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