Science in Christian Perspective



Humanism, Morality, and the Meaning of Life: Some Clarifications
David Basinger
Roberts Wesleyan College
Rochester, New York 14624

From: JASA 34 (September 1982): 172-175.

What do Catholic theologian Hans Kung, neo-orthodox theologian Emil Brunner, evangelical apologist Francis Schaeffer, Jewish theologian Martin Buber, analytic philosopher Richard Purtill and atheistic existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre all have in common? Each, along with numerous other theists and nontheists, has claimed that atheistic humanism in some sense leads to meaninglessness.

But what is the actual claim here? And is it true? The purpose of this paper is to analyze various interpretations of this contention. I shall conclude that, in its most apologetically significant sense(s), the claim that life in a godless world is meaningless is by no means a settled issue.

The basic argument for the "meaninglessness" of humanism is summarized well by Sartre:

The existentialist is strongly opposed to a certain kind of secular ethic (which says that) nothing will change if God does not exist, (that) we shall find ourselves with the same norms of honesty, progress, and humanism ... The existentialist, on the contrary, thinks it is very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears with him; there can no longer be an apriori Good, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. Nowhere is it written that Good exists, that we must be honest, that we must not lie; because the fact is we are on a plane where there are only men, Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him or without does he find anything to cling to.1

This argument seems initially plausible to many, but both of Sartre's basic contentions are in need of further analysis. Is it true that if there is no God, there can be no absolute (objective) values?2 That is, is it true that Morality in a godless universe must be considered totally relative? And is it true that if there exist no absolute values, life for the atheist humanist can have no enduring sense of meaning?

Moral Relativism

When claiming that atheistic humanism "leads to" moral relativism, theists are not claiming that most humanists do not in fact believe any moral principles to be absolute. In fact, just the opposite is true. Following the lead of C. S. Lewis, many theists have wished to argue that one of the strongest rational arguments for God's existence can be built on the fact that certain basic moral principles are (and have been) universally affirmed.3 The claim is rather that the atheistic humanist has no justifiable (rational) basis for maintaining that any moral principle is absolute.

One popular, initially plausible argument for this contention can be stated as follows.4 In a godless universe, all moral principles have their basis in human thought. But if there is no God, human thought is either the result of deterministic electro-chemical processes in the brain-i.e., the result of mindless forces-or the result of an "indetermisitic" mental process that has its untimate evolutionary basis in the chance permutations of some basic, nonpersonal stuff. In short, if there is no God, all moral principles "come either from chance permutations of some basic stuff or from the working of mindless forces."' But surely there exists no rational basis for affirming that any moral principle which comes either from chance permutations or mindless forces is absolute. It follows, accordingly, that in a godless universe all moral principles must be considered relative.

The proponent of this argument is certainly correct on one point. If there is no God, human thought does have its origin in some basic stuff which is irrational. Does this necessarily mean however, as the proponent of this argument goes on to imply, that all human thought in a godless world must, itself, be considered irrational? I believe not.

Our actions, especially our interpersonal activities, leave little doubt that most of us as humans share a common assumption: the belief that we are self-conscious beings who (a) become aware of certain "empirical" and "psychological" data; (b) analyze, categorize and identify relationships among such data; (c) make "decisions" and act on the basis of this shared assumption that we normally label ourselves the "rational animal." The relevant question, then, is whether an atheistic humanist can be rational in this sense.

Now, of course, it may be difficult to explain how "rational mind" could have evolved from impersonal, inert matter (assuming this is what the atheist humanist contends). But the fact that such humanists may have no adequate causal explanation for man's rational capacity does not mean that the concept of rational thought in a godless world is incoherent (self-contradictory). Moreover, and more importantly, there seems to be no necessity to conceive of evolved rational mind in terms of the traditional dualistic mind/body distinction. Many theists and nontheists alike are beginning to conceive of the human, not as a combination of mental and physical substances, but as a single substance with "mental" and "physical" attributes.6 But once we stop thinking of the evolution of human reason as a progression from "matter" to "mind," the concept of rational thought in a godless world becomes somewhat less problematic. In short, I see no basis for denying that man could have the capacity to reason (in an acceptable sense of this term) in a godless universe.

