Renaissance Humanism developed in Europe as an enterprise within Christian academia to understand the classical world from the original languages. Christian academics believed this would lead to spiritual renewal. Ancient Humanism effectively had two meanings: that of philanthropy, and education in the liberal arts (which included rhetoric, poetry, grammar, moral philosophy, and history). It was this latter view that was the focus in Renaissance Europe, and it paved the way for the Reformation. After the Reformation, Unitarian intellectuals re-directed Humanism as a movement, and in 1654 formally rejected the God of the Bible (specifically the denial of Christ’s divinity). Thus a process had been started that turned a once-learned venture into one that is decidedly anti-Christian in its modern outlook.
The contemporary intellectual basis for secular humanism cannot be ignored, being based more firmly upon Darwinian evolution. This is evident from Humanists UK’s (HUK) website (discussed below). By ignoring the foundational issues, the wider implications for both western culture and the modern Church are far too easily overlooked.
Sadly, much of the Church has moved to a compromised position by accepting the same belief in evolution. The unhealthy fruit of secular humanism in modern society needs to be exposed, but such accommodation with Darwinian evolution hinders the Church’s faithful witness. A tree with damaged roots cannot bear good fruit and risks being chopped down (Luke 3:9); or to change the metaphor, aberrant morals and ethics inevitably arise from decayed foundations. If those same problems at the roots / foundations are found compromising the Church, then upon what moral and intellectual grounds can the Church oppose the bad fruit of secular humanism? Such a state of affairs is overlooked at our peril, because a compromised Church has little power to mount an effective challenge to secular Humanism.
Humanism’s Christian beginnings
Erasmus of Rotterdam was a renowned humanist scholar and theologian. commons.wikimedia.org
Historically, the 12th century European Renaissance humanists spearheaded an academic movement within the humanities—its aim being to accurately understand the world of antiquity from a study of ancient classical literature in the original languages. Its moto ad fontes (“to the sources”) was also directed towards Christianity by those within the historic Humanist movement. They were concerned with renewing Christianity by returning to the truth of the New Testament, and their work allowed more accurate translations of the Bible from the original Greek.
For instance, in 1516 the first scholarly Greek New Testament had been translated and printed by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466/69–1536), which allowed a comparison between the Latin Vulgate and the original Greek. This led to a ‘purified’ edition, purged of several Latin (mis-) translations of key New Testament verses used to support false Roman Catholic doctrine. This was ad fontes in action, and its good fruit was to the benefit of all.
This renewal was also a reaction against medieval scholasticism. This period was heavily influenced by Greek philosophical thinking, particularly from Plato. Intellectual scholarly endeavour was so focused upon the spiritual world, that there was little interest in studying the physical, created order. This unhealthy dualism was overcome by rediscovering the world, as perceived through the senses, from the writings of Aristotle, whereby it was understood that “there is nothing in the mind that is not first in the senses.” In this light it was believed that the study of creation, effectively early science, was a way of understanding the mind of God. It also allowed the arts to flourish, with the enjoyment of sensory experience considered part of the Christian life.
The Renaissance Humanists also translated some of the works of ancient Greece, including commentaries on Epicurus, because they believed this complemented the Christian faith. Erasmus offered a defence of Epicureanism in The Epicurean, suggesting that even Christ might bear the title of the Greek philosopher. Unfortunately, this was a compromising move away from sound doctrine, and towards excessive hedonism and individualism within Christianity, thus potentially placing humanity at the centre of theology and not God.
René Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. commons.wikimedia.org
The Renaissance laid the foundation for the 16th century European Reformation in its desire for the common people to freely know the Scriptures for themselves without the need for priestly intermediaries to interpret Scripture for them. Once liberated from autocratic tradition and allowed free access to the Scriptures, people could study theology in their own way. While this was a necessary move, it led to the fragmentation of the Christian Church into many denominations. While most denominations retained a commitment to the Nicene Creed and much Augustinian theology, a number of others did not—these other groups predominantly became known as Unitarians.
These were some of the notable beginnings of Humanism—scholarly rigour in the humanities and a desire for intellectual and biblical purity. However, this endeavour also allowed the accommodation of Greek thinking to influence the teaching and direction of the Church.
