Secular Humanism, Christian Theism, and the Meaning of Life
J. Wesley Robbins
In chapter Four of his 1987 book Scaling the Secular City, J. P. Moreland poses a question which he says is the one that most people have in mind when they ask whether life is worth living or has meaning. The question is: “Are there any objective values which provide significance for the universe as a whole, human life in general, or my life in particular, and which provide a goal or a purpose for the universe, human life, or my life?”
He considers four different answers to this question: nihilism, optimistic humanism, transcendentalism, and Christian theism. Not surprisingly, he claims that Christian theism is the best answer to this question. Moreland clearly takes this to mean that the best way to live one’s life is in terms of Christian theism.
There are a host of exceptions that one might take to Moreland’s contentions and arguments in this chapter. Speaking as a secular humanist, someone whom Moreland would probably classify as an optimistic humanist, here are two. The first has to do with the question to which he claims that Christian theism is the best answer. The second has to do with the criterion by which Christian theism is supposed to be a better, or the best, answer to this question.
First, when Moreland poses his question about the meaning of life, he summarily rules out the question whether people find life satisfying. That question, he notes, could be answered in the affirmative by people who get a lot of satisfaction out of playing golf [his example] or volunteering to assist in a nursing home [mine]. However interesting that question may be, he says, “it is not the one intended when most people raise the question of the meaning of life.” The latter, Moreland claims, is the question which he poses, as noted above, about the existence of objective values.
Moreland does not tell us how he knows that this is the question most people have in mind when asking about the meaning of life. He just tells us that he does know this. So the first thing secular humanists need to do is take issue with this arbitrary assertion. Here is one way to do so.
There is a class of people in western society for whom Moreland’s question about the existence of objective values holds no interest. This class includes, but is not limited to, signers of the various Humanist Manifestoes. John Dewey, in his essay “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy,” described such people as follows. Their interest has shifted “from the wholesale essence back of special changes to the question of how special changes serve and defeat concrete purposes. . . .”
Moreland’s argument for the superiority of Christian theism is hamstrung from the start. For there is a growing class of thoughtful people for whom his question holds no interest. It is not that the question is meaningless by some philosophical standard of meaning. It is that, as Dewey said, our interest has shifted to something else, namely how to increase the satisfactoriness of our lives and those of our fellow humans. We no longer care one way or the other whether that satisfactoriness is backed up by what Moreland calls “objective values.”
Moreland most likely would respond that we secular humanists have no objective reason for this shift in interest and thus no objective reason to be anything other than egocentric. The idea that people who do not concern themselves with the ultimate source of the things that make their lives satisfactory are egocentric in the first instance is a myth perpetuated by theists like Moreland. Most of us care about the well-being of at least some restricted group of others, like family and friends, with little or no prompting. That unselfish caring gets expanded and intensified in a variety of ways, most notably through literature.
Second, Moreland claims that Christian theism provides a better answer to his question about objective values than any of the other three philosophies of life that he considers. But, better with respect to what? Moreland himself uses livability as a criterion. He claims, for example, that nihilism is unlivable. We might then pose the following dilemma. When Moreland says that Christian theism is a better answer to his question about objective values, he means either better with respect to a standard provided by objective values of some sort or better with respect to livability.
If his claim is that Christian theism is better with respect to objective values, then he begs the question of the existence of objective values against those of us who hold that it doesn’t matter, so far as the meaning of life is concerned, whether there are any or not. Moreland no doubt would respond that this lack of interest in his question on our part is arbitrary. Even if that were the case, the point would remain that on this interpretation his argument is question begging. But it is not the case. Secular humanists no longer care about the existence of objective values, in Moreland’s sense of the term, because it makes no difference practically to getting what we want, namely the improvement and enhancement of the satisfactoriness of our lives. That was Dewey’s point. The intellectual transformation that he attributed primarily to the influence of Darwinism on philosophy, but more broadly to the influence of scientific thinking on philosophy, came from the realization that improvements in our lives are more likely to occur as we figure out what the specific conditions are that cause our enjoyments. As it becomes increasingly apparent that we can gain this kind of specific knowledge about the proximate sources of the things that make our lives satisfactory without knowing anything about the ultimate source of those values, the old questions about the ultimate origin of values lose their urgency and, finally, their interest. That is why the existence of objective values is irrelevant to the meaning of life so far as secular humanists of the sort that I have described here are concerned.
If, on the other hand, his claim is that Christian theism is better with respect to livability, that is highly dubious if not outright mistaken. Obviously many people(s) have lived long and well without Christian theism. There is no reason, certainly none that Moreland has supplied, why that will not continue to be the case or why it should not be the case.
Christian thinkers like Moreland, and their followers, should not take the lack of response to arguments of the sort contained in this chapter of his book by secularists as indicative of either the power of those arguments or intellectual deficiency in our position. It is, rather, that these arguments are typically so muddled that bothering with them is a waste of time and effort.