The following definition of a humanist was given by Andrew Copson

As a humanist I try:

• To be rational, looking to science in an attempt to understand the universe

• To be ethical, acting in a way that puts human welfare at the centre of morality

• To recognise the dignity of every individual and treat them with respect

• To find meaning and fulfilment in this one life and help others to do the same

As a Christian, I'm not sure that I would disagree with any of those statements, and I suspect are all fully compatible with all Chalcedonian Christian doctrines and practice.

Even the last point, which is probably the most controversial, is, to my mind, fully biblical. When Jesus says, "I come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly," it seems really, really close to this. (Admittedly, the implication of "this one life" is, I am guessing the rejection of an afterlife, but that is something I could be reading into it.)

In fact, my initial reaction is to argue that standard Christian practice should embrace all four of these points. Of course, in fronting that, I want proof.

The question is this - Would a Christian own all four of these points, and if so, why. If not, why not?

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    Christianity doesn't put "human welfare at the center of morality," but instead puts God at the center of morality. In some pragmatic sense, those may be indistinguishable in many cases, as Christianity believes God has a great concern for human welfare.
    – Flimzy
    Feb 19, 2012 at 5:20
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    Where I think this list most clearly falls short of Christianity is in the last bullet point. It states a goal of "find[ing] meaning and fulfillment", but (perhaps intentionally) doesn't talk about where meaning or fulfillment come from. Christianity is all about where this meaning and fulfillment come from. That doesn't mean this list is "incompatible" with Christianity, but it is at least an important distinguishing factor, IMO.
    – Flimzy
    Feb 19, 2012 at 5:32
  • I think I found where the list came from (and I believe I mentioned that it was Andrew Copson's list): guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2012/feb/02/… Maybe you would identify even more with the first card? Feb 19, 2012 at 9:56
  • Actually, I like this one from the comments: "The Free Presbyterian card would be: You are damned, So am I, but I know it." Feb 19, 2012 at 10:00
  • @Flimzy Theistic Christianity believes that God has a great concern for human welfare, yes. Non-theistic Christianity has no such belief since, well, it's not theistic (that's not to say that non-theistic Christianity does not itself have a great concern for human welfare, of course; just that a god plays no part in it).
    – Steely Dan
    Feb 19, 2012 at 20:13

3 Answers 3


I think the incompatibility between the two philosophies is obvious from their names:

  • Human-ism
  • Christ-ianity

Each tells us right in its name the value it considers most central and important.

However, looking at the list, I think there is enough common ground for someone to be a Christian Humanist (just as some claim to be Christian Pacifists or Christian Hedonists). A Christian would insist that Christ is central and of ultimate importance, but still hold the Humanist values with minor modifications:

As a Christian humanist I try:

  • To be rational, looking to science in an attempt to understand the universe
  • To be ethical, acting in a way that puts human welfare second only to loving God
  • To recognise the dignity of every individual and treat them with respect
  • To find meaning and fulfilment in this one life and help others to do the same

As a Christian, I'd certainly want to expand and clarify these points, but only the second (on ethics) requires a change to shift the center from humanity to God. As a practical matter, Jesus calls us to love him by loving each other:

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’—Matthew 25:34-40 (ESV)

Wikipedia suggests:

Christian humanism may have begun as early as the 2nd century, with the writings of St. Justin Martyr, an early theologian-apologist of the early Christian Church. While far from radical, Justin suggested a value in the achievements of Classical culture in his Apology. Influential letters by Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa confirmed the commitment to using pre-Christian knowledge, particularly as it touched the material world. Already the formal aspects of Greek philosophy, namely syllogistic reasoning, arose in both the Byzantine Empire and Western European circles in the eleventh century to inform the process of theology. However, the Byzantine hierarchy during the reign of Alexios I Komnenos (1081–1118) convicted several thinkers of applying "human" logic to "divine" matters. Peter Abelard's work encountered similar ecclesiastical resistance in the West in the same period. Petrarch (1304–1374) is also considered a father of humanism. The traditional teaching that humans are made in the image of God, or in Latin the Imago Dei, also supports individual worth and personal dignity.

So there is some reason to say that the two views are not entirely incompatible, but not in a state of peace either. Christian thinkers have long struggled with the integration of their faith with the society at large.