The enterprise of science was also changed in the early modern period, once again reinforcing the dualism between the material world and the spiritual life. The desire to understand the mind of God through science was rejected, with science becoming an end in itself. God’s direct activity and Scripture were dismissed from scientific discourse: the prime example is René Descartes (1596–1650), who made human thinking the beginning of knowledge.
Another influence of great significance was the English philosopher and lawyer Francis Bacon (1561–1626). He is seen as the ‘father’ of the scientific method, who unfortunately further separated the study of God’s creation from God’s Word by rejecting Scripture as a basis of scientific knowledge. Bacon referred to the ‘two books of God’, His Word and His works, but in so doing elevated a fallen creation to the level of Scripture and thus unwittingly aided the erosion of biblical foundations in society.
Biblical foundations eroded
Through further liberalisation, the Unitarians threw off the last vestiges of true Christianity, becoming almost solely ‘ethical’ in their outlook.
Shortly after the Reformation, the Unitarian movement arose in the late 16th century, its proponents claiming as their own the intellectual mantle of Humanism. The Unitarians were defined by their rejection of Christ’s divinity during His earthly life—believing He became ‘Lord’ only after His resurrection. Such Arian heresy became codified and central to the movement. It grew significantly as Unitarian church congregations were established, especially in the US, into the 19th Century. Through further liberalisation, the Unitarians threw off the last vestiges of true Christianity, becoming almost solely ‘ethical’ in their outlook. They formed the ‘Ethical Society’, which joined forces with ‘The Free Religious Association’ to become the centre of Secular Humanism by 1894.
Thus, Humanism had become disconnected from its predominantly Christian foundations. Today, Humanism is an entirely atheistic and secular enterprise, which was finally codified in the Humanist Manifestos I, II, and III in 1933, 1980, and 2002 respectively. These completed and formalized the transition of modern humanism from its Renaissance biblical roots—via the eroding influence of the Unitarians—to the purely materialist society we are familiar with today.
Within the Unitarian church, the undermining of biblical foundations by outside secular thinking had been in progress from its inception. Such a state of affairs was only a reflection of European society in general. An eroding influence particularly came from 17th–18th century French thinkers who had developed ‘deep time’ ideas (millions of years) for the earth and cosmos. Their motivation was the rejection of the biblical account. It was not in response to scientific evidence, rather the influence came from far eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and ancient Greek philosophy. Within the Unitarian church, the rejection of the Trinity was only a symptom of a wider rejection of the God of the Bible as the supernatural Creator, as outlined in Genesis. A general erosion of belief in biblical inspiration and the miraculous occurred in British society at large, an attitude which became formalized in the Unitarian church from 1800–1850.
Charles Robert Darwin published his Origin of Species on 24th November 1859. commons.wikimedia.org
Societal movers and shakers (who influenced the rise of modern humanism) included the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) who wrote against the design argument and miracles. James Hutton (1726–1797) held to a deist view of God, and instilled deep-time geology into the British intelligentsia with his Theory of the Earth (published 1788). The Unitarian Charles Lyell then proceeded in his attempt to “free science from Moses” in the universities. He did so by building on Hutton’s deep-time, formulating a view of millions of years of Earth history in his Principles of Geology (published 1830). Unitarians such as Lyell were busy working to undermine the place and authority in society of establishment Anglican Christianity with its Trinitarian commitments.
Charles Darwin later read Principles of Geology on the Beagle voyage in the late 1830s and was heavily influenced by Lyell’s teaching. It should also be noted that Darwin and his wider family were steeped in Unitarianism and humanism from the outset, which made Darwin’s abandonment of the Bible all the easier. Furthermore, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895), self-styled as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, enabled the gathering erosion of biblical foundations within British society by bullying the Anglican clergy into submission to accept Darwin’s ideas. Part of this was mythologizing his debate with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce. Huxley was highly influential within British society through his evolutionary evangelising efforts.
Unitarianism and evolution
According to the Unitarian UK (UUK) web site, in an article celebrating the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth (12 February, 2009) they claim Charles Darwin and his wider family as their own, for genuine historic reasons. They state:
“Charles Darwin was a man whose ideas about evolution deeply disturbed and offended Christians. He came from a tradition which valued and encouraged the spirit of free enquiry–one that had risen to the challenge of a new political and industrial age. His grandfather Erasmus Darwin published ideas about evolution 40 years before him and was a self-declared atheist. His grandfather-in-law [who was also Charles’ biological grandfather], Josiah Wedgwood, embraced the Unitarian faith and kept the company of such radical Unitarian thinkers as Joseph Priestley [influential chemist, scientist, theologian, and philosopher].”
