The other night on a local news-talk station, the usually acerbic hosts were having a pleasant conversation with the communications director for the Humanist Association, which has been sponsoring ad campaigns across the country with slogans like, “Be Good for Goodness Sake,” “No God, No Problem,” and “Don’t Believe in God? Join the Club.”

When asked to describe the central tenet of humanism, the guest quoted the writer Kurt Vonnegut’s definition: “I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.” I was struck by the stark simplicity of that statement and I wondered if Vonnegut or any other humanist who might use that term had ever experienced grace.

If this is a good definition of humanism, it certainly sets humanism against what passes as religion (earning the favor of gods or God by our moral performance and fearing reciprocation if we fail to live up to divine standards), but it doesn’t take account of grace. The Christian concept of grace, of course, is the idea that we don’t get what we deserve (either rewards or punishment); instead, we get what Christ deserved by his life and death in our place.

I’ve also recently finished reading Frankie Schaeffer’s recent book, Patience with God, and in it he traces the relationship between many of the New Atheists and their religious upbringing. He asserts that in his own life and in the lives of many of those he chronicles, grace was absent (perhaps believed in, but life never functioned according to it). Is there a relationship between the desire to throw off the tyranny of the Law by embracing oneself as “Lord and Savior” and ignorance of grace?