Over the past few years I have been harping on the idea that movement humanism (for historical reasons) hijacked a perfectly good word, picked its pocket and left it for dead.
I’ve been thinking more about the subject recently. Every time I return to it I am accused by at least one well-wisher of wanting to hie back to the renaissance, when ceilings were floral, swimming in cherubs, and the living was easy. That is, if you were a pope or a prince. Even the use of a word like “hie” tells you a lot about me.
But–and you can breathe easy–this isn’t about history, or the Medici or even Pico della Mirandolla. Though I do like a little Pico with my daily crossword. This is really about why it’s time for humanists to kick atheists out of their house. They’ve had squatters’ rights for fifty years and the place is looking ultra-shabby.
First of all, a lot of atheists don’t even like to be called “humanists” unless when you say the word you really mean atheist. Secular humanists in America have felt this way for years. British humanists, who don’t like the word secular humansim because it’s too American, just use the word “humanism” when they really mean freethought which really means atheism. The opposite of humanist when the word is used by secular humanists is presumably Goddist.
But in both cases, it’s a cheat: an attempt to tart up a word–atheist–that used to be considered abrasive and in some cases disabling. It was unpopular in Britain and more unpopular in America to be called an atheist. It was relatively okay to be an ethical culturalist, a secularist, and by a stretch a “secular” humanist. In both countries, not believing in God was subordinated to the more positive spin that the movement now dubbed “humanism” was really about how you acted once you declared your unbelief.
The “good without God” craze that sprouted during the early days of new atheism in the early 2000’s was nothing more than a re-potting of the same idea under the illusion it was new: You don’t need the ethics of a bunch of first millennium goat herders and their sky god to be moral, they sensibly argued. You just need an open mind, a clean driving record, and science. One of the leaders of the secular humanist dribble (that’s 10,000 short of a drabble) also specified “exuberance” as a nice thing to have, because exuberance isn’t passion and thus stops short of emotion. This in turn makes you reasonable: so humanism is all about reason.
Personally, I am also into passion. Even fully-uniformed agnostics like Bertrand Russell were. I am not a fourth century (BC) Greek nor a twenty-first century (AD) particle physicist at CERN–not that these folk didn’t have passion too. Without passion, why bother to know anything? I need a little emotional kick in my life, and while I share that need with unbelievers–a good wine, an evening concert at Tanglewood, the ministrations of a dark-eyed beauty who tells me I am not as old as I feel–I know that these things are irrational. They are simply human. They don’t mean that there is no god, just that the God of one tradition taught the human race to look out for ourselves because too much passion was sin. Was he just being reasonable?
Have you stopped to think how much this whole discussion depends on the genetics of Anglo-American values and how irrelevant it is in Catholic (that is, ex-Catholic) Europe, where passion has not been outlawed by reason. As religion in America and Britain was puritanical, so is its atheism. Anglo-American atheism is rigid, scholastic, dull, unartistic and naive. Its coordinates are Richard Dawkins and P Z Myers, the gamut from ex-Anglican to ex-Lutheran. Enough said. Maybe Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi made mistakes during their political careers. But being full-blooded, passionate, culture-loving humanists was not one of them.
I can watch out for myself without God’s advice. I have for most of my adult life. But I rather enjoy having him around. Besides, despite his mixed feelings about sex and fornication, we have got excellent poetry, music, and some fine floral ceilings out of him. It was hard not to fall in love with someone so decisive and easily upset. Yes, yes: don’t do the secular humanist thing and remind me of the wars, the atrocity, the Inquisition, the Holocaust.
In return, I promise not to mention perfectly reasonable atheist leaders like Stalin and Pol Pot.
And you see the problem: If the dividing line is simply the division between atheism and religion, then the challenge is to say what is the rule and what is the exception. Which system produces the most monsters?
In a simple humanism, the question does not arise. It does not arise because we know what a violation of the “human spirit” would be: any gratuitous war, offense against conscience, slavish obedience to a doctrine, whether religiously-inspired or naturalistically defended. The splitting of the atom was a thing of wonder. The using of the power derived from that event to kill thousands of people was not a humanistic act. It is not humanly defensible, so spare me the political defenses. If religion wins this sweepstakes, it is only because it had held power longer and has been more successful in subordinating human evil (yes, I believe in evil) to religious purposes. There are equally inhuman events waiting in the wings to be given the imprimatur of science and reason.
If atheism were successful in taking over humanism’s house–not to frighten anyone– the not-God who would take the place of the God who was, and who would rule in his place, would be equally powerless to save us from our sins. (Do I hear the nasal tones of a new atheist in the background saying: That’s just the problem–thinking that we need someone to “save” us?). Maybe it’s just in my imagination.
The sweetness and fallacy of Christianity is that it offered for our consideration a God who thought he could save the human race, but actually couldn’t. And we know enough to know that we invented that God. Any humanist knows that. But many atheists will blame–what?–the credulity of “religious people”–not themselves, for not knowing it. Where is the logic in that? Religious people did not create that God. The human spirit did: your own ancestors did. And they wrote the books they then ascribed to him. Reject him as you must. And you must. But the way to salvation is far from clear, and the militant rejection of that god does not make you a humanist. How could it?
We have been largely on our own since then. You don’t need to be religious to know that. You don’t need to be an atheist to accept it. The biblical lord-god of hosts whose name is holy and who numbered his enemies in the tens of thousands has been quietly rejected, not just by atheists but by anyone who is paying attention. In fact (I will pay a price for saying this) he was rejected by Jesus.
He was not exposed as a monstrous fraud by science, but by religion. In fact I worry about the people who think that news of this first hit the headlines with Richard Dawkins. It was old news when Nietzsche wrote that “faith is not wanting to know what is true.”
And I don’t like the idea that if I call myself a humanist, I am really saying that I am an atheist and therefore can’t have God around. Over time, humanists have been religious, skeptical, spiritual…and atheists. They have been criminals and derelicts, rich popes and poor scholars, lazy bastards like Nietzsche and hyperachievers like Fermi, geniuses like da Vinci and paedophiles like il Divino. If you don’t know who il Divino was, stop reading this instantly and join the American Humanist Association where you can talk about how fucked up the idea of God is over beer and hotdogs.
I therefore plant my flag here: I am a humanist. I respect my atheist brothers and sisters, but I do not have their confidence and I do not like their script. My humanism is not a moral testing ground for how to live my life without intrusions from above or dogmas from below. I believe that the reduction of humanism to some naturalistic calculus for some idiotic phrase like “meaning and value” is brainless and penniless. I believe that the phrase “secular humanism” confuses matters that are merely political, and explicitly American, with questions that can never be decided by religion or politics.
Above all, I regard it as foppish, ignorant and vain to allow “religious” persons to engage in a dialogue with “humanists.” Howso? In the hope that they will be “brought along”–enlightened, persuaded to see the error of their ways?
Humanism is not atheism. It is not religion. And it is not a camp meeting to bring the factions together, or a writ of indulgence given by one side to the other. It is our natural assumption of the obligations the gods once performed on our behalf–pain and triumph, poetry and art, celebration and mourning–war and peace.
Below the surface stream, shallow and light,
Of what we say and feel — below the stream,
As light, of what we think we feel, there flows
With noiseless current, strong, obscure and deep,
The central stream of what we feel indeed. (Matthew Arnold, 1870)
If an atheist reader does not recognize herself in that verse, it is clearly time to change lodging.
Humanism is not atheism, and atheism disguised as humanism is not atheism either.