Charles’ paternal grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was the inspiration for his grandson’s theory of evolution through his two-volume book Zoonomia (1794–1796), espousing millions of years of naturalistic evolution. He was also highly favourable towards Unitarianism:
“Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802) was Charles’ paternal grandfather. He was a physician based in Lichfield … the leading light of the Lunar Society and an atheist who described the Unitarian faith as ‘a feather bed to catch a falling Christian.’”
Of Charles Darwin’s maternal grandfather (who was also his grandfather-in-law) Josiah Wedgewood, UUK state the following:
“Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795) was Charles’ grandfather-in-law [also biological grandfather] … and practising Unitarian. Both men were stimulated by industrial ideas, critical of orthodox views and sought the company of like-minded men, many of whom were religious dissenters. The Lunar Society was so named as the men met on nights when there was a full moon, allowing them to ride home in safety and thus earning them the title ‘lunatics’. Its most famous member, and close ally of Wedgwood, was the Unitarian minister of New Meeting House, Birmingham, Joseph Priestley (1733–1804). He provided a Unitarian minister to teach at the school attached to Wedgwood’s factory outside Birmingham. Charles Darwin’s father, Robert, was educated here, as were Josiah’s son, Jos, and daughter Susannah (Charles’ mother).”
And of Charles Darwin’s early life growing up in the Unitarian church UUK state:
“Born – 12th February 1809 at Shrewsbury. As a young child he was taken by his mother to the Unitarian Chapel in the High Street, where Rev. George Case was minister. Aged 8 he attended Rev. George Case’s Day School.”
Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgewood in 1839, herself a devout Unitarian and a strong influence upon him. Darwin later published his Origin of Species (1859), but it is recognized that he didn’t go public for a long time for fear of the consequences. This in some part was due to his wife Emma, who held antipathy for Darwin’s dangerous and heretical idea. UUK state:
“It is suggested that he was pulled in two directions. His theory of evolution had a reforming, anti-establishment appeal. It is said that he thought like a Unitarian but felt for the Cambridge clerics who had helped to make his career and reputation. Above all else, he knew his theory de-throned a Creator God, challenged the most cherished beliefs of the Christian church and diminished the special status of humankind.”
What likely sealed Darwin’s long slide into disbelief was the death of his beloved daughter, Annie, aged nine. Darwin was devastated by this and could not reconcile death and suffering with a good God. Consistent with his Unitarian beliefs, he had already rejected the Genesis account as being historical—of a perfect Creation followed by the Fall of humanity and the Curse—ushering in death and suffering. It was during Annie’s period of decline that Darwin’s unbelief was consolidated by reading Unitarian evolutionist Francis William Newman, who wrote against the Bible, including Creation in Genesis. Having abandoned the biblical foundations of the Judaeo-Christian West in his writings, Newman was therefore calling for a new cultural, post-Christian synthesis for society.
So, from UUK’s own testimony, we clearly see the role of secular thinking (including deism) within the Unitarian movement. This rejection of the historical reality of the early chapters of Genesis and the God of the Bible, laid the seed-bed for Charles Darwin’s evolutionary ideas to freely grow.
The Unitarian’s rejection of the Trinity was but a symptom of the wider abandonment in society at large, of the Bible as God’s inerrant Word being true in all areas, especially historical origins. The Bible’s foundations had been replaced by secular thinking. The work of shoring up those new materialist foundations gathered pace into the modern Secular Humanist movement as discussed below from their own words.
Modern Secular Humanist intellectual foundations
To understand what modern secular humanists consider is the intellectual foundation to their beliefs, one need only read their own words. These are published on the HUK website, which state:
“Charles Darwin is centrally important in the development of scientific and humanist ideas because he first made people aware of their place in the evolutionary process when the most powerful and intelligent form of life discovered how humanity had evolved” (emphasis added).
HUK are so keenly aware that Charles Darwin and evolution are foundational to their worldview that they ran a campaign in 2009 for a national holiday in celebration of him:
“Darwin Day is 12 February every year. Humanists UK holds an annual Darwin Day Lecture and supports other events. We have run a campaign to have Darwin Day recognised as a public holiday.”
