God only knows.

God makes his plan.

The information is unavailable

to the mortal man.

—Paul Simon, “Slip-Slidin’ Away”

From the first, Buffalo seemed unlikely turf for cosmological battle. Buffalo is Middle America: home for two former U.S. Presidents (Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland), training ground for baseball pitcher Warren Spahn, and principal staging area for American visitors to Niagara Falls. Western New York is conservative country, 60 percent Roman Catholic. It is the last place anyone would expect to find a battle pitting the tenets of American evangelical revivalism against the world view of secular humanists.

But for one week in August, that was exactly what happened. Billy Graham brought crusade evangelism to Pilot Field in downtown Buffalo, while out at the Amherst campus of the State University of New York (SUNY)/College at Buffalo the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) held its tenth world congress.

When I heard about it, my curiosity was piqued. This I had to see. So I began making preparations for a trek to Buffalo.

Like all objective journalists, I went with my prejudices. I’m a Billy Graham fan. I went to report on the two meetings—their similarities and contrasts—but when push comes to shove, I clearly identify with one side. So I found myself preparing for the battle by not only packing my Bible, but C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and a modern articulation of Aquinas’s five proofs of God’s existence.

Somewhere, I knew, in some intellectual gymnasium with Wagner’s Gotterdamerung playing in the background, a secular humanist was doing the same thing: priming himself with Darwinian evolutionary theory, Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, Dewian educational principles, and sex by Margaret Sanger. I didn’t want to be caught short.

I jumped in my car, and as I hummed over the Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York toll roads, I rehearsed questions, anticipated answers, and explored provocative thoughts.

The battle was about to be joined.

The Humanists

Monday morning I made my way to the SUNY campus in Buffalo. Picking up a conference schedule, I looked over the meeting topics. They offered the wide diversity characteristic of many a “world congress”: “Building a World Community,” “Ethics of the Future,” “Sex and Gender in the 21st Century,” “Religions of the Future,” “Science and Technology,” “Pseudoscience and the Paranormal,” “Ecology and Population,” “Human Rights,” “Moral Education,” and “Global War and Peace.”

After roughing out a schedule in my mind, I wandered over to the table displays of publishers, movements, and other organizations represented at the meeting. I knew that IHEU is an umbrella organization headquartered in the Netherlands, but I had not realized its list of 65 affiliated organizations (representing four million members) covered such a wide range of interests. There were speakers from 21 different countries. Working groups on disarmament, abortion, human rights, and even Esperanto (the 101-year-old movement for a universal language) were represented. American humanist groups included the American Humanist Association, the American Ethical Union, and the Fellowship of Religious Humanists.

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Prometheus Books, publisher of over 60 humanist titles each year, was having a field day. As one woman employee put it, “This is really our audience. It feels good to see so many of our authors here and to talk to people in sympathy with their views. We attend many meetings where we’re on the fringe. Here we’re center stage.”

The various “bibles” of humanism were prominently displayed: books by Paul Kurtz such as The Humanist Alternative and In Defense of Secular Humanism. And the definitive book by Corliss Lamont, The Philosophy of Humanism.

Indeed, humanists are a bookish people. The scent of humanism is eau de librarie. Everything smacks of intellectual effort and pencil shavings. Bearded pipe smokers command the terrain; thinking, not feeling, is the fashion.

On the other hand, passionate conviction is not foreign to humanist discussions. I overheard one woman passionately complaining to one of the conference organizers about the inordinate amount of time scheduled for lecturing with so little left for personal interaction and discussion. “I didn’t come all this way to sit in lectures all day. I want to meet some other humanists.”

In the range of meetings, the organizational hustling, and the steady stream of low-level grousing, a humanist convention reminded me very much of the National Religious Broadcasters convention. It was when I began to attend the meetings that I realized I had actually stumbled upon a whole new world.

I dropped in on a session called “Religions of the Future I.” Frank Miosi was presenting a paper, “The Future of Religion,” a discussion of how future religion will “recast the definition both of the divine and of the meaning of religion.” In listening to his explanation of how the divine will change (best summed up by saying the “divine” will no longer be absolute, but relative; I hope someone remembers to tell the divine), I discovered an interesting audience response.

