The New Humanism

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I befriended them at school, and was taught by them at Cambridge. And whenever I lost the Christian faith which had first dawned on me in school assemblies I would be a humanist for a spell, and feel comforted that there existed this other and more tangled path to the goal of moral discipline. Looking back on it, I see the humanism of my parents as a kind of rearguard action on behalf of religious values. They, and their contemporaries, believed that man is the source of his own ideals and also the object of them.

There is no need for God, they thought, in order to live with a vision of the higher life. All the values that had been appropriated by the Christian churches are available to the humanist too. Faith, hope, and charity can exist as human causes, and without the need for a heavenly focus; humanists can build their lives on the love of neighbor, can exercise the virtues and discipline their appetites so as to be just, prudent, temperate, and courageous, just as the Greeks had taught, long before the edict of the Church had fallen like a shadow across the human spirit. It runs advertising campaigns and letter-writing campaigns and is militant in asserting the truth of its vision and its right to make converts.

But the vision is not that of my parents.


The new humanism spends little time exalting man as an ideal. It says nothing, or next to nothing, about faith, hope, and charity; is scathing about patriotism; and is dismissive of those rearguard actions in defense of the family, public spirit, and sexual restraint that animated my parents. Instead of idealizing man, the new humanism denigrates God and attacks the belief in God as a human weakness. My parents too thought belief in God to be a weakness.

The significance of new humanism for education and development | SpringerLink

But they were reluctant to deprive other human beings of a moral prop that they seemed to need. The British Humanist Association is currently running a campaign against religious faith.

From a true premise, they would have said, it derives a false and pernicious conclusion. Its publications imply that there is only one thing that stands between man and his happiness, and that is the belief in God.

Take that belief away, and we can run out into the garden of permissions, picking the fruit that we wrongly thought to have been forbidden. The humanists I knew as a young man would have reacted with disgust at this hedonistic message, and at a philosophy that aims to dispense with God without also aiming to replace Him. One Christian bus driver has refused to drive his bus, and a few hundred people have written to the Advertising Standards Council, which has rejected their complaint, but that is as far as the protests have gone.

When, in the light of this advertising campaign, I look back at the humanist movement that I encountered as an adolescent, one thing above all strikes me: that the old humanism was not about deconstructing God; it was about constructing man.

It was a positive movement, devoted to seeking things worthy of emulation and sacrifice, even if there is no God to promote them. Its principal fear was that, deprived of religious belief, people would let go of their ideals. Hence it urgently sought a new basis for moral restraint in the idea of human dignity. The old humanism was not a pleasure-seeking, still less a pleasure-loving philosophy. It took its inspiration from Enlightenment philosophers, from Milton, Blake, and D.

Lawrence, and from the legacy of Western art. The humanist who most influenced me at Cambridge believed that in no works had humanity been more blessed by true ideals than in the St. Matthew Passion of Bach and the Tristan und Isolde of Wagner, the one a work of Christian devotion, the other a work that makes no mention of God or gods, but simply dwells on the exalted nature of erotic love when tied to mutual sacrifice.

Greg Epstein

Although I was skeptical toward that kind of humanism, I never doubted its nobility of purpose. It was devoted to exalting the human person above the human animal, and moral discipline above random appetite.

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It saw art, music, and literature not simply as pleasures, but as sources of spiritual strength. And it took the same view of religion. Humanists of the old school were not believers.

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The ability to question, to doubt, to live in perpetual uncertainty, they thought, is one of the noble endowments of the human intellect. But they respected religion and studied it for the moral and spiritual truths that could outlive the God who once promoted them. Observing the new humanism from my old perspective I am struck not only by its lack of positive belief, but also by its need to compensate for this lack by antagonism toward an imagined enemy. There is no need to consult the pronouncements of the Archbishop of Canterbury: the response to the bus campaign abundantly proves the point.

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