Thursday, March 06, 2014

The problem with humanism

Mark Moncrieff has an interesting post up titled Man is God and Other Acts of Rebellion. He begins with this bold assertion:
The more I look at different political philosophies the more I am coming to think that there are only two. One that proclaims man as God and the Other that denies that man is God.

Mark is identifying as critical to modern thought a "humanism" which replaces God with man. He criticises this humanism on the basis that it leads to a belief that we are freely self-authoring and that we not only can, but should, use this self-authoring power to create a heaven on earth:
If man is really God that means that there is no external influence upon man, we are free to choose our own destiny. We not only can create heaven on Earth, but in a sense we must, as there is no other heaven.

I find that interesting not only as it is a reasonable way to explain the emphasis liberal moderns place on human autonomy (and on a creative recasting of society), but also because I've also been thinking lately about the effect of humanism on the modern West.

I've been reading Eric Kaufmann's The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America. In the fifth chapter, Kaufmann describes the emergence of a group of Protestant and Jewish intellectuals in the late 1800s who believed that all ethnic and religious groups should contribute equally to the new melting-pot, universal culture, each one dying out in the process. Kaufmann writes:
the Liberal Progressives were believers in individual-centered Americanization (defined purely in terms of humanism) and, following University of Chicago sociologist W.I. Thomas, posited that ethnic particularity would vanish in three generations. Hull House was thus an institution of human, cosmopolitan assimilation...

Regarding two influential intellectuals representing this view, William James and Felix Adler, Kaufmann writes the following:
Cultural evolution, James noted, was an accidental process, and moral progress was a value that outweighed group survival. This reaffirmed Felix Adler's cardinal dictum that particular ethnic groups had a duty to sacrifice their corporate existence for the progress of humankind. In the case of the United States, the dominant Anglo-Saxon group had no case for preservation but instead needed to devote itself to bringing forth the new cosmopolitan humanity.

I think that one way of understanding all this is that if you replace a belief in God with a belief in Humanity, then progress will come to mean a movement away from "parochial" attachments and identities to a global, cosmopolitan "human" one. It is, after all, now "humanity" which is to be served.

How then can particular attachments be defended? To avoid the slip into "humanism" (cosmopolitanism) that I described above, you could, first, remain orthodox in your theism, so that you continued to worship God rather than Humanity (though this doesn't guarantee that a Christian won't become a universalist).

There is another possible bulwark against the slide into universalism (not one that I favour, but it needs to be stated). You could remain "prejudiced" in the sense that you held your own particular tradition in higher esteem, or as having a higher value, than other traditions. You wouldn't then, be as likely to favour pluralism; you would be more likely to favour the preservation of your own particular identity.

What's interesting is that Anglo-Saxon Protestants were "prejudiced" in this sense for much of their history. For instance, there was considerable anti-Catholic sentiment within the Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition, not just because Catholicism was foreign, but because it was held to be an authoritarian, anti-liberal creed. But this "prejudice" did not serve as much of a bulwark against cosmopolitanism in the long run, as the liberalism of American Anglo-Saxons meant that it could not be translated into public preferences (e.g. immigration restriction); it could only be held as a kind of moral persuasion (which perhaps meant that it had to be more forcefully asserted rather than less so).

It also forced Anglo-Saxon Protestants into the kind of "double consciousness" that Kaufmann writes about, in which opposing views had to be held (wanting to retain an identity but not being able to hold it as public good), which led to certain kinds of "magical thinking" (e.g. thinking "optimistically" that demographic change would not occur despite open borders).

I don't think that "prejudice" in this sense is really what is likely to create an effective bulwark against universalism - but more on that later. You can see, though, why contemporary liberals like to think of themselves as a force for tolerant pluralism against discrimination and prejudice; there was a moment of time in which a bulwark of "prejudice" did give way to a liberal vision of a tolerant pluralism - albeit a pluralism based on the dying out of longstanding, particular traditions.