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Evangelical audiences react to something they like by saying “Amen.” Black church audiences say, “Amen, brother.” Charismatic audiences say, “Praise the Lord.” Humanist audiences snicker. For example, at one point Miosi said, “If God is all powerful, then why does evil exist?” The audience snickered knowingly. “If God is all wise, why does he bind himself and limit his effectiveness?” (snicker). “Why does God allow young children to die, earthquakes to destroy cities, famine to ravage villages, thalidomide babies to be born?” (angry snort). “Why would a real God allow 747s full of innocent people to be shot down?” (outraged laughter). Obviously the laughter is not directed at the tragedies mentioned, but reflects the humanists’ principal objection to the religions of the world—the belief in an all-powerful, absolute God who directs human affairs and occasionally interjects himself in miraculous ways.

Indeed, the humanist world view is built on the presupposition of a naturalistic world, where the scientific method, human logic and reason, and man himself are the measure of all things. God does not exist for most humanists; and if he does exist (for those who call themselves religious humanists) he is not the all-powerful, absolute being we worship.

Paul Kurtz, professor of philosophy at the SUNY/College at Buffalo and a principal theorist in the humanist movement, put it this way: “Human reason and science hold the keys to understanding the universe and to solving world problems. We deplore efforts to look outside nature for salvation, or trying to explain the world in supernatural terms.”

This rejection of a supernatural world view leads to a second cardinal principle: The absolute value of each individual human being and his or her right to free choice. When humanists try to describe “salvation,” or the summum bonum of the humanist life, they talk about it in terms of intellectual development. Joe Barnhardt, a former Southern Baptist fundamentalist turned skewerer of prominent religious figures like Billy Graham, said, “We too believe in a ‘born again’ experience, only for us everyone must be born again into the family of man. Babies are born into this world and must learn ethics. Humanists need to be ethically educated. That’s our salvation experience.”

Which leads to the third cardinal principle of humanism: Their hope for a perfect world built on tolerance of all reasonable, logical views. Such a world would be free of strife, presumably because reasonable people, given enough time and understanding, would come to agree on fundamental solutions to world problems. Mankind would live in respectful peace. Because there would be no violence and war, and because problems such as pollution, overpopulation, racism, and education would be attacked logically, our standard of living would rise and world peace would become a reality.

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Some progress is being made on these fronts, according to Edd Doerr, vice-president of the American Humanist Association: “We have made progress in race relations, women’s rights, slowing of population growth, abortion rights, and the peace movement. Humanists have been at the forefront of many of these battles, and our numbers and influence are growing. We’re optimistic.”

People become humanists in several ways. One is to grow up in the tradition. In Europe, particularly, the humanist legacy is long: “My father was a very active humanist,” remembered a young West German lawyer. “Some of my earliest memories are of traveling to humanist conferences and listening to my father speak. So it has always been natural for me to involve myself in humanist activities.”

Another way to become a humanist is through a rational exploration of alternatives and a decision for the humanist way. “I always liked discussing issues of philosophical importance with my friends,” said a human-rights worker from the Netherlands. “After they had heard my views they would often say, ‘You’re a humanist.’ They said it often enough that finally I went out and bought a book on humanism, and after reading it decided that I was a humanist. And then I got active in humanist causes.”

Still a third experience is a strong reaction against one’s religious upbringing. Bette Chambers was raised a Southern Baptist. When she was 14 she realized that the people in her church were willing to send money to Africa for missions to black people, but wouldn’t dream of giving money to American blacks. “I decided that wasn’t fair. From that time I started looking for a religion that was fair. I ended up a humanist.”

I ended up liking the humanists I talked to at the conference. I liked much of what they had to say. Many of their goals were good: I’m for world peace; I’m for population control by rational means rather than the natural controls of war, pestilence, and famine. Racism is bad. Women need to get a fair shake. In fact, in several meetings I almost caught myself snickering.

