A Humanist Manifesto was signed by thirty-four men in 1933. Scorning any notions of religion based on divine revelation, the signatories cast vision and set guidelines to achieve peace and goodwill on earth through enlightened human effort. Six years later, the world’s superpowers tumbled headlong into a catastrophic World War. Millions were slaughtered.
Following World War II, millions more were butchered by regimes laboring in the supposed interest of economic utopia. The agenda of these regimes synchronized with the Manifesto’s vision decrying “profit-motivated society” and calling for “radical change in methods, controls, and motives.” The Manifesto contended that “a socialized and cooperative economic order must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life be possible…. Humanists demand a shared life in a shared world.” Apparently the Humanist signatories never envisioned the barbaric means by which dictators such as Stalin and Mao would “demand a shared life.”
In 1973 Humanist Manifesto II was signed by twenty-one Nobel laureates. The document began with these telling words:
It is forty years since Humanist Manifesto I (1933) appeared. Events since then make that earlier statement seem far too optimistic. Nazism has shown the depths of brutality of which humanity is capable. Other totalitarian regimes have suppressed human rights without ending poverty. Science has sometimes brought evil as well as good. Recent decades have shown that inhumane wars can be made in the name of peace. The beginnings of police states, even in democratic societies, widespread government espionage, and other abuses of power by military, political, and industrial elites, and the continuance of unyielding racism, all present a different and difficult social outlook…. As we approach the twenty-first century, however, an affirmative and hopeful vision is needed.
Ironically, in crafting that fresh, more realistic vision, the signatories of the Humanist Manifesto II dutifully stuck to the same rut their predecessors had followed, confirming their earlier disavowal of a “prayer-hearing God assumed to live and care for persons, to hear and understand their prayers, and to be able to do something about them.” Rather than “diverting people with false hopes” as theists do, Manifesto II boldly declared: “Human beings are responsible for what we are or will become. No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.”
The rationale seems to be that if we keep tweaking the recipe, keep massaging the blueprint, we will progressively evolve in our self-adaptive quest to eventually create a magical kingdom of unending peace, prosperity and good will. Comparing our world to the 1973 signatories’ assessment of the state of human progress in the early twenty-first century, I’m just not seeing the progress. It seems to me that assessment provides an eerily adequate description of things as they stand today (and as they stood at the start of the first century, for that matter). It seems we are trying to fix a seized engine with an oil change. Again and again we pour in and drain out different brands of motor oil in the delusional conviction that one of these formulas will do the trick. “This time, surely, we will get the engine to start.” Well, we won’t. Any brand of oil you pour into a seized engine will avail nothing. There are times you must replace the engine.
The Christian church has long articulated a liberating principle in this regard: As human beings we naturally interpret our problems as originating without and look internally for the solution, when the problem is fundamentally internal and the solution external. The Humanist Manifestos assume the human heart is innately good and that if we simply discover a way to organize ourselves against our external problems the potential that lies latent in the human breast will conquer all.
The biblical vision of humanity argues that the fundamental problem is lodged in our hearts which are naturally bent against conformity to God’s law. Humanity’s engine does not need an oil change to lubricate the otherwise functional inner workings of the soul, it needs an entirely new engine (2 Cor. 5:17). The biblical vision of reality assures us that dependence on human nature will never work. Sinners are sinners and only as we address inner corruption are we brokering in reality.
It is at this juncture that religious people—including all Christians—head down one of two paths. The broader road insists that we follow moral exemplars and heed religious counsel so as to address our innate malevolence. This is the path of self-reformation through religious discipline. It looks for salvation primarily in human performance responding to good advice.
The alternative, narrower path looks expectantly outward to what has been historically accomplished by another. Its emphasis on moral reformation is fundamentally celebratory; that is, the victory over indwelling sin has been won by a Champion and righteous living is a joyous response to that historic victory. This singular path to spiritual transformation is, at its core, a trusting response to the good news of undeserved deliverance.
There is wide distinction between self-reformation responding to advice, and righteous living in response to the good news that Jesus Christ mercifully conquered sin and death on our behalf, offering free access to that victory through faith in him (Rom. 3:21-26). In that way of thinking, people who live by the mantra: “No deity will save us; we must save ourselves” have never met Jesus and have yet to honestly meet themselves (Rom. 3:10-20).
Dan Miller has served as the Senior Pastor of Eden Baptist Church since 1989. He graduated from Pillsbury Baptist Bible College with a B.S. degree in 1984 and his graduate degrees include a M.A. in History from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and the M.Div. and Th.M. from Central Baptist Theological Seminary. He is nearing completion of D.Min. studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Dan is married to Beth and the Lord has blessed them with four children: Ethan, Levi, Reed and Whitney.