Humanism for Children | by William Lane Craig
The American Humanist Association is promoting a new Web site that is
designed to furnish children with a naturalistic or atheistic
perspective on science, sexuality, and other topics. The stated goal
of the Web site is laudatory: “to encourage curiosity, critical
thinking, and tolerance among young people, as well as to provide
accurate information regarding a wide range of issues related to
humanism, science, culture, and history.”
The problem is that those values have no inherent connection with
naturalism, which is a philosophical viewpoint that holds that there
is nothing beyond the physical contents of the universe. One doesn’t
need to be a naturalist in order to endorse curiosity, critical
thinking, tolerance, and the pursuit of accurate information on a wide
range of topics.
Ironically, the AHA has been remarkably uncritical in thinking about
the truth of naturalism and of humanism in particular.
For example, why think that naturalism is true? The last half century
has witnessed a veritable renaissance of Christian philosophy. In a
recent article, University of Western Michigan philosopher Quentin
Smith laments “the desecularization of academia that evolved in
philosophy departments since the late 1960s.” Complaining of
naturalists’ passivity in the face of the wave of “intelligent and
talented theists entering academia today,” Smith concludes, “God is
not ‘dead’ in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is
now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy
This renaissance of Christian philosophy has been accompanied by a
resurgence of interest in arguments for God’s existence based on
reason and evidence alone, apart from the resources of divine
revelation like the Bible. All of the traditional arguments for God’s
existence, such as the cosmological, teleological, moral, and
ontological arguments, not to mention creative, new arguments, find
intelligent and articulate defenders on the contemporary philosophical
But what about the so-called “New Atheism” exemplified by Richard
Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens? Doesn’t it signal a
reversal of this trend? Not really. The New Atheism is, in fact, a pop
cultural phenomenon lacking in intellectual muscle and blissfully
ignorant of the revolution that has taken place in academic
philosophy. In my debates with naturalistic philosophers and
scientists I have been frankly stunned by their inability both to
refute the various arguments for God and to provide any persuasive
arguments for naturalism.
Moreover, naturalism faces severe problems of its own. The philosopher
Alvin Plantinga has argued persuasively that naturalism cannot even be
rationally affirmed. For if naturalism was true, the probability that
our cognitive faculties would be reliable is pretty low. For those
faculties have been shaped by a process of natural selection which
does not select for truth but merely for survival. There are many ways
in which an organism could survive without its beliefs’ being true.
Hence, if naturalism were true, we could not have any confidence that
our beliefs are true, including the belief in naturalism itself! Thus,
naturalism seems to have a built-in defeater that renders it incapable
of being rationally affirmed.
The problem for the humanist is even worse, however. For humanism is
just one form of naturalism. It is a version of naturalism that
affirms the objective value of human beings. But why think that if
naturalism were true, human beings would have objective moral value?
There are three options before us:
• The theist maintains that objective moral values are grounded in God.
• The humanist maintains that objective moral values are grounded in
• The nihilist maintains that moral values are ungrounded and
therefore ultimately subjective and illusory.
The humanist is thus engaged in a struggle on two fronts: on the one
side against the theists and on the other side against the nihilists.
This is important because it underlines the fact that humanism is not
a default position. That is to say, even if the theist were wrong,
that would not mean that the humanist is right. For if God does not
exist, maybe it is the nihilist who is right. The humanist needs to
defeat both the theist and the nihilist. In particular, he must show
that in the absence of God, nihilism would not be true.
The new humanist Web site never encourages kids to think critically
about the tough questions concerning the justification of humanism
itself. Humanists tend to be condescendingly dismissive of theism and
oblivious to nihilism. Meanwhile, they blithely extol the virtues of
critical thinking, curiosity, and science, apparently unaware of the
incoherence at the heart of their own worldview.
William Lane Craig is a theologian and philosopher as well as founder
of ReasonableFaith.org, a nonprofit organization that aims to provide
a Christian perspective on the most important issues concerning the
truth of the faith today.
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