Can You Pick a Humanist Out of a Lineup?

Vlad Chituc, an atheist who blogs at NonProphet Status, thinks I was right on in my critique of humanist groups yesterday.    He says, as an atheist activist, he’s run into similar problems.

I’ve tried to pin down specific moral principles of Humanism from various people, and all I ever seem to get is some vague gesturing towards Reason or Compassion, or some philosophical terms like Naturalism and Consequentialism. But that gives me nothing specific.

If I have a conversation with someone who subscribes to some kind of preference Utilitarianism inspired by Peter Singer, then I have a decent and somewhat accurate picture of a good number of her philosophical commitments: there are true moral claims, she tries to maximize the good with her actions, what’s good is the satisfaction of preferences, there is some kind of focus on animal welfare because preferences are not unique to humans, we ought to give more money to aid the global poor, so on and so on.

But James Croft, a blogger in Patheos’s Atheist channel, thinks we’re both way off base.

[R]esponsible scholarship demands a more curious and engaged stance than Libresco’s post displays. There are, easily available, full, complex, and rigorous explorations of the Humanist worldview which, as a commentator on the topic, I believe it is reasonable to expect she should at least know about, if not know well. Humanism is not just a bumper sticker or a dictionary entry: it is a coherent and evolving tradition of thought and practice which finds expression in multiple cultures and time periods throughout human history. While much of what is available is quite lazy – just as much Christian messaging is lazy – not all of it is lazy. There are rigorous Humanisms, and they aren’t that tough to discover. Not all Humanisms are “diffuse and bland”.

Humanism certainly deserves a lot more clarity and attention to detail than its proponents often give it. But it also deserves the full respect and attention of those who reject it. And, in that spirit, I intend to offer in the coming days a series of resources for those interested in a more robust defense of the Humanist worldview. For the moment, though, a little more engagement on the part of our critics would be a good place to begin.

First, I should say that my readings in Humanism aren’t limited to the “What is Secular Humanism?” page from the Council for Secular Humanism’s website that I blockquoted back in my old, pre-conversion More Beating Up on Lazy Humanism post.  It was just a shorter, easily accessible distillation of the “We’re in favor of goodness!” I’d heard from plenty of humanists.  Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape ends up falling into this mold by the end of the book, by the way.  But I’ve had a pretty extensive tour through philosophy in Directed Studies.

One reason I don’t know who Croft thinks I’m missing is that there’s not a Humanist canon.  There are plenty of atheist (or adopted from long ago Deist) authors that humanists read, but they’re not necessarily in dialogue with each other or collaborating from a base of shared precepts.  People who love Peter Singer don’t necessarily have much in common with acolytes of John Dewey.

The second reason I don’t know who Croft thinks I’m missing is, well, because he didn’t list anyone.  I look forward to his big project pulling together resources to defend Humanism, but I don’t need a big defense of its truth to start out with.  I just need a better idea of what content he plans to eventually defend.  Right now, I can’t make a two cows joke about humanism, because it’s not sufficiently bounded in conceptspace.

Right now, knowing someone is a humanist doesn’t have much predictive power for me.  I don’t feel like I can make more accurate guesses about their philosophical or ethical beliefs, I don’t anticipate the advice they might give me, I don’t know who to pair them with to arrange an interesting debate, and, as I noted above, I can’t even come up with a funny caricature of their position.

Words are supposed to be the labels we put on clumpy parts of reality.   But I just don’t know what partitions humanists away from everyone else except their willingness to use the word “Humanist” as an identity.  Before he does a big Humanist apologetic, Croft could help me a lot by just stating some “[Leah] believes [moral laws exist in a similar way to mathmatical theorems, uncreated by humans] but Humanists believe Y” or “Humanists think that when confronted with an ethical problem, it’s important to think about N first, unlike [Virtue Ethicists] who think you should primarily consider [the kind of person taking the action would make you].”  I need him to differentiate his group before I know enough to ask questions so he can defend it.

Croft, I’ll make you a deal.  If you show me your philosophy, I’ll show you mine.  Let’s both write up 500-750 words explaining what we believe about ethics and metaphysics.  That’s way to short to defend our beliefs, so no fair complaining about that, commenters.  It’s also too short to cover everything we think, so the goal is really just making it as easy as possible to tell us apart as compactly as possible.  We won’t settle which (or both of us) are in error, we’ll just have made our ideas specific enough to have a chance of being wrong.  You in?

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • deiseach

    Well, I asked what the freethinker/atheist/humanist idea of community, as Susan Jacoby intimated, might look like and this link seems like one attempt to establish a group of the like-minded with activities on an organised basis.

    Probably “church” is the wrong label to attach to this effort, but it does raise the question what else should they name it – reading rooms? meeting house? community hall?

    • Joe

      He got Wise Blood.

  • deiseach

    I am really bad at jokes, but here’s a stab at inventing a ‘two cows’ joke:

    (Renaissance) Humanism: You have two cows. You change their names from Daisy and Bossy to Galathea and Amalthea.

    • Steve

      You’re right… that was horrible.

      • deiseach

        I know, but I don’t know enough about modern Secular Humanism to invent a joke, and Classical Humanism was all about The Latin and The Greek, which led to intellectuals of the day converting their plain names into cognomens like Paracelsus, Oecolampadius and Melanchthon, so that was the reasoning behind the admittedly pathetic punchline!

        GetReligion is asking much the same type of questions about what exactly is Humanism or what does a Humanist do, in its post on the ‘chaplain’ for atheist/humanist students at Stanford.

      • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

        Incorrect. It was wonderful.

    • http://ayearoflivingadventurously.wordpress.com Emily

      You say Amalthea, I think The last Unicorn…anyone else? :)

    • R.C.

      I must have terrible taste; I actually thought that was somewhat funny. Not, you know, a laugh riot, but I knew where you were going with it.

  • Joe

    I have always just thought of Humanists as very polite nihilists/emotivists.

    • jose

      Dude, not cool grouping those two together.

      • Joe

        Why do you say that?

        • ACN

          Because it’s really ignorant to claim that all humanists are nihilists.

