Skip to content


There’s room for theists and atheists at the watering-hole of humanism

Wisdom is a watering-hole at which animals of many different species can come and drink – as long as they don’t insist on trying to convert, denounce or attack each other, but instead meet in friendship and good humour.

Last month, I took part in a slightly silly stunt for World Philosophy Day. I and some other writer-types dressed up in togas and re-created Raphael’s School of Athens on the steps of St Paul’s. There are Cynics, Stoics, Platonists and various ‘not sures’ among us, all gathered together to celebrate wisdom. Our number included a theologian, Nick Spencer from the Christian think-tank Theos, in the orange-and-red toga on the right. I’ll come back to him.


I love Raphael’s painting, because it’s a portrait of intellectual friendship. There are philosophers of many different creeds gathered together in the painting, but they’re not denouncing each other or cutting each other’s heads off. They’re enjoying a friendly conversation. The intellectual diversity of the scene is all the more remarkable considering the mural is on Pope Julius II’s library wall in the Vatican Palace.

The painting reminds me of a group I have met up with fairly regularly for the last year or so. It grew out of the RSA’s spirituality project, organized by Jonathan Rowson. Some of the people involved in that group started to meet at each other’s homes for dinner every couple of months.

The group members hold a wide variety of metaphysical positions – for example, they include Toby Flint, who runs the Alpha course at Holy Trinity Brompton, and also Pippa Evans, who founded the Sunday Assembly, the humanist church. Toby and Pippa get on like a church on fire, not least because they have a similar sense of humour, and a similar desire to help people and provide them with community.

I think the fact that the founder of an atheist church and the organizer of the Alpha course can meet in friendship and humour is a triumph of Anglicanism. I define Anglicanism as broader than Christianity – Philip Pullman is a self-declared Anglican atheist, so is Richard Dawkins. It’s an open table, a shared culture of good humour, affability, and love of wisdom. The friendship between George Bernard Shaw and GK Chesterton is an example of Anglicanism. This exchange, on Twitter, between the Reverend Richard Coles and Richard Dawkins is another.

I think Anglican open-mindedness and friendliness is closely related to humanism. Humanism means a love of wisdom, particularly the wisdom of Greek and Roman philosophy. It also means a love of the arts and sciences, and a belief in their power to improve life. But above all, humanism is about people gathering together in friendship to share ideas, enjoying each other’s company even if we don’t share all of the same beliefs. As Terence put it: ‘I am human, nothing human is alien to me.’

Humanism is a social philosophy. It grew up in groups of friends, like the circle of Scipio, which helped bring Greek philosophy to Rome, or the humanist circles that flourished in 14th century Florence, around Boccaccio, Salutati, Bruni, and (some decades later) Marsilio Ficino, or in 15th century England and Holland, around Erasmus and Thomas More. These circles were quite heterogeneous – they might include Christians, Epicureans, Neo-Platonists, Kabbalists and Hermeticists. But they met in friendship and good humour.

Ficino’s Academy in Florence

My humanism is better than yours…

Today, alas, humanism is not quite such a broad or friendly church. One of my fellow toga-wearers from that gathering at St Paul’s, Nick Spencer of Theos, co-authored a report last week which bemoaned the fact that ‘humanism’ is now used to mean people who are non-religious or even anti-religious. The Theos report points out that there’s a long and proud tradition of Christian humanism too. Fair enough.

But the report then insists that Christian humanism is the best form of humanism, while atheist humanism doesn’t actually make sense. Na na na, my humanism is better than your humanism. This naturally riled atheist humanists, who called the report a land-grab, a ‘trolling of a whole world-view’. So, alas, what could have been an essay celebrating the shared foundations of Christian and secular humanism instead turned into a slanging match.

I am all for Christian humanism. I spent several years exploring and celebrating Greek and Roman philosophy and how people use it today. By the end of that journey, I was beginning to explore Christianity, and I’ve gone to church for the last two years. But I still take part in things like Stoic Week, because what I love about Greek philosophy – and wisdom in general – is that it can help free people from suffering no matter what their precise metaphysical beliefs.

