force unwilling people to suffer at the hands of a torturing god - and they think they are Better People for doing so. Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum, as Lucretius so wisely put it."
Anonymous said…
Mr. Law: While you're revising your post, change the second and the last use of 'we' to 'us'. In each case, you need the objective case, not the nominative case, because the pronoun is the object of a preposition ('between' and 'about', respectively). Shameful English, unfortunately.
Anonymous said…
Give it up, Giles! "Life" is what you eat for breakfast.
Stephen Law said…
Thanks anon - yes you are right it should be "us". Bit sloppy.
Stephen Law said…
Ophelia - "We want them to fuck off and mind their own business." I certainly couldn't have put that better!
Anonymous said…
So, as usual, they claim that God values human life, more so than humans do. why did he kill his son, again? An omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being could not come up with a better solution than death? If that's the case, Christians should be recommending death for everyone, young and old alike! We are all "sinners" on some level, and it's clearly the method God prefers!
I am always astounded at what religious people consider to be logical, and I like your reply.
Unknown said…
I have been trawling your website for the last few days, having just discovered it. I am assuming that you will get to read these comments as some point...

This is a particularly interesting point for me. Life to me is absolutely worth sustaining no matter what; the alternative just doesn't bear thinking about. People look at me funny when I suggest I would much rather have my consciousness uploaded into a computer, rather than die and be snuffed out for good.

The question I always look for an answer to is, why do Christians grieve? If their love one is safe in the bosom of Jesus, they should be rejoicing.

Of course, the church's prohibition against suicide/euthanasia is entirely to combat the rush to the Pearly Gates you would otherwise have, having sold the fairy tale of everlasting bliss.

I went to a funeral recently. The deceased was distressingly too young (43 - heart attack claimed him). The funeral made me angry. Rather than celebrating my friend (it did a little bit, of course), they spent most of the time celebrating God and Jesus and saying how wonderful they are that they give us life. The death was spoken as a 'transformation'. I wanted to jump up and scream that there was no 'transformation', just a permanent 'cessation'.

Death to me is one of the cruelest 'evils' of this world; proof of our biological nature; and something that we should be doing everything to combat.

The church of course just believes that it is God's Will and, if some scientist was to come up with the elixir for permanent youth, they would rail against it and try to impose their views upon me, thus preventing me the choice to use it. They would continue to condemn humans to an unnecessary and awful death; yet at the same time saying they value human life.

Yet, I, as an atheist, don't value life?
Stephen Law said…
Thanks for comments, Bill. Why do Christians grieve was feature of another post, in fact:

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