The Moral Idiocy of Humanism (And Liberal Religion)

Michael Lind encapsulates all of my issues with humanism (secular and religious) in a nifty little essay at Salon:

For all the variations, the common theory of human nature underlying contemporary secular humanism seems to be cosmopolitan utilitarianism, the conviction that human beings, if liberated from superstition by science, would behave less like selfish, scheming social apes and more like self-sacrificing social insects, giving their all for the good of the 7 billion members of the global human hive. [Italics mine – CHF] “Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of human ideals…” says Humanist Manifesto III. “Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.”   

The secular humanist movement avoids the difficult question of the coexistence of in-group altruism and inter-group rivalries by imagining, with John Lennon, that conflicts would vanish if only people stopped being religious and patriotic.  

The bit I put in italics is the best description of the misguided ideals of the Enlightenment — that human beings, liberated from superstition by science, will act less like selfish individuals and more like hive insects, cognizant of the whole of humanity as their “tribe,” the collective to which they owe allegiance, loyalty and love. And since the late 18th century, thanks to the likes of Schliermacher, the liberal church has been the handmaiden to this Humanist agenda, advancing it as its own.

In his essay, Lind correctly notes that science — so far as it is a neutral observer rather than a culturally constructed way of knowing and manipulating things (and this assumes neutral observation is possible, and I’m not sure it is) — can tell us nothing about human beings ought to act. Science, at its best, can describe the “is” but never the “ought.” Humanists who believe science does or can are engaging in an act of faith no different than confessing Christ as the Risen Son of God or Muhammad as God’s messenger. Their’s is a hope in the unseen.

And, I will add, the unseeable. Because it is a false hope.

Lind probably wouldn’t go that far. But he notes that much of Humanism’s professed faith (citing various manifestoes issued since 1933, elite documents which probably reflect the rough humanism believed in by most humanists) is tawdry and sentimental. And for many humanist intellectuals, it is a faith in the whole of humanity that demands the global organization — world government — of human beings in order to create the conditions whereby people can stop being primates and become bugs in the great global hive. Bugs whose live do not matter and have no meaning save that they are lived and sacrificed for the good of the hive.

But I would certainly go that far. In fact, I’d go farther. In order for Enlightenment Humanism to realize its dreams, it must wield state power, because the state is the means of human organization in Modernity. And various forms of it have wielded state power, from Naziism to Soviet Communism to Liberal Democracy. Lind quotes both Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt as convinced believers is Darwinian evolution, comparing their 100-year-old confessions with the unwillingness of today’s Republicans to confess much of anything other than a literal reading of Genesis as factual truth (as opposed to poetic truth). But Lind fails to mention that both Wilson and Roosevelt were also strong believers in Social Darwinism. Indeed, 100 years ago, people did not believe in Darwinian evolution without believing in Social Darwinism. They were a bundled pair. And that was Darwinism in power.

And the Liberal Church — the church which surrendered to the truth claims of The Enlightenment — has been the chaplain of Humanism in action, chaplain to the state, muddling a theology of the Kingdom of God from the promises of the Enlightenment and the ability of industrialization to create wealth never before seen in human history. Human beings became good enough to create the Kingdom of God and welcome Jesus upon his return. So the Liberal churches have abandoned an understanding of human beings as grounded and trapped in their sinfulness and needing that relationship with God in order to relate in love with each other for a tawdry and sentimental anthropology grounded in the hope that, once freed of superstition, human beings would become good enough — on their own — to be less selfish and cruel and more altruistic and self-sacrificing. Less like monkeys, more like ants.

I agree with the Radical Orthodox that the church must challenge the truth claims of the Enlightenment and Modernity. (I also appreciate he risks involved in this; Rome stuck its fingers in its ears and for decades sang an off-key “la la la!” in attempt to ignore the Enlightenment and Modernity, looking only very stupid in the process.) This does not mean loudly and stupidly proclaiming “the Earth is flat” or “God created the world in six 24-hour periods some 6,000 years ago, as calculated more or less by Bishop Ussher.”

Rather, it means proclaiming what we understand morally about the nature of humanity. It means refuting Humanist optimism, and being uncompromising in doing so. When it is said, “people are good enough,” we must respond with an emphatic “no, we are not.” When some unattainable goal is put forth (such as eradicating poverty) and it is said “yes, we can,” we must loudly and constantly proclaim “no, we can’t.” We may have even have to say, on occasion, “we must not” or “we should not even try.” We must stand against the false hope in human beings with what we understand to be a very real hope of God’s grace present in Jesus Christ. (Remember, I am speaking now to the church and of the church.) And we must be careful how we use the tools of Modernity. I’m all for John Millibank’s refutation of the social sciences, but I also understand that to be impractical and even a bit foolish.

More than anything, it means confessing that as human beings, we are neither monkeys (constrained solely by our natures) nor insects (existing solely for the well-being of the hive). Both views tend to rob human beings of their dignity, and both also tend to serve power. (I am more concerned about the latter, however, as it becomes a way for the powerful to sacrifice the weakest against their will. In a socially and political liberal religious confession, opposition to “nihilistic individualism” tends to become an embrace of a “nihilistic collectivism” that does in fact see the whole of humanity as a kind of hive for which we should all live, sacrifice and die. Or be compelled to live, sacrifice and die.)

And it means, I think, challenging the notion that literal truth is the only truth that matters. Poetic truth is a truth far more powerful than literal truth, and science has a problem with poetic truth because it cannot be measured. Humanists do believe in a poetic truth (indeed, the various flavors of scientism only work as ethical systems when they embrace poetic truth), but as Lind points out, it is a tawdry and sentimental truth that does a poor job of ascribing meaning to human endeavors and cannot truly reflect human hopes. Poetic truth is an entirely subjective truth (albeit one people can share), and as Science and Humanism profess a faith in the “objective,” at some point, the language of Enlightenment is going to fail us. Which is okay.

As the church, we have a language for that truth. It’s called worship. It’s called liturgy. And this is the language, the poetic truth, we should speak constantly to the world.