At the heart of all humanisms is the belief that wisdom heals. This idea is at the heart of Christian humanism, Islamic humanism, Jewish humanism, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian humanism, and atheist or agnostic humanism. We might have different ideas about where beauty and wisdom come from, or what happens to us after death, but we can still agree on certain ideas and practices which heal us of suffering and help us to flourish.

Wisdom is like a watering-pool at which animals of many different species can come and drink, as long as they don’t insist on trying to convert, denounce or behead each other, but instead meet in friendship and good humour. Humanisms of all stripes need to get along, to withstand the real enemies: on the one hand, narrow and violent fanaticism, on the other, apathy and indifference.

The decline of humanisms

Humanisms are not in great shape at the moment. The centuries-old tradition of Islamic humanism seems to be overwhelmed by fundamentalism. Likewise Jewish humanism. Secular humanism is often shrill, hectoring, hostile to outsiders, and keener to denounce than befriend. And Christian humanism is also in dramatic decline.

The old tradition of humanist Anglicanism – with its poetry, its music and architecture, its wisdom, its open-mindedness and good humour – has been replaced by a narrower evangelicalism imported from America and Africa. This evangelicalism is not all bad – it has energy and ecstasy (and there’s a long tradition of ecstasy in humanism). But the intellectual side of Christianity has been sidelined in favour of a gushing and uncritical emotionalism.

George Herbert. Not a big draw in churches these days
George Herbert. Not a big draw in churches these days

In previous centuries, Anglicans like George Herbert, or Thomas Traherne would have been as familiar with Greco-Roman arts and philosophy as with the Bible. Today, most Christians view philosophy as a threat, and would have no awareness at all of, say, Dante, Milton, Raphael or Bach. Church bookstores are filled with crass American evangelical tracts, and would never dream of stocking works by, say, Donne, Blake, TS Eliot, Launcelot Andrewes, Julian of Norwich, or Erasmus. Anglicanism is losing its humanist roots.

I remember seeing a priest at a mega-church, who told the huge congregation how much he loved Milton, then attributed this quote to him: ‘Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life.’ Anyone who thinks Milton said that has, clearly, never read Milton in their life. I don’t mind him not having read Milton, but don’t pretend you have, and check your facts before passing them on (in the same sermon he claimed the Segrada Familia in Barcelona was built in the 14th century).

The deeper problem with this anti-intellectualism is it encourages an uncritical emotionalism. Any testimony about God’s healing power is uncritically swallowed with whoops of joy and cries of wonder. Christians become utterly credulous, embarrassingly so. That makes it very easy for any ambitious preacher to manipulate them with made-up stories and anecdotes – even well-respected preachers are happy to pass on fabricated internet anecdotes as if they were gospel truth. If we can’t trust them on that, why should we trust them when they tell us the Bible is literally true?

And a second big problem with this anti-intellectualism is there is no sense in the modern church that wisdom heals. If you have emotional problems, the only solution is to pray to Jesus and hope He exorcises your pain. This anti-intellectualism would seem bizarre and primitive to humanist Anglicans like Thomas More or Thomas Traherne, who understood that wisdom empowers us to change our minds and heal ourselves. As that founding father of humanism, Cicero, put it, ‘there is a medical art for the soul, and its name is philosophy’.

I wish more Christians knew this – it would help them suffer less from things like depression or ME. The celebration of wisdom is not anti-Christian, it’s completely Biblical. But when I offered to do a workshop on healing wisdom at my local church, the young evangelical vicar brushed it warily aside. So I did it at the Sunday Assembly instead.

Even the theology schools that are supposed to be making Anglicanism more culturally sophisticated are often anti-intellectual. I did a theology course at St Paul’s Theology School, run by Graham Tomlin – a wise Christian humanist who’s written books on Justin Martyr and others. The school’s ‘ethics course’ involves a session on euthanasia, in which a man with cystic fibrosis gives an impassioned testimony about why every life is sacred. This invariably reduces everyone to tears. The other side of the argument – that some terminally ill people might want to end their lives – is not even considered. This anti-intellectual emotionalism is typical of the modern church but astounding in a theology school.

