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TAG | Secular humanism



Liberalism as Faith

Cross-posted on the Corner (and a post, I would hope, that ‘Secular Humanists’ would read):

The British philosopher John Gray is not someone to shy away from ‘difficult’ topics. If you are looking for a provocative long read this weekend, his new article in the Times Literary Supplement ought to be a contender. I didn’t agree with all of it (for example, I would argue that the supposedly secular totalitarianisms of the twentieth century—essentially millenarian sects, as Gray rightly observes—were even more ‘religious’ than even he would claim), not that that matters.

Above all, Gray’s take on where the arguments of John Stuart Mill, one of the saints of traditional liberalism, have led is, to say the least, intriguing.

An extract:

 [Mill’s] assertion that human beings would prefer intellectual freedom over contented conformity was at odds with his empiricist philosophy. Essentially unfalsifiable, it was a matter of faith.

While he never faced up to the contradictions in his thinking, Mill was fully aware that he was fashioning a new religion. Much influenced by Auguste Comte, he was an exponent of what he and the French Positivist philosopher described as “the Religion of Humanity”. Instead of worshipping a transcendent divinity, Comte instructed followers of the new religion to venerate the human species as “the new Supreme Being”. Replacing the rituals of Christianity, they would perform daily ceremonies based in science, touching their skulls at the point that phrenology had identified as the location of altruism (a word Comte invented). In an essay written not long before the appearance of On Liberty but published posthumously (he died in 1873), Mill described this creed as “a better religion than any of those that are ordinarily called by that title”.

That may or may not be true, but at least Mill recognized its essentially religious nature, not that that took much doing.


Like Comte, [Mill] believed that humanity is a progressive species, though he diverged profoundly in how he understood progress. And what is “humanity”? The conception of humankind as a collective agent gradually achieving its goals is not reached by observation.

Like the brotherhood of man, just another delusion, unless it’s old Cain who we have in mind. Whether it is—as some delusions can be—a useful or even necessary delusion is a different question.

But back to Gray:

The politics of identity is a postmodern twist on the liberal religion of humanity. The Supreme Being has become an unknown God – a species of human being nowhere encountered in history, which does not need to define itself through family or community, nationality or any religion….

Liberals who are dismayed at the rise of the new intolerance have not noticed how much they have in common with those who are imposing it. Hyper-liberal “snowflakes”, who demand safe spaces where they cannot be troubled by disturbing facts and ideas, are what their elders have made them. Possessed by faith in an imaginary humanity, both seek to weaken or destroy the national and religious traditions that have supported freedom and toleration in the past…

Food for thought, to say the least.

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I_RobotMaria Popova has written an interesting piece on Isaac Asimov’s attitude towards religion.

Here’s the great man himself:

I have never, not for one moment, been tempted toward religion of any kind. The fact is that I feel no spiritual void.

Well, quite.

That Asimov never “felt” the tug of any faith, let alone any God-shaped hole is, I suspect, a reflection of the fact that an individual’s susceptibility to religious belief or even to “spirituality”(to use that gelatinous term) almost certainly owes more to his or her psyche (we can debate how much of that is down to the genes) than to anything else.

Asimov then succumbs to hubris:

I have my philosophy of life, which does not include any aspect of the supernatural and which I find totally satisfying. I am, in short, a rationalist and believe only that which reason tells me is so.

Oh come on. The idea that anyone’s beliefs are founded solely on reason is a leap too far. Robots may be built that way. Humans are not. Judging by the section I have highlighted in these comments below, Asimov was no exception:

The soft bonds of love are indifferent to life and death. They hold through time so that yesterday’s love is part of today’s and the confidence in tomorrow’s love is also part of today’s. And when one dies, the memory lives in the other, and is warm and breathing. And when both die — I almost believe, rationalist though I am — that somewhere it remains, indestructible and eternal, enriching all of the universe by the mere fact that once it existed.


Under the circumstances it’s perhaps not a surprise that Asimov bought into the soft-left mush that is so much of Secular Humanism (there’s a reference to that creed elsewhere in the piece), but I did like this:

There is nothing frightening about an eternal dreamless sleep. Surely it is better than eternal torment in Hell and eternal boredom in Heaven. And what if I’m mistaken? The question was asked of Bertrand Russell, the famous mathematician, philosopher, and outspoken atheist. “What if you died,” he was asked, “and found yourself face to face with God? What then?”

And the doughty old champion said, “I would say, ‘Lord, you should have given us more evidence.’”

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Secular Humanism, Trashed

My thanks to Polichinello for highlighting this rather good Salon article by Michael Lind on secular humanism. I thought it made a useful supplement to an earlier Corner contribution by Derb/Bradlaugh, and posted accordingly:

Derb, in some respects Michael Lind’s entertaining demolition of secular humanism in Salon echoes a number of your points about the use that our species often makes of, to borrow your phrase, “pretty lies.” Here is an extract:

“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…Unfortunately for Humanist Lennonism, evolutionary biology does not provide much hope for the sort of altruistic personal commitment to planetary solidarity that secular humanists want to encourage…To the extent that natural science can inform the way we think about politics and economics, it undermines the view that human beings are, or could be, rational actors devoted to the common good, rather than emotion-driven, semi-rational cousins of chimps and gorillas. On this point the secular philosophers Hume and Hobbes are more convincing than Bentham, Dewey and Kurtz.
Our simian psychology has obvious implications for naive models of democracy, in which a neutral, rational public listens dispassionately to all sides before making up its hyperlogical collective mind. And it has implications as well for naive models of economics, in which consumers and producers perceive, think and act with computer-like accuracy.
The skepticism about human rationality that science inspires should not be taken as support for authoritarianism or paternalism… On the contrary, it should render questionable all claims to wise and disinterested leadership, including those of America’s own altruistic progressive technocrats who propose policies to “nudge” the unenlightened masses into doing the right thing. It makes more sense to think of our leaders and intellectuals as half-crazed hooting howler monkeys — just like the rest of us.
Science can tell monkeys where they came from, and technology, informed by science, can build a cleaner and safer monkey house. But a knowledge of science cannot turn monkeys into something that we are not.”

We are what we are.


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