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Humanism, Secular


A humanism so-called to distinguish it from Christian or other theological humanisms. It may be defined as any philosophical, political, or cultural affirmation of man as the principal object of concern, to the exclusion of all religious or theological theses about his origin and destiny. Secular humanism, however, sometimes identifies itself as religious, as in the two significant humanist manifestoes. In 1933 a group of Unitarian ministers and educators published "The Humanist Manifesto," which affirmed the relevance of religion as a "shared quest for the good life" and established social reform as one of the principal aims of religion. In 1953 the Humanist published "A Humanist Manifesto," in which the authors refer to themselves as "religious humanists." Their doctrine may be summarized as follows: (1) the universe is self-existing and not created; (2) man is part of nature and has evolved as part of a continuous process; (3) modern science provides the only acceptable description of the universe; (4) modern science excludes any supernatural explanation of the universe or of human values; and (5) the end of man's life is the complete realization of the human personality in this world. Although it is unequivocally secularist, this humanism is called religious because it offers a doctrine that claims the ultimacy of a religious truth. While secular humanism is generally associated with a definite atheism, agnosticism, or scientism, attempts have been made to show that a secular humanism is completely compatible with belief in the supernatural. Pragmatism and naturalism, for example, strive for peaceful coexistence with religious doctrine.

Historical Origins. Secular humanism in its recent manifestations shares certain common characteristics with the teachings of Protagoras and other sophists. Protagoras's well-known dictum to the effect that "man is the measure of all things, of those that are that they are, and of those that are not that they are not" may have been intended to apply as well to individual men as to the community. It implies not a necessary hostility to the gods but rather a pragmatic neutrality. "With regard to the gods, I cannot feel sure either that they are or that they are not, nor what they are like in figure; for there are many things that hinder sure knowledge, the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life." The Sophists, in true humanitarian spirit, espoused the cause of the defenseless and the less fortunate; in time, however, their efforts were strongly disparaged.

Renaissance humanism was generally Christian in its attitude, although it revived classical learning and the study of pagan sources that were in opposition to scholastic forms of thought. Paralleling its development, the physical sciences began to assume a new autonomy. nominalism had already drawn into question the continuity and agreement between the eternal verities of philosophy and theology. The result was a reduction of natural philosophy to mathematical-scientific description and a reduction of theology to blind faith. The enlight enment of the 17th to the 19th centuries finally asserted the autonomy of reason as absolute ruler of man's life and supreme arbiter of truth (see rationalism).

Jean Jacques rousseau gave impetus to the new humanism by seeking to explain the origin and destiny of man without reliance on theological sources. He argued

that for man to be himself he must defy the institutions of Christian Europe, return as closely to natural simplicity as possible, and then reconstruct a new, democratic society that embodied the general will of all men. No longer, in his view, does man have to appeal to God for his sacredness; he is sacred in himself. Among other things, religion and philosophical reasoning have robbed man of his pristine innocence.

Auguste Comte argued in reverse, in the name of science, that the theological and metaphysical stages of human development were a result of primitive superstition and ignorance. The time had arrived, he claimed, when the "positive" stagein which factual knowledge is gathered and interpreted scientificallywould show what men are and how they should live. The science of sociology was thus born and was destined to rival ethics and theology in their efforts to relate man to reality.

Feuerbach, Marx, and Engels. The new humanism had a theological beginning also in the works of Ludwig feuerbach, who was preoccupied with questions about the nature of theology, the relationship between man and God, and the mysteries of Christian faith and yet concluded by reducing theology to anthropology. Karl Barth suggests that this reduction was the logical outcome of the Protestant (and especially Lutheran) shift of interest from what God is in Himself to what He means for men [Introd. to L. Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York 1957) xix]. Feuerbach declares the purpose of his undertaking to be "to show that the antithesis of divine and human is altogether illusory, that it is nothing else than the antithesis between the human nature in general and the human individual; that, consequently, the object and contents of the Christian religion are altogether human" (ibid. 14). His humanism strongly emphasizes the intrapersonal "I" and "Thou" and the social aspect of salvation. "My fellow-man is per se the mediator between men and the sacred idea of the species. Homo homini Deus est " (ibid. 159). It is in Feuerbach particularly that one sees humanism raised to the level of a religion. "The beginning, middle and end of religion is man" (ibid. 184).

The dialectical materialism of K. marx and F. engels is an attempt to establish the theoretical foundations and practical implications of Feuerbach's humanism. All reality is explainable as matter. Even mind is only an outgrowth of matter. Moving in space and time, matter transforms itself by creating oppositions and by resolving them. Man, both ontologically and chronologically, is totally and exclusively a product of this process. His destiny is bound up in his understanding and control of the dialectics of matter, especially as these are realized in social forces. Communism represents itself as a totally materialistic, socialistic, and scientific humanism in which, in the words of N. lenin, "every religious idea is an abomination." All morality derived from religion or from any other social institution must give way to an ethic based on the ever developing self-interest of man. To emphasize its humanistic superiority over Western Christendom, communist societies stress the importance of excellence in every endeavor, scientific, athletic, and cultural.

