Does humanism's rejection of God necesitate relativism?



I had the following discussion on Programmers.SE:

@Peter Turner, Which is a good example of how religion warps morality, leading people to imagine their concerns are moral when they are profoundly immoral. – TRiG

@TRiG, Which is a good example of making an appeal to absolute truth where you would normally appeal to relativism. The problem is, you don't listen to our arguments and you assume they're all appeals to something you don't believe in. Whereas, Catholics almost always argue for morality in a non-dogmatic rational way. – Peter Turner

@Peter, I don't think I've ever appealed to "relativism". I'm familiar with Catholic "Natural Law" argument, and I know it's nonsense. Humanism is not relativism. But perhaps discussion on these lines would be better on the philosophy site. – TRiG

This discussion made me question whether I was really correct in assuming that humanism's rejection of God necessitates a belief in moral relativism. I found the following definition of humanism, which seems to back up my thinking:

Humanism's exclusion of God necessitates moral relativism. Humanist John Dewey (1859-1952), co-author and signer of the Humanist Manifesto 1 (1933), declared, "There is no God and there is no soul. Hence, there are no needs for the props of traditional religion. With dogma and creed excluded, then immutable truth is also dead and buried. There is no room for fixed, natural law or moral absolutes." Humanists believe one should do, as one feels is right.

Is there any evidence to the contrary?

Peter Turner

Posted 2011-07-01T13:49:34.457

Reputation: 621

When Dewey declares 'there is no God', he is acknowledging in that very statement that there are immutable truths... in that case, the nonexistence of God. If he then claims there are no immutable truths, he is caught in a contradiction. Both statements cannot be correct. It's like saying 'the cup is on the table, but there is no table.' – Ask About Monica – 2012-12-06T22:19:33.527

I believe natural law is the law written on the human heart [by] his or her Creator is metaphorical, and literally means a combination of DNA/genetic programming (aka inheritance) + wisdom. Thus, Homo sapiens. (Because 'the heart' is both physical and emotional). – Bread – 2018-09-10T10:34:22.980

4What is actually meant by moral relativism? Does it mean: "anything goes" or does it mean that morals are dependent on psychology, social structures, evolutionary accidents, etc... the latter is certainly true and could be called relatvism in the sense that it relates to certain historical accidents. But it's not relativism in the sense that anything goes. – Raskolnikov – 2011-07-03T08:55:46.407

2The later is certainly not true if you accept the Natural Law. And I think you should ask whether or not the "anything goes" is the same as morals being dependent on society. I, for one, believe that it is. – Peter Turner – 2011-07-03T19:57:35.067

1What is natural law? Doesn't that depend on nature? How is it not relativist then? Even more so since it depends on an interpretation of what nature is supposed to be like. – Raskolnikov – 2011-07-04T08:20:23.417

@Raskolnikov, natural law is the law written on the human heart his or her Creator. It is supposed to be (and I believe it to be) objective although no skeptic sees it that way. Philosophers who taught the natural law include Aristotle, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

– Peter Turner – 2011-07-05T13:06:58.903

1What creator? Seriously, written on the human heart? Can we ask a heart surgeon if he ever saw the inscription? PUH-LEEZE! – Raskolnikov – 2011-07-05T17:59:59.447

5@Raskolnikov, even nihilism isn't devoid of metaphor. – Peter Turner – 2011-07-05T18:16:14.110

1Well, you didn't get my metaphor then. Anyway, this is why philosophy is looked down on by scientists. Because it seems to be crowded by people who take things like "natural law" seriously. I'm sure that is not true of all philosophers, but sadly, it's too often the case. – Raskolnikov – 2011-07-05T18:35:40.913

The really sad thing is how the Natural Law is perceived to be discredited. Yesterday you didn't know what I was talking about and today you know I'm wrong. I didn't know beans about humanism, now I see that it is an agnostic's Natural Law, I'm not going to criticize the philosophy for being a philosophy and having adherents. Although I certainly would argue against it, since it seems to be built on a denial of original sin and that is one of the most easily observable dogmas. – Peter Turner – 2011-07-05T18:45:56.597

