Summer Reading Group: “Beyond Humanism”

This is the sixth post in a seven-part series for Spectrum’s 2017 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book Humanism and the Death of God by Ronald E. Osborn. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.

“Beyond Humanism” is the aspirational title of Osborn’s climactic chapter. He begins by speaking to a familiar condition (a state of “cross pressure” according to Taylor in A Secular Age) in which those of us sealed in a largely disenchanted, agnostic universe still allow the transcendent to break in through what the late Leonard Cohen called the “crack in everything.” Remaining open to the crack in pure rationalism is vital not just to allow for the in breaking of transcendent meaning through “art and music, beauty in the natural world, intuitions of cosmic wholeness, or hedonic experiences,” (176) but also to protect against closed-minded fundamentalism. And yet, in concluding his opening chapter, Osborn writes, “It should by now be clear, however, that the agnostic or cross-pressured position—vital as it might be in certain ways as a reminder of how little we really know and as a safeguard against fundamentalism—is a precarious one whenever questions of the good and of our obligations to the Other arise” (177).

I recognized in this stirring opening my own precarious position and hoped in the proceeding paragraphs to discover cracks of light to illuminate or even move beyond my gloomy situation. Instead, Osborn himself moves rather quickly onto addressing possible objections to the position he has advanced in the book.

And there are many. I will focus on the first three which Osborn anticipates in the form of questions. “First, hasn’t political liberalism shown that we can have a self-sustaining non-metaphysical, non-religious discourse of human rights while refraining from making any arguments either for or against the ultimate truth of religious beliefs? …Second, even if we agree that there are problems with the reductionism of philosophical naturalism or materialism in the traditions of Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche, doesn’t religion still need to be quarantined from public life lest we rekindle a modern-day equivalent of the European wars of religion? Third… is the attempt to trace the wellsprings of contemporary values back to ancient, and particularly Christian, sources anything other than a form of highly selective if not triumphalist picking and choosing of evidence” (177, emphasis mine).

Osborn picks up the first question on excluding religion from human rights by looking through John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance.” Rawls advocated a theory of justice in which each of us should view society from a position of “ignorance as to our own social, religious, and philosophical status in order to be as impartial as possible toward others” (182). Whether or not this view from nowhere is entirely possible, the attempt would certainly seem illuminating for those in power—from 19th century white slaveholders to 21st century male church leaders. But, as Osborn points out, Rawls’ appeal to this “original position” requires an a priori assumption of universal human rights and human equality. Instead, the a priori ignorance of slaveholders in denying the human rights of their “property” and ordained males in denying the equality of their female colleagues would blind them to the effect of Rawls’ veil.

The corrective lens for this ignorance according to Rawls is to promote the sentiments and empathetic feelings that will “cause the human rights culture we have somehow stumbled into to survive.” And yet, the malleability and diversity of culture itself places human rights in jeopardy. In fact, Rawls himself argued in his 1942 senior philosophy thesis “that naturalism fails to provide the philosophical resources required to sustain society” (183). This suggests to Osborn that religious humanism is a likely and more reliable antecedent of Rawls’ assumption of human equality than the whims of culture.

If this is the case, then universal human rights would seem safest in the hands of religious humanists. However, the abysmal history of religiously sanctioned discrimination—from 19th century Christian slaveholders to 21st century Christian church leaders offers a distressing counter argument. In his essay entitled “On My Religion” Rawls described his abandonment of Christianity and catalogued the historical abuses of Christendom including the “wars of religion” that terrorized Europe in the 17th century—which leads directly to the second question on the need to quarantine religion from public life.

Osborn acknowledges the validity of Rawls’ rejection of the Protestant culture in which he was raised and yet pushes back gently by suggesting William Cavanaugh as a conversation partner who points out that the “wars of religion” may have been caused as much by secularization and state-building as by religion per se. Rawls’ response may be assumed in Ephraim Radner’s “blistering critique” of Cavanaugh. Radner points out that just because religion was not the sole cause of violence does not absolve its ongoing entanglement in war, genocide, and cultural injustice. I particularly appreciated Osborn’s non-dualistic response to Cavanaugh’s and Radner’s differing accounts of religious violence and the origins of political liberalism which he notes are not as mutually exclusive as they first appear. He writes, “Recovery of the theological origins of humanistic values and human rights, it seems to this reader, requires a vigorous critique of the sustaining myths, binaries, and internal contradictions of the “secular” nation-state, and a strong rejection of all attempts to repristinize church history according to nostalgic narratives about the unity of pre-enlightenment or pre-modern Christianity” (188).

