Science in Christian Perspective




Bruce G. Nilson
1106 Whitehall Drive
Harrisburg, PA 17110

From: PSCF 38 (September 1986): 207-210.

Humanism as a secular philosophy presents several problems to the scientist who is a Christian. For many, humanism represents a threat to Christianity by promulgating a competing world view with conflicting values. It is acknowledged that humanism appeals to some of the same values as Christianity such as the importance of improving human life and personal dignity. Also, it is recognized that there are varying gradations of humanism that people subscribe to such as religious humanism versus secular humanism. However, it is also true that several major tenets of humanism  the antithesis of Judeo-Christian doctrine. Therefore, the Christian ought to be concerned that humanistic thinking today pervades Western thought as never before; some would say that it has become the religion of a secular society. The numerous examples of government reform, advances in the sciences and technology, and artistic expression have served to reinforce the humanist's conviction that people are basically good, self-sufficient, and therefore, given time, capable of solving many of the world's problems.

Before addressing some of the similarities and differences between humanism and Christianity, it is important to give some brief background to the development of humanism. Historically, humanistic thought can be traced back to early philosophers such as Socrates and Protagoras (e.g., "Man is the measure of all things the apex of civilization."). Later, during the periods of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and riding on the crest of new discoveries in the arts and sciences, philosopher-scientists such as Erasmus, Voltaire, and Rousseau began to suggest that humanity could save itself and that "man is perfectible."

Religion, of course, including Christianity, has long been promoted as the means of salvation and way to improve the human condition. Yet, during the Middle Ages the sciences and education began to emerge and develop their own distinct voice and credibility. As the sciences developed, the Christian Church, as a formal institution, reacted by continuing to insist on its own interpretation of the physical and moral realms. The Church maintained these traditional views even when they were contradicted by empirical observations. Classical examples of this would be those of Copernicus and Galileo who were forced to recant their views on astronomy because their findings did not fit with the Church's notion that the earth was the unmoved center of the universe.1 Over time, the Church's dogmatic views on matters of the physical world without empirical evidence contributed to a widening credibility gap. As a result, these sorts of religious bias helped science and education to begin eclipsing the Church as an authority, at least on earthly matters.

As the gap between the church and sciences widened, many scientists gravitated toward a natural, mechanistic view of the observable universe with no room for theistic explanations. By adopting such views, the secular scientist began to conclude-perhaps smugly-that since life events can eventually be explained through natural causes, the Supernatural is invalid. In short, "If we can't see it, it doesn't exist." As one example of this viewpoint, Dr. Edmund R. Leach, Provost of Kings College, Cambridge, once wrote

Today when the molecular biologists are rapidly unravelling the genetic chemistry of all living things--while the radio astronomers are deciphering the programme of an evolving cosmos-all the marvels of creation are seen to be mechanisms rather than mysteries. Since even the human brain is nothing more than an immensely complicated computer, it is no longer necesssary to invoke metaphysics to explain how it works, In the resulting mechanistic universe all that remains of the divine will is the moral consciousness of man himself.2

Put in broad historical form, it seems that many secular humanists today would suggest that science has been able to demystify and explain many of the beliefs that the Church has held sacred and secret. Further, these secularists also would be inclined to interpret Christianity and religion as having been a necessary way to explain purpose and order in the universe until more sophisticated and technical explanations could be offered.

Now, as we stand on the doorstep of the Twenty-First Century and witness rapid advances in the sciences, medicine, and technology, it is tempting to put our whole faith in humanity, not Christianity, and believe that we can save ourselves. As examples of this trend, one can observe the writings and ideas of eminent, contemporary thinkers such as Erich Fromm, Julian Huxley, Jacques Monod, Carl Sagan, and Jonas Salk. They would lead us to believe that through t e continual evolutionary and developmental process, "people can know the capacity of their own nature for goodness and productiveness,"3 and "can discover within themselves their own healing power and instinctive wisdom."4 Left unchecked, such notions suggest that you alone control your destiny and that you alone possess the capacity to change your life.