3The problem with metaphors is how easily they can be misinterpreted. Peter, you're making the same argument here about the natural law being figuratively "inscribed on the heart" as I was trying to make in the comments to my answer. The point is that humanism is compatible with both a creator and the lack of a creator, because it makes no particular claims about where we as humans came from. It probably does deny original sin, but original sin is only a relevant "dogma" to adherents of Christianity. I don't understand how it poses a problem for non-theists. – Cody Gray – 2011-07-06T00:24:24.417

1And yes, as far as I understand it, your interpretation of relativism is correct. It does indeed say that morality depends on a host of external factors. The contradictory theory is that morality is actually universal for all humanity because we all share the same "moral compass", "heart inscriptions", or what have you. And it's not only religious people who feel this way--lots of philosophers have argued that there's something unique about the human intellect or our ability to reason (you'd probably say this comes from the creator) that gives us our shared, universal sense of morality. – Cody Gray – 2011-07-06T00:25:23.370

@kbelder: re: "The cup is on the table, but there is no table" is a perfectly logical statement - logical implication. If P then Q, written as P -> Q, P implies that Q. But, if P is false, then it implies ANY Q. That is how implication works. So, if the cup is not in fact on the table, then there may or may not actually be a table. And that's the Truth! – None – 2015-09-03T11:13:35.687

Please tell me about how "original sin ... is one of the most easily observable dogmas", because it seems to be the crux of your question? If your entire belief system stands or falls on that one axiom, I wish you luck in verifying it. But I believe that a Loving God would not force us to accept such an idea. – None – 2015-09-03T11:46:40.057

@noc "I have always maintained that men were naturally backsliders; that human virtue tended of its own nature to rust or to rot; I have always said that human beings as such go wrong, especially happy human beings, especially proud and prosperous human beings. This eternal revolution, this suspicion sustained through centuries, you (being a vague modern) call the doctrine of progress. If you were a philosopher you would call it, as I do, the doctrine of original sin. You may call it the cosmic advance as much as you like; I call it what it is—the Fall." GKChesterton Orthodoxy Ch 7 – Peter Turner – 2015-09-03T18:40:48.460

Also take a look at the second paragraph of chapter 2 about cat skinning.

– Peter Turner – 2015-09-03T18:44:31.317

@PeterTurner: I think that when people pass a certain point they cannot really backslide anymore: reality is just too present for them to not see it as it is. As Bart Marshall said, "I became unfooled." So rather than worrying about what to do about people while they are fallible, try to show them how to become infallible. "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." That is what my Guru says. She also says that anyone can do it. Chesterton said (in your reference) "How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?" Become nondual, Mister. – None – 2015-09-07T21:05:54.550

I think that "original ignorance" or "original childishness" would be a better term. After all, we expect children to be childish, and to be capable of outgrowing it, whether they do or not. Everyone is capable of growing beyond a self-serving point of view, else there would be no hope. Yet, few people make the attempt. And fewer succeed. That is what is sad: not our starting point, but that people stay tied to the mast so long, and so needlessly. That is what needs remedying, not the original state. We help people grow up with school, not calling them names and saying it is impossible. – None – 2015-09-07T21:15:28.927



No, humanism does not, in any way, necessitate relativism. They are completely different philosophies. In fact, I'm not sure that I can even imagine a way in which humanism would imply relativism.

One thing to get straight at the outset is a definition of "humanism". There are at least two major ideologies that typically fall under the umbrella of humanism. First is secular humanism, which is probably the one you're thinking of when you talk about "humanism". Secular humanism tends to justify action in terms of human reason, ethics, and justice. And in doing so, it naturally denounces religious dogma, superstition, and other things that could be considered "pseudo-science". However, it does not prescribe a particular code or system of ethics, and many philosophers who fall into the "humanist" camp have strongly believed in universal moral standards, exactly the opposite of relativism. A few examples of such thinkers might be: Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls. Certainly, secular humanism can be seen as incompatible with a strong religious faith, on which basis you may take objection to it, but it certainly is not incompatible with objectivism (with a little O), the idea that there is a universal system of ethics accessible to all.

Another common branch of humanism is religious humanism, which actually attempts to integrate humanism with religious ideals. Religious humanism is fairly straight-forward: it places the focus on the human being, affirming the individual dignity and worth of all people, just like the name naïvely implies. Certainly this could be compatible with religious teachings. Søren Kierkegaard is a famous "Christian Existential Humanist".

