Atheism and Humanistic Value Theory (1996)

Michael Martin


What is the relation between atheism and humanistic value theory? Can one be an atheist [1] and not accept any humanistic value theories? Can one accept a humanist value theory and believe in God? These are the sorts of questions that I want to address in this paper. They are important for the following reasons. All too often both critics and friends of atheism and humanistic value theories seem to assume that the two positions are closely related--so closely related that they are inseparable. However, this tacit assumption may not be true. If it is not, then several things will follow. First, the defense or criticism of atheism would be independent of a criticism or defense of any humanistic value theory. Thus, a successful critique of all humanistic value theories might leave atheism unscathed. A defense of atheism, in turn, might have little bearing on humanistic value theories. Furthermore, a successful defense of any humanistic value theory might have little relevance to a defense of atheism. In addition, showing that there might be a gap between humanistic value theories and atheism would open up the possibility of the development of new religious and philosophical positions. This possibility raises such questions as: Would it make good sense for a group to call themselves Atheists Against Humanistic Value Theory? Would The Theistic Society for Humanistic Value Theory be a contradiction in terms?

In this paper I will first distinguish two different senses of "humanistic value theory." I will show in general that atheists need not be committed to humanistic value theories in either sense and that theists might embrace such theories. I will then relate my discussion to recent controversies in environmental ethics.

Two Senses of Humanistic Value Theory

What is a humanistic value theory? Although the specific values presupposed may differ from one humanist to another, all humanists believe that moral values are relative to human experience. As one commentator has put it, humans "are the measure of all things." [2] What does this mean?

One plausible interpretation of the thesis that humans are the measure of all things is that all intrinsic moral values are based on human desires and interests. Other things could have value but they would have only instrumental value; that is, they would be means to furthering human desires and interest. For example, a humanistic value theorist might maintain that a work of art has instrumental value in furthering human aesthetic enjoyment but no value in its own right. Such a theorist might also argue that human aesthetic enjoyment has intrinsic value; that is, it has value in its own right.

There is another interpretation of the claim that humans are the measure of all things, however; namely that humans rather than some divine being decide what is morally valuable. On this interpretation, human beings, not God, create values; in other words, values are made by human decisions not discovered. Of course, one could give different accounts of what values humans have created. On this interpretation, moreover, works of art could have intrinsic, not just instrumental value.

Atheism and Nonhumanistic Theories of Value

Can atheists with consistency reject humanistic theories of value in the two senses outlined above? They can and sometimes have.

Consider the first interpretation of humans are the measure of all things: all intrinsic moral values are based on human desires and interests. It would be completely coherent for an atheist to reject this view. He or she might argue, for instance, that works of painting, music, literature have intrinsic and not just instrumental value. In fact, for all I know, some atheists have adopted such a position. Those that have not could have. For example, Richard Robinson in An Atheist's Values seems to suppose that art only has instrumental value.[3] But I don't see why he could not have maintained that it also has intrinsic value, that, for example, the Mona Lisa would have value even if no one could or would see and enjoy it.[4] This is not to say that he would be correct in maintaining this. However, one must argue the thesis that works of art have intrinsic value on its own merits and one cannot refute or support it by appeal to belief in God.

One can say much the same thing of the second interpretation that humans are the measure of all things: human beings create values and do not discover them. Atheists not only can but have rejected this view. There is no reason why atheists can not argue that values are discovered. For example, atheists such as Betrand Russell in his early ethical writings argued that "good and bad are qualities which belong to objects independent of our opinions just as much as round and square do." [5] Such qualities were discovered not created. Atheists would compromise their atheism by doing so only if they assumed that what was discovered by humans were created by God. But they need not assume this. Intuitionism and some varieties of naturalism in ethics are both compatible with humans discovering values and these theories are compatible with atheism.

Theism and Humanistic Theories of Values

Can theists accept a humanistic theory of value? They might be able to but, as far as I know, none have done so to the degree that might be theoretically possible.