Nor is it a surprise that this liberal humanism emerged amongst those radically secularising Protestant and Jewish congregations which had developed to the stage of rejecting an orthodox theism and embracing a pluralism in which each world religion was to be drawn on for its religious truths. These congregations had reached a point in which there was nothing to halt a slide into a universalistic, liberal humanism.

What might be an alternative bulwark to "prejudice"? One possibility is to defend particular identities, such as ethnic ones, on the basis that they provide a closer sense of belonging, and a deeper sense of identity, than the more abstracted humanistic one. Another is to see it as part of our nature and the natural law to identify with those we are closely related to as part of an ethnic tradition. We could also see the good embedded within the distinct cultures and character of particular ethnic groups and see this as part of an enriching diversity of human expression.

In general, what is needed though is to avoid setting up humanity itself as a replacement for God, as it is this step which then makes it moral to serve a single, global entity of "humanity" rather than the real human communities we have inherited. It is in this sense that we have to avoid humanism, as it gives us a damaging account of how we are to measure morality and progress.

Finally, it is possible that this humanism also partly explains the current of misanthropy that exists among some people today. If you set up Humanity as your god, then what happens when this god fails? What happens when it turns out that people are capable of cruelty? It is possible, that disillusion will then set in, a disillusion that would not occur to those brought up in the alternative view of man being made in the divine image but also having a fallen nature.


  1. "If you set up Humanity as your god, then what happens when this god fails? What happens when it turns out that people are capable of cruelty? It is possible, that disillusion will then set in, a disillusion that would not occur to those brought up in the alternative view of man being made in the divine image but also having a fallen nature. "

    This was precisely a huge part of my conversion. Once you've seen the ugly side of humanity, how can you possibly believe that's all there is. Humanism requires an unfathomable degree of fantasy based optimism. I can believe that about the next world, but not this one.

  2. It's interesting you mention humanism. The most frequent time a person is likely to encounter even a mention of the concept of humanism in contemporary Western society is at funerals. Humanist funerals are becoming increasingly popular with those who "don't do God", and as Western society becomes more and more secular, this is likely to increase further. It's important to note that few of the people who opt for humanist funerals will actually have cared for humanism as a philosophy; they merely choose this type of service because they do not want a Christian or religious service. The vast majority of people do not care about social or political philosophies, such things are too abstract and too academic for the great majority of people to care about.

    I personally am not a Christian and do not have any kind of religious belief. There is zero valid epistemological scientific evidence for the existence of any kind of God or deity. That much I do agree with Richard Dawkins on. However, I can see what the purpose of religion is within a society, it can be very useful as an instrument of social control and it has worked well in preventing human societies from turning to anarchy, chaos. Although I am an atheist I also don't agree with the left-wing politics that are typical of those who lack religious belief. Of course, in some cases, left-wing political views can be so strongly held that they can function as a substitute for religious belief!

    I'm assuming that you Mark, the author of this blog, are a Christian. What is your stance on the theory of evolution? I am completely a believer in evolution, which at least in the USA would make me likely to be on the political left. Nothing could be further from the truth. I reject religious creationism and accept a kind of Social Darwinism. That is to say, I accept that inherent inequalities will exist within human societies, perhaps in a hierarchy. I also extend these differences that exist between people of different social classes, to inequality between men and women and between people of different races. Furthermore, it's apparent that in the world today dysgenic trends are taking place, with people from the poor quality parts of the world breeding the fastest and people from the good quality parts of the world declining in number and being replaced by immigrants from poor quality nations.

    Equality is a delusional fantasy. Society isn't really anything more than a function of biology, and I'm acutely aware that any collective biological entity that doesn't reproduce itself adequately faces permanent irreversible biological extinction. This includes, within humans, races and nations. Academia has become so infused with political correctness that even biologists who study human genetics have been forced to deny that race exists, despite the fact that it's plainly obvious that it exists just from looking at human morphological characteristics that vary between populations having origins in different geographical locations. There are only a finite number of examples of races and nations and it's not hard for any educated person who isn't blinded by politically correct dogma to work out which ones are likely to face extinction or complete transformation within a few centuries and which ones are likely to expand greatly in their demographics.