HUK goes onto say:
“Despite his personal caution, Darwinism radically re-shaped our intuitions about all living things, and today humanists all over the world can celebrate a defining moment in the naturalisation of our understanding of the world” (emphasis added).
It is therefore clear that the role of Charles Darwin and evolution cannot be ignored in properly understanding the intellectual foundations of Secular Humanism.
Humanism’s moral foundations
Humanism is a way of life for humanists, particularly in the areas of ethics and ‘morality’. Humanists do not believe in an afterlife, or God, so each person tries through reason and personal effort to live their ‘one life’ on earth to the best of their ability, for the ‘greater good’. However, if this life on earth is indeed the only one we have, then what is the purpose when it all comes to an end? Such a dilemma is not lost on humanist thinkers, but their answers are bleak in the extreme:
“Ultimately we will come to nothing and so will everything we do and create: humanists know this as well if not better than others. From this perspective, everything we do in life is the proverbial rearranging of deckchairs on the Titanic.”
It is not that Humanists are immoral, but amoral. They have no firm foundation for knowing what is right and wrong. When it comes to things like morality, humanists take a very utilitarian view, and what ‘seems good for the whole’:
“Humanist ethics is also distinguished by placing the end of moral action in the welfare of humanity rather than in fulfilling the will of God.”
Such standards are ultimately rooted in evolutionary thinking:
“If we look at our close relatives in the animal world (elephants, dolphins, other primates, etc.), we can discern in them all the social instincts that our own ancestors—the ancestors of Homo sapiens—would have had. What our conscious selves now call ‘morality’ has its roots firmly in that biology.”
But what kind of morality is based on animal behaviour? Why should humans rise above their animal passions? Charles Darwin himself surmised that even the so called ‘golden-rule’ had itself evolved:
“It can hardly be disputed that the social feelings are instinctive or innate in the lower animals; and why should they not be so in man? … The social instincts—the prime principle of man’s moral constitution—with the aid of active intellectual powers and the effects of habit, naturally lead to the golden rule, ‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye to them likewise’; and this lies at the foundation of morality.”
However, this raises the fundamental question: how can random evolution ever produce brains—that could logically be trusted to assess reality—and also make correct moral choices? Darwin had a ‘horrid doubt’ over this very question, which he expressed in a letter to William Graham, on 3 July, 1881:
“But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”
If Humanism sounds like a recipe for moral relativism, that’s because it is—best summed up in their own words:
“Being moral is not something that needs too many theories, humanists will say—it is something that we learn and experience through the doing of it, driven by our own feelings and sympathies…”
Ultimately, such moralizing is self-defeating, as there can be no firm foundations for such things as good and evil without reference to God—the final arbiter and immutable law-giver. It is a reminder of the period in Israel’s history when the judges ruled, and few in society followed God’s moral law: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
Secular Humanism’s rotten ‘moral’ fruit
This is why Humanists are open about their support for moral practices and beliefs that are radically opposed to biblical Christian principles. Indeed, these things are everything that Christian advocacy organisations have bravely fought against in the courts for many years. In the United Kingdom two prominent ones are The Christian Institute and Christian Concern. Such groups certainly have their work cut out because secular humanists are intent on undermining Christianity wholesale.
By way of illustration, HUK is actively involved in campaigns that often seem to embrace a culture of death over life, and which cannot be considered to uplift humanity:
- legalising assisted dying,
- the unrestricted, universal ‘right’ to access abortion,
- supporting the use of embryonic stem cells in scientific research.
HUK boasts of ‘successful campaigns’ to liberalize British law, stating, “Here’s some wins that we’re most proud of”:22
- “Abolishing blasphemy laws in England and Wales” (2008).
- “Legalisation of same-sex marriage across the UK” (2013 onwards).
- “Decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland” (April 2020 onwards).
- “Banning creationism in schools” (2014).
- “Making Relationships and Sex Education [RSE] compulsory in English schools” (2020).
- “Non-religious pastoral care in NHS hospitals” (2015).
- “Non-religious worldviews equal to major religions in RE [religious education]” (2015).
HUK’s influence in British schools has been profound, seeking to ban creationist influence, specifically naming CMI as a threat. HUK has paved the way to eradicating all expressions of genuine faith in religious education and the promotion of gender ideology and sexual perversion to children in Relationships and sex education (RSE).