This open-minded view recognizing both sides brings us to the third question we will consider. Does the fact that Christianity “inspired both champions as well as opponents of humanistic values and human rights make it impossible to say anything affirmative about its role in the genealogy of morals” (177)? In other words, do the slave holders and bigots negate the abolitionists and egalitarians who all claim the same faith? Osborn turns to Samuel Moyn to explore this conundrum. Moyn maintains that it was only in the 1930s and 1940s that Christians began to embrace the language of human rights in any substantial way. In fact, he goes on to assert that it was not until the 1970s “that human rights came to define people’s hope for the future as the foundation of an international movement and a utopia of international law” (194). However, Osborn seems to suggest that Moyn is playing a game of semantics, downplaying the words and actions of abolitionists and civil rights activists who were undeniably seeking the rights of their fellow humans as not actually engaging in “human rights”—thus piling erasure on injustice.

Ignoring the lineage and connection between current human rights, ancient natural rights, Enlightenment-era revolutionary rights, and the struggle for civil rights is, evidently, just as biased against historical Christianity as a refusal to acknowledge the interrelatedness and evolutionary descent of life on earth is biased against modern science. This provocative analogy leads to a question regarding Osborn’s erudite argument that Christianity represents the most truly coherent philosophical grounding and sustainable moral force for the progression of human rights. As an evolutionary creationist, I see the ongoing process of creation as both fully natural and theologically teleological. From this non-dualistic perspective, the development of human rights could be and has been described in terms of the cultural evolution of group dynamics as well as God’s plan. Is it possible to hold a position of cultural or ethical evolutionary creationism in the same way one can be a biological evolutionary creationist? If so, is it necessary to insist on a Christian foundation for humanism? Could the inverse be true, so that one could appreciate the evolution of human thought and interaction that preceded Judaism, moved forward through Jesus and his radical message of love, and continues to inspire movements toward justice for all?

As I look for light through the cracks in my disenchanted world view, Christianity as the chaplaincy for our scapegoating, unjust, violent culture glows dimmer and dimmer. Christians such as Osborn who prophetically call Christianity back to core cultural values of justice, love, and humility, on the other hand, burn brighter and brighter. The light they shine will be vital as we move beyond humanism and will help to prepare us for what comes next as we face the current clash of cultures generated by globalism, the questions of humanism given the rise of artificial intelligence, and the hope of an earth made new in the face of ecological crisis.

Brenton Reading is a board member of Adventist Forum, the parent organization of Spectrum Magazine. He lives with his wife and three children in Shawnee, Kansas (a suburb of Kansas City), where he practices Pediatric Interventional Radiology.

Image Credit: Oxford University Press

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Brenton Reading’s use of the word “chaplaincy” in the context at the end of his article is awkward and a distraction.

“As I look for light through the cracks in my disenchanted world view, Christianity as the chaplaincy for our scapegoating, unjust, violent culture glows dimmer and dimmer.”

The word is misplaced and does not describe what the author is conveying.

Christianity pays little heed to the words of Jesus on the Cross as He prayed–“Father, foregive them for they know not what they do!” Why rail against sin? When the Gospel is so abundant? There can be no sin more deadly than self righteousness. Demoninational pride heads the list.



I used the word “chaplaincy” because in Osborn’s book he describes Rawls’ loss of faith as due to three wartime experiences, one of which was listening to a Lutheran pastor claiming in in a sermon that God would help US soldiers aim their bullets while protecting them from those of the Japanese. This seems to me a travesty of the role of a chaplain (Indeed, I find the very role of a military chaplain unsettling given my nonviolent Adventist background) and I was trying to suggest that when Christianity plays a similar role as that Lutheran pastor in promoting immoral, unjust, and violent views of God it provides no light and in fact extinguishes faith like that of Rawls.

Unfortunately, due to space constraints, I edited out that section on Rawls’ loss of faith and failed to change the later reference to Christianity. I can see how you found the reference awkward and I am sorry it was distracting. However, I stand behind the intent.

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Humanism, both secular and religious, is a facade promoted by our various philosophies, neither of which gets to the core of the human condition described in Scripture. Humanistic behaviour can be legislated and dogmatized but that does not a humanitarian make. The political kind, especially, makes noises that sound like concern for the planet while its promoters jettison themselves all over the globe, growing the own carbon footprints; and, globalizers are willing to sacrifice intelligent precautions in the name of inclusiveness or brotherhood, while their own domiciles are behind iron fences and security cameras. It all looks like a sham. True concern for humanity and the globe comes from another place - from a heart-felt outward focus that does not come naturally to any of us.

From an Adventist informed world view, no legislation or accord, Parisian or otherwise, is going to solve our historic environmental neglect; and unless we’re ready to take down the barricades around our own palatial homes (and they are palatial compared to 90% of the world); or, turn over our second homes to the homeless, we are to leave it to Caesar to deal with global issues beyond our power to control. Vote whatever way you wish, but let’s not pretend we can legislate or educate true selfless concern - the kind that is willing to bear a cross.