    1. "There is zero valid epistemological scientific evidence for the existence of any kind of God or deity."

      What would the evidence look like? Do you only believe that material things exists? Or are there a non-physical entitity called the mind.

    2. I understand how a focus on theism vs atheism might break out here, but it wasn't really the focus of the post. What I found interesting in Kaufmann's chapter was evidence that the current left-wing template was set down amongst those congregations that had reached a point of beginning to abandon theism, therefore substituting a religious devotion to God with a religious devotion to Humanity - and that this kind of humanism assumed that moral progress was the ceding of parochial identities and attachments to a single, universal, humanistic one. This is a template that no conservative, religious or otherwise, can accept as it means the abolition of the particular traditions we belong to.

  3. The idea of rejecting parochial concerns and replacing them with concern for global issues is ludicrous, and is the sort of thing you would associate with journalists, politicians, students and hippies. In other words, people who turn their nose up at what's happening on their own doorstep so that they can care about what's happening to some completely foreign people thousands of miles away. It's yet another example of irreponsible, reckless, suicidal left-wing altruism, to reject one's own people and culture in favour of being altruistic towards a completely alien people that have no relevance whatsoever. Pure altruism is for gullible fools that are easily taken advantage of.

    It is tiresome how these distinctions between Protestants and Catholics persist even to this day in areas which have become largely secularised. This is particularly true in Northern Ireland and some parts of Scotland. It is also likely to be something that crops up in societies such as the USA and Australia.

    Also, pluralism is a term I absolutely despise, along with multiculturalism. Why would it be a good thing to create unnecessary divisions within society deliberately in order to undermine social cohesion? That is exactly what multiculturalists and pluralists are doing, and have been doing, for decades. Diversity is strength in the same sense that war is peace and love is hate. Multiculturalists have sought to exploit these divisions for their own political benefit, with the concept of minority groups, affirmative action, protected classes and anti-discrimination legislation. Depending on jurisdiction people may be entitled to certain protections due to their race, ethnic origin, nationality, colour, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, religion, and so on. The aim is to get as many of these so-called minority groups as possible onto the side of the political left in order to ensure more voters, a cynical game of exploitation. Left-wing political parties will even go as far as to import immigrants in order to gain more potential voters.

    I notice you finish your piece by saying that it is necessary to avoid letting humanism take over from God. I don't particularly like most of the liberal aspects of humanism myself and also find it interesting that you mention that humanism can fail because of human imperfection. However that doesn't fully satisfy people like myself though who do not believe in God and will never do so.

  4. All the isms, all the ideologies, all the political systems, come from satan and his angels.

    Christians, of course, are immersed in the world, and do not want to believe that. They want to believe that if they just tweak a nation's politics around, or change the economic principles, or reform the legal system, or diligently pursue libertee and egalitee, then they are doing "God's will" and everything will work out.

    Of course, like wonderful-sounding Humanism, it's all lies. The Father of Lies knows exactly which lies human beings want to -- and will -- accept, defend, and run with. So he tailors his lies to suit the (extremely predictable) natures of men and women.

    Telling Christians that the values and persons they hold dear -- the Founding Fathers, French Enlightenment philosophers, humanists, libertarian theorists -- are full of crap and lead the Christian away from God, only produces resentment and anger in the Christian... who, instead, wants to be assured that whatever he (or she) cobbles together from worldly sources is the Truth, and also God's will.

    For example, one of the favoite online Christian writers equates Game with Scriptural Truth. Telling this person, and his many supporters, that they are wrong only yields anger. Folks want to be God themselves, but in a clever and deniable sorta way.

