The Secular Humanist’s Dilemma

1. Secular humanists define moral actions as “those which promote human flourishing.”

2. Countless studies have shown that religious individuals are happier, healthier, and more charitable with their time and money than non-religious individuals.

3. Therefore, secular humanists have a moral obligation to promote the spread of religion.

The Drowning Stranger: A Problem for Secular Humanists

Here’s a thought experiment.


Imagine that you’re a healthy, athletic, 20-year-old male. It’s the morning after a thunderstorm, and you’re standing on the banks of a flooded, violently churning river.

You notice an object floating downstream.


As it moves closer, you suddenly realize that this object is a person. The head breaks the surface, and you see a panic-stricken elderly woman gasping for air. You’ve never met her before, but vaguely recognize her as an impoverished widow from a neighboring village.

You look around for help, but there’s no one in sight. You have only seconds to decide whether or not to jump in after her – recognizing that doing so will put your own life in significant peril.


Is it rational for you to risk your life to save this stranger? Is it morally good to do so?

For the Christian, both of these questions can be answered with an emphatic “yes”.

The Christian is called to emulate the example set forth by Jesus, who not only risked, but sacrificed his life for the sake of others. The Christian believes that the soul is eternal, and that one’s existence doesn’t come to an abrupt end with death.  Additionally, he can point to the examples of countless Christian martyrs who have willingly sacrificed their own lives.

For the secular humanist, the answers to these questions are much more subjective. When I previously asked 23 self-identifying atheists, “Is it rational for you to risk your life to save a stranger?” only 4 of them responded with an unqualified “yes”.

Biologically speaking, the young man in our scenario has nothing to gain by jumping after the drowning woman. Since she’s poor and elderly, there are no conceivable financial or reproductive advantages involved. Evolutionary biologists often speak of “benefit to the tribe” as a motivation for self-sacrifice…yet the young man’s community would certainly place greater practical value on his life than that of a widow from a neighboring village.

Secular humanists argue that people are capable of making ethical decisions without any deity to serve as Moral Lawgiver. On a day-to-day basis, this is undeniably true. We all have non-religious friends and neighbors who live extremely moral and admirable lives.

In the scenario above, however, secular ethics break down. The secular humanist might recognize, intuitively, that diving into the river is a morally good action. But he has no rational basis for saying so. The young man’s decision is between empathy for a stranger (on the one hand) and utilitarian self-interest & community-interest (on the other).

In the end, there can be no binding moral imperatives in the absence of a Moral Lawgiver. If the young man decides to sit back and watch the woman drown, the secular humanist cannot criticize him. He’s only acting rationally.

C.S. Lewis’s Argument from Nostalgia

(or, “Why you sometimes feel like you can remember something, sometimes, from even before your childhood”)


C.S. Lewis often wrote about (and alluded to) the sense of “nostalgia” that comes with beholding a beautiful landscape.

One of my recent backpacking trips

One of my recent backpacking trips. Observe the bursting sense of nostalgia.

I’ve always thought that the Christian argument from beauty/awe/nostalgia is one of the most difficult to convincingly express, yet one of the most powerful when properly understood. It shares some commonality with the Argument from Religious Experience, in that it relies on personal revelation rather than hard evidence (historical & scientific data) or soft evidence (formal philosophical arguments).

Rather than relying upon another person’s (oftentimes unreliable) testimony, however, the argument from nostalgia encourages self-reflection by identifying a peculiar sensation – almost like déjà vu, or a lost memory, or a half-forgotten dream – that seems to be shared by most people. C.S. Lewis described this sensation as follows:

“In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

When I first encountered that passage, I remember being stunned. I had to re-read it several times. It almost seemed as if Lewis had ripped something from my own mind and memories, and put it to paper half a century before I was born.

The association between nostalgia and childhood is particularly intriguing. While childhood clearly isn’t the source of this particular type of nostalgia, the sensation seems to be strongest in the context of one’s childhood. Something to do with innocence, maybe? Lewis goes on:

“Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.”

And here is where we make the leap from “peculiar shared sensation” to “argument for Christian theism”. Lewis again:

“Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.”

C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis

“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.”

Objective Moral Values: Two Views

This is essentially a rewording of last week’s poem, in the form of an argument.