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But then I’d hear something so off the wall that I’d get blown away with its absurdity. One speaker defended abortion by saying something like this: “Before we had liberalized abortion laws, five million women each year died of overparenting. Now because those women can control the size of their families through abortion, far fewer of the five million die.” Death by overparenting?

I emerged from my meetings into a humid, overcast day of threatening rain and heat. The speeches I had heard did little to lighten things. They offered good food for thought, but seemed short on answers. The dreary day matched my mood.

The Evangelicals

As I drove from the SUNY campus to Pilot Field in downtown Buffalo, the sun broke through. A good omen, I thought. My good feelings lasted until I reached downtown, got hopelessly lost, and then, after finding the stadium, couldn’t find a parking spot. I’ll be honest: my confidence in supernatural providence wavered.

Grab a bite of food, Terry, I said to myself. You’ll need a bit of physical sustenance to lay the foundation for the spiritual nourishment about to be received. Man cannot live by Billy alone, I thought, and headed for Garcia’s for a sirloin steak with salad and a Diet Coke. After ordering I visited the men’s room. “Bet I know where you’re going,” volunteered the man who walked in behind me.

“Where’s that?” I said.

“The Billy Graham Crusade. I can tell by that bag over your shoulder.”

Frankly, the leather case in which I carry my recorder, pencils, and note pads could tip no one off that I was headed to Pilot Field for an evangelistic crusade. But I let it pass.

“I’m thinking of going, too,” he said. “My wife won’t go. She says she’ll go back to her office and work late till I’m done. I don’t know. Our priest mentioned it yesterday. Said people in the parish could go if they wanted. Or not go. Up to them. He didn’t care one way or the other.… Maybe I’ll go.”

“I think you should,” I volunteered.

It is 6:00 by the time I am seated at the stadium, an hour and a half before game time—er, the start of the service. Pilot Field is the home of the Buffalo Bisons, a Triple A baseball affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. It’s a very fine stadium, seating 20,000. Over the outfield fence one can see the red brick factories of industrial Buffalo. In the foreground, there is a honeycomb of freeway ramps, with cars scurrying up and down and around. People are starting to fill the seats. The 3,000-voice choir, volunteers from local churches, are mostly in place and beginning to practice. I can’t help wondering whether any of the people filing in are secular humanists. Probably there are very few intentional ones, but a ton of people live and think as if they were humanists—without even knowing it.

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At seven o’clock, a full half-hour before the service begins, the stadium is almost full. No last-minute crush here. I walk under the stands, by tables piled high with Graham-authored books. Vendors also sell tapes, pamphlets, and records. I’m relieved to find no Billy Graham T-shirts, autographed photos, or dolls.

About 7:25 the choir begins to sing. Graham walks onto the field and takes his seat on the platform, constructed over second base. Dignitaries are announced. Local crusade committee members and politicians pray and welcome and honor Dr. Graham. The service does not drag, however, and by 8:00 he begins to speak.

“Is sin worth it?”

“One thing is sure. Whatever is missed by our court system, God will judge. In the end it will all come out.”

“One thing you should never forget, though: God loves you.”

“Jesus said, ‘He that believeth on my word shall have everlasting life.’ ”

“You are under the sentence of death—but you can come into everlasting life.”

“Christians have hope because of Christ, because God raised him from the dead. Outside of Christ there is no hope.”

“You make this commitment in public. There is no such thing as private religion before the Lord.”

Graham’s statements are simple, illustrated with quotations from Time magazine, with stories of his travels, or with verses of Scripture. His message cannot be misunderstood. It is uncompromising, yet kind. He calls people to make a decision.

The sermon is the antithesis of what I heard earlier in the day. For Graham there is a God, a powerful God who both controls and cares. Individual human beings are important, but only in their relation to God. By themselves they are lost and hopeless. The future is longer for Graham. It extends beyond this life into eternity.

I sit for an hour in the stadium after the service ends. Over 1,000 have gone forward in response to Graham’s invitation to accept the person of Jesus, and they are being advised by an equal number of volunteer counselors.

A woman two seats away stays also. I ask her what she thought of the service. “It was good,” she says. “He didn’t convince me, I guess. It doesn’t feel comfortable to me. I came because my daughter’s in the choir and she wanted me to come.”

