Religious perspectives like Judaism, Christianity and Christian post-modernism propose that humans were made in the image of God so have the potential to be moral and virtuous in their lives, so are ultimately able to seek salvation. However, Judaism and post-modernism do not state that human nature includes an original sin, although humans have the potential to be inclined toward sin. Secular perspectives such as humanism and existentialism state that humans are born without purpose so shape their nature through their actions in life, although they differ in their view of morality.
In regard to the nature of human life, Judaism, in a similar manner to Christianity, postulates that God created human beings in his own image and that no other creature was given such an honour. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, an amora and a prominent scholar of the Talmud, stated that a “procession of angels pass before a human being whenever he or she goes, proclaiming – ‘Make way for the image of God”, thus emphasising that the nature of human life is ultimately and innately sacred. Contrary to Christian teachings, it is not part of the human condition that one is born with original sin. Instead, the Jewish philosopher Maimonides argues that “it is human freedom and moral responsibility which determines whether or not a person does wrong”, as opposed to a fatalistic dogma of original sin.
According to Jewish Ethics, it is part of one’s human nature that one have the freedom to act in a morally good or bad way, which can therefore lead to wrongdoing. The nature of the human is to choose to do good rather than evil, despite their freedom to do the opposite, because humans are like God because of holiness within them, because they have the capacity to do good rather than ill, to love rather than hate.
Christianity teaches that human beings have the image of God within them – ‘the imago dei’. This belief is clearly established in Genesis 1.26-27: “Masters of the sea, the birds of Heaven and all creations that move on earth… God created man in his own image”. This suggests that mankind has been made in the image of God and is superior to all other life on the planet, so we have a dominion over the world and must take responsibility for it. This idea is further enforced by Genesis 1.7, which proclaims that “God took the man and settled him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and take care of it” even the sin of Adam and Eve forced us out of the Garden of Eden, we must continue to serve this purpose.
The ultimate purpose of humanity, as Christian thinking proposes is to be with God and to be redeemed by Him because human beings are flawed and imperfect, with a tendency to sin; hence their need to be redeemed by God. Humans are born with original sin, so are inclined toward sin so we must face “hardship, suffering and death” (Corinthians 15:21) as part of the human condition. Another purpose of human life in the view of Christianity is to procreate, as in Genesis 2.24, “man leaves his father and mother and becomes attached to his wife, and they become one flesh”; humans must also focus on this aspect of life and fulfil another part of human destiny.
Postmodernist Christians, like the American philosopher, John D. Caputo state that religion should involve deeds rather than creeds, “a deed, not a thought”, so rather than placing so much emphasis on Christian teachings like “the myth of original sin”, religion should be lived, not just believed. Postmodernist Christians might see the Holy Trinity, not as a statement of what they believe about God but a statement that encourages them to act in the world, an example of how one must act in a good way, to “do as you would be done by” (Matt. 7:12), and act morally for the benefit of all – similar to the ideas conveyed in secular philosophy, postmodernist Christians believe that our human nature consists of humans acting for the greater good rather than to fulfil a doctrine or creed.
The secular view on the nature of human life, such as that of Humanists argue that the nature of human beings is to act as moral beings as often as possible in life as when one dies, that is the end of their life since there is no afterlife. The humanist philosopher AJ Ayer stated that “if the capacity for evil is part of human nature, so is the capacity for good”, alluding to the Humanist view on the nature of human life, that we have the potential to be immoral beings yet we must strive to do what is morally right, in a similar fashion to Jewish ethics.
Humanism seeks to edify humans through science and reason that the end of human life and the world itself is inevitable, but this does not mean that human life is pointless in a nihilistic sense. One must follow the Golden rule as often as possible, because as we are not truly perfect we do not always do what is right, yet we must still attempt to do good, as Humanism teaches that as part of human nature, morality is intrinsically a part of human nature and that what we do in our one life influences the impact and memory that others have of us that live whilst we are dead.
