If Humanists overlook Evil, do they commit a Secular Sin?

April 27, 2010

Humanism is an ethical philosophy with objective moral principles and valid expectations that people fulfill them.

Humanism has moral rules and ethical ideals , and concrete standards for judging social and political issues .

I have read and heard tales of another humanism, a humanism which regards morality as private subjective opinion, and expects people to politely refrain from judging others by their own moral tastes. I have never met a self-proclaimed humanist who actually lives out such a private philosophy, however, and I doubt I ever will. The only humanism I'm interested in defending is a public humanism -- a Civil Humanism.

I can say that I have met lots of humanists who don't believe that either evil or sin really exists. Such humanists take 'sin' to be just a scary religious delusion, and regard 'evil' as a similarly imaginary monster. There is merit to this view. If the meaning of 'sin' can only be "a violation of God's law" then no 'sin' can exist in a non-theistic worldview. And the notion of sin in the West has been controlled by theistic religions.

I have seen accounts of sin, on the other hand, from scientific studies of human behavior and cognition . Since science refrains from assuming that a God exists, a different meaning of 'sin' is applied here -- call it "secular sin" -- to point to bad deeds that severely violate some important secular moral standards. 

Of course, if the notion of "secular moral standards" is as big a myth as "God's moral laws", then scientists can't even study secular sin. Scientists can't even study 'evil' if that term must also be just a religious term. Scientists would still study naughty and tasteless conduct, but that's not quite the same as studying SIN or EVIL. I happen to think that we need more from science. We really need more of science's help to understand how people can be so depraved and monstrous to each other.

Fortunately, Humanism does hold to secular moral standards. Humanism regards these moral standards as objectively valid and worthy of fidelity (until given very good reasons to revise them), and humanism regards these moral standards as potentially worthy of universal approval and enshrinement as human rights. Humanism provides reasons why its standards should be respected by all humanity. In short, Humanism knows something about The Good, and hence it does recognize Evil. Furthermore, because humanism regards much of ethics as social ethics, a social ethics about the right principles of group behavior, humanism hopes that the social sciences will help us understand collective evil as well as personal evil. It takes a People or a Nation to commit genocides or drop nuclear bombs.

No humanism is worthy of the name, which couldn't recognize evil. A humanism that can't objectively tell good from evil has nothing of interest to say to the rest of humanity. All the same, we keep hearing how morality can't be objective. Humanists might betray the movement and permit their view of morality to collapse into subjectivism. But that would be a sin.