To answer the question directly:

The important point in the 4th item is "this one life": meaning - we shouldn't be looking to some reward/punishment in some promised afterlife (or: staus in reincarnation, for some religions) to justify or rationalise our actions in this life. Rather, we should do things because they are reasonable/ethical things to do, and because we enjoy them in this life. Essentially "No, Mr. Pascal, we do not agree with your conclusion to your wager/gambit". A brilliant example of this is the archbishop of Canterbury, 1965:

a nuclear war would involve nothing more than the transition of many millions of people into the love of God, only a few years before they were going to find it anyway

To the Humanist this is abhorrent. The destruction of everything is not to be celebrated, and no effort should be spared in denying such a horrific end from occurring. Sadly there genuinely are people (of all religions) who actively seek to bring about their own traditional "end of days" scenario. I've seen enough people, even here, excited by "won't it be great" and "isn't it good that it will be soon" to be very concerned about that eagerness spilling over into... manufacted world death.

The third is tricky - this may also include those who practice things that your beliefs don't agree with. Now, many Christians are great with this. But sadly many others aren't (I could point to things like Westboro Baptist Church). I don't believe for one moment that this is a single brush to tar all with: but - it is real and exists all too commonly.

(rephrased) Another issue with human value is the slightly thorny issue of "total depravity", which might be expressed that people are universally wicked, and that only by following the stated path (which path. exactly varies between sections) can people earn redemption. Whether this is faith/acts/both/etc I won't ponder; however, this conflicts with the Humanist position of emphasing first the value and worth of all. The positive, rather than the negative.

Flimzy notes the flaw in the second; putting God at the centre vs putting humanity at the centre.

The first comes down to how you interpret "rational". In the context used, it is meaning "non-supernatural". This isn't me saying "all YEC are idiots!" (which I have been accused of implying before): it is simply saying that - given something we don't yet know, assuming a supernatural origin is not the rational (meaning: based on scientific-method, deductive logic, etc) / natural thing to do. You are, of course, welcome to do so, and many have looked at ways to satisfy themselves that this is reasonable. I would argue that in the context used, supernatural beliefs (without evidence etc) are the opposite of the way that line means "rational". I think this is neatly summarised by I tweet I once saw:

Dear Religion, Pics or it didn't happen. Love, Science.

Actually, a big point here is the "h". If you mean small-h humanism, then yes: there are various Christian humanist movements. If you mean, as I was referring to, big-H Humanism, then that is referring to secular Humanism, which explicitly does not give any special meaning to religious beliefs. In particular, it (wiki) applies:

specifically rejecting supernatural and religious dogma as a basis of morality and decision-making.

I honestly haven't ever considered whether one can be Humanist and Christian at the same time; I don't really think so; Humanism respects the believer and fully defends the right to believe - but doesn't give credence to the supernatural beliefs themselves. Which is typically exactly how Christianity feels about virtually every other belief, so we're not in hugely different places there (I say "virtually", because it gets a bit wooly re Islam and Judaesm and the OT).

Perhaps the bigger issue is: how do you look to find explanations for the unknown? If you look the the Bible (creation, Noah, Babel, resurrected messiah, etc) then that is fundamentally at odds with Humansim, which looks strictly to ... er... (picks words carefully) "research that looks only to strongly verifiable evidence" rather than "tenacious tales, of uncertain, unverifiable, faith-based, belief".

That said: one could well be a Christian who is pro-secular in terms of public policy (and in fact, a MORI survey in the UK indeed showed that the majority of UK citizens who identified as Christian feel this way - of course, it also showed that the majority of the same set of self-identified Christians were actually non-religious cultural Christians).

Re compatibility: if your decision making doesn't make (emph) any (/emph) consideration of your religious beliefs, then I would propose you aren't actively applying Christianity in your daily life. In many ways Christianity is pretty easy-going in terms of daily life (contrast the strictness of Judaism or Islam, for example) - so this distinction is quite subtle.

I should also emphasise that that list is not "mine" - it is, as I believe I mentioned at the time. I'm sure the actual list is searchable - IIRC it was a response to a Christian membership-card. What I think the list does show is that Humanism does focus on ethics, fairness/equality, and the value of the person. This is not unreasonable.

