The History of Humanism

By Ron Halbrook

Who and what is this monster of so-called “Humanism”? It is Satan appearing as an angel of light, whispering to the heart of man, “Ye shall be as gods – you need no one higher than yourself!” This is the same old sin and rebellion against God. It is atheism, a denial of God and o His authority over man. Man repeats with stupid monotony the experiment of trying to understand himself and the world around him through his own wisdom – without God. Humanism makes Man the measure of all things and puts him on the throne in the place of God. Humanism is idolatry. It worships and serves the creature and the creation rather than the Creator.

But God is still on His throne! We are not frantic or forlorn in the face of this new foe. He is only the old foe in new dress. We rise to meet the challenge of Humanism with confidence in God and in the power of His Word. One person with God can chase a thousand enemies of truth “and two put ten thousand to flight” because “their rock is not as our Rock, even our enemies themselves being judges . . . . The eternal God is thy refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms: and he shall thrust out the enemy from before thee; and shall say, Destroy them” (Deut. 32:30-31; 33:27). “Greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world , * , . For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 Jn. 4:4; 5:4-5).

Bible Humanism Starts With God

The Bible teaches the only true “humanism” if the term means genuine love for man and an understanding of his origin, nature, duty, happiness, and destiny. All of this is rooted in God Himself. God not only created man but also created him “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:2627). Like his maker, man has the capacity to love. Man’s duty, happiness, and destiny are bound up in two primary principles: Man with his whole being is to love God and to love his neighbor as himself (Matt. 22:34-40; Rom. 13:8-10). As creatures made for eternity, the highest good we can do is to serve God, to save our own soul, and to save the souls of lost sinners. When Christ died for our sins, He showed us the way to true greatness – in serving God and our fellow man (Heb. 5:8-9; Mk. 10:43-45). The Bible blesses humanity by teaching with unequalled power the spirit of unselfish service (Matt. 25:31-46; Jn. 13:1-17; Rom. 12:9-13:10; Gal. 6:1-10; Ja. 1:22-27; 3:14-16; 1 Jn. 3:1418; 4:7-21).

Secular Humanism Excludes God

Secular humanism is, at its heart, atheism. Human reason, material values, and secular or temporal concerns are emphasized to the exclusion of God, spiritual values, and eternity. That attitude toward life is not the property of a monolithic organization taking over America all of a sudden, but is the common property and logical end of a civilization moving further away from God into a state of decay. Myriad are the movements and men who have mesmerized our world with this message of human idolatry. How did our society get to this point?

The current movement of secular humanism is just another rising of the tide of unbelief such as ebbs and flows throughout history. Why is the tide running so high now? The men and movements which have questioned God, the Bible, and Jesus Christ for 400 years in Western Civilization, especially for the last 100 years in America, sometimes in the name of religion, have all contributed to this emergence of widespread humanism. We shall briefly sketch some representative trends.

The Renaissance of 1350-1650 was a transition from medieval to modern history stimulated by the rediscovery of the classical treasures of ancient Greeks and Romans. Educated and affluent classes focused their interests less on the corporate structure of the Church (i.e. Roman Catholicism) and more on the individual person. This classical Humanism seen first in Italy was soon matched north of the Alps by religious Humanists such as Erasmus (1466-1536) who shared the desire for original sources, discontent with inherited traditions, and hostility to existing structures. Here, increasing emphasis on morals, ethics, and Bible study in the original languages led to the Reformation era of 1500-1650. The influences of Renaissance and Reformation trickled down to less educated and affluent classes when men like John Wycliff (d. 1384) and Martin Luther (1483-1546) put the Bible into the hands of the common man in his native tongue.

Decadent Religion Feeds Secular Humanism

While religious reform spread, so did over-reactions against the superstition and corruption of Catholicism. People who equated “Christianity” with “Catholicism” sometimes rejected even the Bible and were left with nothing but their own intellect. Because so many people in Europe looked to their own mind for light, the 1700s may be called the Age of Reason. This rationalism contributed to Deism, which held to God while rejecting the Bible as a special revelation, Jesus as divine, and all miracles. It was represented by Voltair (1694-1778) in France, David Hume (1711-76) in Scotland, and Thomas Paine (1737-1809) in America along with our founding fathers Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Other rationalists were skeptics and atheists. Writers like William Paley (1743-1805) in England and L. Gaussen (1790-1863) of Geneva defended the evidences of Christianity and inspiration of Scripture. French liberalism, English rationalism, and secular and political concerns made America extremely irreligious during and after the Revolutionary War.

From the turn of the century until the War Between the States (1861-65), America experienced a series of religious revivals although Unitarianism and other rationalist and liberal ideas persisted. But tendencies toward rationalism, materialism, secularism, atheism, and worship of “the scientific method” in nineteenth century Europe were soon to hit America like a tidal wave. False and decadent religion strongly contributed to theferment of doubt and disbelief in God. It is amazing how many of the spokesmen who arose against Bible principles were raised in some “branch” of Judaism or Christendom. That includes Karl Marx (1818-1883) and F. Engels (1820-1895) who in the Communist Manifesto debunked all religion as “the opium of the people.” Several Frenchmen like Saint-Simon and Comte envisioned a secular “religion” blending science, socialism, and humanism to give the world unending progress. Others like Godwin in England, Proudhon in France, and Bakunin in Russia offered progress through anarchy – annihilation of God and the State. German philosophers like Schopenhauer, Feuerback, and Nietzsche pronounced God dead and pointed to a coming perfect race.