There is, however, another popular argument for the relativity of nontheistic ethics that must be considered. If morality is solely the product of human thought, it is argued, then there can exist no justifiable basis for one human to claim that the standard of morality he affirms ought to be affirmed by all. Morality must of necessity be considered a purely subjective matter.7

In response to this contention, well-known humanist Kai Nielsen argues that

The nonexistence of God does not preclude the possibility of there being an objective standard on which to base (moral) judgments ... There are good reasons, of a perfectly mundane sort, why we should have the institution of morality as we now have if ... Morality has an objective rationale in complete independence of religion. Even if God is dead it does not really matter.7

But what is the "objective rationale" that is "independent of religion"? Such objectivity, Nielsen tells us, is founded on ethical statements such as "happiness is good" and "all persons should be treated fairly." Such statements are not only moral principles that most persons intuitively know to be true; they are principles which, if put into practice, are normally most advantageous for all involved.8

But suppose that it is pragmatically advantageous for an individual to treat other unfairly and he, therefore, does so. Or suppose that an individual does claim to have radically different moral intuitions. On what basis can such persons be judged morally wrong? Nielsen is aware of such difficulties. He admits that he cannot prove that happiness is good, arguing that he "can only appeal to your sense of psychological realism to persuade you to admit intellectually what in practice you acknowledge. 9 And he admits that he cannot prove that fairness is always the most advantageous principal to employ, but argues that "to be moral involves respecting (human) rights."'10 Or, as he phrases this point in his most recent discussion, unless such a priniple is affirmed, there can be -(no) understanding of the concept of morality, (no) understanding of what it is to take the moral point of view."11

Such reasoning is in one sense question-begging. Fundamental to his case is that we accept his "concept of morality" and "sense of psychological realism." But it is the objective validity of these very presuppositions that needs to be established. There is another sense, though, in which Nielsen's comments point the way to some helpful distinctions.

Nielsen is not defining "objectivity morality" in the manner it is usually defined by theists. For most theists, absolute (objective) moral principles are a priori statements that are true for all persons at all times in all places. For Nielsen, absolute moral principles are basically a posteriori statements which ought, on the basis of rational considerations, to be presently affirmed by humanity (or some relevant subset thereof). Thus, while most theists see "Thou shalt not kill" as a timeless truth that is affirmed by, but not founded on, human reasoning, Nielsen sees this moral principle as a truth that all individuals ought presently to affirm on the basis of rational thought.

But if this is all that atheistic humanists such as Nielsen mean when they claim to affirm an objective ethic, it might be argued that their ethical perspective is really quite relative-relative to the obvious variations in human thought and the amount of relevant empirical data being considered. In one sense, this is true. If moral principles are solely the product of human thought, then a certain amount of this type of relativity must be granted. But this fact alone does not mean that the atheistic humanist cannot affirm objective morality in a meaningful sense. If, given man's present thought patterns and common experiences, there do exist good reasons why humanity as a whole ought at present affirm certain moral principles, then morality is not totally relative to the beliefs or attitudes of each individual or group of individuals.

However, if there is no God-no omniscient, omnipotent moral guardian-why ought an individual always act in accordance with those principles which he believes to be most appropriate (morally acceptable) for mankind? Why, for example, should the atheistic humanist who believes that there are good reasons for humanity to affirm that lying is wrong not lie in those specific situations in which he believes it will be to his personal advantage to do so, even if he cannot give a rational justification for such "selective disobedience"? This is indeed a good question, one which rightly causes atheistic humanism some discomfort. But it is not strictly relevant. We are currently concerned with the question of whether the humanist has a rational basis for affirming objective moral norms. The question of whether the humanist can rationally justify total compliance with such norms is a related, but separate, issue. In fact, the latter question only arises if an affirmative answer to the former is assumed.12

Someone will surely argue at this point that to base morality on common elements in man's experience (or actions) is to confuse factual and moral issues-i.e., is to deduce unjustifiably that people ought to affirm certain moral norms solely from the descriptive truth that such norms are in fact affirmed. Nielsen is quick to respond to this charge.