    Repeated insistence that "isms" are counter to God will get you banned and tossed off the websites of Christians -- or at least shunned by The Group. They won't like you very much for telling them the stuff they don't want to hear. That's why they choose their own "pastors."

  5. Dear Anon,

    As I am a complete non-believer in evolutionary theory, can you please show me the evidence that makes you so sure that evolutionary theory is, in fact, true? Perhaps you could define what you mean by evolution as a starting point?

  6. Mark@ I think it is a mistake to defend a particular tradition on the functional grounds that it provides a sense of belonging. The reason is that functional justifications of a belief or practice are non-exclusionary, and so leave open the possibility that there might be another belief or practice that would function just as well, or even better. One has to take what you describe as the "prejudiced" position that the belief is true or the practice right because truth and rightness, unlike functionality, are exclusionary. There is no substitute for a true proposition or a right act. This attitude is not incompatible with tolerance, particularly when combined with a sane segregation of humans "prejudiced" in favor of their particular tradition.

    1. JMSmith,

      I agree that the religious or church aspect of a tradition can't be justified effectively on the basis of a reason of "belonging"; here you do need to argue that a belief is true. But can you really say "We should continue to identify as Anglo-Saxons, because Anglo-Saxons embody truth whereas the others don't"? From reading Kaufmann's book, there was something of an attempt to do this in American Anglo-Saxonism; Anglo-Saxonism was held to be something of a vehicle for the promulgation of truths concerning liberty, governance and manhood. To me, that raises the same problem that you have raised regarding functionality - it means that as long as others are able to assimilate to the values or truths, then there is no longer a reason to uphold the ethnic dimensions of Anglo-Saxonism. That is what seems to have happened over time; you can see it amongst those right-liberals who speak of the Anglosphere - this is held to as a category of beliefs and values, but is open in membership to anyone who holds these beliefs and values. As far back as the 1940s, Robert Menzies, who went on to become Australia's longest serving PM, held to this concept of Anglo-Saxonism.

    2. You are right when you say that love of one's own kind is not the same as belief in a true proposition or performance of a right act, although I do believe that all three actions are united by a sense of duty. In the case of love of one's own kind, I'd say it is the species of duty that we call piety. One reason Anglo-Saxonism became universal humanism was that Anglo-Saxons were winners, and Anglo Saxons began to love their own people because they were winners. That's not piety! Piety is loving one's own people because they are one's own people, even when they are loosers.

    3. @Mark

      "it means that as long as others are able to assimilate to the values or truths, then there is no longer a reason to uphold the ethnic dimensions of Anglo-Saxonism."

      Perhaps this is another reason HBD is so toxic to people. If you show that certain people are probably genetically incapable of adopting Anglo-Saxon values it puts lie to the idea that anybody can be an Anglo-Saxon. If you combine this is the idea that Anglo-Saxon values are superior values then this inability is almost a curse, think that old Calvanist pre-destination stuff where most people are deemed unable to be saved by their inherent nature. You can keep running with that idea, it leads places.


      "That's not piety! Piety is loving one's own people because they are one's own people, even when they are losers."

      As Christ loved us. This attaches to me above comment.

  7. Indeed, Ray, as Dostoevsky pointed out well, the "isms" that came from the philosophies of the early and mid-19th Century onwards are demonic for the most part. He even considered them to be "Demons" (see his novel of the same name).

    The problem with humanists/materialists is one of epistemology. The current liberal humanist order follows a fairly totalitarian approach to epistemology, such that only that which is (claimed to be) proven according to the scientific method and related empirical approaches is qualified to be labeled as "true". Even leaving aside the failure of science to abide by its own internal epistemology (e.g., by promulgating theories as "truth" even though they cannot be validated by the scientific method, which is, itself, the core of scientistic/empiricist epistemology), this view is breath-takingly cramped when viewed against the backdrop of philosophical history. There are different kinds of knowledge, and different epistemologies that apply to them. What we are experiencing today is the experience of living in a culture which has embraced in a totalitarian way empiricism/materialism/scientism as the only acceptable espistemology (defined as the only acceptable criterion by which a claim of "truth" may be made). This is the main obstacle that must be challenged and removed.

