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FOUNDATIONS OF MODERN HUMANISM

By William McIlroy
Sheffield Humanist Society
14 pages 0.75

 

William McIlroy was for many years the General Secretary of the National Secular Society. This booklet is the text of a lecture which he gave last year and aims to provide 'a straightforward introduction to humanism based on the history of the movement.' After a few introductory remarks, McIlroy describes the development of the humanist movement through the 19th century, giving examples of the social and legislative reforms that the movement supported or brought about. The particular issues touched upon include:

 

          Campaigning for Education Reform

          Opposing the Stamp Duty charged on newspapers and pamphlets

          Defying rigid Sabbatarianism and working to 'free up' Sundays for real enjoyment

          Demanding non-religious ceremonies for birth, marriage and death

          Campaigning against church rates and tithe payments

          Opposing censorship and blasphemy laws

          Promoting and popularising birth control (regarded by McIlroy as one of the humanists' greatest contributions to human welfare thus far).

 

Three things might be said in response to McIlroy's overall historical argument:

 

1. It must be confessed that in the 19th century, as in all others, Christians did not always live out their faith as they should have done. There were instances of hypocrisy, callousness and bigotry which must have grieved the Spirit far more than now they scandalise humanists. This, of course, is not an argument against belief but a challenge to believers.

 

2. Likewise, where worthwhile reforms were introduced as a result of the work of humanists, it is right that these should be recognised and appreciated. However, it is not possible to regard even those reforms which McIlroy does deal with as wholly beneficial. A secular education which instructs children to think and behave as though there were no God, as though the Bible were not infallible revelation from God, as though life were not about glorifying God, and as though Jesus Christ were not Lord can hardly be regarded as a contribution to human welfare. Sundays which have been 'freed up' for merely self-indulgent pleasure-seeking bring shame not health to a nation. And the moral irresponsibility of 'safe sex', the selfish attitude towards how many children a couple might 'like', and the cultivation of a mind-set ready to welcome abortion as a logical next step are ugly (though not necessary) accompaniments to the promotion of birth control.

 

3. McIlroy's omissions are of such proportions as to almost render his whole thesis laughable. Who could think to deal with social and legislative reform in the 19th century without mentioning the abolition of slavery, the passing of the Factory Acts and the care of orphans? McIlroy's silence on these matters speaks volumes. William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-85), and Thomas Barnardo (1845-1905) did more to alleviate human suffering, increase human welfare, and promote true justice than all the freethinking humanists of the 19th century put together. And they did so as a direct outworking of their Christian faith.

 

Finally, a number of general points about humanism are brought home to the Christian reader of this lecture:

 

          that any claim to do 'good' or oppose 'evil' is meaningless when coming from an evolutionary, random-universe worldview.

 

          that a life of God-denying philanthropy is nothing to boast of - it is making an idol of human welfare.

 

          that the modern Humanist movement is in large measure a negative thing - a reaction to Christianity. So many humanists are self-consciously fighting against God even while on the run from him. And it will be clear to some of them at least that the harder they resist, the more they sense that there is something to resist.

 

          that Christianity is itself the 'True Humanism'. (There is a 1980 book by J.I. Packer and T. Howard called Christianity: the true humanism which expounds this thesis quite superbly.) Only in relation to his Maker, only when reconciled to him, subject to his laws, promoting his glory, and relying on his strength, can man be all he is meant to be. It is the high calling of all Christian people to demonstrate this - living lives of humble, loving service to God and men, displaying the righteousness, power and joy of Christ and so inviting others to 'the life that is truly life'.