The twentieth century witnessed a war against words that hollowed out their traditional meanings and filled them with refuse. Myth became lie. Love became lust. Gay became homosexual. Another word lost in the confusion of our present whirligig of post-modern life, is humanism. To the left is has come to mean radicalism, atheism, arrogance and secularism.
Traditionally, from the earliest Greek philosophers of the 5th century B.C. through the end of the 19th century, humanism remained rather steady as a cherished and nurtured idea. Humanist believed in the dignity of the human person as born unique, higher than the animals but lower than the divine. They saw education as a means of development and nurturing, seeking wisdom rather than mere knowledge or technical skill. And they upheld citizenship of the Republic of Letters as higher than loyalty to any nation or worldly power. While they never exactly agreed about a god or the God, humanist understood that something stood above any one person or all of humanity, time and existence.
The late 1800s through early 1900s saw a rise in the popularity of the word humanism to such an extend that it became virtually meaningless. The form remained but the essence became whatever an individual desired. John Henry Newman, a Catholic, became what he called a Christian Humanist believing that we are not autonomous beings but are open to a relationship with God that rescues us from enslavement to self. T.E. Hume on the other hand found new humanism to describe his elitist view of culture, while Irving Babbitt noted that humanism was an alternative to religion.
While numerous people and groups tried to co-opt humanism for their own agendas, the most prominent and conspicuous was none other than the infamous utilitarian philosopher and educationalist, John Dewey, one of the signers of the Human Manifesto in 1933. The Manifesto states that “…religious institutions, their ritualistic forms, ecclesiastical methods and communal activities must be reconstituted as rapidly as experience allows, in order to function effectively in the modern world. Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values….Religion must formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method.”
One of Dewey’s present-day admirers and disciples was philosopher Richard Rorty, who carried on Dewey’s secular humanist tradition. Fundamental to this task was his argument that truth is the upshot of whatever free culture comes to value, and that if we take care of freedom and not worry about Truth, society will turn out fine.
Rorty’s writings are suggestive of a universe in which God and politics as usual have no a priori meaning, where re-description, rather than tradition, is the defining norm of a culture, and any attempt to bring God back in any form of public discourse, whether in politics or centers of higher education, or as he puts it, to “re-enchant” the world, would be folly, a regression of the world. Rather than to fear our human-all-to-human shortcomings, we should embrace them and use them as inspiration for our self-overcoming. To be heroic, humans must engage life on their own terms and not the terms dictated by deities or their earthly mouthpieces.
While it would be easy to dismiss Rorty as simply one voice in a world of many, unfortunately he represents so much of academia and politics in the western world. Certainly Europe has secularized at a faster pace than the U.S. but we are not far behind. While many Americans claim to be religious, they are loath to take their religion into the public square. Whether they fear condemnation or actually believe that religion should not be a part of public discourse remains unclear.
Far from being an enemy of religion, humanism, properly understood, has been a faithful ally since St. Paul visited Athens. The liberal arts teach not atheism but virtue. They shun loyalties to things of this world and point us toward citizenship in something larger.
Allowing the left to hijack the term has given them a way to promote themselves as the humane path in this world. Of course this is simply not true. The lineage that led to Kirkian conservatism sought the dignity of the human person well beyond mere accidents of birth. The lineage that led to Rorty and other progressives is full of eugenicist and racists and exclusionists. They are the very antithesis of humanism, properly understood, even as they embrace the term.
Humanism was never the enemy of conservatism; rather, it made conservatism meaningful. It is the very thing that conservatives must conserve.
Source: The Corruption of a Word, Bradley J. Birzer