My reading of Biblical revelation doesn’t leave much hope of any kind of humanism born out of human effort. If anything, inhumanity is going to grow, and we will make our homes on earth uninhabitable; and society will not unify. What that means for the sensitive, heart-involved minority, is also predictable. In the meantime, we have a periscoped focus on God-become-man. We know the issues, and we know the how; and we know our fate. The human tragedy is that “the poor will always be with us”, and our spiritual commitments will look like swords to someone.



I am nourished by biblical apocalypticism, and I am more than a little pessimistic, especially right now, about the human prospect.

But the Bible does not teach that human effort can make no positive difference. If we keep in mind the paradox of grace–I, yet not I, as Paul said–we can be sure that, as the God-blessed church once undermined the Roman Empire, and as it once helped dismantle apartheid, it can here and now be a catalyst for good–for real progress on earth.

If we forget this, we forget the message of the prophets, including Jesus. We become mere escapists, and sitting ducks for such antagonism to religious faith as that epitomized by Karl Marx.

If some skeptic says to me–But is the world better off then it used to be, or worse?–I hesitate to make confident pronouncements. Except for this one: If only more of us would hear the Gospel, and if only the leaders of the world would be more responsive to its claims, we COULD (by God’s grace) bring about moral progress. To suppose that the world MUST get worse, or to traffic in a hopelessness that suggests the same, is heresy.

Isn’t it?

The various apocalypses do remind us that political power corrupts, and so put a damper on heedless optimism. If Jesus did not inaugurate the Kingdom for nothing, neither did he expect an easy ride to perfection, or anything close to it, on earth. Jesus’ Final Coming does matter.


Thanks Brenton for your fine review! I’ll pick up on Ron’s second question: Is religion still relevant in the public life of the secular West?, and what about the question of justification?. I live in Norway, probably one of the most secularized societies on earth.

What is important to note, though, is that in recent years we have witnessed a ‘theological turn’ in the social sciences, and religion has, yet again, entered the public agenda, for better or worse. This has led the British literary theorist Terry Eagleton (one of Ron’s sources) to claim that God’s disappearance in Modernity, which caused the ‘crisis’ of morality in face of philosophical naturalism, was just an “apparent disappearance.” God never went away, he writes, he just “changed address” and reigned through his “viceroys” (art, Reason, culture) and it has turned out that the Almighty “has been remarkably difficult to dispose of.” Moreover, “religion has proved easily the most tenacious, resilient, and universal forms of popular culture”. Despite this historical fact “almost every cultural theorist today passes over in silence some of the most vital beliefs and activities of billions of ordinary men and women, simply because they happen not to be their personal taste.” (Culture and the Death of God).

In the European academia many prominent scholars (atheistic, Marxist, leftist), faced with the limits of a strict naturalism, have turned to religion for help to strengthen morality, social order and (perhaps) “spiritual depth to otherwise shallow lives.”. These include, among others, Jürgen Habermas who in 2006 published his ‘religious conversion’ in his essay Religion in the Public Sphere, and Badiou, Agamben, Derrida, Vattimo, and Zizek, just to name a few. In the USA, in recent years, many scholars have turned their focus on the problematic relationship between religion and secularity (Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, José Casanova, Mark C. Taylor…) And, going back in modern history, as Eagleton points out, “reluctant atheism has a long history”, all the way through our Enlightenment period.

So, it seems that religion never, really, went away, it just adapted to the changing circumstances and re-created itself in still new versions. And, ordinary men and women, for the most part, remained religious. Mark C. Taylor claims that the Enlightenment project has deep religious roots in the Protestant Reformation.

Why then this need to find coherent justifications for moral actions? Isn’t this just a (fascinating, I admit) post-Kantian wager between Plato’s ‘theoretical reason’ and Aristotle’s ‘practical reason’, between transcendence and immanence, and the rest of Modernity’s dichotomized ontologies? Could it be that this preoccupation in academia with bridging the justification-gap, in the face of strict naturalism and religion, is of little relevance to others than those residing in Ivory-towers? Are there actually anyone among us who is or ever was a strict naturalist or religionist? And if we, in some way or another, succeeded in this justification-project, what difference would it make – socially, politically or individually?

I think that it is important to realize that the vast majority of us, by and large, are morally responsible human beings, who subscribe and adhere to a set of authoritative moral codes in our personal and social lives, rooted in contingent and diverse cultural pre-histories, narratives and formations, which we all are born into and part of.