Empiricist Bias. In the English-speaking world secular humanism has been characterized by a strong empiricist bias expressed in the writings of F. C. S. Schiller (18641937), William james, and John Dewey. In England Schiller described his brand of pragmatism as humanism in Humanism, Philosophical Studies (London 1903) and other works similarly titled. He revived the thought of Protagoras that man is the measure of reality and indeed the creator of the meaning of reality (Plato or Protagoras?, London 1908). While Schiller's humanism centered more on questions of logic and epistemology, James's thought had wider scope and currency because he dealt with man as a psychological and social whole and paid particular attention to religious faith. His humanism placed a high value on religion as an expression of the human will; for him, however, God shares fate and becoming with man. Dewey advanced the thesis of pragmatism by accommodating it to the scientific and democratic ambitions of American society and, as a philosopher of education, profoundly influenced the development of humanism in the U.S. For him, there is no true religion with a fixed dogma and an ultimate end; there is only the adjective "religious," which applies to the search for a working truth that becomes instrumental in the endless pursuit of scientific meaning. His naturalism concedes no content to the supernatural, while his in strumentalism has both personal and social implications, for it is proposed as the only way that man can achieve any measure of peace and happiness.

Although a radically scientific humanism tends to treat generalizations and spiritual concepts as meaningless because they are beyond the pragmatic test, still there are some authorsJ. B. Conant, for onewho grant that such spiritual notions as generosity and kindness are valuable hypotheses capable of proving their worth for society (Modern Science and Modern Man, New York 1952). More representative of humanist thought based strictly upon scientific method, however, is the evolutionary humanism of Sir Julian Huxley (18871975). Huxley views man as a self-contained, self-sufficient entity and suggests that to know how man has evolved in the past and to contemplate with awe what he might yet make of his destiny is to be reverent and even religious. One of the major results of religious psychology, in his view, is "the realisation that God is one among several hypotheses to account for the phenomena of human destiny, and that it is now proving to be an inadequate hypothesis" (Religion without Revelation, New York 1927; pref. to rev. ed. 1957).

Aesthetic Humanism. There also exists what might be called an aesthetic humanism, which is embodied in the thought of Arthur schopenhauer and Rainer Maria Rilke. As the pragmatist proposes that human activity creates the scientific meaning of the world, Schopenhauer urges that music creates the meaning of the world as will and power. In his view, music transcends time and place and the natures of particular things and reveals the onward thrust of being itself. He does not hesitate to proclaim that in music "I recognize the highest objectification of the will once more, the rational life and aspiration of man" (The World as Will and Idea, London 1907). Rilke, a poet, speaks in obscurities but is nonetheless influential, especially in existentialist circles. For him, God is in the process of creating Himself, and the poet is an active and conscious partner in that struggle; God is in fact "a direction of the heart" who depends as much upon man for His fulfillment as man does upon himself. "Indeed man must transform and transfigure himself; and in transfiguring himself he will be the redeemer and transfigurer of all existence" (Sonnets to Orpheus, tr. J. B. Leishman, London 1936). Although art need not be didactic, mid-20th-century art has become consciously preoccupied with matters of "ultimate concern," as Paul Tillich expresses it. This follows logically from a secular humanism in which there is no place for theology and in which philosophy bemoans its own lack of content. When a foundation for ultimate meaning cannot be found apart from human subjectivity, art must create an imaginative meaning for man. This was the poetic and humanistic ambition of Rilke; it remains the concern of contemporary artists generally.

Existentialism. In its philosophical and literary attitude, existentialism lays strong claim to being the secular humanism of the 20th century. Despite origins in the religious thought of S. A. kierkegaard and the support of religious protagonists such as Gabriel Marcel, the existentialist thought of F. W. nietzsche, Albert Camus, and Jean Paul Sartre has marked atheistic presuppositions. The humanism of other existentialists such as Martin Heidegger, Franz Kafka, Karl Jaspers, and Paul Tillich, although ambiguous in its evaluation of religion, is also partially reflected in the thought of Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre. It was Nietzsche who celebrated the "death of God" and the apotheosis of man. The Superman is the one who rises above the distinction between good and evil, a distinction that is necessary only in the slave morality of those who cannot stand freedom. Nietzsche predicts no utopia, for there must always be slavery and war if there is to be heroism and superiority. Camus, a novelist, shares this characteristically sober view. In the Myth of Sisyphus (Paris 1943) he explains that man reaches heroic stature when he is conscious enough to accept the tragedy of fate. "There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn." This tragic heroism "drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile suffering. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men." Sartre, finally, gives full expression to the humanistic pretensions of existentialism in the essay Existentialism and Humanism (tr. P. Mairet, London 1948). Though Sartre has modified his view since its publication, this essay has become influential on all levels. In it he laments the impossibility of God, for without God all order and consequence disappear, leaving man with the freedom to create his own nature and thus with the total responsibility for his destiny. Man desires to be God, but cannot be God without self-contradiction. Hence his dictum, "man is a useless passion" [Existentialism and Human Emotions (New York 1957) 90].

