Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Critique of Humanism

The original definition of Humanism distinguished classical studies from religious studies in Renaissance Europe. The more recent and commonly used definition describes a philosophy focused on humanity. Morality and meaning are based on rational thought, and supernatural existence or authority is soundly rejected. Supernatural in this case, is an academic term that means greater-than-human, nonhuman, or nonordinary.

Many forward-thinking and liberal religions and non-religious viewpoints identify with Humanism. Adherents hope to rescue humanity from superstition and irrational church- or book-based authorities, but I believe that Humanism has tossed out the baby with the bathwater. In their attempt to deliver us from the Dominator gods and their social ills, Humanists have denied the existence of gods altogether, and limited themselves to a murky and abstract agnosticism or a frank atheism.**

I see Humanism as a kind of hubris, an overweening pride, the tragedy of a puny human who challenges the gods for supremacy. Humanism is anthropocentric. It assumes that human rational intelligence is the prime, and perhaps the only, example of intelligent life in the universe, making humans the ultimate arbiter of morality and meaning.

But I do not trust human reason as the ultimate arbiter of anything! After all, it made perfect sense to the Nazis to eliminate the Jewish drain on their genetic superiority. It appears rational to today’s businessmen to raze old growth forests to raise cattle for Mac-burgers. Reason alone doesn’t cut it for me . . . or for Hindus who refer to mind as maya, the great illusion . . . or for Taoists, who would empty the mind to become a vessel for Tao . . . or for psychologists who study the strange convolutions of memory . . .

I’m not suggesting that we eliminate reason from our thinking or revert to a blind adherence to biblical authority, or to any book’s authority for that matter.* Instead, I propose that we listen both to reason and to love, that we see with our bodies’ eyes and with our spirits’ eyes, that we open our minds to the rational and the nonrational—and the nonrational teaches us that there is more than can be seen.

Our culture’s bias against the nonrational is evident. What remains hidden is that we have been given a false choice with regard to diety. We must choose between one of the Dominator mono-gods or no god at all. If we reject the jealousy, violence, and greed of the mono-gods, then our false choice strands us, like the Humanists, in a soulless universe. Then, our only source of meaning and morality is in our own flawed and suspect minds. Now, wait just a cotton pickin' minute! There are lots of gods out there! Choose whom you will serve and follow!

In seeking the supernatural, that is, the nonhuman, let’s look beyond the mono-gods and burst the Dominator limitations. Why not trust our own experience of the nonhuman? Do you see the laughing, ferney, fairy dust that sucks the shoes off horses? Can you hear the trees talk? Trust your experience! After all, if the trees are talking to us and we really start to listen, we might learn a thing or two about humans and gods that the Humanists don’t know.
Best wishes,

* A google search can give you more information about Humanism today. Wikipedia has a solid overview. And Seth’s Blog has two posts related to Humanism that are, as usual, insightful and thought-provoking. (His blog is temporarily offline but I expect it to reappear shortly. Then, you have to dig through his May postings to find: Beyond Humanism and The Shallowness of Secular Society.)

** Perhaps one reason that biblical inerrancy has caught hold of the contemporary imagination is that the book is a symbol of rational truth, and reason has become so powerful that even the supernaturalists are uncomfortable without rational explanations.


Sophia said...

Thanks P.H.!

I want to add that Puny Human and I used to get into debates about the term supernatural. And also about the existence of the supernatural - aka anything outside of science's sanctioned repertoire. I was then an adamant proponent of science, since I simply could not hear or see otherwise.

I now find that I do not see as clearly outside of science as those I would term mystics (mystics appear in every culture and religion, in some cultures everyone seems to be a mystic). I often wonder what it would have been like to grow up and learn outside of science (barely possible in the US), and I wish that I could break out of that "rational" mindset more often. I now see that science is a tool of patriarchy and "dominators," one that slipped in just in time as certain monotheisms lost footing. (Or did science push out the monotheism?)

As for the term supernatural, I at one point came to agree with Puny that it was a silly way to define anything outside of science, as it is inherently a condescending term. Now, I feel that the term makes perfect sense, since "nature" and the sharp division between each half of these pairs - nature and human, spiritual and rational, woman and man - were shoved down our throats by science, thus allowing for the former to be devalued. Divide and conquer? Thus, science becomes/appears as a great tool for domination.

There is no "outside of nature." There is no nature. Which means we have no right to plunder it. There is only existence. There is no supernatural after all!

EmilyJean said...

Oh, I agree with Sophia. I don't believe in "the supernatural" because I think that all of the unseen wonders of the universe are just as natural as those that we see. So-called miracles are also natural and can be explained by the science of metaphysics. There is just so much going on in the Creator's Cosmos that we don't understand - but that doesn't make it unnatural - it just means that we humans have a PUNY understanding of the universe we live in!

Heron said...

As someone who has always thought that there is something beyond the human which it is importance for us to acknowledge I endorse what you say. My problem with much modern paganism (and some christianity) is that people do not find it easy to acknowledge gods except as aspects of human consciousness. The range of explanations goes from Jungian archetypes to post-modern ideas of cultural or linguistic constructions. It's not that there isn't some element of truth in these explanations as ways of explaining how we might perceive and socially integrate gods and spirits into our culture, but the implication here is that they don't actually 'exist' outside our minds.

Now there are dangers in the opposite view that God is an absolute being who has dictated to us how we should live and behave but, though it is clear that this is based on human texts from the past, this does posit God as being absolute and beyond us.

The question therefore is 'how can we have a relationship with such different presences with whom we share our world?' I would suggest that we can only do so on the basis of a 'relationship' and not either by an attitude of fear and submission or one of playing mind games with an idea.