Does Blanchard understand humanism? (3 of 5)

This is the third part in a series discussing John Blanchard’s book, Does God Believe in Atheists? In this post, I discuss his presentation of humanist thought. The previous posts are here and here.

I hoped that Blanchard’s knowledge of philosophy would be better than his understanding of biology. And why not? Many people who are experts in one are completely uninterested in the other.

But then, many people can’t be bothered with either good science or good philosophy – both of which require them to be open to the possibility that their preconceptions are wrong.

As early as the introduction, we get strong indications that Blanchard might not be speaking to atheists after all. In a bid to pin down terminology right from the start, he decides to define atheism in a way that would be unrecognizable to most people who call themselves atheists. First, he defines theism with a list of fourteen characteristics that add up to Christianity (p21). Fair enough.

Then he defines atheism as everything else.


I challenge Blanchard to produce a Muslim, a Hindu, or a Mormon who is willing to self-identify as an atheist. I challenge him to produce a self-identified atheist who group their beliefs in common with Muslims, Hindus, and Mormons, but not with Christians.

If we define God in the way I have suggested, our second proposition, which says that most people in the world are atheists, comes into play. (p23)

So Blanchard is consciously setting up a Christians-against-the-world picture of religion and atheism.

Let’s set aside this staggering redefinition of terms, and look at what he says about humanism in particular.

Blanchard relates the tale of Galileo being forced by the Roman Catholic church to recant on the Copernican heliocentric model of the solar system. He correctly notes that it’s commonly repeated in atheist circles. Why do we rehearse this story so often?

This story is worth telling because it is sometimes used by humanists to argue that science gets rid of God. (p157)

No. Its most common (and entirely appropriate) use in humanist contexts is to demonstrate how belief in God has been used as an excuse to impede science and to deny or ignore the physical evidence. Another point of the Galilean drama is that science offers natural explanations for things that had previously been attributed to God. That is, it makes unbelief more plausible. It does not make unbelief necessary.

On to modern secular humanism …

In John Gerstner’s words, ‘secularism in simpler language is merely worldliness; or “this-worldliness” in contrast to “other-worldliness”. This one-world-at-a-time philosophy sees the future as an irrelevance, if not an impertinence. (p161)

Yes, secularism focuses on the world we experience rather than the world some imagine might come later. How does that bit about the future come in? I can only imagine that he’s referring to the afterlife. Well, the afterlife may be the most important part of the future to a theist, but to atheists there is still plenty of future that we are concerned about in this world, in this life.

It gets worse.

He goes through some of the articles from the 1973 Humanist Manifesto II. Now, as a humanist, I don’t necessarily agree with all of its statements (though I support the main themes). Blanchard seems to neglect the fact that, as a non-dogmatic worldview, humanism fosters a great variety among its adherents. The Manifesto is not a statement of faith – it is entirely unlike the 1910 statement of Five Fundamentals of Christian doctrine after which fundamentalists were originally named.

But setting that aside, what does Blanchard have to say about the content of the Manifesto?

He quotes the first article of the Manifesto:

We find insufficient evidence for the existence of a supernatural; it is either meaningless or irrelevant to the question of the survival and fulfilment of the human race.

Okay, I agree with that, though a negative statement is not what I would put first. I am not, as a humanist, primarily concerned with any of the myriad things I don’t believe; I’m more interested in testing and applying those things that I do believe and value. But god-belief is relevant in that many people do believe in the supernatural, so communicating our position invariably includes pointing out how and why we differ.

Note, also, that the first article of the Manifesto is four paragraphs long. His quote is picked from the middle of the second paragraph. How does this article begin, you might wonder?

In the best sense, religion may inspire dedication to the highest ethical ideals. The cultivation of moral devotion and creative imagination is an expression of genuine “spiritual” experience and aspiration.

Such an olive branch contradicts Blanchard’s general theme of selfish and anti-religious humanists. Why might he ignore this important bit of text in one of his chosen sources on humanist attitudes?

Instead, he mentions Ludovic Kennedy, a humanist who, in 1997, was working on a book to “definitively disprove the existence of God”, and then declares, “The non-existence of God is not being floated as a possibility, or as a theory which is open to discussion or examination; it is being asserted as an article of faith.”

