Humanist Conscience?

We need God to be good and responsible persons

Atheists often deny the need of God as an objective basis for morality.

“Atheists are of the opinion that morality is not something that necessarily comes from `a higher authority’. Their morality comes from their experience of how the world `ought’ to work, not from someone else . . .

Human beings are social animals who can only live fully when in co-operation with their fellows. This is a good enough reason to discourage most atheists from most forms of anti-social and `immoral’ behaviour, purely for the purpose of self-preservation. If there is a good reason independent of the existence of any deities, why invent one?

Many atheists behave in what might be described as a moral way because they feel a natural human tendency to empathize with other humans. You might ask why empathize with others – why care about things which cause others to suffer? One answer is that there is often no reason. Many atheists simply are that way.”

These paragraphs were the answer of the American Humanist Association to the question: Do atheists have morals?

The same Association describes humanist morality in the following positive creed:

“When making decisions about what is right or wrong, I believe I should use my own intelligence to reason about the likely consequences of my actions. I believe that I should try to increase the happiness of everyone by caring for other people and findings ways to cooperate. Never should my actions discriminate against people simply because of their race, religion, sex, age, or national origin.

I believe that ideas of what is right and wrong will change with education, so I am prepared to continually question my ideas using evidence from experience and science.

I believe there is no valid evidence to support claims for the existence of supernatural entities and deities.

I will use these beliefs to guide my thinking and my actions until I find good reasons for revising them or replacing them with other beliefs that are more valid.”
See: R.P.CARVER, Affirmation of a Humanist, Amherst 1993.).

In assessing the Humanist view, we should first of all acknowledge that it is a moral view. Humanists who respect human dignity, who refuse to discriminate against people, who try to increase everyone’s happiness and who use their own intelligence to determine a responsible course of action in all circumstances are good and honourable people. We have no quarrel with either their good intentions or their just behaviour.

We can also agree to the Humanist contention that “there are no supernatural entities or deities” if this is understood in a naive sense. Humanists frequently fight the imaginary Father-Christmas figure who sits on a cloud, watching the earth below. That is not, however, the truly transcending God Christians believe in. For God is the Ground of all Being, the source of Truth, Beauty and Love, the creative power that supports the whole universe without being part of it. Supernatural entities or deities do not exist. God does.

We can even agree to the Humanist plea not to base morality on decrees issued by a supernatural entity on another plane. As I have explained in previous chapters, morality is based on human nature itself, on what we called natural law. This natural law, or the way things are, obviously owes its existence, like anything else, to the Ultimate Reality. But this should not be imagined as a series of arbitrary decrees issued by God and imposed on created things from above. Natural law, which we discover by the power of our human intelligence, springs from the inherent requirements from our human nature, “from our experience of how the world ought to work”, to borrow the Humanist phrase.

Humanists also earn our sympathy for distrusting `dogmatic’ systems of thought. Fanatics, fundamentalists and authoritarian religious leaders have caused havoc on the moral scene, and have made many people suffer on account of it. Believers need to be humble and to be ready to learn from new insights and new experiences, to correct mistaken ideas and refine their moral sensitivity.

There is a need for ultimate norms

We part company from atheistic Humanists in our conviction that atheist morality misses an ultimate foundation. Morality must be absolute in the sense that it cannot be just up to me to determine what is right or wrong. If I kill another person, it is not just an unfortunate accident, a slip from my gentlemanly resolve to respect others; it is a real injustice. For life is a gift to me. I do not own the world or the people who populate it. I am obliged to respect reality the way it is, and this means: other people, and ultimately the source of all Reality, God.

Our own intelligence, and the combined intellectual search of the human community, are certainly the main tools at our disposal for finding out what our obligations are. But these do not establish these obligations, our mind only discovers what they are. If we have to avoid causing suffering to others, it is not just to satisfy our own self image. Tolerance, kindness and human care are duties we owe, not just caresses and `strokes’ to please our own ego.

The Humanist reliance on human reason as the ultimate norm poses grave dangers. Many well-intentioned people will, indeed, come to the right decisions by the conscientious use of reason. But there are many others who both individually and as groups may come to appalling conclusions.

The fact that some individuals, or a lot of people, or even the majority of human beings find something reasonable, does not by itself determine that the conclusion is right. We need a higher norm, which we have to judge our arguments by: reality, the way things are created.. Then we can show which arguments make sense, and which not.

Human reason is, indeed, the tool at our disposal to judge right and wrong. There we wholeheartedly agree with our Humanist friends. But reason cannot be the ultimate norm.



The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

View the following film on the meaning of conscience