Some prominent modern-day thinkers are concerned about the swing of the pendulum toward humanism and away from Judeo-Christian values. For example, Dr. C. Everett Koop, currently Surgeon General of the United States, has written that "humanism has replaced Christianity as the consensus of the West,"' and that, as a result, we now live under arbitrary, sociological law where truth is the majority vote or latest opinion from the courts. And, not long ago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, speaking to an audience at Harvard University, had this to say about the present track of Western society:

Destructive and irresponsible individual freedom has been granted boundless space. Such a tilt of freedom in the direction of evil has come about gradually, but it was evidently born primarily out of a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which there is no evil inherent to human nature; the world belongs to mankind and all the defects of life are caused by wrong social systems which must be corrected.6

As previously mentioned, humanism does share some of the same goals and values as Biblical Christianity. For example, improving the quality of human life could be viewed as a general goal that both Christianity and humanism share. Common values shared by Christianity and humanism might include promoting cooperation and peace and encouraging personal fulfillment. These similarities may be one reason for the varying degrees to which Christians subscribe to humanism.

Although similarities do exist, there are also important, fundamental differences between humanism and Christianity. Some of those differences can be outlined by focusing on the philosophy of humanism as embodied in such documents as Humanist Manifestos I and II Humanist Manifesto I was written in 1933 and signed by thirty-four humanists. Humanist Manifesto II was an extension and expansion of the first document, written in 1973 and originally signed by 114 prominent scientists, educators, and theologians from around the world. These documents serve as a reference point for the humanist and delineate the central themes of humanism. Some of the most salient themes of humanism as outlined in these documents include the following:

1) God is either non-existent or impersonal and irrelevant.

2) The universe is viewed as self-existing and not created. Thus the universe and its inhabitants are self-contained. You are on your own. As Carl Sagan has put it, "The Cosmos is all that is or ever will be.
3) People are basically good or, at the least, born neutral in character. There is not malbehavior inherent in human nature.
4) Religions and beliefs in the supernatural are powerless or useless to solve the problems of humans living in the Twentieth Century.
5) Ethics are autonomous and situational. Therefore, an individual's rights and freedom of moral choice are paramount.

Not every humanist necessarily fully subscribes to each of these belief statements. There are humanists who hold various degrees of commitment to humanistic philosophy just as there are Christians who have varying degrees of commitment to Christianity. Moreover, not every person who accepts humanistic philosophy necessarily calls himself or herself a "humanist." For some, it is a passive commitment to a philosophical alternative to religion. Thus, since religion (and God) are irrelevant or nonexistent then humanity becomes paramount and is left to itself. But for others, humanism is an active belief system that must win converts by combatting others, including religious people, who presumably would suppress the importance and potential of humanity.

In order to fully appreciate the tension between Christianity and secular humanism, it should be noted that these humanists maintain a hostile view toward Christianity. To them, Christianity and religion are not neutral forces but rather, agents that are at cross purposes with the progress of humanity. The following quotes from Humanist Manifestos I and II illustrate this point:

Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values.8

We find insufficient evidence for belief in the existence of a supernatural; it is either meaningless or irrelevant to the question of the survival of the human race. As nontheists, we begin with humans not God, nature not deity.9

Humanists still believe that traditional theism, especially faith in the prayer-hearing God, assumed to love and care for persons, to hear and understand their prayers, and to be able to do something about them, is an unproved and outmoded faith. Salvationism, based on mere affirmation, still appears as harmful, diverting people with false hopes of heaven hereafter. Reasonable minds look to other means for survival.10

These and other doctrines of humanism are viewed as representing the antithesis of Judeo-Christian doctrine which says that there is a living, personal God, that He created the universe and its contents, that human beings must be individually restored from their self-centered and sinful condition, that this restoration necessarily takes place by faith, and that He has prescribed for humanity absolute moral standards by which we ought to live.

To be fair to secular humanism, perhaps we should do more than just say that it is dangerous because it competes with Christianity. As a philosophy, how does it stand on its own? To the casual observer, humanism may appear to be a harmless enough value-base. After all, what is wrong with believing only in oneself or in others? But, a closer examination of secular humanism reveals some fundamental problems and contradictions in logic. For example, because of their belief in respecting individual rights, humanists say that one should not impose values on another; that is, that no one should have the prerogative to establish or suggest universal sanctions or moral codes. Yet to state that no one should impose values on another is to impose a value.

Another problem with humanism is the moral relativity suggested in its code. As an example, humanism proposes "maximum individual autonomy" and personal moral freedom to do as one pleases. Yet, humanism also adds to these statements vague qualifying boundaries such as: "consonant with social responsibility," "being tolerant of others,"" "for the common good," and "short of harming others." But who decides what is consonant? Or tolerant? Or good? What is harming others?" Without an absolute standard, as offered by Christianity, to what final Authority does one appeal?