There are probably some humanists who, like Kennedy, are sure that there is no God. Not so many as Blanchard seems to assume, I think. Certainly, the Manifesto implies nothing of the sort. Even arch-atheist Richard Dawkins, in his most polemic book, The God Delusion, declares himself only about a 6 on a scale from 1 (strong theist) to 7 (strong atheist): “I’d be surprised to meet many people in category 7, but I include it for symmetry with category 1, which is well populated.” (p51) Note also that, in that book, Dawkins does discuss and examine the hypothesis of a god’s existence, as have many writers before him. Contra Blanchard, it is a theory being subjected, by humanists, to empirical enquiry, and not an article of faith.

(Blanchard’s book came out several years before The God Delusion, so it would be unfair of me to criticize him for not noticing this particular comment of Dawkins. However, Dawkins’ declaration makes one wonder to what extent even the most vocal atheists fit Blanchard’s caricature of dogmatic unbelief. I mention Dawkins because he is a high-profile atheist, and thus the sort of person that even a haphazard researcher like Blanchard might come across when forming his opinions. Blanchard is clearly not talking about him. He is clearly not talking about me – I’m a 5 or 6 on Dawkins’ scale, for what it’s worth. I wonder what atheists he thinks he is talking about?)

What does Blanchard make of the second article in the Manifesto? Here is the bit he quotes:

As far as we know, the total personality is a function of the biological organism transacting in a social and cultural context.

Blanchard manages to reduce this statement to “humans are just machines”, which is a good metaphor when used responsibly, but is a gross distortion of what the Manifesto is saying here. Then he raises the observation that we have not created a machine that is very much like a human, as if that refutes the idea presented in the Manifesto (or his distortion of it). If the irrelevance of his observation is not crashingly obvious to you, please let me know in the comments and we can address it.

I could go on, but I think the whole line of irksome misunderstandings Blanchard commits can be summed up in one line. In this passage, he has just asserted that the idea of “truth” becomes meaningless if the mind contemplating it is “just a machine”.

No humanist has yet been able to produce a credible response to that.” (p168)

He seems to feel roughly the same about every major tenet of humanism that he comes across.

Here’s the problem: Blanchard hasn’t been trying to find humanists’ credible responses. Or at least, he’s not reporting them. Throughout this section (and the one on evolution), what we see is Blanchard reading a text with an eye always on finding the flaw in the humanist’s or the biologist’s perspective, but always failing to see what people – the evolutionary biologists or the humanists – actually believe (or even say).

Next up: Does Blanchard understand other religions?

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6 Responses to “Does Blanchard understand humanism? (3 of 5)”

  1. ninetysixandten Says:

    Hi Tim,I started a reply to this a while ago but my power supply gave out before I could save it, so this will be a bit less polished than i'd have originally intended.Wanted to start off by picking up on the so-called staggering redefinition of terms. Think you might be underestimating the signficance of the fact that Blanchard is writing specifically as a Christian apologist, and, from the little I know of him, from the standpoint of a fairly robust form of Christianity which defies definition in terms of a vague deism or theism and should rather be identified as worshipping the one and only God who exists. Whether or not people self-identify as atheists, if they don't believe in the one God who exists, whatever they worship it is to all practical (or at least soteriological) purposes equivalent to being an atheist with respect to the one true God. (As one of your own poets, I believe, has said.) Christianity (in the form that I and presumably Blanchard commit to) is a thoroughly exclusive religion – one God, one Mediator between God and men, one Lord, one faith, one way of salvation – this has always been the orthodox position, and is presumably all that Blanchard was intending to reflect by this apparently startling way of framing the discussion.But also wanted to say re the non-existence of God as an article of faith. It sounds awfully magnanimous of you to draw the distinction between believing there is no God and not believing there is a God (if you'll accept that as a paraphrase of this argument and what you've said in another recent post), and to say that most humanists (atheists?) are not 7-point strong atheists. But in reality, the way that that (secular) humanism-vs-christianity discussions typically proceed is by throwing the onus on Christians to prove that God exists – the starting presupposition is always either that he does not exist, and/or that his existence must be proven through empirical study. If I was to claim that my presupposition is that God does exist and demand of you as a (secular?) humanist that the onus is on you to disprove his existence, would it not be fairly easy to predict that your response will be either that his existence has been scientifically disproven many times, or that you await proof of an empirical nature before you will commit to accepting his existence. If this is true, either of yourself in particular or humanists/atheists in the general, then really Blanchard's point stands – whatever lip-service secular humanists pay to the benefits of religion (olive-branches you call it 🙂 ) the day-to-day reality of life as a humanist, and humanist discussion with Christians, is premised foursquare on the non-existence of God-as-Christians-know-him. (The rather closely related leap of faith in the ability of empirical enquiry to adjudicate on such metaphysical questions is something else I'd love to go into but will leave to one side for brevity's sake for the time being.)I also finally & briefly have to quibble with your response to Blanchard's challenge to humanists to produce a credible response – *obviously* as a Christian he doesn't find humanism credible – but more than that, my (to date brief) acquaintance with this book leaves me with the overwhelming impression that it is peppered throughout with citations from a vast spectrum of humanist and/or atheist texts. I'm not convinced that it's fair to say he is unacquainted with or fails to present what they have to say – although obviously it's perfectly understandable that you would disagree with how effectively he has refuted them. The flaws that he exposes in the humanist's perspective are pretty much (from what i've seen) the problems that make it deeply unattractive to me as a philosophy – if i can say such a thing, it's almost too easy a response to say he just doesn't understand. Such, in brief, was roughly what I think I wanted to say the first time round!