Perhaps the acid test is simple (the following is mine - quoted only for emphasis):

Your chosen supernatural-inspired religious text states (without reasons), categorically, clearly and without room for confusion, that activity X is Wrong with a big W. do you:

  1. accept this, and actively seek out to undo all X
  2. accept this, and not participate in X
  3. accept this, but (if you happen to like X) do X anyway, knowing that it conflicts, but that "in balance" you're OK; maybe feel a bit guilty and embarrassed, secretive, maybe depressed, as a result; alternatively and equally - deny yourself X and feel repressed
  4. ignore this, and participate, or not (as you choose) in X, since the text is of no importance
  5. ignoring the supernatural aspect, look to understand X, and where this may have come from; is there an underlying reason that avoiding X benefits society? Or perhaps benefited society at that time? Is this a hangover of an early culture, with the culture biases of the time? Is there a valid and fair reason to deny X now (again, supernatural aside)? If we assume human origin, was there perhaps political/personal gain behind this law? (Important:) If there is no logical argument to deny X, then actively seek to challenge those that enforce X on purely supernatural grounds, even when X has (by history) been absorbed into law (human law can, after all, be changed - it takes time, though)

The first three would seem to be compatible with Christianity (orthodox to liberal, in order); the fourth seems rather hedonistic on the surface; the fifth is the Humanist position. It certainly doesn't use "God" as a definition of morality (or, if you prefer, "ethics" - although it is primarily religion that distinguishes the two terms).

  • You say that you don't want to tar everyone with the same brush, but then throw in that ridiculous quote by the Archbishop of Canterbury with no opposing example, to make it appear as if this was some sort of widespread Christian doctrine. As a counterpoint, you ought to have a look at what the Book of Mormon has to say about the eternal implications of wide-scale deaths in war, and the appropriate attitude to have on the subject. Canterbury's portrayal is an immense and highly unfortunate oversimplification.
    – Mason Wheeler
    Feb 19, 2012 at 20:57
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    @Mason something by a high ranking church official is not a "ridiculous" quote. I do accept it is not universal either. Perhaps it just further illustrates that many "Christian views" are actually primarily the private/local views of Christian individuals. Which is not the same thing. Feb 19, 2012 at 21:55
  • @Marc: Wait... what? How does someone of high rank having said it make it not ridiculous? (Check out pretty much everything George W. Bush ever said in front of a camera since he began his first presidential campaign.) If anything, being of high rank makes it even more ridiculous, as there's a certain expectation of intelligence and competence that goes along with the station.
    – Mason Wheeler
    Feb 19, 2012 at 22:30
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    @MasonWheeler thank you for the LDS link. In truth, I've only read small parts of the book of Mormon (all the "verily" etc does make it tough going :p); but an interesting and relevant choice of link. Feb 19, 2012 at 23:14
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    Even those such as myself that espouse Total Depravity don't equate depravity with worthlessness. No mater how broken and even evil our choice to sin has made us, we are still created in the image of God and it would be a dis-service to call something worthless that God has explicitly said has value to him.
    – Caleb
    Feb 20, 2012 at 0:07

Just as a note (and I, personally, find it the most problematic of the humanist position), but this quote cannot, in any way, be reconciled with Christian thought:

To be ethical, acting in a way that puts human welfare at the centre of morality

As a Christian, human welfare cannot be at the center of your morality. The first and greatest commandment, the ground of the Christian's morality, is, instead, the love of God.

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    +1, I think you're hitting at the core of the issue with this. I'd love to see you expand it, because you're right that God needs to be at the center and not man- but there should still be some explanation of where human welfare fits... Feb 19, 2012 at 22:00
  • Stop removing my comments and calling them "unconstructive" when they're clearly not. cwallenpoole's statement from a theistic Christian perspective, but belief in a god is not universal among Christians; therefore, the answer should specify the particular Christian perspective within which it is written. That's all I said. There was zero valid reason to remove it, which is why I just reposted it.
    – Steely Dan
    Feb 20, 2012 at 4:59
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    @SteelyDan: Surely Christ himself believed in God, which is why he put loving God as the first commandment and loving others as a close second. That's the (very valid) point cwallenpoole seems to be making. It sounds like you ought to provide a competing answer rather taking potshots in the comments. Feb 20, 2012 at 5:11
  • My comment was that not all Christians believe in a god, and so cwallenpoole should have specified that his/her answer was from a specifically theistic Christian perspective rather than a Christian perspective. And no, I do not believe that the Christ believed in a god or that he ever put "loving God" as the first commandment. But that's beside the point. I was merely suggesting that cwallenpoole's answer should have indicated the particular perspective on Christianity (in this case, theistic) which informs it so as to not leave one with the impression that this is a universal view.
    – Steely Dan
    Feb 20, 2012 at 5:14
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    @SteelyDan: It's foolish to complain that the answer is from a "theistic Christian" perspective, since the text of the answer is quite clear on that point. What else can insisting on putting "love of God" at the center of morality mean? I urge you to supply a competing answer, if you assert that Jesus was essentially a humanist. There really is no point in discussing what Christ did or did not believe in the comments and the best way to obtain the full range of Christian thought is to have a full range of answers to the question. Feb 20, 2012 at 6:41

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