        • jose

          Because nihilists don’t believe in values and emotivists do.

        • R.C.

          Because nihilists generally emote their way to nihilism, whereas emotivists adopt emotivism in spite of how they feel about it?

          (Yes, yes, I know.)

  • B

    Two cow jokes are about systems of government. I’m not sure they work with types of morality.

    I would like to reccomend this handy-dandy quiz from the British humanists. If you look at what the ‘right’ answers are, i.e. the answers you need to give to be a humanist, it’s clear that humanism is about considering the consquences of an action and trying to maximise happiness and minimize harm for yourself and other people. See especially questions 6 through 10.

    http://humanism.org.uk/humanism/are-you-a-humanist/

    They also employ some philosophers and you can ask them questions by email if you want.
    http://humanism.org.uk/about/humanist-philosophers/faq/
    The thing about humanism is that there are two types, religious and secular. There’s not necessarily anything to differentiate the secular type from the religious type except they don’t believe in God.
    Here’s something that might differentiate them:
    “We do recognise, however, that there are values that are not shared by everyone. Humanists do not share the attitudes to “interfering with nature” or “playing God” or the same definitions of personhood held by some religious believers. We respect the rights of those holding religious beliefs about the sanctity of life and the limits of medical intervention not to participate in some procedures, but we do not believe that the beliefs of the religious, when they are based on supernatural arguments, should be imposed on others.”
    http://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/ethical-and-scientific-issues/
    I’m not actually part of this organisation but I have considered joining.

    • deiseach

      Interesting questionnaire. You will not be surprised to learn I am not a Humanist :-)

      I did think the options for question 7 were a bit odd, particularly the ‘likely to be a Humanist if you pick this one’ D –

      7 It’s best to be honest because…
      A) my religion tells me so.
      B) it’s usually against the law or the rules to be dishonest.
      C) people respect you more if you’ re trustworthy.
      D) I’m happier and feel better about myself if I’m honest.

      Seeing as how the general tenor of the answers is slanted towards picking C answers is based on emotionalism, whereas D answers are based on reasoning, there is really no better option to be honest than “it makes me feel good”? What about if lying and cheating makes you feel happier, and telling the truth makes you miserable? (I’m inclined to answer this one with B, myself, rather than purely A).

      • Maiki

        I didn’t really know what to answer. I don’t tell the truth because it makes me feel good (sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t,but not why I do it), I don’t always care about people’s respect or the laws depending on the person or the situation, nor is it as simple as “my religion says so”. I wanted an option regarding the goodness of truth, but I guess that could fall under my religion says so.

      • http://lolbamas.com/ DRH

        “Feeling better” is an answer based on reason? So if a dog eats kitty litter because it feels good, he has deployed his Reason?

      • Kristen inDallas

        and they left out the best answer:
        E) Because if people can’t handle honesty, F them.

      • Darren

        Oh, I hate leading questionnaires for just such reasons.

        How about,

        E) It is just easier to tell the truth. It requires less brainspace to tell the truth and only have to remember one history, than to lie and have to keep two histories in my head, the real one and the false, and also keep up meta-data annotations to record where I have claimed one and where I have claimed the other.

        Or

        F) Because I am ethically committed to the principal of treating others as I would wish myself to be treated, and as I value truth and wish to be told only truthful things, so should I only speak truth to others.

        Or

        G) As a free agent making decisions about my own wellbeing and the wellbeing of my fellow free agents, true and accurate information is necessary for me to make informed and effective decisions. Dissemination of false information is a violation of that model and so I should not lie.

      • B

        Don’t ask me, I picked ‘C’.

    • Scott Hebert

      B: I don’t mean to be unduly critical, but that test is clearly very poorly designed.

      First, it is biased in that the ‘religious’ answers do not allow for a very rational approach. From this, I would deduce that humanists would argue that their perception of religion is more or less antithetical to what they consider reason. In other words, this does not offer an intellectually honest alternative, for the reason I speculate above.

      Second, it’s obvious how to game the test three questions in, if that. Regardless of the content, the quiz is meaningless if people, without really trying, can force the answer they want. You can argue that ‘real interested parties would ignore this’, but I have a hard time believing that anyone could. I will also point out that _scientific research_, particularly in psychology and related areas, specifically subvert this because it gives better results.

      Someone should point them towards a quiz site that can randomize the answers and provide an equally valid response for serious people.

  • http://skepticfreethought.com/libere linford86

    Oooh, interesting challenge! I’m looking forward to seeing how this turns out… *Gets popcorn*

    • http://irenist.blogspot.com/ Irenist

      Indeed. Even if Croft ignores the challenge or declines, I would love to read that post. Please, please write it in either case, Leah!

  • Ray

    Your challenge is off target. Surely you don’t doubt that many humanists have well developed views on morality and metaphysics (at least to the extent that it is possible to have coherent views on metaphysics, given that nobody seems to agree what metaphysics is in the first place.) What’s getting one more such answer from Croft going to do for you? The problem you’re raising is that Humanists as a whole don’t agree on anything of significance. But how’s that different from any large group? What exactly do Rick Santorum, Ted Kennedy, and Ken Miller have in common, aside from accepting the label “Catholic”?

    • kenneth

      The existence or relative detail of an official canon has no useful predictive value for believing what an adherent believes and practices. It’s useful only for predicting the behavior of organization hierarchies or in academic studies of “ism” movements.

      • http://irenist.blogspot.com/ Irenist

        That’s a really intriguing observation, kenneth. Might be true. Do you happen to have any cites for it? I’d be interested to read them. Thanks.

        • Darren

          I, to, would love to see them, but I doubt the data would show this.

          My own theory is that people choose which beliefs to hold based upon the actions they are inclined to. And by beliefs, I mean internalized, not superficial ones that a person might claim because he thinks he should or because someone is watching.

          Rare is the man who _wants_ to steal, but does not because his beliefs say it is wrong. The belief is either internalized, and he no longer wants to steal, or he goes ahead and steals anyways and rationalizes the action as to be not “really” stealing.