Beyond these two specific disciplines, you'll also see "humanism" applied generically to any philosophy that places the primary focus on human beings, as opposed to society at large or organized religion. But again, the idea that different cultures have different ideas about morality and ethical principles, and that those ideals are equally as valid as any other culture's ideals, is not implied by this line of thinking. Neither is the relativist tenant that there is no absolute truth or validity. In fact, a humanist could argue that human intuition, reason, and moral virtue are themselves absolute truths!

But beyond that, it appears that your confusion (and the confusion of whomever wrote the article you are quoting) stems mainly from the notion that atheism (or the rejection of organized religion) implies relativism, absent or beyond its humanist affiliations. That is also quite incorrect (albeit quite a common fallacy that religious scholars succumb to).

The flaw lies in thinking that the only possible source for an objective morality is from [a] God. While that's certainly one possible source, and even a good source, it's far from the only possible source. Humanists, as I hinted above, would argue that human rationality, intuition, and logic are the sources for morality, and since all humans share these faculties, such a moral framework would be objectively shared across all humanity.

There is an entire world of philosophers who don't necessarily believe in the existence of a supreme being, yet believe in objective morality. The one who makes this position most persuasively is probably Shelly Kagan, a contemporary moral philosopher. And other philosophers have even argued (this is Plato's famous Euthyphro dilemma) that objective morality cannot be based on God, even if both are granted to exist.

Cody Gray

Posted 2011-07-01T13:49:34.457

Reputation: 5 059

It is clear that I don't understand humanism. How can human intuition, reason and and moral virtue be absolute truths if they're the product of many different people's wills? – Peter Turner – 2011-07-01T14:18:04.863

6@Peter: No, you're conflating relativism with humanism. It doesn't say that intuition, reason, and moral virtue are the product of "many different people's wills". It says that they're innate to all humans. Humanism argues that there is an innate goodness in all humans, and that that goodness forms the basis of objective morality. We can determine what is right or wrong by appealing to universal human qualities like rationality. This is based in the commonality of the human condition. Humanism doesn't talk about differing moral systems of individual cultures or even individual persons. – Cody Gray – 2011-07-01T14:23:43.067

And the goodness stems from our common evolution? – Peter Turner – 2011-07-01T14:29:57.463

6Of course, it bears mentioning explicitly that while there certainly are humanists who are also atheists (the quotation you cite provides John Dewey as an example), that does not logically imply that all humanists are atheists (I provided the counter-example of Søren Kierkegaard). And similarly, the fact that some humanists may also be moral relativists does not imply that all humanists are. This is the problem with broad labels like "humanism" et. al. It implies that everyone to whom those labels get applied think in homogeneous ways. Convenient, but not necessarily true. – Cody Gray – 2011-07-01T14:31:05.437

2@Peter: Hmm, I don't recall saying anything about evolution. It really seems like you're bringing a dogmatic religious background into this. And I say that as someone who both A) hates humanism and B) believes in God. Not all humanists believe in evolution. Nor do they all reject the existence of [a] God. And the argument here is not a scientific one. If anything, it's a touchy-feely one. It's merely that there's an inherent goodness that exists in all humans. We know it because we know that humans are different, they're special. In that way, it's not that much different than Christianity. – Cody Gray – 2011-07-01T14:32:55.247

I'm trying not to be annoying, I was going to ask "Where do humanists believe that get our common moral framework?" but I thought it might be too much of a leading question. However, I think I asked an even more obnoxious question. – Peter Turner – 2011-07-01T14:35:36.620

2@Peter: No worries, you're not going to offend me. In response to your question, I'd say that our common moral framework comes from our very nature as humans. Maybe we have a soul, maybe we don't. Where this comes from has absolutely nothing to do with humanism. That's why it's compatible with both theism and atheism. Those are what consider the question of where this innate human morality actually come from. A humanist just recognizes it, and places it at the center of moral valuations. There's no real metaphysical outlook implied in humanism. – Cody Gray – 2011-07-01T14:38:17.833

2Humanism and relativism are not related as necessary consequences of the other (that is I buy your answer), but they do tend to come together, along with other renaissance-like ideas like skepticism, tolerance, rationalism, and scientific reasoning. Why they tend to come together is another essay. – Mitch – 2011-07-01T14:58:16.117