  8. Evolutionary theory is supported by the fossil record and by the morphology of organisms and their taxonomic classification into groups based on descent. There is very little scientific evidence that goes against the theory of evolution, and a massive amount of supporting scientific evidence. If rabbit fossils were discovered in rocks dating back to the Precambrian period of geological time for example, that might call the theory of evolution into question as it would be an incongruous anachronism. As for the definition of evolution, my take on it is that evolution would be defined as the change over time of organisms into different phenotypical and genotypical forms that we would describe as species.

    The existence of God, on the other hand, is like Russell's teapot. You can't disprove beyond all doubt the existence of a God, just as you can't really disprove the existence of a teapot orbiting the planet Earth, but does that mean that there's any valid evidence for God's existence, or the teapot's existence? From a logical positivist point of view, there is no epistemological evidence for the existence of God, that is to say there is no empirical, external evidence that is verifiable using accepted scientific methods.

    A poster mentions how contemporary epistemology, and the fact that it relies on empirical evidence obtained by scientific methods, is in a sense totalitarian in that it does not accept alternative epistemologies. That is to say, knowledge that cannot be obtained using empirical scientific evidence is considered invalid. However, there are of course truths that can be obtained by deduction, such as mathematical knowledge or logical formulations, that do not rely on external evidence but instead can be described as a priori whereas external empirical knowledge is a posteriori. Most intellectuals will accept mathematical truths as valid but not, say, the ontological, cosmological or teleological arguments for the existence of God.

    1. At the risk of going seriously off topic, I'd like to point out that evolutionary theory and confidence in a priori knowledge are probably incompatible. If my brain has evolved through the process of natural selection, there is no reason to suppose that it functions to produce true beliefs. There is also, actually, no reason to suppose that my perceptions are perceptions of the way things really are. Natural selection yields useful beliefs, which may or may not be true. Epistemologically, it leads to pragmatism, not logical positivism.

      The existence of God is not at all like Russell's teapot because a belief in God is natural to humans, whereas a belief in orbiting teapots is not. If you wish to persuade me that Russell's teapot exists, you will have to provide evidence and arguments for the proposition. On the other hand, if I believe there is a God and you wish to disabuse me of this belief, you will have to provide evidence and arguments against the proposition. I think you are correct in your belief that there once existed a philosopher named Bertrand Russell, and that this philosopher once made a [very lame] analogy between belief in God and belief in an orbiting teapot, but you have no warrant for this belief on logical positivism. You cannot deduce Bertrand Russell and you cannot design an experiment to test the hypothesis of Bertrand Russell. Maybe he is nothing more than an orbiting teapot!

    2. JMSmith, now I understand the reason why pragmatism emerged when it did. Some of those who set down the modern leftist template were pragmatists (e.g. Dewey).

    3. JMSmith, that's known as dogma. Unjustified belief.

      You don't explain how it's any more logical to believe in God than in a teapot orbiting the Earth other than by claiming that the former, unlike the latter, is 'natural to humans'. Is it? Really? That's news to me.

    4. A good, if somewhat esoteric, critique of scientism-materialism can be found here:

      The problem of putting all of one's eggs into the basket of empirical deduction and evidence-based reasoning is that this system is fundamentally *incomplete*. It is observational rather than participatory and thus rejects the interior while cleaving to the external. Aside from transient statistical analyses of limited use, such a viewpoint is of little help in philosophical conversations such as are the gist of sites like this one. As is well known, materialism tells us exactly nothing about much that is central to human existence: love, beauty, preference.