          And no, I have no data to back this up, just observation and cynicism. :)

      • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

        It really depends on whether the people in question follow the canon they claim to follow. If people claim to be Catholic but follow the canon of their political party more closely than the teaching of the Catholic church then one should wonder. But that is the point. There is something to wonder about. We can say they are bad Catholics. How can we say someone is a bad humanist? What would be the process for determining that?

    • Maiki

      For one, they will probably want Last Rites performed when they die (or died, in case of Ted Kennedy). It means they believe in the afterlife and the power of the Church to forgive sins delegated by Jesus Christ, if nothing else.

      That is actually quite a bit to go on philosophically, if you think about it. It won’t tell you how they would vote, though.

    • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

      I’m inclined to agree with Ray’s point that getting a clear system from Croft is not the same as getting a sense of what connects humanists…unless, of course, Croft writes his essay/blurb in such a way that he does list or cite cardinal humanist thinkers. (Or, in theory, if we took Croft as absolutely typical of humanists, it would work, but I can’t say I take Croft as typical of humanists: I do not know him or his reputation well enough to make that kind of assessment.)

      In other words, there are maybe two approaches to this problem, with different ways of imagining humanism and as a result different ways of determining what defines it. If humanism is a philosophy grouped mainly by prominent thinkers in a sort of historical pattern, then consulting a canon and finding the patterns in it would produce a working definition of humanism. In this way, one does not define neo-Platonism by polling neo-Platonists, but rather by reading canonical and leading contemporary neo-Platonists (as well as good ol’ Plato himself, likely). Maybe we could call this Formal Humanism. If humanism is the set (or field) of beliefs that organize people who call themselves humanists, then one would have to collect data about the beliefs of humanists, analyze that data, and produce a definition from that (probably of the “believes at least six of the following nine propositions” variety of definition). As an example, I would not try to figure out what political conservatism in the US looks like by reading prominent conservative writers alone, but also by polling Americans who call themselves conservative. Maybe we could call this Sociological Humanism.

      Either way, Croft’s answer is only a single data point and hardly anything to draw conclusions from. However, it might turn out to be a very interesting data point, and if we’re lucky it could give us a place to start thinking about the problem.

  • Alexander Anderson

    I’m fascinated by this discussion. I’m also convinced that most modern atheist groups tend to disregard, or more aptly, run roughshod over their history, smoothing out the edges. This is what I think causes the seeming lack of “content” in contemporary atheism. This was never the case with historic atheism. Existentialism, Marxism, Nietzscheism, and Enlightenment Humanism all have deep philosophical roots and a heavily textured metaphysic and ethical system. They are also all mostly antagonistic with each other, and aren’t totally co-compatible.

    Contemporary atheists seem to be (and maybe want to appear to be?) a breed of Enlightment Humanists, usually espousing something akin to Hume’s “benevolence” as an ethical theory. (Arguments for atheism also tend to run on Humean empirical lines, and not, say, the existentialist argument from freedom) But the ethical and metaphysical is usually made broad enough to include the other types of Atheism. This results in the observed lack of a solid place to stand.

    The problem, of course, is that the various varieties of anti-humanist (Neitzsche) or ambivelently humanist (various existentialisms, Marxism?) atheisms that developed in the 19th and 20th century were developed precisely as critiques of Enlightenment Humanism, (which was seen as not including the whole of human experience, heroism and beauty being passed over in particular) in what Charles Taylor calls the “immanent counter-Enlightenment.” Unfortunately, the contemporary atheist seems to have little time to parse these different atheisms, and many atheists today thus tend to lack a bit of depth. This is my theory, at least.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

    I admit that I’ve had the same problem, but more with the justifications of humanism rather than with specific details. I was sent once to one of the main humanist sites for a listing of their principles, and those principles always struck me as either being things that everyone in that society already accepted, or things that liberals accepted but that were unjustified beyond that. So, for me, the biggest issue with humanists is that they don’t seem to have a clear, overarching principle that is at least supposed to inform all of their other views, even if people disagree about how that gets applied. If someone could actually work out that overarching idea, that would be great.

    Note that the above comment from about B about “… considering the consquences of an action and trying to maximise happiness and minimize harm for yourself and other people.” doesn’t work, because that simply describes Utilitarianism and right now I see no reason why a humanist would have to accept Utilitarianism. Can you have a Stoic or Kantian humanist? If not, why not? That’s the sort of question I think humanism needs to be able to clearly answer.

    • http://irenist.blogspot.com/ Irenist

      Atheism seems to increasingly associate itself with a default utilitarianism for some reason, which I suppose must make it less congenial for humanists like you or the atheist-vintage Leah. My groundless guess: perhaps the prestige of Singer-style utilitarianism in contemporary atheist circles springs from the deep prestige natural science and economics enjoy among many atheists at the moment: utilitarian hedonic calculi may just weave more seamlessly into minds already shot through with Darwinian game-theoretics and whatever side of the debate between Keynesian liberalism and laissez faire libertarianism (atheists’ seeming preferred choices, IMHO) they’re passionate about.

      It wasn’t always so. Camus certainly seemed to think you could have a Stoic existentialism. Pierre Hadot has some really amazing stuff on Stoic contemplative practice that would seem to fit that lock like a custom key. (I wish Sam Harris would read him; might deepen his atheist semi-Buddhism into something more worth reading.) My best friend is an atheist classicist who wavers between Stoic and Epicurean inclinations, and Hadot’s books have meant a lot to him.

      Superb blog, btw. I’ve bookmarked it.

      • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

        Well, one of the issues with the definition of humanism itself and whether it applies to me is that I’m not an atheist, despite being Stoic-leaning. So there’s a question of if I can actually be a humanist or not, but I’m not concerned about it.

        As for why the default is Utilitarianism, it strikes me that there is a lot intuitively right about it. When you’re first exposed to it in, say, introductory ethics courses, it seems so right and so very fair: add up all the pleasure benefits, subtract out all of the pain detriments, and there’s your answer. It seems simple and yet seems to capture what we intuitively think a morality should capture. Add in the other parts that you mention and it seems like all you need to do is tweak your calculations, and not your principles. It’s only when you look at it in more depth that you can see its flaws, and how then other alternatives — Virture Theories and Kantian views — might work better.

