Thursday, November 02, 2006

Humanism for Humans

There's much to chew on in this essay on humanism by the stellar Frank Furedi. But this passage throws down the proper gauntlet:

Those who identify with humanism today are deeply concerned about the influence of creationism and of ‘fundamentalist Christian’ movements and the religious right. Humanist circles are anxious about the apparent impact of such movements and the values they espouse. Yet while attempts to reverse the separation of church and state are always a cause for concern, the real challenge facing humanists does not emanate from organised religion. Probably the most important challenge facing humanism today is the growing culture of misanthropy: the powerful mood of disenchantment with humanity and its potential for playing a positive and creative role. And the sources for this sentiment are mostly secular, not religious.

If for no reason that when the misanthropic -- it's the right word -- pronouncements by prominent self-identified secular humanists (often in the environmental wing) go unscolded from within their own camp, the whole edifice of enlightement liberal Western democratic society gets dragged down.

Such a misanthropic view was clearly expressed in 2003 by Michael Meacher, the former New Labour minister for the environment, when he spoke about how ‘we are the virus’ infecting the Earth’s body. His colleague, the now late Labour MP Tony Banks, echoed this view in a proposed motion to the House of Commons. It stated: ‘This House…believes that humans represent the most obscene, perverted, cruel, uncivilised and lethal species ever to inhabit the planet and looks forward to the day when the inevitable asteroid slams into the Earth and wipes them out, thus giving Nature the opportunity to start again.’

Furedi's examples are British, but you could do as well with American sources.

He raises another point: Humanism has to get over its obsession with religion to be a positive power in the world:

All too often humanism presents itself in a caricatured form. Today, it seems it can only come alive through reliving its past struggles with religious dogma. Thus most people regard humanism as a secular movement defined by its hostility to religion and its passionate affirmation of atheism. This is not surprising, considering that many humanists do take pride in their secular values and attach great importance to their anti-religious sentiments. The secular standpoint was clearly outlined in A Humanist Manifesto, published in 1933 and signed by many prominent humanists. Although that manifesto traced the foundation of humanism to the exercise of reason, its main focus was on settling scores with religion.

One thing struck me recently in re-reading a lot of Islamic history. We in the liberal, modern west tend to regard our civilizational history of the past 500 years or so as the struggle of our enlightened values against the dark dogmas of the past, the conservative theologies married to the powers of the state.

When we look to the modern Middle East, we look for an "Islamic Reformation" and think in terms of the bold liberals resisting the coercive power of the Inquisition or the official church.

Yet so often in Islamic history, ancient and modern, it has been the "liberal" interpretation of the faith that has been allied with the essentially secular power, and the "conservative" or strict view that was among the people, or locked and tortured in the tyrant's jails.

Corrupt caliphs like a liberal interpretation of this faith. It excuses their excesses and overlooks their failure to live up to scrupulous standards of piety and abstinence. They always have. Throughout Islamic history, it was Torquemada in the poor streets as a man of the people, building charities and preaching God's humility, and easygoing Teilhard de Chardin supping at the sybarite tyrants' tables.