Thursday, July 30, 2009

Book Review: The Arrogance of Humanism

The Arrogance of Humanism, by David Ehrenfeld

The goal of the Christian religion is the salvation of the soul—without the body. My goal is also salvation, but since I believe that our spirits and our animal bodies are inseparable, my goal is the salvation of humanity in the flesh . . . for at least a little while longer. All my art and magic is for this.

Ironically, it is the humanistic paradigm that may finally be the undoing of our species. No one understands and articulates this better than David Ehrenfeld. His book, The Arrogance of Humanism, written in 1978, is a darkly realistic assessment of the damage done by humanism as a religious force, acting through numerous institutions of culture, over centuries of time.

The foundation of humanist religion is the primacy of humanity in Creation and the belief that everything that exists can and should be offered for our use. It includes a belief in the inevitability of our success as a species and faith in the ultimate value of reason, science and technology. Our unique characteristic intelligence will save us, humanists insist, from any damage we may do or mistakes we may make.

Ehrenfeld explores these and other false assumptions, separates out the myths and realities of humanism, delves a bit deeper into the issues of scientific rationalism and the taint of humanism on efforts to “conserve” the planet, and finally offers his sad assessment of our possible future: nothing short of a miracle will save us from ourselves. Mr. Ehrenfeld is currently a professor of Biology at Rutgers University. I wonder what he is thinking about now, and how he has managed to live with his dark vision these past 30 years?

The blindness and denial of humanists and other dominator followers has only increased in recent years, but I believe in miracles. I believe in the power of magic and art and in humanity’s ability to love. There is still a chance for salvation. Who knows what this spontaneous new wave of animism might accomplish? The delicately balanced environmental systems, through whose grace we live, are fragile but paradoxically strong. As Mr. Ehrenfeld clearly states, we cannot predict how systems will react to change. A butterfly beats its wings in Japan to transform the weather in Chicago. Why couldn’t a rag-tag bunch of pink-skinned and traditional animists seep their magic into the cultural soil and enrich it?

I urge you to read The Arrogance of Humanism yourselves. It’s gone from most library shelves, but readily available through used book outlets. Let me end with some interesting quotes:

. . . people are spending too much time and causing too much damage by pretending that our efforts in politics, economics, and technology usually have the effects we intend them to have . . . [I firmly believe that cultural transformation and the solution to our problems lie in what we call art, magic, or religion rather than in these other fields of endeavor.]

In effect, we still believe that the force of gravity exists in order to make it easier for us to sit down.

. . . deep within ourselves we know that our omnipotence is a sham, our knowledge and control of the future is weak and limited, our inventions and discoveries work, if they work at all in ways that we do not expect, our planning is meaningless, our systems are running amok—in short, that the humanistic assumptions upon which our societies are grounded lack validity.

“Desert-makers” is truly as appropriate a title for humans as “tool users.”

Why is it that we seem incapable of appreciating our own cleverness and recognizing our limitations at the same time?

Ehrenfeld begins and ends with quotes from the Bible, which I appreciate as a religious person. He quotes Isaiah, scolding the humans for their arrogance, saying,

It was your skill and your science that led you astray. And you thought to yourself, “I am, and there is none but me.”

Best wishes,
Puny Human


John Carl said...

Thanks for this review.

Eherenfeld's Book was the focus of a class in logic I took at Sierra College in the 80's, from George Sessions, co-author of Deep Ecology.

Those classes and that book literally changed my life. Before reading it, I wanted to be an attorney. After, I wanted to change the world and be a priest but of no religion on earth that I knew of. Since then, I've discovered hope in the writings and thought of America's greatest philosophical genius, Josiah Royce and his explication of the Great Community. But in my mind, Eherenfeld will always be the guy who started it all.

puny human said...

Thanks for the comment, John. I'll have to look up Josiah Royce.

Ian DeBaron said...

I came across Ehernfeld's "The Aroogance of Humanism" at a rare used book store that I stop by when the spirit moves me. The title immediately arrested my attention and the first few paragprahs I read resonated within my being like some kind of inner earthquake.

This was at a time in my life when I had already done a fair amount of independent studying and research into history, esoteric traditions,religions, quantum physics, eastern medicinal arts and sciences, indigenous mythologies and religions and many other discplines in an effort to peel back the layers of deception and unhealth that I understood with my entire being I was, am, living. Something was always wrong, incomplete, presumed, unchallenged in all of these things that sat uneasily within me.

Once I considered that when things "came" to me when I seemed to need them most it was nothing but furtuitous coincidence. But then it kept happening. This was one of those times. (And now, finding your blog.)

This was only 4 years ago. Shortly before finding Ehernfeld's book I'd meditated much on my readings of Black Elk Speaks, shortly afterwards I came across Daniel Quinn... and so on.

Long story short, I found a name for the religious spirit that moved me and had always informed my relationship with the world around me, although I never understood it for what it was. I had never been taught, shown, allowed to think/feel that there were more ways of living than those proscribed by civilization.

But the name is not the thing, and my learning continues as my being is recovered, little by little.

Much of the way you described yourself fits what I have retrieved from under the layers of false teachings, cultural mindscrew and general alienation.

I came across your blog when I used a search engine looking for Eherenfeld quote for something I was writing as a comment on someone's facebook and was beautifully surprised.

Well met on this Good Red Road through this Long Night, sister!

Many blessings and all love to you!

Ian Bryce said...

In this book, "The arrogance of humanism", Ehrenfeld attacks "humanism" which he defines as "Humanists claim... 1. all problems are soluble... 6. Human civilization will survive" (see back cover for all).

This is complete nonsense. As an active humanist for 32 years, I know that our Humanist Society's Object are:
1. To encourage a rational approach to human problems, to promote the fullest use of science for human welfare, to defend freedom of expression, and provide a constructive alternative to theological and dogmatic creeds;
2. To gain and maintain for non-religious people the same rights as are enjoyed by members of religious bodies;
3. To encourage an awareness of and the responsibility to the connection and interdependence between human and other life forms, and duty of care owed by present generations to future generations and the environment;
4. To encourage informed and reasoned discussion of issues in a manner that shows respect for the individual and his or her views;
5. To encourage respect for the universal human rights of men and women free from discrimination on the basis of race, class, disability, gender, age, nationality or sexual orientation.

Ehrenfeld has merely constructed a straw man which is easy for him to demolish, with no resemblance whatsoever to real humanism. He should apologize to all the real humanists he has maliciously slandered.

Ian Bryce

puny human said...

Thanks for your comments Ian B. I stand by my own and by Eherenfeld's understanding of Humanism. I don't think he was being malicious, but only seeking truth in his way, as you seek it in your way.