Humanism teaches that moral capacity is intrinsic to human nature, as biology and culture have created our moral sense; some instincts may be selfish or group orientated but we clearly have the capacity for good in our human nature.
Another secular philosophy that offers a perspective on human nature is existentialism, the belief that individual existence, freedom and choice are the key elements of human existence, with which we must use rationality to navigate the irrational nature of the Universe. Existentialist philosopher Jean- Paul Sartre argued that there is no God and therefore no such thing as human nature – “Man is condemned to be free” and therefore has the freedom to do as he pleases without any explicit nature that determines the direction of his existence.
An object such as a television or a smartphone has a creator who conceives of the object, so it exists as an idea before it literally exists. However, as an existentialist, Sartre ascribed the determination of human nature with humanity itself not a creator as he believed there to be no God. Existentialism suggests that “existence precedes essence” (Sartre), meaning that one exists before one has any ultimate purpose in life, so whilst our ultimate purpose is undetermined at birth, we mould our own purpose in life and thus formulate our own ‘human’ nature.
One might argue that religious perspectives on human are optimistic because they offer the prospect of life after death, in which one may continue their existence and journey toward salvation, therefore, encouraging humans to live morally good lives.
Despite the fact that “surely I have been a sinner from birth” (Psalm 51:5), Jesus “died for all” (2 Corinthians 5:15), meaning that everyone has the potential to be saved from damnation because, through being made in God’s image, our human nature professes the possibility of salvation, whereas secular perspectives on human life, like humanism can incite nihilism or narcissism by suggesting that life is inherently meaningless by denying the existence of an afterlife so may encourage people to live hedonistically or immorally, thus evoking negativity in regard to human life.
To counter such an argument, I would argue that, in reality, humanism does not encourage one to live hedonistically, rather instead stating that as morality is an intrinsic part of human nature. As AJ Ayer disputes, “if the capacity for evil is part of human nature, so is the capacity for good”; for every criminal and murderer, there is someone who is willing to donate to charity or become a part of a charitable organisation – willing to do good. Humanism may align with scientific concepts that undermine the belief in an afterlife, but this does not mean that humanity’s importance is negated to any degree by the lack of purpose in human life.
One must live a good life so that their memory lives on in the memories of others by setting a moral example to subsequent genrations. Therefore, humanism conveys a positive perspective on human life by willing humanity to act in a moral way despite human temptation to do evil.
Nevertheless, despite the propensity of humanism and other secular perspectives to offer a positive outlook on human life, it may also have the capacity to inflict suffering and depression when one considers the fact that secular views on human life tend to emphasise the meaninglessness of one’s existence through the supposed probability of scientific theory.
These views offer what could be considered a logical positivist perspective on human life, despite the fact that such a theory, according to the prominent logical positivist AJ Ayer, denies that “a proposition which is empty of all factual content can be true and useful and surprising”, like emotional truths, such as love, or the importance of art or music for example. A secular view is often self-contradictory as it claims to challenge dogmatic beliefs when it can tend to be dogmatic itself, so is not entirely positive.
Despite the argument put forward previously, humanism, like most secular beliefs, does not have an entire basis in logical positivism and a devout belief in the truth of science. The philosopher Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose writings influenced humanism, proposed that “reason, without doubt, must ultimately determine everything”. This means that a humanist would view science as helpful in the respect that it can aid our understanding of the Universe and human life, yet it can be challenged and re-evaluated without necessarily being regarded as an empirical undeniable truth.
Secular perspectives can incorporate emotional truths or facts like love and empathy and be positive, more so than religious perspectives on human life, because it argues that humans are inherently moral beings. In conclusion, whilst one might argue that religious perspectives on human life are more positive because of their emphasis on an afterlife which may encourage people to live morally and that secular perspectives on human life are too dependent on science to be cognisant of emotional truths than transcend empiricism, secular perspectives, such as Humanism, acknowledge that science can be challenged or re-appraised without contradiction and that by living one’s life with the certainty of death, one can lead a moral life devoid of hedonism by placing importance on the necessity to do good to leave a positive memory of themselves on earth in the minds of others.