As Christian humanism declines and the church grows narrower, it loses its connection to wider society, and turns in on itself. A Christian friend told me recently they didn’t have any secular friends. How many contemporary apologists have any sort of voice in the wider cultural conversation? They are not converting anyone, they’re just reassuring existing Christians. The cross-cultural friendships are absent. The bridges are closed.

911EtzXkUDLMeanwhile, a quiet tradition of Christian humanism carries on, and actually connects far more people to God, precisely because it does not insist people show their metaphysical credentials before inviting them to sit and eat. I think, for example, of the novels of Marilynne Robinson, or the poetry of George Herbert – brought to a wider audience recently by the biography of John Drury. These humanists are outside the church bubble, meeting their society in friendship, generously sharing the nourishment of Christian transcendence, without insisting people ‘surrender their yes to Jesus’.

Reading this again, I wonder if I sound like an intellectual snob. If I do, it’s probably because I am an intellectual snob. And obviously one of the good things about Christianity – compared to atheist humanism – is that it’s not intellectually snobbish, that it is a broad church which welcomes all, in which an illiterate fisherman might very well be closer to God than an academic. Still, what is also good about Christianity is that it’s a broad church with room for the humanist or intellectual side too. It’s a pity if that aspect of Christian culture disappears – more than a pity, in fact, a tragedy.




‘Take ethics out of the classroom and you just make robots for the production line.’

7-Peter-Vardy-Dec12-2Peter Vardy is a theologian and perhaps the leading Religious Studies teacher in the country. After teaching theology at Heythrop College and writing several best-selling books on ethics and religious philosophy, he and his wife Charlotte – also a theologian – set up Candle Conferences, which runs huge events for RS students around the country.

For the last month, I’ve been touring with the Vardys, speaking to halls full of 300-400 RS students, in Oxford, Cambridge, Canterbury, York, London and beyond. It’s been a blast. It strikes me that RS – studied by 300,000 at GCSE level and 23,000 at A-level – is one of the very few places in the curriculum where teenagers get taught to think about ethics and philosophy. Which is why proposed reforms to RS, to reduce the amount of ethics in the subject,  worry me and surprise me, particularly when all the main parties say they want more of an emphasis on ‘character education’.  Here’s an interview with Peter:

Jules Evans: Why is RS so popular, in a country that’s increasingly non-religious?

Peter Vardy: Mainly because of the ethics component. Schools can choose how much they focus on three components – philosophy of religion, religious texts and ethics. Many schools choose to focus almost entirely on ethics, because it’s the most popular component [and most of the students are not part of a religion]. Some of the ethics is theoretical – the study of leading ethical theories like utilitarianism, natural law, emotivism, relativism and so on. And there’s also an applied ethics component at A-level – medical ethics, environmental ethics and so on.

Where else is ethics taught in schools?

Almost nowhere. There’s citizenship, which has a bit of ethics in it. There’s Personal and Social Health Education, which tends to revolve around how to put a condom on a banana – it has a basic utilitarian approach and is very badly done indeed. There’s philosophy A-level, but it’s very small, it’s miniscule [about 6000 study philosophy at A-S Level, and around half of that at A-level. For an article about the problems that have beleaguered philosophy A-level, read this.]

So what reforms are being proposed for RS A-level?

At A-Level, the Department of Education want to strip back the philosophy of religion and ethics components to 25%. They want to make the subject more single-track, with a greater focus on textual criticism and on religious sociology, what festivals different religions have and so on.

Charlotte and Peter Vardy with some students
Charlotte and Peter Vardy with some students

Why is that a mistake?

Well, textual rigour is important but it can’t be the sole focus. In fact, if you do enough Biblical criticism you realize it’s impossible to know anything about the historical Jesus, apart from he existed. Students are not particularly interested in historical Christianity – it’s just one story among others in our post-modern, relativist age. And if you did textual criticism of Islam you’d get a fatwa declared on you. The main reason students want to study RS A-level is for the philosophy and ethics. They take it because they enjoy it. If you take that out, we expect a 50% decline in numbers in the next few years. We’ve already seen some RS departments close.

Why did the government introduce such misguided reforms?