Hmm.. it seems that people missed where the OP mentioned original sin in a comment. If his reasoning structure includes that idea, then there can be no appeal to the inherent goodness or morality of people, because his whole framework posits that people have an irremediable defect in that area. This is where the debate goes off the rails. And it is not something that one can be convinced of or dissuaded from, it is an axiom (that one sees it as true, or not true) so this argument cannot converge on a single answer, ever. You think you are agreeing with him when in fact you are insulting him. – None – 2015-09-03T11:27:27.017


For the moment, assume that there is a God and that He approves of and commands that which is morally right. In a question first raised by Plato in the Euthyphro, one can still inquire which way the conceptual priority runs:

  • God's approving of X is what makes X be right, or
  • X is right, God recognizes that, and approves of X for that reason.

If one adopts the first alternative, then God's approvals and disapprovals are constitutive of right and wrong. On the second, there are (somehow) facts about right and wrong that are not conceptually dependent upon God's commands and approvals.

The first alternation is the Divine Command Theory of morality. It is, within the Christian tradition at least, a decidedly minority view. It has several serious problems:

  • It makes right and wrong arbitrary. On the view, God's approvals are not tracking some independent good. Thus, God literally had no reason for approving of this or that; it is just what He happened to approve of. Had God approved of the torture of infants, then infant torture would be right. (An adherent of the Divine Command Theory cannot consistently say "But God wouldn't approve of such a horrible thing!" as that invites the question as to how or why it is horrible conceptually prior to the divine approvals.)

  • It makes right and wrong hostage to God's change of mind. Were God to begin to feel differently, different things would become right and wrong. (Admittedly, on many religious accounts, God is eternal and unchanging, so this would not arise.)

  • It makes it impossible to say "God is good" in a meaningful way. If God's approvals constitute the good, unsurprisingly, God scores well on the question of goodness; it could not be other, provided that God is minimally coherent.

  • It gives the wrong sorts of reasons for actions being right and wrong. Let us assume that God does disapprove of the torture of infants. Well and good. But, presumably the reasons that the torture of infants is wrong include the pain and suffering it causes and the gross violation of human dignity that it involves. I surely would expect a genuinely good deity to disapprove of it; anyone who shares that very expectation reveals that they think of infant torture as genuinely wrong and of God's disapproval of such torture as reflective of a truth of its moral status rather than as constitutive of such a truth.

So, on any religious view (such as most denominations of Christianity and some schools of thought in Islam) that rejects the Divine Command Theory, there needs to be some alternative account of what makes the good good. The Natural Law tradition is one such attempt, though both as it still gives God an important role and because of various serious objections, it is not widely accepted outside of Roman Catholicism and is not a serious option for the Humanist.

All is not lost, however. Both Utilitarianism and Kantian ethics attempt to provide non-theistic means to ground a notion of good. Utilitarianism proceeds by observing that we do value pleasure and the absence of pain, argues that these are the ultimate ends for which we act, and then argues that the extent to which actions meant the ultimate ends for which we act and which we do value as good is the rational basis for a test of the goodness of actions. Kantian ethics attempts to ground a conception of the good action in terms of rational conduct, arguing that to act on a rule that could not consistently be wished to be a universally accepted rule is to act incoherently and thus wrongly. Both Kantianism and Utilitarianism can be developed in ways consistent with a religious faith and in ways consistent with atheism. There are of course other candidate accounts of morality, too.

So, there is no necessary path from "There is no God" to "Everything is permitted." Yes, the questions as to what is right and wrong absent God are hard. But they are exactly as hard as the real question as to why the right is right that the religious person faces unless they adopt the unsatisfactory Divine Command Theory of morality.


