Anyone who is somewhat familiar with my work knows I defend human exeptionalism from distinctly non religious/theistic bases.  Some people disagree with me about HE, of course.  But some who accept HE disagree that it can be rationally defended, seeing religion as a necessary predicate to the principle.

This post is not about whether HE should be accepted, but whether it can be defended from a non religious perspective.  First, a bit of history: In the Fall Human Life Review, I published an article about the dangers of a bioethics that rejects intrinsic human dignity.  My article was not “about” this issue, but I did make a point of noting that HE does not rely on religion. From. The Bioethics Threat to Universal Human Rights:”

Happily, human exceptionalism does not require belief in a transcendent God, or indeed, spiritual allusions of any kind if we understand that what matters morally is not the capacities of the individual—which, after all, are transitory—but our intrinsic natures as human beings—which are innate. We, and only we, in the known physical universe, are hard wired—whether through creation, intelligent design, or random evolution—to be moral beings.

Consider: Animals certainly have exceptional capabilities, e.g., the bat’s sonar or the gorilla’s strength. But these are mere physical distinctions that have no more significant moral implications than my having less value to someone with 20/20 vision because I wear glasses. In contrast, humans are exceptional in ways that separate us morally—rather than physically—from fauna, e.g., rationality, creativity, abstract thinking, moral agency and accountability—the list is long—which arise from our natures and are possessed by all of us unless interfered with by immaturity, illness, or disability. As the philosopher Hans Jonas put it, so well, “something like an ‘ought to’ can issue only from man and is alien to everything outside him.”

My position generated some push back from the religious community, as it often does.  An Anglican Fellowship priest and religious studies professor named W. Ross Blackburn wrote a very respectful and earnest rebuttal to the proposition of a secular HE in the current (Winter) Human Life Review.  The article has now also been published in CrisisHere is part of what he wrote:

In the end, Smith’s argument is rooted in an a priori presupposition, indeed a metaphysical presupposition, which not all share and which cannot be proven. My point here is not that Smith is wrong, but only that he argues religiously. Metaphysics, by definition, deals with first principles, unproven presuppositions upon which an argument or a worldview is built. Logically speaking, God is a metaphysical presupposition. So is not-God. And, I would argue, so is the exceptionalism of mankind. Calling a perspective “secular” does not make it irreligious, it only alerts us that the metaphysical presupposition of the perspective excludes God...

Instead of acquiescing to the implicitly held notion that Christian ideas are based on faith, while secular ideas are based on rationality, we should make it clear that everyone reasons from faith, from presuppositions which cannot be proven but are held nonetheless. Such questions counter the defensive posture that many Christians reflexively take when confronted by rules of secular argument, and free us to think more clearly, creatively, and boldly.

The HLR thought this was such an important and interesting topic that the next issue will have a symposium on whether human exceptionalism can be defended without resort to God, for which I replied to Professor Blackburn at some length. Here is a preview of coming attractions:
There is an important difference between “belief” and “faith.”  The former is often derived by weighing argument, reviewing evidence, observing, researching, etc..  Perhaps human exceptionalism can’t be “proved” to a metaphysical certainty, but it can certainly be discovered and demonstrated.  In contrast, faith is belief that “does not rest on logical proof or material evidence,” or as the author of Hebrews so eloquently put it, “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  That is a distinction with a real difference in the context of this discussion.  We can ascertain and study the many ways in which human nature differs from animal nature. Not so the existence of a soul or the reality of salvation.

It is my burning desire to stimulate a debate about human exceptionalism internationally because I perceive it as the crucial issue of the 21st Century, with direct consequences to liberty, the right to life, and human economic and cultural thriving. There will be many good advocates weighing in on both sides of the product, HE amiable argument.  When the issue comes out, I’ll let y’all know. Thanks to HLR and Professor Blackburn for taking the issue with the seriousness it requires.

Articles by Wesley J. Smith


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