        I might have to look into that stuff by Hadot. And thanks for your kind words about my blog.

        • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon Watson

          I’d definitely second Irenist’s recommendation of Hadot; The Inner Citadel, on Marcus Aurelius, is just brimming with good things.

          • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

            I just ordered that one and the one on Plotinus. I’ve been meaning to read Aurelius since I’m more partial to the Roman Stoics than the Greek ones, and so that analysis might be a good place to start or a good companion piece. Thanks.

        • http://irenist.blogspot.com/ Irenist

          And thanks for your kind words about my blog.

          Thanks for blogging. I very much look forward to reading your insights on Hadot. I’ve taken the liberty of adding your blog to my own site’s blogroll. Yours, too, Mr. Watson. The amount of intellect just between you two is humbling to be around.

      • Alan

        When you say “Atheism seems to increasingly associate itself with a default utilitarianism” what is this ‘Atheism’ you refer to? Seriously, there is no ‘Atheism’ like their is a ‘Catholicism’ that you can point to as a defined set of understandings with an established authority that can speak on its behalf. Atheism just isn’t like religions in that way (or other movements for that matter).

        It may or may not be true that those who don’t believe in any gods increasingly identify with a utilitarian approach to ethics – maybe there is some survey data on that. But it makes no sense to say ‘Atheism’ associates itself with anything as there is no ‘Atheism’ and a handful of vocal bloggers or pop-writers don’t get to define it.

        • http://irenist.blogspot.com/ Irenist

          Well sure, absence of a god-belief needn’t entail an ethics any more than absence of a Russell’s teapot-belief. My own anecdotal observation just seems to be that among right-thinking (by contemporary lights) intellectuals lacking a god-belief, utilitarianism seems popular unto ubiquity. If my shorthand of “atheism” for “contemporary atheists and atheist social groups, particularly those of a SWPL cast(e)” was unhelpful, I apologize for the lack of clarity.

  • keddaw

    Leah, how can you go from a post about an atheist response (and use quotes in response to that) and suddenly make it about humanism?

    Not all atheists are humanists! Stop conflating terms. In the previous post it was atheist and secular. Today it’s atheist and humanist. It’s like calling all Republicans Christian Fundamentalists, it’s simply not true. Just because a vocal minority make themselves known, it doesn’t mean you get to stereotype in this way. It’s lazy and insulting.

    • leahlibresco

      I’m replying to Croft, a self-described Humanist who was specifically defending Humanism in his post. In replying to Jacoby’s post, I was saying that atheist/secular groups should avoid the pitfalls of some humanist groups.

      • keddaw

        Today: “my critique of humanist groups yesterday”

        Yesterday’s title: How is an atheist group like a bridge club?

        No conflation going on at all…

        Humanists are like people arguing over what type of cheese the moon is made of. They may be talking nonsense, but we might get some decent telescopes and a space program out of it before they realise how misguided they are.

        • Steve

          Please explain what Humanists are misguided over. Please explain which arguments Humanists make in reference to your cheese moon comment.

        • keddaw

          Exactly the same stuff virtue ethicists are misguided over, or utilitarians, or deontologists etc. There is a belief that there is such a thing as right and wrong, or good and bad, ignoring that things (people, situations, decisions, outcomes etc.) can only be good/right based on a set of values and those values are never fully described, are different for each person and change over time and over timescales. Utilitarianism tries to shortcut that by calling it well being, or flourishing, or happiness, virtue ethics appears to try to say what some of them are but ties itself in knots explaining why some things are virtuous and others aren’t (or falls into utilitarianism), deontologists can’t give us a reason for the rules they choose (without a deity) etc.

          Humanists have to deliver a set of principles or basic idea in order to be critiqued. As a moral error theorist (more or less) I consider this a fools errand, but recognise that along the way they may come up with some nice ideas that could be useful in applied ethics and show people that the rules/decency/guidelines they have with religion can also be had outwith it.

          • Darren

            Nice.

            So, what is a moral error theorist? Is it a paying job or more of a hobby?

  • W J Silver

    Most of what I consider Humanism (and may not strictly be) is the moral philosophies of cartoons. For a successful show to espouse morals it won’t want to be too far out of the societal main stream, but it will still want something “spiritual, but not religious” to give it a little punch so it isn’t so bland. What you end up getting is catchy philosophical imperatives like “Believe in Yourself” and pseudospiritual forces such as “The Power of Friendship.” These ideas work together in a theory where Humanity is the highest ideal. (Which I always thought was the overarching principle of Humanism, but on that point I could be wrong.)

    Okay, I wanted to try my hand at a two cow joke:

    You have two cows. One you keep for yourself, the other you give to your friends.
    You have two cows. You love them until your love makes them more human than some people are.
    You have two cows. You use philosophy to convince them they are angelic wine producing cows, but they still only give milk.

    • deiseach

      Okay, still making terrible jokes, this time at PETA’s expense.

      You have two cows. How dare you enslave and exploit our bovine sistren, you species chauvinist!

    • Steve

      Awful… just… just terrible.

      • deiseach

        You’re obviously a person of taste and discrimination, Steve ;-)

        At least I come by it honestly – my father loved really terrible jokes. He would insist on regaling us with them, but never managed to make it to the punchline because he would be laughing too hard.

        I don’t know if the same custom applies in America, but the obituary notices in newspapers in Ireland is referred to as the “death column” (so most people will say “I heard that Joe Murphy died last night – look at the death column and see if that’s correct”). So, in our family, we had a toast rack re-purposed to hold the post – mainly all the bills were stuffed into it, to be paid as they fell due. Naturally, my father referred to this as the “Debt Column”. When one morning at the breakfast table one of us said that, since it was arranged horizontally rather than vertically, it was a row more than a column, he immediately said “Ah! Debt Row!”

