I’d like to coin a phrase: Pharisaic Humanism. The phrase describes what I think is the tragic flaw of so-called “secular humanism.”
Humanism has never been one thing. Renaissance humanism was a bundle of things, unified mainly by a principle we all learned (or were supposed to) for that literature exam back in college: it shifted the focus from giving God the glory to giving man his due–an adequate summary of what the never-much-read essay by Pico della Mirandola was doing in the first humanist manifesto, his Oration on the Dignity of Man.
Mind you, Renaissance humanism was not about subtracting from God’s glory. It simply saw humanity as his crowning achievement, endowed with beauty, intelligence, creative power and free will rather than some pitiful mob of sinners begging for mercy and salvation.
But it’s a short step from that to Newtonian Physics and Hume’s philosophy and a sequence of movements that put God and religion on the defensive, as if the creature had at last learned to stand on his own two feet, think for himself, and was ready to make his own way in the world without papa’s rules.
In the Enlightenment, without much flourish, it was permissible for God to die. Maybe that’s why the era produced the most poignant Requiem Mass ever written–Mozart’s–because its real sadness springs from the loss of the hero of western religion. If you have never wept at its Dies Irae, you have never wept for the right thing.
Arising out of this new self-confidence were new theories of government and social order, including America’s secular democracy. Kings were uncrowned. Revolutions were fought. Money under new theories of wealth became popular: greed was transformed into investment and venture, and the virtue of poverty was laid aside as a lingering superstition of the Middle Ages, like the Eucharist and biblical miracles.
These secular and rationalist movements were not the essence of humanist thinking—and the term was, as far as I can tell, almost never used to describe them. But without a doubt they were consequences of what had taken shape in the sixteenth century, across Europe. The eighteenth century, which both Kant and Diderot called “enlightenment,” was to ideas what the previous centuries had been to art, music and literature.
They were also self-satisfied, arrivistic, a bit too spiteful. Of course, we all applaud Hume, puzzle with Kant, laugh with Voltaire, and nod in agreement with Hegel. If God was spared the executioner’s blade, as Charles I and Louis XVI were not, he was at least put on notice and a renewable contract without tenure.
His good behaviour was demanded by a world that in its European format anyway increasingly found his word and commandments onerous rather than sources for progress and material good. His limitations were surprisingly similar to those imposed on the surviving monarchs under evolving ideas of constitutionalism: he had the right to warn and to be advised. In America he had the additional privilege of being the source of certain “rights” that people possessed apart from those defined by usurious kings.
But let me just linger over the word “self-satisfied.”
Early humanism was all about the power of the human imagination—not just as it gets expressed in Shakespeare’s plays or the Sistine chapel ceiling (although those are worthy coordinates), but also in the cartoons of Da Vinci and the scientific spirit of Francis Bacon. In the theological era, before the eighteenth century, self-satisfaction was another word for pride, and considered the greatest of sins, that “by which Satan fell.”
Making yourself like God, however, was not an especially Christian idea. It keeps Gilgamesh from his prize, gets both Achilles and Agamemnon killed, Prometheus shackled, Job broken and doomed to listen to the rants of gossips–the worst of all puinishments.
Part of the irony and beauty of the death of Jesus and the death of Socrates is that they die “in the right,” but not because they are trying to be godlike. They are innocent of vanity (Socrates a little less than Jesus perhaps), or to use the biblical trope, they humble themselves to be exalted. The sophists and aereopagites of Greece were to that process what the priests and pharisees were to Jesus.
In Dante’s Hell the proud are regarded as defective in love and generosity. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, pride is the idolatry of believing in an imperial Church or in the Stuart monarchs’ claim to divine kingship. The point is not that a succession of thinkers was correct in their condemnation of vanity, idolatry and self-satisfaction, but that with loss of a theological ideology to keep things under control—the idea that pride is a dangerous course of action, the idea that an unrelenting fate or a supreme God punishes pride—the stage was set for a new kind of idolatry.
I speak of scientism, secularism, the conviction that the idols of the tribe are superior to the God of human history. Pico’s claim was fairly modest in the fifteenth century: God must be pretty remarkable because man is truly remarkable. In the sixteenth, Shakespeare makes Hamlet exclaim, “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!”
The verse is often quoted out of context, minus Hamlet’s conclusion–the bit that keeps it from being an instance of self-worship: “And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights me not.” What we miss—or rather, what we don’t really have—in a world in which human intelligence, the natural order, and material progress are the measures of all things, is distance.
What we get in exchange for the idea of Adam and his heavenly maker is the idea of a being infinitely small but elementally the same as the boundless cosmos. We are what we see. Carl Sagan’s insipid chorus that “We are star stuff” makes perfect sense if you honestly believe that it is the universe defined by physics that evokes what Otto called the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. But I personally doubt many people have their peak experiences in meditating on the analogy between themselves and the dust on Mars. It is simply an attempt to endow science with the awe, mystery and wonder that people possessed when awe, mystery and wonder were religious, the sort of wonder Donne examines in “I am a little world made cunningly.”
