Arts and Culture

Making Sense of Human Existence

SOME READERS of this column have from time to time suggested that I am too hard on secular humanists.

The criticism upsets me because I never want to be “too hard” on anyone. In this column I frequently criticize the philosophy of secular humanism, but I never want to judge anyone. Some of the most attractive people whom I have met in my life have been secular humanists. Though I disagree with their philosophy, I hope I never judge them as persons. I believe that when we come before Christ at the last judgment we may be very surprised by the number of people who have claimed that they do not believe in God, but yet have been very moral people.

I have taught philosophy at several secular colleges and universities, including Brooklyn College, Queens College and New York University. I have also taught at the Princeton Theological Seminary. My experience in all of those institutions was enjoyable and encouraging. I never experienced anything even remotely resembling anti-Catholicism. I found a genuine interest in religion among students, and perhaps some curiosity because even though I was a priest at the time, I did not wear my collar when I taught at these schools.

My problem and concern is not with individual secular humanists, but rather with the secular humanistic vision of reality. I think it misses the mystery of persons. Because secular humanists argue that God does not exist, there is no point in looking for absolute truth or some providential guidance for human living.

Reality Is Not Absurd

My general outlook on secular humanism is that the secular humanist view of the absence of God, and the belief that death is the end of human existence, makes human life absurd.

The death of a loved one is a terrible experience for those who love the deceased. There is no human experience that can compare to losing a loved one through death. It is difficult to convince some of our contemporaries that belief in God and belief in life beyond the grave is crucial if we wish to avoid the view that human existence is absurd. This is one reason that I admire some existentialist philosophers. They see clearly that without God – and an eternity with God – human existence makes no sense.

At the risk of oversimplifying, I think that existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre saw that the deepest need and desire of humans was for God. Because he did not think God existed, he concluded that life was absurd and referred to the human person as a useless passion. Even thinking about Sartre’s view can help us appreciate how valuable religious faith is. For the believer, reality is not absurd, but rather it is so meaningful that no one can appreciate it fully.

I believe that God’s existence and involvement in our lives makes the narrative of our lives both exciting and beautiful. There is a depth to every human life that seems infinite because of God’s presence. I think the novelist Walker Percy pointed to this in a humorous self-interview he gave many years ago. When Percy posed the question concerning why he did not accept secular humanism as a philosophy to guide his life, his response was the following:

“This life is much too much trouble. Far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then be asked what you make of it to have to answer, ‘Scientific Humanism.’ That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore, I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight; i.e. God. In fact, I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything else.”

I believe that faith in God and belief in life beyond the grave enriches the narrative of everyone’s life. That God is part of my story means that there is a profound mystery about living as a priest. I will never understand that mystery completely, but I can go deeper and deeper into it and find within it a greater and greater depth and richness. Every person can make a similar statement.

I am reminded of the scene in Thornton Wilder’s marvelous play “Our Town.” When Emily returns from the grave and asks the narrator of the play, who is a stand-in for God, if anyone appreciates human living completely. He answers: “The saints and the poets. They do a little.”

Probably my main problem with the philosophy of secular humanism is that it shrinks the narrative of every person’s life. There is no room within the secular humanist’s view for the God Who loves everyone infinitely with a love that does not have to be won or earned. Within the secular humanist’s view, there is no room for an infinite gift.


Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).

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