The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
T.S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’
I think it can rightly be claimed that the humanist movement essentially represents a revolt against certitude. For the early man, in the face of mysterious happenings, unexplained phenomena and hidden dangers, the quest for certitude was a basic psychological necessity – essential for survival. In our times the growth of scientific knowledge has changed all that. Mystery and dread of the kind that the primitive man faced have been taken out of our everyday lives; but the habit of assertive certitude, and its offshoots, authoritarianism and intolerance, remain. Where this habit has survived almost intact is among the followers of traditional religions, but others are not immune to it. Not even Humanists.
Narsingh Narain wrote: “It seems to us that the most objectionable feature common to all religions is not supernaturalism but authoritarianism, that is, the attachment of finality and infallibility to their teachings. The latter’s ancestry is not traceable to the primitive man’s personification of the forces of nature, but to the formation of an authority-accepting centre in the human mind, as part of the mechanism of psychosocial evolution, and its subsequent exploitation alike by rulers, priests and others. This authoritarianism is the more harmful and dangerous as it has not been confined to the religions; its influence has been much more pervasive — authoritarianism and its offshoots, dogmatism and fanaticism, are to be found everywhere in the world today, and we feel that the primary function of Humanism is to help in the transition from an authoritarian to a non-authoritarian society in all spheres of life” (emphasis added).
One distinctive feature of Humanism is its emphasis on the tentative nature of all knowledge. As Clive Bell said: “Only reason can convince us of those three fundamental truths without a recognition of which there can be no effective liberty: that what we believe is not necessarily true; that what we like is not necessarily good; and that all questions are open.”
This is intellectual humility; and it is an indispensable part of the Humanist outlook. On the other hand, we have the ‘true believer’. “The true believer”, Arthur Koestler said, “moves in a vicious circle inside his closed system: he can prove to his satisfaction everything that he believes, and he believes everything he can prove.” For the true believer anyone who holds a different belief is by definition wrong, deluded. It has to be admitted that this attitude can be found among traditional religionists as well as Humanists and atheists. “This glow of conviction”, says Michael Ruse “is directly antithetical to humanism in the more generous sense, but it dogs ‘Humanism’.” Thus, he adds, “One finds the enthusiasm of the true believer, and this encourages a set of unnerving attributes: intolerance, hero-worship, moral certainty and the self-righteous condemnation of unbelievers” (emphasis added).
Don Evans says:
“As with religious and secular humanism, there seem to be two mind sets in approaching and understanding of religion: (1) religion is an intrinsic part of human nature and can no more be expunged from that nature than sexual desire or the need for society, and (2) religion is an unnatural imposition on human nature which should be dispensed with.
“Humanists today are far from resolving this conflict of approaches, although it is possible that further developments in psychology and anthropology may shift the balance one way or the other. Humanists in the first camp, whether religious or secular, are far more tolerant of religious manifestations generally, and are more concerned with preventing excesses and abuses than with achieving total abandonment of religion. Humanists in the second camp, often considerably more vocal, seem to have a perpetual grudge against anything religious and seem to be in a constant state of warfare against any and all signs of religious sentiment.”
There are indications that “Humanists in the second camp” are gaining ground. They see religion as an unmitigated evil. Christopher Hitchens says: “Religion looks forward to the destruction of the world…. ” and goes on: “It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion.” This kind of strident humanism provokes a response in kind. According to R Joseph Hoffmann: “… by the early years of the twenty-first century movement humanism gave birth to a more uncompromising form of radical secularism in the form of the new atheism with its anti-God and oddly Orwellian postulate: All religion is evil. Some religions are more evil than others. Before God can be disbelieved in, as Christopher Hitchens argued in God is Not Great, he has to be roused from his slumber, bound, tried, and humiliated for his atrocities. If he is not available, his avatar, the Catholic Church, will do.
“Movement humanism as it has evolved is not really humanism. Or rather, it is a kind of parody of humanism. A better name for it would be Not-Godism. It’s what you get when you knock at the heavenly gate and no one is home.”
Walter Lippmann was undoubtedly right when he said: “In the great moral systems and the great religions of mankind are embedded the record of how men have dealt with destiny, and only the thoughtless will argue that that record is obsolete and insignificant.” Humanism must not cast itself thoughtlessly in the role of an enemy of religion. It is a successor of religion; and has, in fact, been born of what Lippmann has called the “higher religions”. The real enemy of Humanism is a dogmatic and aggressive approach to beliefs.