The Naturalist’s View

1. The purpose of an object or entity is defined as the reason for which that object or entity exists.

2. The reason for which an object or entity exists can be inferred from its eventual outcome, determinable at some sufficiently distant future.

3. On naturalism, from 1 and 2, the purpose of the universe is to achieve heat death.

4. Objective moral values – if they exist within our universe – must serve to achieve or advance the purpose of our universe.

5. On naturalism, objective moral values – if they exist within our universe – must serve to increase entropy (from 3 and 4).

The Christian’s View

1. The purpose of an object or entity is defined as the reason for which that object or entity exists.

2, The reason for which an object or entity exists can be inferred from its eventual outcome, determinable at some sufficiently distant future.

3. On Christianity, from 1 and 2, the purpose of the universe is to bring glory to God, through its redemption and renewal.

4. Objective moral values – if they exist within our universe – must serve to achieve or advance the purpose of our universe.

5. On Christianity, objective moral values – if they exist within our universe – must serve to glorify God (from 3 and 4).

The Humanist

TL;DR: Secular humanism can’t adequately ground objective moral values. If moral values are to be drawn solely from what we observe in nature, then they would need to align with the observed “ultimate purpose” of our universe…that is, heat death.

Bronze age tripe, that’s all it is
The scribblings of a goatherd
To call this tome a “holy book”
One must be quite the dotard
It’s full of nonsense, myths and lies
I hear it calls for slavery
My plain contempt can’t be disguised
Free Thought takes much more bravery

Free Thought, you say?
Do tell me more
You really have intrigued me
A system without creeds, you say?
No room for touchy-feely?

That’s right, he smirked
I need no God
My reason is sufficient
The Scientific Method guides my path (and it’s sufficient)
I draw my morals from within
Human nature never fails me
Deep down inside all men are good
And frankly,
Blind faith scares me

Blind faith, you say?
That’s not unique
To buildings with a steeple
Surely, then, you have a way
To ground your faith in people?

My faith in mankind needs no grounding
Surely you can see so
These things are Good!
Everyone agrees, no?

Not everyone
Said I to he
Though that would make me merry
The problem with your view, you see
And not to be contrary
Is that the virtues which you cite
Come off as arbitrary
You say that we’re the product of a mindless game of chance
Our fleeting lives in tune with Nature’s odd and wondrous dance
Yet if you think this through, sir, and use science as your guide
Then ought not moral virtues work toward Nature’s sure death slide?

Roger Scruton Quotes

“Deprive young people of a rite of passage into the social order and they will look for a rite of passage out of it…The effect of current policies has been to subsidize out-of-wedlock births, to remake marriage as a contract of cohabitation, and to drive religion, which is the true guardian of rites of passage, from the public sphere. Those policies have been embarked on with the best of intentions, but with a remarkable indifference to what we know of human nature.”

“When everything is permitted, it is vital to forbid the forbidder.”

“Popular culture today is bent on exalting the trivial, the indecent, the sarcastic, over the deep, the committed and the virtuous. It is difficult for us to envisage that Mozart’s music, in its day, was part of popular culture”

roger scruton

“The misuse of drink in our society is one aspect of the general misuse of pleasure…Public drunkenness, of the kind that led to prohibition, arose because people were drinking the wrong things in the wrong way.”

“We must recognize that liberty is not the same as equality, and that those who call themselves liberals are far more interested in equalizing than in liberating their fellows.”

“It is impossible for modern adolescents to regard erotic feelings as the preliminary to marriage, which they see as a condition of partial servitude, to be avoided as an unacceptable cost. Sexual release is readily available, and courtship a time-wasting impediment to pleasure. Far from being a commitment, in which the voice of future generations makes itself heard, sex is now an intrinsically adolescent experience. The transition from the virgin to the married state has disappeared, and with it the ‘lyrical’ experience of sex, as a yearning for another and higher form of membership, to which the hard-won consent of the other is a necessary precondition. All other rites of passage have similarly withered away, since no social institution demands them – or if it does demand them, it will be avoided as ‘judgemental’, hierarchical or oppressive.”

“Beauty is assailed from two directions – by the cult of ugliness in the arts, and by the cult of utility in everyday life.”