        Thank you, thank you – I’m available for weddings, wakes and christenings! :-)

        • ACN

          What a knee slapper :)

          • deiseach

            Runs in the family – recent tweets from my darling nephew:

            (1) Mum drops some eggs on the floor. The only thing I do is make egg puns for 15 minutes. I’m so surprised I could keep it up for that long.

            (2) They didn’t find my egg-straordinary puns eggs-eptionally funny. Just didn’t get the yolk. Guess I’m just a shell of a man.

            Right now Steve is rolling on the floor, bleeding from the eyes, and screaming about violations of the Geneva Convention ;-)

          • Steve

            You’ve cracked my shell… I’m be-sunny-side-up myself with all these egg puns… all this scrambling around made us miss the most obvious of them… Unequally Yolked!!!

          • Darren

            Steve;

            Oh, great! Now I can _never_ read it any other way!

            [shaking fist]

    • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

      You don’t believe in cows because milk clearly comes from the supermarket. You’re angry everyone seems to accuse you of not drinking milk.
      You have two cows. All your advertising talks about not growing wheat.
      You used to have two cows before you sold one. Now you’re selling the second. People say that endangers your milk supply, but they said that about the first one too.
      You have two cows. The pork farming association won’t admit you on that qualification. That’s because they are bigots.

      • Darren

        “You used to have two cows before you sold one. Now you’re selling the second. People say that endangers your milk supply, but they said that about the first one too.”

        That one is pretty good.

        Two Humanist cows. The cows have a baby and when their parents ask about baptism, they decide to start going to Mass again.

        Two Humanist cows, standing in the pasture munching on grass. They walk back into the barn because they were afraid of being Nihilists.

        Two Humanist cows; neither one could get elected.

        Yeah, more mean than funny…

      • Darren

        One more

        Two packages of hamburger in a case. One came from a Humanist cow, one from a Theist cow.

  • TheresaL

    This post reminded me of a high school world history project where the task was to carve and decorate a jack-o’-lantern to look like a Humanist. No one in my group could ascertain what qualified someone to be a Humanist. For some reason we chose Sacagawea. The only one I can remember from another group was Neil Armstrong. As far as I know, no one lost credit for their choice of “Humanist.” I didn’t learn anything about Humanism, but at least I learned about Sacagawea.

  • Steve

    Sounds like your world history instructor was wasting a lot of time with dopey projects that weren’t effective in actually teaching his students.

    • TheresaL

      It does sound that way, but to be fair, that was the worst project. We also did awesome stuff like hold a trial against Louis XIII and present proposals as representatives of nations at the Paris Peace Conference.

  • Darren

    I wonder if part of the problem is that the great triumph of Humanism, The Enlightenment, has been so internalized by almost everyone that Humanists no longer get credit.

    Freedom of conscious? Methodological Naturalism? Government by consent? Free inquiry? A secular state? Emancipation of just about everybody? Pretty much everything the Catholic Church once (still) criticized as “Modern”?

    These are taken for granted by all but the most right-wing believers, so how exactly is the hapless Humanist to convince Joe Average that the once heretical representative government is actually a hard-fought Humanist Virtue?

    • ACN

      I think what actually happens is that the church just takes credit for all those things.

    • deiseach

      Sounds like you are thinking in particular about Pope St Pius X:

      “In a decree, entitled Lamentabili Sane Exitu (or “A Lamentable Departure Indeed”), issued 3 July 1907, Pius X formally condemned 65 modernist or relativist propositions concerning the nature of the Church, revelation, biblical exegesis, the sacraments, and the divinity of Christ. This was followed by the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (or “Feeding the Lord’s Flock”), which characterized Modernism as the “synthesis of all heresies.” Following these, Pius X ordered that all clerics take the Sacrorum antistitum, an oath against Modernism. Pius X’s aggressive stance against modernism caused some disruption within the Church. Although only about 40 clerics refused to take the oath, Catholic scholarship with modernistic tendencies was substantially discouraged. Theologians who wished to pursue lines of inquiry in line with secularism, modernism, or relativism had to stop, or face conflict with the papacy, and possibly even excommunication.”

      You can read Pascendi Dominici Gregis for yourselves here. To be fair to Pius X, he was mainly concerned with Modernist thought applied to theology and catechesis; he very strongly opposed the notion that “evolution of doctrine” meant that the Church changed Her mind on teachings throughout the ages as society became more progressive and advanced, and so the deposit of faith was malleable by the standards of the time.

      But he certainly did not mince his words when dealing with the topic; the following extract is very mild by the standards of the rest of the encyclical – and please note or remember that Fideism (that is, faith is not explainable by reasonable methods but consists of an emotional or psychological expression of belief; that being so, attitudes can range from reason is incapable of supporting faith to stating that reason is opposed and inferior to faith) is strongly rejected by official Catholic teaching, which is why Pius refers to it with disapproval:

      “Should anyone ask how it is that this need of the divine which man experiences within himself grows up into a religion, the Modernists reply thus: Science and history, they say, are confined within two limits, the one external, namely, the visible world, the other internal, which is consciousness. When one or other of these boundaries has been reached, there can be no further progress, for beyond is the unknowable. In presence of this unknowable, whether it is outside man and beyond the visible world of nature, or lies hidden within in the subconsciousness, the need of the divine, according to the principles of Fideism, excites in a soul with a propensity towards religion a certain special sentiment, without any previous advertence of the mind: and this sentiment possesses, implied within itself both as its own object and as its intrinsic cause, the reality of the divine, and in a way unites man with God. It is this sentiment to which Modernists give the name of faith, and this it is which they consider the beginning of religion.”

      • Darren

        Thank you for the helpful links and explanation.

