What concerns me most about the misapplication of the word ‘humanist’ to full frontal atheists is that most such humanists are not humanists at all. Not in any meaningful sense. To be solipsistic about it, if they were they would not be full frontal atheists.
By dint of past associations, I have a great many ‘friends’ (as Facebook misuses the term) who would call themselves new or raw or ‘out’ atheists—-Dawkinsites in short.
In a pinch they will say they like books (who doesn’t?), art (sort of), and music (some). But I always have the impression that you can’t press them too closely on what books, music or art they like. It probably isn’t Bach, Chagall, or Proust. It certainly isn’t the Bible—-in any translation, or any context.
And that is the problem. The loudest God-deniers-—not all but the loudest-—seem to lack cultural context. They are metaphor poor literalists who (to be generous) see culture as a succession of is and isn’t trues, a long Advent Season awaiting the birth of Darwin.
It is easy for them to detest religion because they see religion as a truth claim and not against the tapestry of human cultural, political and artistic evolution. They worship Darwin because they think he got things straight–about our creatureliness anyway. They like Galileo because he told the Church the truth, and more recently they have heroized the intellectual trainwreck Giordano Bruno because he told the church to stuff it, even though it is not at all clear what it was he wanted it to stuff.
The fundamental atheist error is that they see culture as something external to human experience, not something that forms the intellectual environment, the diet, that defines our lives and nourishes our existence. They see biological evolution in about the right way, but man once evolved as a static thing that becomes mysteriously enslaved to cultural forces over which unpeopled churches and despotic governments assumed control until he freed himself in an eighteenth century epiphany of secularism, skepticism and science. They believe in a salvation myth more extreme and incredible than anything we find in the New Testament, one that flies high above the ground of history and fact.
It’s easy therefore for atheists to dismiss critics like me as elitist. We like Shakespeare (who is old) because we think he is always new. We think the past warns us prophetically against worshiping the future, trusting innovation, presuming that all problems and questions will be resolved by science. Some will, some won’t, as anyone who reads a little Sophocles is bound to discover. Of course, to those who don’t read history (or Shakespeare) the world is always new, including problems of statecraft and morality that were being discussed three thousand years ago.
Yet the atheists complain ad nauseam about the educational deficiencies of the crazy, fundamentalist religionists–the ones who also don’t read Shakespeare, or listen to Bach, or read poetry, or go to museums. The whole quarrel can be boiled down to a war between two non-elites who in their separate ways are anti-intellectual, anti-‘culture’, and regard most of the aesthetic development of human society with suspicion or a kind of contempt that comes from unfamiliarity.
To say that one side is pro-religion, the other anti-religion is the cipher for understanding the immensely boring distinction between the two sides. But in their basic instincts, the extreme literalism with which they approach questions of value and meaning, their naive Calvinist empiricism (that one side would recoil to hear called Calvinist, if they know who Calvin is) they are the same.
The one side claims to be naturalist; but the other is not ‘supernaturalist’ but supernatural naturalists. Both sides have become infatuated with the evidence of eyes and sense, and texts and faith. Neither is much interested in looking at how these minimal coefficients of human inquiry became dominant. The entire sideshow has become a slanging match between people who ‘believe’ the Bible and people who stick posters on Facebook blasting their sworn enemy, the God of the Bible and Buddy Christ. This cultural pornography, this less than puerile game is not humanism. It is not even intelligent atheism.
It would be a shame if the current anti-intellectualism of the atheist movement and organized humanism became the equivalent on college campuses of the Campus Crusade for Christ. I complained several years ago that this was already a trend, and that it threatened to produce a generation of learners who would be as resistant to the culture of the humanities as evangelical students were in the eighties and nineties when I started my teaching career.
But the non-elitism of the fundies is now only one form of nonelitism for sale in the university. It has been joined long since by the non-elitism of postmodernism and deconstruction, which at a stretch means that holding a book appreciatively in your hands is as good as reading it and erases distinctions of judgment as mere impressions; and the non elitism of popular science which drives the nail through the heart of the humanities by claiming the arts and humanities are hobbies that do not communicate real knowledge. What was called ‘scientism’ in the 1950’s can only be called stupidity in the twenty first century, yet there are plenty of university faculty members who see the world in just this way.
Let true humanism reclaim its elitist position in relation to these absurd heresies. Let it be what it always has been to the question of God: indecisive. Let it be what it was for four millennia: the itch to write, the need to think, the power to move (and be moved) by art, the joy of music, the skill of argumentation, and the power to enrich the world by human effort and design. Ah, and our record and knowledge of these things: history.
I am pretty sure that an atheism—even an atheism hidden behind the word ‘humanist’–has little to say about that agenda.