Humanism and Anti-Humanism

Sanzio_01_Plato_Aristotle

Am I the only one who notices that people who call themselves “humanists” seem to despise their fellow man?

“Humanist” of course has shades of meaning. A humanist can be someone like me who is schooled in what used to be called”the humanities”, that is history, classical literature and a smattering of philosophy. Or humanism can mean what the French call laicite, the conviction that human beings should be unconcerned with the things of God and only concentrate on the things of man.

Of course both strands of humanism tends to produce insufferable snobbery. The first kind of humanist tends to despise what Socrates* would call the “unexamined life” of sadly ordinary people just floating along immersed in their cultural surroundings. This sort of humanist is usually cured of snobbery when he graduates from college, realizes he is unemployable, and starts to envy all those “unexamined” machinists, nurses and engineers with good jobs. His encounter with economic realities teaches him the wisdom his schooling failed to provide him.

The second kind of humanist does not seem to be curable, because reality only embitters him. Now, this humanist may define himself as an atheist, agnostic or deist. He may even define himself, usually with qualifications, as a believer. His main concern, however, is not (unless he is a total crank**) religion, but the wonders and possibilities of the human race. While the religious vision tends to see human nature as more or less static, (humans 10,000 years ago are pretty much the same as humans will be 10,000 years from now), the humanist sees human nature as malleable.

In this vision, once humanity is freed from what the humanist considers to be superstition, meaningless tradition, and narrow parochial interests, and governed only by the dictates of pure Reason (Reason as defined by the humanist) all of humanity’s problems will be solved.

The problem, of course, is that most people have no interest in being governed by the the humanist’s idiosyncratic vision of Reason. They are content to pursue their own economic interests, to care for their own little families and towns, and to live (or fail to live) by the standards of righteousness inherited from their ancestors. They do this because they are human, much to the humanist’s chagrin.

The humanist always finds that humans fail to live up to his standards. He is forever disappointed. His rational discourse falls on deaf ears, his central planning is resented or ignored, his government programs undermined. If he finds himself in a position of power he could well react with violence.

But that is inevitable. The humanist does not love humans for what they are, but for what he wants them to be.

 

* The difference between Socrates and most people who study the humanities: Socrates seemed to genuinely like people.

** I might be wrong here. A brief perusal of “humanist” websites reveal an unhealthy obsession with atheism. That makes no sense, since there is nothing keeping a believer from being a humanist in the forms I’ve described. I can only imagine that either some atheists are using the title “humanist” to pretend they are about something rather than nothing, or that some atheists form a subset of humanism.

But it is interesting that most atheists I know despise the rest of the humanity.

 

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9 comments

  1. It seems that many who claim the title of atheist fall into the same sort of trouble that faith believers fall into. An arrogance that they are following the true nature of things, when it is not possible for the full picture to be seen. There are believers that scoff at confirmed evidence, and there are atheists that scoff at questions that science hasn’t answered (like where did the Big Bang come from?).

    I personally don’t have much faith in religions, but I think that the Biblical character of Jesus is on the right track in a number of areas. He refers to himself as a human (son of man) so as not to create division between himself and others, and his greatest commands are to love the source of our creation and to love our fellow humans. These concepts transcend any need for a faith storyline and could help bring greater connection to humanity if they are put ahead of religious dogma.

    1. You are probably right about the arrogance of belief, but you can’t co-opt Jesus as a non-religious figure. He comes from an intensely religious environment, and all evidence suggests he understood himself as the Jewish messiah.

      1. Jesus was working within the context of Jewish belief, but I don’t see how that makes it untouchable for re-contextualizing his ideas into non-belief. It’s like taking a piece of music played on guitar and re-working it to play on piano. The essence is there, it’s just in a different realm.

        When Jesus is being tried for claiming that he is the messiah, he does not accept the title but retorts “you say that I am”. He may have been trying to showcase himself like a messiah, but it seems unclear as to whether he truly believed the image he was portraying through his words and deeds.

      2. Hmmm. One thing is to reject Jesus’ Jewish context and try to sympathize with them in another (modern secular). But for understanding how he saw himself we only have the Gospels, which are not only messianic, but give him a sort of divinity. “Before Abraham was, I am”. Even Son of Man is a reference to the book of Daniel, where the Son of Man is a messianic figure.
        Jesus is a tempting figure to work into one’s own system, but once you get into details he defies easy categories. Attractive but demanding.
        But I think your instinct to avoid simplistic systems is a good one.

      3. Keeping in mind that Jesus knew Jewish belief to an impressive degree at a young age, and that nearly two decades would pass before Jesus re-emerged, it would not surprise me one bit for someone with such strong comprehension abilities to seek out a way to connect himself with the system in order to attempt to rectify perceived troubles of the system.

        It is pretty clear though that there is some complexity going on within and between the Gospel accounts. I have a difficult time believing it is as cut-and-dry as some believers or critics would suggest.

  2. But it is interesting that most atheists I know despise the rest of the humanity.

    Maybe you just need to get out a bit more dp? Take a break from shooting squirrels and debauched fantasies of girls with guns?

    By the way, just how many atheists do you know as the tone of your comments suggests an awful lot.

    1. Current friends and acquaintances? Maybe three or four loudmouths. Though atheism is usually a phase. More if you add them up over the years.

      1. You call your friends loudmouths?
        Not sure I would count you as a friend if I heard you babbling in this fashion.

      2. I said friends and acquaintances. I am more likely to call a friend a loudmouth than an acquaintance, and he would be more likely to call me the same.

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