        What I had in mind was more along the lines of:

        1. The Wikipedia entry under Modernism (Roman Catholic)
        and particularly the three bullet items:

        • A rationalistic approach to the Bible
        • Secularism and other Enlightenment ideals
        • Modern philosophical systems (and in particular the rejection of Plato and Aristotle);

        2. The Syllabus of Error by Pius IX;

        3. Miscellaneous grumblings I have run across in the other Patheos:Catholic blogs (Bad Catholic, God and the Machine, Fr. Dwight, Deacon’s Bench) about the evils of the Enlightenment and how the Church (body) should know better but for the corrosive influence of Modernism; and

        4. Last, but not least, that luminary of contemporary Catholic thought, Edward Feser and pretty much the same as #3.

        Am I making up my own definition of Modernism? Probably.
        Does the above represent the thinking of the _vast_ majority of good (my definition) Catholics? I do not think so.
        Does it represent the official policy and teachings of the Catholic Church and the more conservative members? I think it very likely might.
        Is it fair to use this (made up) Modernism as the standard by which to judge the struggles and triumphs of Humanists past? I think so.

  • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

    These are taken for granted by all but the most right-wing believers, so how exactly is the hapless Humanist to convince Joe Average that the once heretical representative government is actually a hard-fought Humanist Virtue?

    Probably because the target here isn’t humanism, but secular/atheist humanism – and pretty much every change you discussed was pioneered by theists in large part.

    Actually, I wonder of the atheist aspect of ‘secular humanism’ isn’t the reason for all the problems in defining it.

  • Darren

    ”Probably because the target here isn’t humanism, but secular/atheist humanism – and pretty much every change you discussed was pioneered by theists in large part.”

    Oh?

    I think Secular Humanist would suffice; Atheist is problematic, what with up until recently it being positively hazardous to one’s life, liberty, and livelihood to have the scarlet A – makes it difficult to pin down a historical Atheist .vs. “just” a Deist.

    That said, the Wikipedia entry would seem to disagree. Additionally, the numerous Church invectives against the evils of Modernism and the continued grumbling about the Enlightenment and the evils of Modernism over at Leah’s neighbors on Patheos: Catholic would lead me to believe that none of those ideas were enthusiastically greeted by the Church.

    Perhaps those better qualified than I can weight in and explain how the Enlightenment and Modernism were actually undertaken at the Church’s urging?

    • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

      I think Secular Humanist would suffice; Atheist is problematic, what with up until recently it being positively hazardous to one’s life, liberty, and livelihood to have the scarlet A – makes it difficult to pin down a historical Atheist .vs. “just” a Deist.

      “Secular humanism” is pretty firmly tied to “atheism”. Regardless, saying what amounts to ‘Well of course all these things were done by theists, because atheists were unpopular and..!’ really doesn’t help much here. It still leaves the awkward situation where the most central advances of the enlightenment historically were led by theists. In fact, they were often justified on broadly theistic views.

      Perhaps those better qualified than I can weight in and explain how the Enlightenment and Modernism were actually undertaken at the Church’s urging?

      Who said anything about ‘the Church’, meaning the Catholic Church? It could have been undertaken by protestants, muslims, hindus or otherwise, and the problem for the secular/atheist humanist would remain. I’d dispute your fast take of the Catholic Church’s role in broadly ‘humanist’ endeavors generally, but the point here is I don’t really need to.

      And there’s part of the problem with trying to connect secular/atheist humanism with the enlightenment: atheists just didn’t do all that much, and Christianity/theism/deism were some serious motivating factors with the entire project. A good argument could be made that ‘secular humanism’ is rather ridiculous, and atheism/secularism of that particular variety should be dropped in favor of just ‘humanism’.

      But then you wouldn’t be excluding all the religious believers and theists, and really, isn’t that the point?

      • Darren

        Oh, I think it would not be unfair to put an asterix next to any Deist prior to the mid-eighteen hundreds at least and consider that, had the lived today, they would very possibly be Atheist or Agnostic. Heck, if Aristotle can be ret-conned as a Catholic…

        ”Who said anything about ‘the Church’, meaning the Catholic Church? It could have been undertaken by protestants, muslims, hindus or otherwise, and the problem for the secular/atheist humanist would remain.”

        No particular attempt to exclude Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, what have you, but in the context of discussing the Enlightenment and Modernism, that would pretty much limit us to Theist = Christian (and if we want to include Lutherans and Anglicans, no argument). If someone would like to educate me on the contributions and history of non-Western Humanists, I am all ears.

        ”It still leaves the awkward situation where the most central advances of the enlightenment historically were led by theists. In fact, they were often justified on broadly theistic views. ”

        ”And there’s part of the problem with trying to connect secular/atheist humanism with the enlightenment: atheists just didn’t do all that much, and Christianity/theism/deism were some serious motivating factors with the entire project. ”

        Again, pulling heavily from Wikipedia, and the big names dropped as players / founders in the Enlightenment there are Spinoza, Locke, Bayle, Netwon, Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, and Montesquieu with a nod to Jefferson and Franklin across the pond.

        All Theists, I suppose?

        Anyone want to throw out names for Founders of the Enlightenment that also happened to be good church-going Catholics and Lutherans, the floor is yours.

        • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

          Oh, I think it would not be unfair to put an asterix next to any Deist prior to the mid-eighteen hundreds at least and consider that, had the lived today, they would very possibly be Atheist or Agnostic. Heck, if Aristotle can be ret-conned as a Catholic…

          Sure, and Richard Dawkins would be a creationist if only… (etc) It doesn’t matter at all for the argument. History is what history is – they believed what they believed, their arguments were what their arguments were.

          And Aristotle was never ‘retconned into a Catholic’. Aristotle’s philosophy was held in high esteemed, but no one ever pretends that Aristotle was therefore Catholic.

          No particular attempt to exclude Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, what have you, but in the context of discussing the Enlightenment and Modernism, that would pretty much limit us to Theist = Christian (and if we want to include Lutherans and Anglicans, no argument).

          I named muslims, buddhists, hindus etc simply to illustrate the banal point that ‘theist’ goes way, way beyond ‘The Church’.

          Again, pulling heavily from Wikipedia, and the big names dropped as players / founders in the Enlightenment there are Spinoza, Locke, Bayle, Netwon, Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, and Montesquieu with a nod to Jefferson and Franklin across the pond.

          All Theists, I suppose?