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“What doesn’t feel comfortable?”

“It’s too personal. I grew up Catholic, then for a long time fell away from the church. My family did too. Then my daughter got born again. I went to her new church, but I didn’t like it—too much hand-waving and hugging.

“But my daughter did seem happier. So it made me think maybe I should go back to church. Now I go to mass regularly again.

“The thing I like about Mr. Graham is I think he would say it’s okay for me to go to the Catholic church. What’s important to him is believing in Jesus. And I believe in Jesus.”

Humanists Versus Evangelicals

Tuesday turned hotter and muggier, and so did the rhetoric—particularly at a press conference where Joe Barnhardt criticized Billy Graham’s theology: “It is a vicious theology, a religion of fire insurance. If you don’t believe the way Billy Graham wants you to believe, then you go to hell. I’d call that cosmic terrorism.”

Actually, Barnhardt’s press conference statements were not exactly what they seemed to be. The humanists wanted Billy Graham to recognize them. They were sending the message through newspaper reporters that they wanted to debate him. The week before, Paul Kurtz had been quoted in the Buffalo News as saying, “We welcome Mr. Graham, but we consider his fundamentalist religion obsolete. The world is a global community requiring a new set of values, not something developed thousands of years ago. We call for dialogue and negotiations with Mr. Graham on these issues.”

Although very few at the crusade were even aware of the humanist conference, the Graham presence was a common topic for the humanists. “I wish he would come out and speak to us,” said one young humanist. “We all know he’s an honest person. We just disagree with what he teaches.”

In such comments I heard a wistful longing for respect. The humanists seemed willing to tolerate some disagreement with their viewpoints on the part of the evangelist. A relationship might be possible—for some humanists. But it really drives them nuts to be categorically dismissed as devils incarnate.

I felt the flip side. It hurt to hear Billy Graham maligned. Okay, so it was just a part of press-conference terrorism in a vigorous competition for newspaper space. So it’s just part of the political game of winning adherents. It still hurt.

I now know how secular humanists must feel when their positions are distorted and misreported.

Some Questions, Some Answers

In one short week observing humanists, I couldn’t possibly get all my questions answered. I still wonder, for example, why so many former Southern Baptists have become outspoken humanists. And why female humanists complaining about being excluded from leadership of humanist organizations sound just like female Christians complaining about being excluded from leadership of Christian organizations. And why a follower of Lyndon Larouche was bugging everyone to death at the conference.

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But I did get answers to some of my questions, and formed some opinions on the humanist movement as a whole:

1. I don’t think humanists understand that in championing tolerance as an operating principle they sound and act incredibly intolerant.

I can understand how that happens. For example, as a Christian at a humanist conference, I found myself getting pretty intolerant over being labeled intolerant. I thought I was being pretty cordial, considering the circumstances. By setting up tolerance as not only a way to behave, but as a fundamental intellectual operating principle, humanists end up committing the very sin they deplore. Tolerance is a wonderful attitude, but when you insist that everyone else operate by your definition of tolerance, you end up intolerant. It amounts to insisting that each person’s thinking be treated as equally valid except for those who do not treat each person’s thinking as equally valid. Anyone who believes in divine revelation (a large proportion of the world’s population) is disqualified from respect by humanists, because such a person is prepared to say what’s right and wrong based on his understanding of God’s word. Fundamentalists get treated like fools, and humanists seem arrogant and exclusive.

To be fair, there was some recognition of this problem. On opening night, one speaker noted the need for more joy among humanists, more recognition of the awe of life. Another speaker, Kumund Joshi, noted that if humanists are to make progress worldwide, it is “no longer necessary to fight religion; we must fight our own arrogance.” She went on to say that rhetoric alone is not enough, that “work alone is effective.” Which leads to a second observation:

2. The glue that holds humanists together is most often expressed negatively: the evils of religion.

It is tempting to think that this is because many humanists come out of religious backgrounds. Thus, their negativism is an understandable form of sour grapes.