Posted 2011-07-01T13:49:34.457

Reputation: 1 614

1This is a good answer, but I think you're answering a different question.. – Brendan Long – 2011-07-01T19:13:13.597

1@Brendan: While I was aiming to motivate the claim that the issue of relativism is orthogonal to that of theism by pointing out that the theist either has to embrace an unsatisfactory theory or face just the same problems as the atheistic non-relativist, I don't entirely disagree with your remark :-) – vanden – 2011-07-01T21:36:10.013

So is Humanism like Natural Law, except God doesn't right the laws, they're just pretty much there? – Peter Turner – 2011-07-01T21:42:53.997

@Peter Turner: Not necessarily. A utilitarian humanist would say that determining what is right stems from evaluating how beneficial the results of an action are. So for him, morals come not from God but from this postulate. – Mechanical snail – 2011-08-09T19:44:12.457


Both the terms you use, 'humanism' and 'moral relativism', have several meanings but a manageable discussion is still possible - and useful.

You interpret 'humanism' as a view that excludes the existence of God or, if God exists, excludes any role for God in moral discourse.

'Moral relativism' I take to be a view about the meaning or more usually the truth-status of moral claims, the idea being that such claims derive whatever meaning they have, or whatever warrant they have, from specific socio-cultural practices or institutions.

This implies that moral claims have no warrant, no truth, by virtue of correspondence with, or any other relation to, moral properties existing in an independent moral reality - a reality independent of any stance we may take towards it.

It is logically perfectly possible for a humanist to hold the meta-ethical view (moral realism) that there are moral properties existing in an independent moral reality - a reality independent of any stance we may take towards it. This reality can, so far as logic goes, exist not only independently of ourselves but of God as well. Perhaps such properties are intrinsic to a universe - a reality - uncreated by God. There is no contradiction between this suppposition and humanism.

It follows that since humanism is consistent with moral realism, it does not necessitate - logically imply - moral relativism in the sense defined.

Geoffrey Thomas

Posted 2011-07-01T13:49:34.457

Reputation: 34 276


There are different flavours of humanism; for example Tagorean humanism, is more aligned with a religious sensibility, in the sense of say, Emersonian Transcendentalism or the Perennialism of Nasr.

The Secular humanist tradition - a European development - was argued to lead to moral relativism; and a riposte to this thesis was composed by Sartre in his Letter on Humanism.

The question here is why such a development lead to such a thesis? Classically, both in philosophy though Plato, and in Christian Theology; and as affirmed by Wittgenstein:

A value that is a real value ... cannot be in the world

That is some impersonal authority for morality is shown to be required; and the authority for this, for Plato lies in the Good, and for the theologist, in God, by revelation.

With the turn towards the human subject as the true subject, that is the only real subject; one has to affirm the human subject as an actual authority for moral law; an early modern attempt to do this is by Kant, who by his categorical imperative, turns each and every human subject into a possible legislator of moral law.

Mozibur Ullah

Posted 2011-07-01T13:49:34.457

Reputation: 1


I do believe so. To me the main problem with SECULAR Humanism, which I think is what the OP is referring to, is that it holds to the intrinsic worth of human lives and yet under a naturalistic world view there simply is no basis for it. In the end they hold to a morality and then deny the very source that makes such a morality possible.

If we are to hold true to the teachings of naturalism, then it would be better to deny questions of morality all together. Or, in other words, if God dies then questions of morality die with God.

Should that happen, we would all just be animals, slaves to our evolutionary programming, fighting for survival, all to return to the primordial ooze from whence we came. As animals we are not burdened with questions of what is good or bad. We only know of what is.

PS. The OP should make the distinction between humanism which could be held by a religious person and secular humanism which is incompatible with religion. It is a rather important distinction.

Neil Meyer

Posted 2011-07-01T13:49:34.457

Reputation: 2 161

1I think morality can be derived merely from having priorities. The secular humanist does have priorities: that which makes them a humanist, rather than some other variety of atheist. Just because one believes in naturalism as a way of investigating the "is", does not mean that one can dispense with all questions of "ought" which dictate how best to go about operating in the world however one finds it. (Indeed, one might say that choosing naturalism as a philosophy can only come about as a moral choice, because naturalism cannot motivate why you should choose naturalism as an epistemology.) – Niel de Beaudrap – 2013-11-07T15:42:39.237

Is disagreeing with me really cause for a down vote? – Neil Meyer – 2013-11-07T17:13:16.827

If you would provide support for your claim that adopting naturalism should entail a rejection of all means of founding a morality, e.g. in the literature, I'll retract it. – Niel de Beaudrap – 2013-11-07T17:35:00.423