Despite these and other problems with humanistic philosophy, humanism appears to continue flourishing in Western society today while the role of the Christian church wanes. Why is this? Four of the possible reasons for this trend include the following:

1) The Christian Church, in general, has failed to keep pace with the demands of society. Often it has failed to offer workable Biblical solutions to social and personal problems.

2) Many Christians are perceived by others as shallow in character and in intellect. As a result, their faith is viewed as lacking substance and as a narrow interpretation of life events.

3) Many Christians vacillate in their commitment and conviction, thereby obscuring and undermining the integrity of Biblical Christianity.

4) Christianity is often perceived by others as a form of blind faith, without rationale. To them, becoming a Christian would mean compromising logic and commonsense.

The prevalence of humanism today can result in moral dilemmas for the scientist who is a Christian and who is often called upon to make inferences and value judgements from his or her research and case studies. Thus, for example, it is often assumed that the biologist or chemist will discuss how his or her theories and research data support the evolutionary model, the medical scientist is encouraged to apply new medical techniques that will facilitate abortions, and the psychologist must decide whether the client will benefit from self-help therapy only or has a deeper, spiritual problem as well. In each of these situations, the Christian scientist may be inclined to formulate values and strategies that are consistent with his or her professional practices and Christian faith. However, among many scientists today, popular thought holds that "religion" and science do not mix well and should be kept apart as mutually exclusive world views. Regrettably, many humanists end up encouraging a double standard; that is, you are expected to establish and maintain a "high ethical code," but not a code with any religious overtones or reference to a supernatural Being. This bias not only competes with the Christian scientist's view of a world that is explicable in both Biblical and scientific terms, but also threatens to encourage humanism as the philosophy of science.

To help counteract the growth of secular humanism and to defend our own convictions, what can be done? Here are four recommendations:

1) As individuals, we need to examine humanism as it relates to our respective fields of study and professions. Whether we are geologists, sociologists, or medical doctors, we ought to understand the special problems that humanism presents to us. We should be cognizant of those portions of humanism we find to be parallel as well as of those in conflict with our Christian faith. As a result, we can be clearer on our own position, preserving the integrity of our faith.

2) Having done this, we need to communicate and clarify to others our own position. Where do we stand? Are we "Christians," "humanitarians," "humanists" or "Christian humanists?" If we do not communicate clearly to others our position, we may unconsciously distort or confuse their view of Biblical Christianity. Worse yet, if we say nothing about our Christian faith, our "good deeds" and ethical conduct may be misconstrued as humanistic and actually reinforce or restore others' "faith in humanity." We need to be visible with respect to our values and a light to the world.

3) As scientists, we need to offer viable, alternative models to secular humanism that are consistent with science and with our Christian faith. In this manner, we must be sure to use rigorous scientific procedures and methods in our work. By doing so, we may help to increase the credibility of the Christian experience, particularly among colleagues. Secular humanists and other non-believers will observe that one can be faithful to both scientific methods and findings and the Christian faith.

4) We must remember that the practice of science is very different from the interpretation and application of outcome. Scientists are about the business of researching and testing hypotheses; yet the application of those findings is not a role confined only to the scientist. Although Christian scientists may comprise a minority when compared with the number of other scientists who ascribe to some form of humanism, we are no less qualified to decide what is right or wrong or make quality of life judgements.

In summary, we need to clearly understand the subtle differences between humanism and Biblical Christianity. As Christians, we have a responsibility to counter the perpetuation of secular humanistic philosophy in the sciences. To accomplish this, we need to be prepared to offer viable, alternative models to secular humanism that are consistent with current scientific knowledge and our Christian faith.


1See Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1962.

2London Times, 1968.

3 Erich Fromm, Man for Himself. Fawcett Publications, Inc., Greenwich, Connecticut, 1947, p. 17.

4Jonas Salk as quoted in "Courage, Love, Forgiveness," Parade Magazine, November 4, 1984, p. 9.

5C. Everett Koop with Francis Schaeffer, Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, Crossway Books, Westchester, Illinois, 1979, p. 4.

6Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn at Harvard University's Commencement Ceremonies, Cambridge, Massachusetts, June, 1978.

7See Carl Sagan, Costnos, New York: Random House, 1980, p. 4.

8Humanist Manifestos I & IL Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York, 1973, p. 8.

9Ibid, p. 16.

101bid, p. 13. 

11Ibid, p. 18.