In view of this, isn’t it a great paradox that when the United Nations in 1945 adopted the Declaration on Human Rights, the one thing they didn’t address or settle on was the “Why” of human rights. As the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain (a key player in drafting the declaration) said: “We agree on these rights, providing we are not asked why. With the ‘why’ the dispute begins.” One of the most foundational texts of ‘inherent dignity and inalienable rights’ of human beings, and yet, based on an unnamed and vague ‘common understanding’. (Bucar and Banett, Does Human Rights Need God?, 2005)

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I’m assuming I can respond, since you make the rules here and you have asked the question. And the answer is - “NO”, no heresy here. The heresy is to think that human effort will solve humanity’s problems. Sure, as Christians, we will always offer hope - but in what?

“Humanism” is not the same as humanitarianism. Humanism assumes that humanity can solve its own problems, if it just tries a little harder. Can we make a difference - of course; but as Christians we’re not called to merely put bandaids on broken lives. In the great scheme of things, we need to pick our battles, and rearranging those deck chairs will not save anyone when the ship goes down.


Brenton, thanks for your careful reading and critical questions. You write, “the development of human rights could be and has been described in terms of the cultural evolution of group dynamics as well as God’s plan. Is it possible to hold a position of cultural or ethical evolutionary creationism in the same way one can be a biological evolutionary creationist?” I would agree with anyone arguing that values and morality have in some ways emerged “naturally” from our biological pasts (Stephen J. Pope’s book Human Evolution and Christian Ethics is very helpful on this question). However, my book is concerned more specifically with the core humanistic values of inviolable dignity, rights, and equality attaching to each individual person. These values are not biological but, as you note, cultural. They are enshrined in documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, yet also widely ignored and in fact explicitly rejected in many parts of the world as an imposition of western values. Even in the west itself, the “why” question about rights that Jacques Maritain said was off the table during the drafting of the Universal Declaration is very much back on the table, with cultural relativists and postmodern anti-humanists calling into question ideas that in the 1940s were still widely taken for granted (even in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust). Books like Moyn’s The Last Utopia and Stephen Hopgood’s The Endtimes of Human Rights trace this breakdown across time. When we speak of “cultural evolution” we therefore cannot assume that cultures inevitably move in one particular direction, whether toward nobility and generosity or toward brutality and oppression. The analogy to biology is therefore helpful but also, I think, potentially misleading unless we assume a less “teleological”, more Nietzschean view of evolution. In the world of biological evolution we find both cooperation and cruelty. So too in the world of cultural evolution. The question, then, is this: why the differences? Why are the dominant values of Sudan (where I now live), for example, so different from widely held values of liberal egalitarianism and individual rights in countries like Sweden or the United States? My book is an argument that the history of religion has much to do with these significant cultural differences, and that the story of the evolution of liberal values is inseparable from the story of Christianity. One need not be a believer of any kind to accept this part of my argument (which is in many ways the same narrative told by Nietzsche). The interesting question, I think, is whether or not we have reached a point where humanistic values can simply continue of their own momentum, even if sheared off from their historical wellsprings and from any sense of transcendence.

Max Tegmark in his new book Life 3.0 describes three stages of evolution: Life 1.0 biological evolution in which the “hardware and software” of life evolve via natural processes of natural selection, genetic drift, gene flow, and mutations, Life 2.0 cultural evolution in which the “hardware” of life continues to evolve via natural processes while the “software” is designed with intention through learning and passing information from individual to individual and generation to generation, and Life 3.0 technological evolution in which both the “hardware and software” is designed. We are currently at the Life 2.0 stage; but, with technological revolutions in computer science making human or even superhuman artificial intelligence (AI) seem more and more immanent and biotechnological breakthroughs such as CRISPR beginning to provide us with convenient tools to alter our own genetic code, Life 3.0 could be just around the corner.

Unfortunately, many Christians including the Adventist sect that you and I grew up in have completely ceded the conversation on evolution by only ever opposing the very concept. Ironically, as you point out, Christianity has actually been very involved in our cultural evolution. If we believe that cultural evolution based on humanistic values of inviolable dignity, rights, and equality is the best way forward, and that movement in this direction is not inevitable, then we should be actively engaged in the intentional shaping of culture through books like yours, conversations like this, and acts of benevolence and protest to shape a better future.

I think understanding Christianity as both shaped by and helping to shape this process of cultural evolution (in positive and negative ways) is vital in order to remain engaged in the intentional creation of a better future. I think your book admirably presents the essential and positive role Christianity might have in forming a better future and my questions were meant to bring this to the forefront.

Engaging on this topic becomes even more vital as we move to Life 3.0 which has the possibility to go off the rails in horribly inhumane ways if not grounded in the best and most noble values. Imagine the horror of a superhuman AI founded on a social Darwinian or twisted Nietzschean perspective. Much better for our AI to begin with Jesus and then Dostoyevsky.