We cannot deduce that people ought to do something from the discovering that they do it or seek it; nor can we conclude from the proposition that a being exists whom people call God that we ought to do whatever that being commands. In both cases we unjustifiably pass from a factual premise to a moral conclusion. Moral statements are not factual statements about what people seek or avoid, or about what a deity commands. But we do justify moral claims by an appeal to factual claims, and there is a close connection between what human beings desire on reflection and what they deem to be good.13

It seems to me that Nielsen is correct on two counts. One need only read William Frankena's rigorous discussions on the basis for objective morality to see that neither the theist nor nontheists can directly deduce an "ought" from an "is."14 And Nielsen is also correct in arguing that both theistic and nontheistic moral systems justify moral claims by appealing to factual statements-e.g., statements concerning the nature of God, shared human experiences or shared moral intuitions. Unfortunately, theists have not always recognized that they stand on equal footing with nontheists at this point. This fact, of course, in no way entails that nontheists do possess an objective moral standard. But a proper understanding of the common relationship between factual and moral statements in both theistic and nontheistic world-views might well cause the critic of atheistic humanism to reassess his beliefs concerning the source and nature of objective moral principles.

We must conclude then, I believe, that atheistic humanism does not necessarily entail moral relativism. It may well be that nontheistic ethical norms must be to some extent relative, and it may be that atheistic humanism offers little motivation for consistent compliance with such norms. But to establish the total relativity of nontheistic ethics, it must be demonstrated that there exists no rational basis for humanity (all rational individuals) to affirm any given moral norm, and this, I do not believe has been (or can be) done.

Meaning of Life

Let us assume for the sake of argument, however, that there can be no absolute values in a godless world. Does it then follow that life can have no true meaning for the atheistic humanist?

The claim that a state of affairs is meaningless can have at least three distinct basic readings. From a strictly logical perspective, a state of affairs is meaningless if, and only if, it is incoherent (a selfcontradictory concept). Given this reading, for example, while it is false to claim either that the moon is made of green cheese or that one has drawn a square circle, only the latter is a meaningless statement.

From a "metaphysical" perspective, a state of affairs is meaningless if it has no ultimate purpose in relation to the whole of which it is a part. This appears to be the intent in statements such as, "I know that taking liberal arts courses is enjoyable, but given the increasingly technological nature of our society, humanities degrees are becoming increasingly less meaningful," and "It is commendable for Americans to eat less meat, but given the true extent and nature of the world hunger problem, this sort of activity is not really very meaningful."

Finally, a state of affairs is sometimes said to be meaningless for a person if it brings him or her very little or no sense of personal fulfillment or satisfaction. This appears to be the intent in statements such as, "I never knew a relationship could be so meaningful," and "That was a meaningless discussion." 

Which reading does the theist have in mind when he claims that moral relativism leads to meaninglessness? Most argue at the very least that there can exist no metaphysical meaning in a godless world-i.e., that the atheistic humanist can affirm no ultimate, a priori purpose for the universe as a whole. Kung, for example, argues that "by denying God, man decides against an ultimate reason, support, and ultimate end of reality."12 This reading, however, has limited apologetical significance. Although it may be that some (or even most) nontheists need to be reminded of the ultimately irrational nature of a godless universe, we have seen that thoughtful atheistic humanists readily acknowledge this fact.

Many theists also wish to argue that, once the atheistic humanist realizes that there exists no metaphysical meaning in a godless world, he will no longer experience any personal meaning. Kung, for example, is also quite sympathetic to this contention.

If he becomes aware of it, the atheist is also exposed quite personally to the danger of an ultimate abandonment, menace and decay, resulting in doubt, fear, even despair. All this is true of course only if atheism is quite serious and not an intellectual pose, snobbish caprice or thoughtless superficiality. 16

Moreover, it appears to be this sense of meaninglessness which atheistic humanists such as Nielsen see the theistic critic in question utilizing.

When (moral relativity is) conceded, theologians are in a position to press home a powerful apologetic point: When we become keenly aware ... that life does not have a meaning which is to be found, but that we human beings must by our deliberate decisions give it whatever meaning it has, we will (as Satre so well understood) undergo estrangement and despair . . . without God there can be no one overarching purpose; no one basic scheme of human existence in virtue of which we could find a meaning for our grubby fives ... there are no purely human purposes ultimately worth striving for.17

However for the theist to attack atheistic humanism in this manner is problematic on two counts. First, although it may be the case that many humanists who recognize that there exists no metaphysical meaning in a godless universe experience a loss of personal meaning, this is certainly not the case for all such humanists-e.g., Nielsen. Of course, one might believe personally that humanists such as Nielsen aren't experiencing meaninglessness in this sense because they are guilty of "snobbish caprice or thoughtless superficiality" but it is difficult to see how such a charge could be established in a non question-begging manner.