      Science is only a methodological tool and it is nothing to "believe in", just as evolution is a robust theory and not something to "believe in". Matters of reasoning should not require "belief".

      Just as Man is not the measure of all things, neither is science the measure of all things human.

    5. Anon (10:03),

      I didn't really want the thread to become a discussion on the merits of atheism and theism. However, I do think you're wrong in failing to see a distinction between the two claims. Most humans, including most well-educated and intelligent humans, have over the course of human history discerned the existence of a God (or gods). Whether that experience of the religious can be grounded in terms of the criteria followed by the natural sciences is another matter; what is not at issue is that such an experience exists. I think you misunderstand the nature of religion if you think it can be dismissed on the same basis that the existence of flying teapots can be dismissed.

  9. You can't condemn man as reprobate and enthrone God and have a workable intellectual tradition.

    Practical decisions of truth have to be made by people, and they need reasonable self-confidence.

    Practical objections to received truth have to be made by people too, and they need to be taken seriously. In a system where man's reason is illegitimate and what God says is the truth, the all-important question will be "who speaks for God?" and the answer will not be "dissenters on climate change" or whatever dogma is being challenged.

    To get at practical truth, it's good to have a lot of focus on observation, and not much political and theological "heat" about saying what has been observed. If people who spot something that is wrong with the establishment's wisdom can't make their view prevail unless the also have an alternative priesthood ready to go, that is a brake on intellectual and scientific progress. I think we have all experienced this: the people who will never have an alternative priesthood ready to go because they aren't into hidden agendas and power-seeking are the ones you often want involved in getting the truth; the people who make everything an issue of theology or of political correctness are often obstacles to useful discussion.

    So it's easy to see how people would start arguing the position: let's throw down God and enthrone Man! It's a terrible idea, but you can see the immediate appeal.

    Reasons it's a terrible idea:
    * When you enthrone Man to the exclusion of God the all-important question becomes "who speaks for Man?" and it turns out terrible people like Jacobins and Communists speak for Man.
    * The bogus idea of "Man" hides different races, traditions and interests. The flaw was partly hidden when Man was perceived as having no legitimate interest because God had the only legitimate interest, but with Man enthroned the weakness becomes critical.

    Also, people cheat.

    The argument for "everything is science or nonsense" is that historically, science is the only way to get universal agreement. That's a powerful argument, as appealing to philosophers as it is to ordinary people. (Maybe more so - scholars are more aware of the long history of fundamental disputes.) But it implies that what you want is the general agreement of mankind, with nothing above that, and it also suggests that if you strongly feel something should be agreed on by everyone, you've got to say the magic words "it's science!"

    And so we get the great catastrophic anthropogenic global warming scam, and "the science is settled!"

    And so we get the colossal lies of "anti-racism" where supposedly there are no fundamental group genetic differences in aptitudes, preferences or interests. It's science! (Even if all the testing says, "not really".)

    Maybe that has to be true for "humanism" (the enthronement of "humanity" seen as one mass) to be true, but it's obviously false.

  10. Yeah Nova, no question that both Science and Ideology are the modern gods.

    Human pride elevates science to Truth (rather like Gaming! lol) but science is only a way of describing and/or manipulating the physical aspects of the natural world, in generally replicable ways ... it's just a language, or a tool, not the underlying reality.

    Christ illustrated many times what the actual underlying reality consists of, and it aint zeros and ones. It is his Word, the Word. Or, alternately, the will of Father.

    Humanism places human beings at the center of the universe, and asserts that human beings are fully self-sufficient creatures, capable of solving all their own problems, and by their own wills and intelligences, coming to the understanding of the bedrock nature of the cosmos -- e.g., the "god particle."

    This arrogance would be hilarious, if it didn't cause so much damage and suffering.

    A type of showdown between Humanism and God, between the material and spiritual principles, is at our doorstep, and the dust will be settled, and so will the question of who is in charge, and what the Substance of life actually is. Or, i should say, who.