Evolution Feeds Secular Humanism

Secular humanism with its naturalist bent gained great momentum everywhere when an Anglican-turned-agnostic named Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published his hypothesis of evolution. First a scientific theory, by the later 1800s it was being applied to all social and political institutions and offered as the explanation for the origin of religion from natural sources. Everything supernatural – God, the Bible, Jesus Christ, the creation account, miracles, etc. evolved from ancient myths and legends. Such ideas were popularized by English writers T.M. Huxley (1825-95) and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) along with the American politician Robert Ingersoll (1833-99) and the University of Chicago educator John Dewey (1859-1952).

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century the faith of many Americans began to crack under the pressures of the Industrial Revolution, labor movements, urbanization, waves of immigration, political ferment, and other social changes. Just as had happened during the American Revolution, God was taking second place in many quarters to secular and material concerns. Growing acceptance of naturalism contributes to spiritual decay but is also the symptom of decay already in progress. Just as the gospel requires fertile ground, all forms of unbelief including secularism and naturalism require hearts which are open to the particular message. Unbelief feeds upon itself.

Liberalism Feeds Secular Humanism

Many religious leaders tried to patch their own and their hearer’s cracking faith with the mortar of compromise. The traditional view of Scripture as an infallible revelation underwent such a revolution that the crucial period of 1875-1900 was a turning point comparable to the Reformation itself. With the validity of the Bible at stake, several varieties of liberalism arose as efforts to draw the line somewhere between an infallible Bible and atheism. But the poison of rationalism, naturalism, and secularism were in every pot of liberal compromise. Much of American religion tilted on an angle in the direction of secular humanism during 1875-1900 and has been sliding more and more in the same direction ever since.

Popular preachers – Henry Ward Beecher (1813-87), Phillip Brooks (1835-93), Lyman Abbott (1835-1922), and Washington Gladden (1836-1918) – rode the new tide of evolutionary thought and helped reduce Christianity to a benign form of religious humanism. The effort of German philosophers, historians, and biblical critics to peel away all myths and to find some kernel of truth in Christianity had great impact on American religious leaders such as A.C. McGiffert, C.A. Briggs, and W.R. Harper, President of the University of Chicago. In the place of true and false religions, Hegel put a dialectical process of ever evolving truths. Schleiermacher made experience rather than doctrine the essence of all truth; all religions may share in it. Baur saw God in all creeds and dogmas, Ritschl found values in each individual’s moral judgments, and Harnack peeled off the miracles and deity of Jesus only to find a few humanistic principles.

Just as naturalism dictated the inner thought of liberal religion, secularism dictated the liberal’s plan of action and vision of the future. Liberal preachers and churches committed their resources to the vision of a secular kingdom of God on earth. The Social Gospel offered a whole gamut of solutions for industrial, urban, and political problems. While working toward the great society, churches offered services for every aspect of the carnal man – food, lodging, education, child care, medicine, and recreation.

World War I chastened the optimism and progressivism of the Social Gospel, but the slide toward secular things in the name of religion continues today. Liberalism was proclaimed and popularized by Harry Emerson Fosdick until recently. In this century, the Germans Barth and Brunner along with the Niebuhr brothers in America called upon liberals to find some objective word from God in Scripture. But their Neo-orthodoxy retained such biblical criticism and naturalism, and gave way to the radical secular theologies of the 1960s. The Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy over the Bible and evolution had its roots in the 1890s, received great publicity in the 1920s, and continues today. Einstein’s theory of relativity in physics was borrowed in the 1920s to bolster liberalism’s theory of relativity in morals and religion. About the same time, American society became fascinated with Freud’s naturalistic claim that all human behavior – including the conscience and religion can be explained in terms of sex drives.

A Decadent Society Feeds Secular Humanism

Twentieth century man is ripe for secular humanism. He is made ripe by the self-confidence and affluence generated by industrial and technological revolutions. Science has replaced God as man’s benefactor. The emptiness of liberal religion has betrayed man into the hands of secular humanism with its naturalism and atheism. The convulsions of the 1960s revealed a tremendous shift in moral and religious attitudes. Historians recognize that the strongest force in “this steady rise of religious anti-traditionalism” is “a growing commitment to . . . naturalism or “secularism… and increasing doubt about the supernatural (Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, p. 1087). The “death of God” and birth of secular religion have been popularized in the mass media, as have situation ethics, the 44new morality,” and permissiveness. Polls have shown for fifty years that preachers often reject the basic teaching of the Bible and that most young people have sex before marriage. The shallow vaporings of Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller are a cruel joke in the face of our decadent society!

Nietzsche wrote in 1886, “The greatest event of recent times – that ‘God is Dead’, that the belief in the Christian God is no longer tenable – is beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe” (Johnson, Modern Times, p. 48). The shadows are lengthening in modern America. The Humanist Manifestoes (1933, 1973) and Secular Humanist Declaration (1980) deny God, the Bible, Jesus Christ, the soul, salvation, hell, and moral absolutes. The acceptance of Satan’s lie that man can be his own god is a sign of decay. It is sin. It works death. The darker the darkness of sin grows, the brighter the light of the gospel of Christ shines if we will but preach it (Phil. 2:15-16)!

Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 13, pp. 387, 406-407
July 5, 1984