In spite of Sartre's onetime espousal and subsequent disavowal of Marxism, there are definite points of agreement in the two systems as humanisms. Each accepts the definition of man as conditioned by the contingencies of history. Each makes man totally responsible for his own future and denies him any escape from responsibility through established moral systems. And each insists that activity takes precedence over speculative thought. Both the Marxist revolutionary and the existentialist must act in the face of opposition, in a dialectical situation. The result is not derived; it is created anew.

Other Directions. Under the influence of existentialism and phenomenology, the science of psychology has modified its earlier positivistic approach to man and is reconsidering such questions as freedom, responsibility, finality, conscience, and faith. Gordon Allport, Carl Rogers, and Abraham Maslow have criticized the methods of radical empiricism because they exclude from study any aspect of man that cannot be reduced to mechanistic principles. Similarly, the Freudian reduction of religious faith and conscience to blind drives for gratification has been seriously criticized, although it had constituted a basic theme in secular humanism until the middle of the 20th century.

In legal philosophy and politics, secular humanism continues to influence American society. Since the turn of the century such organizations as the American Secular Union have striven to effect a total separation of Church and State, especially in the area of education. The underlying philosophical supposition of this movement is that religious values are merely personal and should not be allowed to influence the laws and institutions of a democratic society. Much legal philosophy and jurisprudence is likewise under the influence of the pragmatic legal theory of Supreme Court justices such as O. W. holmes, who, rejecting all absolute moral standards, maintained that the "ought" of natural law can be expressed in the metaphor "a dog will fight for his bone."

Critique. Every form of humanism must be judged as a historical reaction to some dehumanization of philosophy, theology, or social life. When humanism is atheistic, it can survive only on the destruction of false images of God, themselves often the result of a prior disintegration in theology. When it is agnostic, it derives its vitality from some misrepresentation of the evidence for the existence and nature of God. Thus the Stoics reaffirmed man against the idealism of the Academy and the anthropomorphized gods of the state. Rousseau reacted against rationalism and a not-too-healthy Christianity. Feuerbach condemned the ego of I. Kant, the absolute identity of F.W. J. Schelling, and the absolute mind of G. W. F. Hegel. Communism stands in direct contradiction to the false alliance of Christian ethics and capitalist exploitation. Pragmatists and naturalists react against a disembodied supernaturalism, and existentialism rejects all pretense of finding meaning in idealist philosophies of history. In contrast to a totally atheistic secular humanism, there stands the humanism of reformed theology, as expressed by Karl Barth, who, even in his later writings, still claims "there is no humanism without the Gospel" [The Faith of the Church (New York 1958) 32]. The assumption here is that humanity has no meaning other than the meaning it receives from the divine history of redemption and that even with redemption humanity remains without inherent value.

Between a godless humanism and a hyper-Christian humanism, there stands the Christian humanism of the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition, which maintains that humanity, even damaged with sin, retains an essential meaning and value. Man is the image of God, not exclusively in grace, but "inasmuch as he too is the principle of his actions, as having free-will and control of his actions" (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae la2ae, prol. ). It is important to note that, whereas neither secular humanism nor hyper-Christian humanism can tolerate or assimilate each other, the Christian humanism of Aquinas can reconcile both. It can admit the measure of autonomy proper to man, as well as tolerate the ambiguities involved in the human struggle for knowledge and self-control. In its view, God is not the primum cognitum from which man discovers his own value. Rather God is discovered only as the term of a process that begins with man's self-understanding as part of a truly meaningful world. Yet thomism can admit, with equal simplicity, the transcendence of the supernatural order. Grace and redemption perfect nature and give it a meaning it could never achieve of its own power. Merely by being true to his nature man does not merit supernatural glorification; but by being untrue to his nature, he can jeopardize his supernatural destiny.

See Also: humanism; humanism, christian.

Bibliography: j. maritain, True Humanism, tr. m. r. adamson (6th ed. New York 1954). É. h. gilson, Elements of Christian Philosophy (New York 1960). w. a. kaufmann, ed., Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (New York 1956). c. carbonara, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 4:137379. h. de lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, tr. e. m. riley (New York 1949). c. n. r. mccoy, The Structure of Political Thought (New York 1963).

[w. p. haas]

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