Moreover, and more importantly, a descriptive "head counting" approach to the question of meaning in a godless universe cannot, but its very nature, be of much apologetical value. How a given humanist does (or would) in fact respond to the belief that he lives in a universe with totally relative human values is, of course, relevant to the existential adequacy of humanism for such a humanist. But the claim that most (or all honest) atheistic humanists do (or would) in fact respond to a "relative" universe in a despairing manner is much too subjective to function as the basis for a strong rational (logical) argument against the adequacy of atheistic humanism, itself.

The significant apologetical question is whether such humanists can justifiably affirm an enduring sense of personal meaning. Or, stated somewhat more formally, the crucial apologetical issue is whether a humanistic world-view which attempts to affirm both totally relative values and the possibility of enduring personal meaning is a coherent (logically meaningful) conception of reality.

It is difficult, however, to see how the critic of atheistic humanism can presently resolve this issue in his favor. Since there appears at present to be no widespread scientific (psychological, physiological) support for the claim that a belief in an objective value system is a necessary condition for experiencing what we normally labeled "personal meaning," it seems that the critic in question must either (a) continue to base his case on the weight of human testimony or (b) attempt to demonstrate a logically necessary connection between the concept of personal meaning and the concept of metaphysical meaning. I have already argued, however, that "head counting" is too subjective and inexact to function adequately in this context. And (b) must, in the absense of objective (scientific) defining characteristics for the concept of personal meaning, be considered question-begging, since it is difficult to see how a logical connection between the two concepts in question could be demonstrated without assuming initially that some necessary connection existed and explicating the relevant terms on the basis of this assumption.


In closing, it is important that I clarify what has and has not been argued. I have not attempted to argue that if "God is dead," it really makes no difference. I personally believe that to embrace consistently and fully a nontheistic world-view requires a radical reworking of the traditional concepts of morality and personal meaning. Moral absolutes (in the a priori, timeless sense of the term) can no longer exist, and personal meaning can no longer be tied to such ultimate cosmic values. Moreover, it seems to me that it is important and justifiable to make certain that atheistic humanists understand these facts.

What has been challenged are the claims that such humanists must espouse a totally relativistic ethic and that, given total relativism, they cannot justifiably affirm an enduring sense of personaI meaning. Much more convincing, objective argumentation is necessary, I have argued, before these apologeticaly crucial claims can be affirmed.


1Jean-Paul Sartre, "The Humanism of Existentialism," Philosophy: A Literary and Conceptual Approach, edited by Burton Porter (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1974), pp. 70-71.

2Since there appears at present to be no generally accepted distinction between 'objective moral principle' and 'absolute moral principle', both terms will be used interchangeably as synonyms for 'nonrelative moral principle'. We will see later, however, that the theistic critic of humanism defines all three of these terms in a more restrictive sense than do many humanists.

3See, for example Hans Kung, On Being a Christian (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1976), pp. 73-79 or Richard Puttill, Reason to Believe (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Win. B. Eerdmans), pp. 91-98.

4Purtill, pp. 96, 98.

5See, for example, Richard Bube, "The Significance of Being Human," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 31 (March, 1979), pp. 3743.

6Kai Nielsen, "History of Ethics," Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 3 (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1967), p. 108; Ethics Without God (London: Pemberton Books, 1973), p. 63.

7Nielsen, Ethics, pp. 48-64.

8Nielsen, Ethics, p. 56. 

9Nielsen, Ethics, p. 62. 

10Kai Nielsen, "On Religion and the Grounds of Moral Belief," Religious Humanism (Winter, 1977), pp. 33-34.

11Purtill, for one, fails to make this distinction. 

12Nielsen, Ethics, p. 56.

13William Frankena, "Is Morality Logically Dependent on Religion?" Religion and Morality, edited by Gene Outka and John P. Reeder, Jr. (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1973), pp. 295-317.

14Kong, p. 75. 

15Kung, p. 75. 

Ethics, pp. 48-49.