Their consultation process was mishandled – they didn’t consult RS teachers, but instead consulted religious studies academics at some minor universities, to ask them what would prepare students for RS degrees. But most RS students don’t go on to study RS at university – they do PPE, or medicine, or law. And the ethics component of the existing RS is a great preparation for all these different degrees and careers.

I think the government may also secretly want to close the subject down. Michael Gove already left it off the baccalaureate curriculum. The hope is perhaps it can be ditched to save money and concentrate on ‘core subjects’.

I suppose people in philosophy might feel it’s more appropriate if ethics are studied in philosophy A-level – secularists might be worried that RS teachers would teach ethics in dogmatic or superstitious ways.

The ethics component tends not to be Biblically based. For example, natural law has its roots in Aristotelian virtue ethics. You can’t teach RS in a dogmatic way. Even in GCSE we teach that you can’t say ‘this is the Christian position’, because so many Christians have different positions on key issues. You have to give reasons and arguments.

Some fans in Australia, where Peter has helped to create the RS curriculum

I wonder if both RS and philosophy could have more of a practical bent – give students a sense of the practical usefulness of virtue ethics like Stoicism, or of spiritual practices like Christian or Buddhist contemplation, so they have a sense of the spiritual life as a practice rather than just a set of ontological or ethical theories.

I agree. I introduced an RS curriculum in Australia that was a five-strand approach, one of which was stillness and silence. But that approach is not really accepted today. Teachers, senior managers and headmasters are judged purely on educational results. There’s been a narrowing of education based on metrical measurements, and you can’t measure stillness and silence.

You travel around the country holding conferences for halls full of RS students. What’s your sense of the spiritual temperature of this generation?

There’s a huge hunger and need for something on the spiritual side. They’re open to that, they’re open to God, they’re open to life after death. But they’re not interested in Christianity, it’s simply irrelevant to them. They’re postmodernist and relativist.

I think the big problem is not atheism, it’s indifference. A lot of people are no longer interested in the big questions which the ancient Greeks asked – why are we here, how should we live, what happens after death. Indifference is the big problem, and I don’t see churches addressing that. There’s a need for some way to help young people and adults to engage with those great questions.

F5A16384C66C08E1C53EDA8217A61ED4Do you think there could be an evangelical revival?

Is the evangelical church the only place where there’s much sign of life? Yes. Particularly in African churches, or in charismatic churches like Holy Trinity Brompton. But the evangelical wing is not perfect. The intellectual element of Christianity tends to be marginalized, in favour of emotional experience, which is often transient and can be manipulated – think of all the billionaires who run African mega-churches. I worry about the US, where evangelical churches dominate, and there is no concern with social justice, only about homosexuality. I have great hope in Pope Francis, who is calling Christianity back to what it was originally about – social care and compassion. But I think the real contest is between Islam and Christianity, particularly in Africa. Islam gives certainty – this is the truth, it says, this is the law. People like certainty. Ambiguity is less popular.

Do you think mindfulness, some kind of secular version of Buddhism, could become the unofficial religion of the West?

Well, mindfulness taps into people’s spiritual need, and it leaves out the dogma.

Is that a problem – the lack of dogma?

Maybe not.

Another hope, it seems to me, for some sort of spiritual revival, is through the idea of aesthetic and creative experience as something transcendent and divine.

Yes, absolutely. Beauty makes a demand of us. You see that very much in the teaching of St Francis and the Franciscans, the idea of beauty as love overflowing. The trouble is, people today deny the idea of beauty. Thanks to the secularizing or rationalizing trend, people might have an experience of the natural beauty of the world, and say, well, that’s just natural selection.

Still, it seems to me that even New Atheists want to retain the idea of beauty, of the transcendent and the numinous. That gives me some hope.

Yes, well, I think a good atheist is a lot closer to God than most people. As I said, the real problem is not atheism, it’s indifference. I’m not anti-atheist. I’m pro-atheist. At least they’re engaged. Fewer and fewer people are. That’s why RS is so important and why it would be a devastating blow to this country if the ability to ask questions disappears. The education system will simply create robots to work on production lines.

If you’re an RS teacher worried by the proposed changes, there is a meeting to discuss them and plan a response, on December 6, at Trinity College Croydon. Details here. And anyone can send in online comments to the Department of Education on the proposed reforms here.