Or it can be explained as an occupational hazard of debate in the public arena. To convince people your idea is best, you must at some point show where other ideas are wrong. All movements and “theologies” must clearly identify the bad guys.

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But the reason for the ubiquitous negative rhetoric is probably a bit deeper and more legitimate than either of these explanations. The philosophy of humanism, because of its goal of incorporating such a diversity of opinion and approach, almost demands a negative apologetic. Only negatives can command universal agreement. There are no authoritative scriptures to hold humanists together. There is no divine founder, and not even a human path-breaker, like the Buddha, to emulate. The glue must be negative reaction. Which leads to a further consequence:

3. The lack of fellowship and leadership in the movement.

Perhaps the lack of leadership is a natural consequence of such a mélange of causes. The IHEU is indeed a loose coalition of guerrilla fighters rather than a unified panzer division. This is intended.

But the lack of fellowship is truly bothersome to many humanists. I noticed the rather dry consequences.

The only way I can think to describe this is through a discovery I made several years ago. At that time I loved to watch Monday night football, but I disliked Howard Cosell. So I got in the habit of watching the game with the sound turned off. It worked well—for a while. The relief at not having to hear Cosell pontificate was satisfying. But eventually I realized that the drama of the game was significantly reduced. Not only the announcers, but the crowd noise and, most of all, the dramatic music played behind introductions and highlights really did add to the emotional impact of the game.

In a similar way, IHEU seemed to lack any background music. There was no melody to hold the meeting together, and no emotional dimension to the presentations. Perhaps this is intentional—part of the package of relying on rational thought alone. But it seemed a minus to me. I heard humanists themselves speak of a desire for a little more “background music” in their movement.

4. Finally, I found the common ignorance of what the future holds a bit disconcerting.

Hope for humanists seems very undefined. In our century of unrest and tragedy, human progress seems a remarkably dim dream. I’m sure humanists would be more optimistic about the potential of human progress. But their expressions of it did little to make me feel secure.

Poolside Conclusion

Perhaps the week’s most significant observation, however, came not in a SUNY classroom or stadium box seat, but by my hotel pool. After one particularly pleasant dip, I crawled to my chaise longue and was languishing lizardlike in the midday heat. As my fellow sun worshipers know, a wet body just emerging from the pool can feel uncomfortably chilly. Then, after time in the sun, the body again heats to the point of discomfort. But about halfway between those two events, there is a time when everything is just right. The clean, relaxed body is just the perfect temperature; a cool breeze relaxes it even more; and at that moment you can’t imagine how things could be any better.

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Crusades and conferences are like that, too. Somewhere between the initial awkwardness and ignorance of the opening meetings, and the end-of-the-conference boredom and intellectual overheating, there is a time when everything comes together. That special moment in Buffalo came for me with Billy Graham’s invitation to receive Christ on the second night of the crusade.

To be honest, you can see Graham better on TV. In person you are a long distance from his lectern, and you battle with the distractions of 20,000 people and a less-than-perfect sound system. Still, you experience something remarkable when you are there, something that doesn’t come across on TV.

As usual, many responded to Graham’s invitation. Over 1,000 got up out of their seats and walked down on the field. Obviously something dramatic was happening in their lives.

For me, too, the sense of something powerful filled my soul. Nothing like this happens at a humanist conference. Nothing even comes close.

The huge choir sings “Just As I Am” in the background and people come.

Graham stands pillarlike in prayer and people come.

Others pray and watch and feel the goose bumps all over—and still more people come.

The spectacle of so many people publicly changing their lives, making a decision to live in a whole new way, is overwhelming. They are driving a stake in the ground, declaring that from this moment on, they will go a whole new direction.

How can that kind of change be explained? For me, there is only one way: God is at work. He is at work in a way no humanist—no, not only no humanist but no Christian, either—can possibly understand.

There was no contest in Buffalo. The battle I had come for was nothing more than a few people, humanists and Christians, throwing words around.

But when the Holy Spirit works in people’s lives, a whole new level is reached. God is at work—nothing more, and nothing less. Philosophies compete. Their spokesmen can debate. But who can compete with God?

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