Consider the first interpretation of humanistic value theory. One might say that whatever view they might hold concerning the intrinsic value of human desires and interest, believers must maintain that God's interests and desires also have intrinsic value. However, this is not clear. Some religious believers hold the divine command theory of morality. On this theory God makes something moral or immoral by an act of will. On a generalized version of this theory, God also makes something valuable or disvaluable by an act of will. Thus, God creates rather than discovers values. In principle, then, God could decide that His desires and interests have no intrinsic moral value and that all intrinsic moral values are based on human desires and interests. No philosopher or theologian who has defended the divine command theory or related theories of morality has explicitly held such a view of values to my knowledge. However, there seems to be no reason in principle why on the generalized divine command theory God should not have created such values. In its pure form the divine command theory is compatible with any substantive value theory, since on this view what God commands is essentially arbitrary.

What about the second interpretation of "humans are the measure of all things"? It certainly seems that theists cannot hold that humans, and not God, create values. Yet although it seems difficult to imagine, there might be a way that theists could maintain such an unlikely position. A theist might maintain that God freely gave up His power to create values to human beings; that since having received this gift, only human beings create values and God no longer has this power. Whether this view is coherent is arguable for one might maintain that God cannot give up His omnipotence because it is a necessary attribute of His being God. On the other hand, there are subtle ways of overcoming this problem.[6]

Atheists Against Environmental Humanism

I have argued so far in general terms that both atheism and humanistic theories of value are independent positions. To illustrate this independence in a contemporary setting, consider the possibility of a Society of Atheists Against Humanistic Environmental Value Theory. Does such a society make sense? How could rational atheists not be humanists with respect to environmental issues?

Consider what humanistic value theory entails concerning the protection of the environment. If we adopt the view that only human interest and desires have intrinsic value, it would entail the position that is called anthropocentrism in the environmental ethics' literature. According to anthropocentrism, an ethic of the environment should be based entirely on human values, desires, and interests.

In environmental ethics this would mean that the rationale for protecting endangered species and for preserving the wildernesses, rain forests, and salt marshes would be based on the instrumental value of doing so for human beings. For example, one would find reasons for preserving the rain forests in the recreational, scientific, and aesthetic values they have for us. One would derive reasons for saving the whales from the value the scientific study of whale mentality and communication might have for helping us better understand human mentality and language. This anthropocentric view has been widely criticized.[7] It has been argued that other entities besides human beings -- for example, animal and plants -- have intrinsic value and that they should be preserved for their own sake and not merely for their instrumental value to human beings.

One form of nonanthropocentrism is biocentrism, the view that an ethic of the environment should be based on the intrinsic value of the individual lives both human and non-human organisms.[8] Another more controversial form is environmental holism.[9] On this view our primary moral concern should not be for individual trees, animals, streams, humans but for collections, groups, or systems -- for example, species and ecosystems.

It is important to notice that neither individualistic nor holistic nonanthropocentrism is committed to theism. One can be opposed to anthropocentrism and still be an atheist. One only needs to claim that other things beside human beings have intrinsic moral worth. But how could one claim this? The second interpretation of humanistic theory of value would allow one to justify this claim since this view is compatible with there being nonhuman intrinsic value.

I should stress that issues concerning the foundations of environmental ethics --whether anthropocentrism or nonanthropocentrism should be the basis of our environmental concerns-- are at the forefront of environmental ethics and are part of an on-going debate. One should not understand anything I say here to foreclose that dispute. My point is that for atheists concerned about the environment, a humanistic theory of value in which only human interests and desire have intrinsic value, might not be the philosophy of choice. So from this standpoint, a Society of Atheists Against Humanistic Environmental Value is not such an implausible idea. Whether such a view is ultimately acceptable can only be determined by evaluating the arguments pro and con within the field of environmental ethics.

I have not considered so far whether nonanthropocentrism in environmental ethics is compatible with the rejection of the second interpretation of humanistic ethics, that human beings create values. It is. Atheists might argue with perfect consistency that the intrinsic values of nonhuman entities, for example, trees or ecosystems, are not created by human choice but discovered. They would only have to insist that such values were not created by God.