          Let’s see… Spinoza, non-materialist pantheist whose situation is vastly more complicated than supposed. Jefferson and Franklin, both theists/deists. Locke, explicitly a theist who, if I recall correctly, thought atheists were the one ‘religious’ group you couldn’t really have in a civilized society. Newton, explicitly a theist who wrote more about the Bible than he did about anything else. Voltaire, when he thought he was on his deathbed, said he adored God and hated superstition. Rousseau, Christian theist/deist. Montesquieu gets listed as a Catholic in the wiki.

          Anyone want to throw out names for Founders of the Enlightenment that also happened to be good church-going Catholics and Lutherans,

          Again, false request. You can put Catholics entirely aside in the discussion about the Enlightenment, and you’re still wall to wall with theists. You seem to realize this but think ‘well yeah but I bet if they were around today they’d be atheists’ is some kind of good reply.

          • Darren

            You see, this is actually fun.

            Leah complains that (Secular) Humanists don’t have any beliefs or principals that she can see, nothing to distinguish them from a dozen other ‘ists. I suggest that part of the problem is that most of their core principals and achievements have been assimilated into the broader Western civilization and internalized to the point that Humanists no longer get their due credit. Then along comes a helpful Christian to prove my point by arguing that the European Enlightenment and all the values it birthed where actually the Church’s idea all along.

            Nice.

            So, we now know that:

            Newton was a Christian, just one who explicitly denied that Jesus was God or in any way Divine, and to venerate him was tantamount to idolatry.

            Jefferson was a Christian, who made his own bible with a very sharp knife by cutting out all references to God, the supernatural, or miracles… and felt he had much improved it.

            Franklin was a Christian, who held drunken orgies in a French grotto and pretended to worship the Devil. Oh, and he scientifically proved that lighting was a natural phenomenon, a simple electrical discharge and definitely _not_ the Wrath of God, despite the Church telling him not to. Along the way he invented the lighting rod and the fire department so that people could use those instead of the more traditional, and Church approved, method of praying to God not to burn their houses down.

            Locke was a Christian, who taught that knowledge could only derive from experience and sense perception, despite the entire structure of all religious belief resting upon the principal of divine revelation being ascendant over base empiricism.

            Voltaire was a Christian, who spent his life tormenting the Catholic Church and advocating for freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and removal of the Church from the affairs of State.

            Well, I guess we poor Humanists are right out of luck, then. No Liberté, égalité, fraternité for us, no Bill of Rights, no Wealth of Nations, no Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Nope, nope, nope, all the Church’s ideas, thanks for playing. I suppose we can all go home now.

            But, I am just confused by one, more, little, thing. Didn’t the Enlightenment actually diminish the power of the Church? Didn’t the Enlightenment give birth to a lot of really crazy thoughts, thoughts that the Church believed to be Really Bad Ideas? Ideas like:

            Freedom of Religion – well and good until people realized they can choose not-Church;

            Government by Consent – well and good until people elect representatives who did not do as the Church ‘advised’ them; and

            Freedom of Inquire – well and good until people think to question matters the Church considers Firmly Settled, like scriptural inerrancy, the Geocentric universe, or birth control.

            When Leah questions why Humanists don’t have any beliefs of their own, I imagine a conversation where she might criticize Paganism for lacking holidays:

            Pagan: “Winter Solstice”
            Leah: “You mean Christmas”
            Pagan: “Spring Equinox”
            Leah: “Easter”
            Pagan: “Samhain”
            Leah: “All Souls Day”
            Pagan: “Imbolc”
            Leah: “St. Brighid’s Day. Gah, Pagans! Quite copying!”

            And, on the topic of Aristotle _not_ having been retconned into an honorary Catholic. Not only did Dante give him his own personal (rather pleasant) level of Hell as a consolation prize (which happened to resemble, by pure coincidence I am sure, the Greek Idyllic pastoral realm he might have hoped for), but such contemporary luminaries in Catholic thought as Edward Feser claim that he definitively proved the existence of the Catholic God and that without him no one can even _be_ a Catholic.

            That’s pretty good for a Pagan who died nigh four hundred years before Peter first put on the pointy hat.

          • deiseach

            I’m somewhat puzzled that Benjamin Franklin appears to have been a member of the Hellfire Club, given that this was Irish and I’m not aware that he ever visited our fair green land, but perhaps it’s just more of those urban legends what with him spending time in France and we all know those depraved French and the things they get up to, eh?

            What more intrigues me is when you say “he scientifically proved that lighting was a natural phenomenon, a simple electrical discharge and definitely _not_ the Wrath of God, despite the Church telling him not to. Along the way he invented the lighting rod and the fire department so that people could use those instead of the more traditional, and Church approved, method of praying to God not to burn their houses down.”

            Which church told him not to do that? I note site makes the claims, but gives no citations. My understanding was that early popular prejudice against lightning rods was because their aims were poorly understood and people feared they would draw the lightning down upon them. If I am to believe this post, the “Churches condemned lightning rods” seems to have arisen from one particular source – but then again, duelling websites! You pays your money and you takes your chance!

            If anyone can find an encyclical, letter or other directive by a pope, bishop or deanery of a cathedral condemning lightning rods as heretical, I’d be grateful.

          • Darren

            Deiseach

            Oh, I’ll not be surprised if the whole Hellfire Club was just a legend; my layman’s understanding of Franklin is that he was not averse to such legends, having been accused of starting more than a few himself. It was just fun to write, not so much intended to be literally true. Call it a Post-Modern moment. :)

            I will look up the lighting rod, but no, it was not, as I recall, holy mother Catholic Church but something in the Pennsylvania Presbyterian flavor. At this point I admit to what could be called a bit of equivocation. Church should not be read as Catholic Church, TM, but any institutional Christian body capable of wielding social and political control. I really should have put this disclaimer in, but, narrative flow and all that.

            Refute away!

          • Darren

            Deiseach;

            OK, so the whole Lightning rod thing was far more interesting than I initially thought. My thanks for the links, although as you rightly point out, the veracity of some (many) of the claims is an open question.

