Philosopher Max Horkheimer and Theologian Hans Kueng Get the Final Word

I am closing the discussion thread about naturalism with this post.

Some have objected that my arguments against naturalism are rooted in fundamentalism. Nothing could be more wrong. 20th century social philosopher Max Horkheimer was not noted for being particularly religious. However, he saw the same flaw in naturalism (which he termed “positivism”) as I see. And as Catholic theologian (whatever the Vatican may call him) Hans Kueng sees. Here is Hans Kueng quoting Max Horkheimer. The Horkheimer quote wrapped in the Kueng quote is in Kueng’s book Does God Exist? An Answer for Today:

“…according to Horkheimer, everything connected with morality goes back in the last resort to theology; ‘From the standpoint of positivism [the view that non-empirically verifiable propositions are meaningless—one could substitute “atheism” or "naturalism" for “positivism” here without altering Horkheimer’s argument], no conclusions can be drawn about morality in politics. Scientifically speaking, hatred is no worse than love, though its social function may be different. There is no logically conclusive argument to show that I should not hate, as long as I am not thereby placed at a disadvantage in my social life.’ Without an authority transcending man, it could in fact be said, in the spirit of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, that war is neither better nor worse than peace, freedom neither better nor worse than oppression: ‘For how can it be proved exactly that I should not hate if I feel like doing so. Positivism cannot find any authority transcending men, to distinguish between helpfulness and cupidity, kindness and cruelty, avarice and unselfishness. Logic too remains silent, it does not concede any precedence to moral sentiment. All attempts to justify morality by worldly prudence instead of looking to the hereafter—even Kant did not always resist this inclination—rest on harmonistic illusions’”

So what is the practical importance of the fight against naturalism? Well, frankly, it is that an implicit naturalism (I don’t mean science but the worldview that nature is all there is) has become the default life philosophy of public schools. That is because they are afraid of appealing to any transcendence or teleology. The result is that very smart young minds (and many not so smart) deduce very quickly that there is really no good reason why they should not live as they please so long as it does not put them at a disadvantage. They quickly deduce that appeals to self-interest being dependent on other-interest (e.g., compassion) if nature is all there is “rest on harmonistic illusions.”

Here is an example. Some years ago I attended a public school awards ceremony. It opened with an “inspirational talk” by a teacher. The teacher’s “inspiration talk” was simply his emotional declaiming of the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley. The poem, of course, is loaded with worldviewish assertions compatible only with naturalism. The audience (and especially the middle schoolers!) applauded wildly. In my opinion, “Invictus” is just as religious as “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and yet, if a public school teacher quoted that as his “inspirational talk” instead of “Invictus,” he would probably be interrupted by the principle and told to stop. Both are poetical expressions of worldviews and both are, in a sense, religious. Religion does not have to include belief in a personal God. In many American public schools ONLY Christianity is forbidden. I examined my daughters’ social studies textbooks and found them to be deplorably lacking in any teaching about Christianity–even its influence on Western culture. Other religions were given much more space and treated very generously. Too often, today, American public schools perhaps unintentionally secularize students–not by teaching science but by acting as if belief in God is about on the same level as belief in astrology–a matter of private preference with no public value. In light of that, I cannot criticize parents who opt for parochial education.


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