  2. Timothy Mills Says:

    Cath, thanks for taking the time (twice) to write out your thoughts. I'll take your points one at a time.First, I certainly accept Blanchard's and your right to define terms as they make the most sense to you. I think I read somewhere that early Christians were called atheists by the Greeks and Romans, because they did not believe in the gods most people believed in at the time – so this "us versus them" use of the term has long precedent. But one of Blanchard's aims is to engage folks like me – to make us reconsider our beliefs and his. By using a definition that nobody outside his particular belief system would currently recognize or accept, he is failing to engage us. That was the point of my criticism – from my perspective, as a key part of Blanchard's intended audience, he is radically altering the definition of the term "atheist". (This shouldn't be too surprising after my post on the definitions of atheism.)On the non-belief thing, my life is not in any way premised on the non-existence of God. I try to live the positive affirmations of humanism – the value and dignity of human life and the beauty and sacredness of truth (especially as revealed by the scientific method). I follow these while neither actively believing nor actively disbelieving in "God-as-Christians-know-him". Surely you recognize the difference between declaring a proposition to be false and withholding judgment. The former is a position that should be backed up with good evidence, while the latter is a reasonable default position in the absence of compelling evidence either way.Discussions (especially debates) between humanists and Christians have a tendency to become polarized around the points we disagree on – especially the likelihood of God's existence. So it is understandable that a Christian I sometimes lock horns with has the impression that my life is all about the absence of god-belief. But it isn't, and neither are the lives of most nonbelievers.On your last point, I honestly don't expect Blanchard to be persuaded by the humanist position before I'll take him seriously. But I've demonstrated that he hasn't even managed to understand the humanist position. He's building a straw man based on apparently sloppy readings of humanist literature. You are right that his text is peppered with references. But, from my perspective, he is not carefully reading those references; he is not trying to see the intent of the writers. He is just quote-mining. He takes a section of (say) the Humanist Manifesto, interprets it to fit his preconceptions, and ignores the context that contradicts his interpretation.I don't know whether he is doing this consciously or unconsciously. As humans, our existing beliefs and attitudes exert a powerful influence on how we interpret ideas we are exposed to, and I think that with the best intent, a Christian could very easily read into Humanist writings the sort of things Blanchard is asserting. But, as someone who is attempting to actually engage humanists, Blanchard needs to do more than just report his initial impressions. He needs to actually understand what humanists believe – what they mean when they say things. He fails to do this, and so fails to engage me. My posts on his book are an attempt to point out where and how he does so.I am not saying that a more balanced and careful assessment of humanism would change his ultimate position (I don't think it would). Nor am I criticising the Christian worldview that Blanchard is promoting.Just as you correct me when I mis-state a point of Christian life (for which I am very grateful), I am seeking to correct Blanchard on his mis-statements of the worldview that I identify with. Or at least, to point out why his arguments are misleading for the benefit of anyone who may come across similar arguments in the future.

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