“That is what religion promises: not a purpose, necessarily, but something that removes the paradox of an entirely law-governed world, open to consciousness, that is nevertheless without an explanation: that just is, for no reason at all. The evangelical atheists are subliminally aware that their abdication in the face of science does not make the universe more intelligible, nor does it provide an alternative answer to our metaphysical enquiries. It simply brings enquiry to a stop. And the religious person will feel that this stop is premature: that reason has more questions to ask, and perhaps more answers to obtain, than the atheists will allow us. So who, in this subliminal contest, is the truly reasonable one? The atheists beg the question in their own favour, by assuming that science has all the answers. But science can have all the answers only if it has all the questions; and that assumption is false. There are questions addressed to reason which are not addressed to science, since they are not asking for a causal explanation.”

Bioethics and Worldview

I recently came across this 2010 story from CBS News:

“According to a mail-in survey of nearly 4,000 British doctors, those who were atheist or agnostic were almost twice as willing to take actions designed to hasten the end of life. They were also far more likely to offer “continuous deep sedation until death” and discus end of life options with their patients.”

You can find the original JME paper HERE.

This story caused me to ask myself, “How does a person’s worldview influence his stance on bioethical issues like physician-assisted suicide, abortion, and human embryonic stem cell research?” Having discussed and debated these issues with fellow medical students, it always seems like the conversation, when continued long enough, eventually boils down to differences in ideology.

In other words, you’re never going to reason someone into changing his stance on euthanasia if he’s approaching the question from a different ideological starting point than you are.

To highlight how our religious and philosophical beliefs influence our approach to bioethics, consider this article on bioethicist Leon Kass:

“Unlike questions of segregation and, before it, slavery, where evil was clear and the only question was how to deal with it,” Dr. Kass says, “the evils that I saw close to my own area of work were ones that were embedded in very high-minded pursuits: better health, peace of mind and the conquest of nature. Yet they contained within them the seeds of our own degradation.”

The trouble wasn’t so much with science itself, he thought, as with “scientism,” by which he means “a quasi-religious faith that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge worthy of the name; that scientific knowledge gives you an exhaustive account of the way things are; and that science will transcend all the limitations of our human condition, all of our miseries.” Scientism’s primary goal, Dr. Kass says, “is to put the final nail in the rule of revealed religion.”

We can think about many of these bioethical conundrums in light of the question, “Can the end justify the means?”

Is it morally justifiable for a doctor to kill a patient in order to satisfy that patient’s wishes? Is it morally justifiable to dismember a developing human fetus in order to increase “net happiness”? Is it morally justifiable to kill a human embryo in order to discover new ways of treating disease?

According to Dr. Kass, the concept of “human dignity” carries powerful moral ramifications. Bioethical decisions shouldn’t be made strictly on utilitarian grounds; they need to account for the fundamental value of human life, regardless of age, race, gender, or other such attributes. Certain (noble) goals cannot be justified, therefore, if they require that one violate human dignity.

Yet atheist psychologist Steven Pinker offers a drastically different opinion in his 2008 article, “The Stupdity of Dignity“:

“The general feeling [of conservative ethicists] is that, even if a new technology would improve life and health and decrease suffering and waste, it might have to be rejected, or even outlawed, if it affronted human dignity.

Whatever that is. The problem is that “dignity” is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it…Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, [“dignity”] adds nothing…”


In Ursula K. Le Guin’s famous 1973 short story, she describes the utopian city of Omelas – a place of luxury and comfort, without sickness or fear or pain.

“A boundless and generous contentment, a magnanimous triumph felt not against some outer enemy but in communion with the finest and fairest in the souls of all men everywhere and the splendor of the world’s summer: this is what swells the hearts of the people of Omelas, and the victory they celebrate is that of life.”

Yet the happiness and good fortune of Omelas must come at a price. Beneath the city, in a dark and filthy cell, a single small child must be kept in perpetual anguish.

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas…They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”

Upon learning this truth, most of the citizens of Omelas are temporarily horrified…but they eventually come to terms with the child’s plight, rationalizing it as a necessary evil for the good of society. A few of the citizens, however, have a very different reaction.

“At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman. Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back.”