The campaigns of secular Humanists are in fact insidious. On the one hand they say they want a level playing field for secular Humanism in society, and yet time and again they seek to exclude Christianity, and the Christian moral voice, from public life. This is because from the time of Unitarianism there was a fear of the autocratic power structures of the Trinitarian Church—represented by both Catholic and State churches. But the fact is that Christendom in the west no longer holds such power in society. The irony being that now it is the Humanists who have a dominant position in society—they now represent the power structure that they themselves seem to detest.
Richard Dawkins is a retired Oxford Professor, international best-selling author, and highly influential atheist. commons.wikimedia.org
He stated that it was “ … Darwin [that] made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” A clear admission that evolution is the intellectual bedrock of atheism, and that before Darwin, atheism was intellectually less defensible.
Evolutionists constantly trumpet Darwin as producing the greatest idea in all biology. It was the prominent evolutionary biologist and humanist Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900–1975) although a practising Russian Orthodox, brazenly stated: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” However, those same evolutionists are very quick to distance themselves from the evil moral implications of Darwinism; how, for example, evolution underpinned the murderous policies of Joseph Stalin, Karl Marx, Mao Zedong, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, and Pol Pot.
Richard Dawkins eloquently described the evolutionary process as a “cruelty, and [a] clumsy, blundering waste.” When it comes to basing morality on such a process, Dawkins admitted:
“But at the same time as I support Darwinism as a scientist, I am a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to politics and how we should conduct our human affairs.”
Even ardent evolutionists like Dawkins are keen to distance themselves from some of the bad fruit growing from the roots (that is the rotten foundations) of atheistic evolution, demonstrated by the regimes of its most ardent promoters. But it is sheer hypocrisy to try to deny such a glaring internal inconsistency. In the evolutionary view, there is no such thing as ultimate good and evil, or foundation for ethics, as Dawkins himself acknowledges:
“The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Housman put it:
‘For Nature, heartless, witless Nature will neither care nor know.’
DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”
If all that drives us is our DNA and the evolutionary process, then there can be no certain foundations for morality and ethics. The materialist’s worldview is foundationally incoherent and devoid of all meaning and purpose and opens the door to moral relativism. Paul warned of such a situation in society and that in the last days people will turn away from God: “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:1, 5). But because of the work of God in creation, Paul states that such people “are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).
The challenge of foundational issues!
We owe a debt of gratitude to the various Christian advocacy groups who have bravely battled in court for years against the fruits of Secular Humanism in our Western nations. However, it is biblical creationist organisations like Creation Ministries International which are dedicated to teaching Christians how to target the foundations of Secular Humanism. In the life of the Church today, both types of work are required to deal with the fruit, roots, and foundations—both kinds of ministries are needed. But simply trying to deal with symptoms, without tackling the underlying sickness in the Church, is futile. We are called to demolish arguments with spiritual weapons; that is through the preaching of the Word of God (2 Corinthians 10:4–5; Ephesians 6:12), and give a defence (apologia) of the hope of the gospel (1 Peter 3:15–16). That means we must work hard to challenge the unhealthy fruit of Secular Humanism, and expose the bad roots to the light of Christ. Christians are called to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13–16), and this is why we challenge the decay in society that arises through the influence of Secular Humanism.
The foundations in the Church need to be restored through renewing the faith, and a commitment to uphold the integrity of God’s Word as true from the very first verse. It was of course the serpent in the first instance who questioned the word of God: “Did God actually say … ?” (Genesis 3:1). But throughout Scripture we see the Word of God has power to transform lives and society.
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
The first chapters of Genesis give us important foundational doctrines that lead us to understand and value humanity—created male and female in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). People are therefore of great intrinsic worth and dignity—but fallen through sin because of the first couple’s transgression (Genesis 3). These doctrines only make sense when understood as real historic events, because they speak to us about real people: our first human parents. The good news of the gospel is that in love Christ came to redeem mankind from sin and the harmful effects of the Fall (John 3:16), and offers a new life indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
The message of the gospel can be aided through the writings and resources CMI produces, put into the hands of Christians including parents, and educators who can benefit from them and use them in their witness to others. Neither issue can be ignored, roots and fruits; both need to be attended to if we are to see a healthy church and society restored in our nations (2 Chronicles 7:14).
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