What we get in exchange for the idea of having infinite worth derived from an infinite being who raises that smallness to dignity is the idea that we have more in common with what we eat than what we pray to—much more, since what we pray to doesn’t exist at all.
Away with the idea that we are made for higher things. In with the idea that we are about as “high” as it gets, and that what we feel and know are adequate instruments (or at least the only instruments available) for leading fully human lives.
The distance between the aspirations of man, as Aristotle realized, and the physical realities of our existence are the stuff of comedy. We have always wanted immortality and ended up dead. We have always wanted complete knowledge and ended up settling for glimpses of the truth. Science is one of those glimpses, not the True Gnosis of the Elect.
Spun differently, this distance can be the source of tragedy, compassion, challenge, heroism, and creativity. But our lives without distance, without a sense of proportion and humility, are merely farcical. The darker legacy of the Enlightenment in the form of the cult of science and the religion of naturalism gave us farce and deprived us of the tragic and the comic. There was no humanism in that, just self-glorification. Only pride.
I reject the idols of self-esteem, the whole philosophy called “secular humanism” as an oxymoron, in the same way Jesus rejected the Pharisees’ claims to piety and righteousness.
First, because there is no true humanism that is not based on a profound sense of humility. A parochial form of atheism may divide the world into Brights and Dims with the same glee the church fathers once divided the world between orthodoxy and heresy, but only the humanism of the Pharisees would be content with such a self-satisfied and facile division of the world.
“The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘My God, I thank You that I am not like these sinners’.”
Humanists cannot side with the uncompassionate because any humanism worth its salt will, secondly, begin with reverence for human life and a sense of gratitude that among all the creatures of the earth we are endowed with knowledge and understanding. When Job challenges the theology of the backbiters, those are the grounds he uses in his own defense: “I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you in any way.” We do not need to deny God’s existence, or for that matter have any position on it, in order to give man the credit for the accomplishments of human civilization.
Real humanists have to believe in a common humanity based on intelligence, not on some falsely deduced “global community” held together by a tissue of inconsistent ethical norms carved out in blissful ignorance of the religious values it despises.
Finally, I charge secular humanists with hypocrisy and a failure of philanthropy. The most maligned and self indulgent religions can exhibit charity, bury their dead, visit the sick, fund hospitals and medical research, feed the hungry, create orphanages, give to the poor. Say what you will about Christianity, it is a matter of record that the church virtually invented charity—so much so that the emperor Julian scolds his pagan priests for not doing enough for the poor of the Empire.
The Pharisees were notorious for piling on empty phrases, full of critique and challenges and legal posturing, proud of their tithing, careful to do just enough. Secular humanism has never built a hospital, never paid a teacher’s salary, never endowed a college, never funded medical research, never founded a hospice, never sent workers to deal with a health crisis in Malawi or plant trees in Zambia and never dried a grieving eye. It has never expressed the humanist virtue of compassion in a material way.
If many secular humanists are wealthy, it has to be because they find the tradition of Christian charity more objectionable than the virgin birth. Intellectual critique is easy and cheap; competing with the charitable impulses of religion is expensive. If the answer is that religion can afford to do these things because the church is rich, I say Christians developed these habits when they were poor and in part because they were poor.
Does the secular humanist aversion towards charity arise out of the Pharisaic sense of knowing better and therefore “being” better? Is it because too many of the poorest and most vulnerable are also Dim, or at least religious? Or is it because the word “humanism” has been so thoroughly divorced from its cognate “humanitarianism” that the words have become antonyms. Is secular humanism merely a sense of confederation among those who think they know there is no God, without practical application, without a sense of responsibility for the human consequences of such a position?
What is humanistic about an elitist philosophy of life that has no room for the application of virtue and whose identity seems simplistically derived from its mere opposition to the philosophies and feelings it considers inauthentic or unreasonable? Secular humanism is that kind of humanism and therefore no humanism at all. It has pilfered a term it cannot define and has never actualized in good deeds.
Pharisaism was not the whole of Judaism but an ideology, a sect. The slant we get on it in the New Testament is the slant of a new “faith”—one also rooted in Jewish ideas—that saw the Pharisees as hypocrites, lawyers, and loudmouths—all words and no action, all talk and no walk. Secular humanism as an ideology has become an ossified form of atheism rooted in a blunt rejection not only of religious ethics and ideas but of other forms of humanism as well.
The Pharisees disappeared from the scene before the end of the first century, probably still praying loudly and secure in their righteousness as the tides of history swept them away.