Theists For Environmental Humanism

I have argued so far that humanistic value theory and atheism are independent. I showed this in a general way and in the context of environmental ethics. Atheists with perfect consistency can argue for nonhumanistic value. One might show this independence further by arguing in the other direction. Theists with perfect consistency could advocate only humanistic values in the context of environmental ethics. First, theists concerned about the environment might argue that, even if nonanthropocentrism has theoretical advantages, in order to sell it politically, one must show the human advantages of environmental protection. Moreover, environmentally concerned theists might argue that, politically expediency aside, there are theoretical difficulties with both biocentrism and environmental holism that make them unsuitable foundations for an ethic of the environment. Both theories have implications that are difficult to accept.[10] For example, some forms of environmental holism seem to imply that human beings might have to sacrifice in order to preserve an endangered ecosystem. But this seems absurd. In addition, theists might argue that the Scriptures, correctly interpreted, do not justify human exploitation of the environment as some critics have argued. They might maintain that humans are God's environmental stewards and, as such, their task is to preserve the Earth in order to satisfy human interests and desires not only for the present but also for future generations of human beings. They might believe further that these interests and desires have intrinsic value.

It is important to see that the first and second reasons are irrelevant to theism per se since nonbelievers as well as believers could give them. The third reason is relevant to theism but only on a certain interpretation. One would have to assume that, as God's environmental stewards, human beings were supposed to further human interests and desires in protecting the environment and not just protecting God's interests. If one adopts the generalized divine command view, this means that one would have to assume that by an act of will God made the fulfilling human interests and desires an intrinsic value, that He commanded human beings to maximize these values, and that human beings learned that in order to do this it was necessary to protect the environment.


I conclude that atheism and humanistic value theory in two senses are distinct and separable positions. Furthermore, in terms of contemporary environmental ethics there may be good reason not to link atheism too closely to at least one interpretation of a humanistic theory of value. Since in environmental ethics the position that there are only human intrinsic values is controversial, it is fortunate that atheists need not commit themselves to such a position. Furthermore, although this is a more controversial thesis, it is perhaps theoretically possible for theists to consistently adopt a humanistic value theory. However, at least up till now no theists have done so.

One might wonder where all of this leaves humanists. It leaves them to defend their humanistic values without support from either atheism or theism. Since humanistic values can be supported by both camps, both belief and nonbelief in God are irrelevant.


[1] For the purposes of this paper we will understand "atheism" in either a negative or positive sense. A negative atheist is someone who has no belief in God. A positive atheist is someone who disbelieves in God. See Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), pp. 463-466.

[2] Nicola Abbagnano, "Humanism," Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 4, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc. and the Free Press, 1967) p. 72.

[3] See Richard Robinson in An Atheist's Values (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1964), pp. 57 - 61.

[4] For a discussion of this view see Monroe Beardsley, Aesthetics (New York: Harcourt Brace and World, Inc. 1958), pp. 500 -511.

[5] Paul Edwards, "Bertrand Arthur William Russell", Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards, (New York and London: MacMillan Publishing Co. and The Free Press, 1967) Vol. 7 p. 251.

[6] For example, one might argue that omnipotence is not a necessary attribute of God. What is a necessary attribute is omnipotence-unless-freely-choosing-to-be-otherwise.

[7] See, for example, Paul Taylor, Respect for Nature (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986); Christopher Stone, Should Trees Have Standing? (Los Altos, California: William Kaufman, Inc. 1972); Alan R. Drengson, Beyond Environmental Crisis, (New York: Peter Lang, 1989).

[8] See Taylor, Respect for Nature.

[9] See J. Baird Callicott, "Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair," Environmental Ethics, 2, 1980, pp. 311-338.

[10] See Bryan G. Norton, Why Preserve Natural Variety? (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989), Chapters 8 and 9.

"Atheism and Humanistic Value Theory" is copyright © 1996 by Michael Martin. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Michael Martin. All rights reserved.