Does Humanism Have an Expiration Date?

From Brint Montgomery, who teaches philosophy at Southern Nazarene University:

Humanism is a system of thought that rejects religious beliefs and centers on humans and their values, capacities, and worth. It gets its start, at least in the form we know it today, as a cultural and intellectual movement of the Renaissance, mainly as a result of the rediscovery and study of the literature, art, and civilization of ancient Greece and Rome. Thus, it has a negative and positive agenda. Down with religion; up with—well, whatever is otherwise understood to be the high products of human culture.
In some ways, humanism should now strike us as a very strange philosophy.
To show why, let me note some casual observations about a couple of recent magazine covers. First, there’s the December 19, 2009, issue of Science, which is, even now, precariously balanced on the cushy, cowhide leather arm of my recliner. There, emblazoned in full color, is a nearly photo-realistic, though painted, depiction of Ardipithecus radius, hailed as the “Breakthrough of the Year.”
So, 4.4 million years ago, we have this very near great-ape ancestor—not human, but very close in terms of primate morphology. And yet, even now, there is a celebrated philosophy of the human, the end-product result of some earlier creature, one extraordinarily similar to “Ardi.”
Then, there’s the January 2010 issue of National Geographic. On its cover, set against a techno-blue background, is an actual photo—one showing a shiny yet subdued metallic, 20-motor, cutting-edge bionic hand that mimics a human limb with unprecedented accuracy. Its user can control it via nerve impulses, and it also has sensors that register touch. But still, it’s attached to a human, the totem object of a celebrated philosophy.
Which brings me to the reason why humanism should strike us as strange. What is identifiably human sits precariously between two such conceptual bookends—the furry, prehuman apes that have yielded their place to us, their evolutionary prize, and the custom-designed bionics that hint humans can be but transitory figures in an ongoing development of biological beings. Humanism is a strange philosophy because its past is from the nonhuman and its future is toward the nonhuman, and yet it holds the celebration of what’s human to somehow be of ultimate value. Advocates of a religious worldview can rightly point to the limitations of such an outlook.
As a thought experiment, suppose a group of precocious 12-year-olds get together and formulate a philosophy, call it “adolescentism.” They celebrate newly noted bodily traits and all the fun and games of prepubescence. They know what they were, but are now not (e.g., primers); still, for the moment, they value what they are, not really in a position to understand what they shall be (adults). Thus, they declare their current state of ultimate value.
Adolescentism’s flaws are easily seen, since we all know the natural developmental cycle of children is to become adults. But contrast this with humanism, which does not entail a final, natural development. Humans are a temporary natural kind of biological entity; they will eventually become some other kind of thing.
In a way, theistic religion can offer a kind of generalization about evolutionary development that humanism cannot. Even when humans, as a species, transition into nonhuman kinds of entities, these entities will, for the fathomable future, still have minds. A flexible theism might take its cue from the 19th-century figure Ludwig Feuerbach, as one interpreter summarizes his thoughts:

What the devout mind worships as God is accordingly nothing but the idea of the human species imagined as a perfect individual. Once they are unmasked, shown for what they really are, religious belief and the idea of God can be useful instruments of human self-understanding, revealing to us our essential nature and worth.

Feuerbach thought any such illusory projections about God, stemming as they were from merely human minds, would alienate us and make us feel unworthy. However, there is another way to understand such ideas about God. The illusion of religion might be like the illusion of the center of mass between two objects, an applicable and proper abstraction about real empirical relationships. And a nuanced idea about God need not merely be an illusion, but also can apply to real things—humans (for now)—and to real goals, like an increase in the capacities of consciousness (coming later); a flexible (and prudent) theism would hold that the ideal of God stands as the infinite limit of where consciousness is going. So it should strike us as strange that humanism is waved as the banner of ultimate values. Better, I think, to wave a bigger banner.

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2 Responses

  1. Matt M says:

    A couple of thoughts:

    1) There are plenty of religious humanists. As a worldview, it merely commits you to appreciating that all life (religious or non-religious) is experienced from a human-pov.

    2) The fact that we will one day (far, far into the future) quite possibly evolve to a point where we are no longer recognisably “human” (as we now think of it) is pretty irrelevant – humanism is concerned with the here and now.

    3) I absolutely agree that a flexible theism would be preferable to a rigid humanism. But why is a flexible humanism apparently off the table?

  2. In practical terms, humanism is of the same intellectual paradigm and aspirational potential that drives theology, and thus both suffer from the same limitations. Thus to question humanism is also to question the efficacy of our religious understanding. As neither have very mush to offer the future in terms of real solutions, I would suggest that both are past their sell by date!

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