            In my limited fact-checking, I did find this which seems to be reasonably vetted
            . The parties involved were Boston Puritans, and I think we can all agree that Puritans were insane. I particularly enjoyed that part where it was (finally) agreed that installing a lightning rod was not an impious act per se, so long as the installer was properly humble and acknowledged that God could _still_ smite him, lighting rod or no…

            Do I refute my own statement? Did Franklin defy Church edict to conduct his experiments? No.

            Was there widespread concern that use of lightning rods was thwarting of God’s plan, inscrutable as it might be (by most often smiting his own buildings)? Apparently so.

            Does my claim stand as a bit of fun using a colorful character of American Enlightenment and still serve as a useful metaphor for the Humanist virtue of Free Inquiry in the face of superstition and/or (possible) Church opposition and the primacy of empiricism over a-priori-reasoned-conclusions-about-the-natural-world? I think so; others are free to disagree.

        • Iota

          Darren,
          I’ll intrude here, if you don’t mind. I seriously want to know your opinion on some stuff:

          Firstly, back in the days when I was preparing to go get a history degree (I never did, in the end) I took lots of extended classes in Polish (i.e. my national) and general history (i.e. mainly European, with highlights of some more global stuff). And one thing that cropped up was that there was no “Enlightenment”, there were “Enlightenments”, i.e. different movements hatched in the new intellectual climate, from which we then retroactively made a single Enlightenment in a simplified historical narrative.

          Note: in keeping with this ideas of plural Enlightenments, there are people who suggest that there was such a thing as a specifically Catholic Enlightenment, although I’m not very conversant with that theory.

          Secondly, I would suggest that there is a big difference between “Humanism” (whatever that is) and the particular kind of “Enlightenment” you are talking about here (also there’s a considerable time difference – Humanism seems to start earlier). In earlier ages you’d see people who have a reputation for being Christian Humanists, for example. Like Desiderius Erasmus, who was not exactly a “normal” Catholic, but much more specific than a deist. Or, say, Petrarch.

          Now, if we define “The Enlightenment” as it often seems to be (IMO simplistically) defined (with an anti-religious sentiment de rigour), it might be heard to find practising Catholics or Lutherans who are “founders” of it. It doesn’t get easier if you limit the movement to France and Anglophone countries (neither of which have, at that point, a very robust Catholic culture to draw on, really)

          So I’d like to ask: what ideas do you have in mind when thinking about “The Enlightenment” as distinct form ideas you’d have when you’d think about Humanists, ncluding Christian Humanists or earlier ages?

          I’d like to hear you thoughts on all that.

          • Darren

            Dear Iota;

            Thank you for the questions. I shall have to give them thought, and am currently running _way_ over my farting-around-playing-on-the-blogosphere budget for the day.

            I can say that I am no scholar of Enlightenment(s) or Humanism. Do not be surprised if much of what I have said is wrong; I won’t be. I am shooting more for amusing and thought provoking; if what results are clever takedowns and watertight refutations of every single point I have raised, I’ll not mind.

            Also, in a country where conservative protestants would gladly instantiate their own version of Sharia law and conservative Catholics would gladly purge our government and our people of the corruption of Modernism, it seems, I don’t know, perhaps a trifle ungrateful to criticize the ideological heirs (Secular Humanists) of all those who worked really, really, hard to pry the reins of power out of the hands of the Church. And for all that many good Christians may have gone along with, contributed, even led that revolution, it bloody well was not the Church’s idea to give up those reins.

            That’s all. :)

          • Darren

            Iota;

            Having given it a great deal of thought, I suspect I must disappoint you. Your knowledge of the Age of Enlightenment exceeds my own; I have no knowledge to give you. What I can impart is opinion, my own. If I am lucky, there may be some small insight, but then again, perhaps not.

            You are certainly correct that there was not one, monolithic, Enlightenment. Regional differences, differences in time, etc. The tradeoff of abstraction (and my doubtless simplistic understanding).

            It would not surprise me to find a Catholic Enlightenment, the Church being immersed within the greater civilization and many Church members making their individual contributions. I would tend to view Vatican II in this light, though the Catholic Church is an iceberg to me, and so there may be better examples.

            But, what are my actual thoughts on Secular Humanism (and I think the Secular part important to the discussion) and how it may, or may not, have any relation to the Age of Enlightenment?

            I grew up fundamentalist protestant, though here also my upbringing was far from monolithic. Though a believer, through and through, I asked an awful lot of very hard questions about my faith. I was seeking, and would have been thrilled to find, convincing answers. As it was, my questions quickly outdistanced the ability of my elders to answer them. All this to say that, though a believer, many aspects of that belief did not rest easily with me.

            On to the point. In those days, “Secular Humanism” was a pejorative. Long before homosexuals dared to aspire to marriage, in the early days of the (current) Culture War(s), Secular Humanism was close to the worst thing there was. But, what was my understanding of Secular Humanism then? Has it colored my view of it today?

            I found this website, cataloging the evils of Secular Humanism, to be pretty much in line with what I thought then and reviled, and ,ironically to me, what I believe now and cherish:

            ”SECULARISM
            The English word “secular” comes from a Latin word, “saeculum,” which means “this present age.” Think about this. Secularism is a process that influences people to be focused on “this present age.” It teaches that life and reality beyond “this present age” is a hoax. Reality is what you can perceive with the five senses. What you see is what you get according to the secularist.
            The secular viewpoint rejects any thought of there being supernatural and invisible reality beyond a natural realm. Thus, belief in God is eliminated. A concerted effort is made to deliver people from what is viewed as the unscientific and foolish notion that human beings were created by God. Furthermore, secularism creates a cultural atmosphere in which values and standards based on a supernatural revelation like the Bible are ridiculed and rejected.
            Secularism is a belief system designed to make the human being “autonomous.” What does that mean? The Greek word “autos” means “self.” The Greek word “nomos” means “rule or law.” Thus, an “autonomous” human is one that is “self-ruled.”
            In brief, secularism is a cultural phenomenon that eventually eliminates faith in a supernatural Creator God to whom all beings are accountable. From your vantage point, do you see that our modern-day culture–higher and lower courts, media, politics, cities, entertainment, homes, schools, churches, and personal lifestyles–has been and is being… secularized?
            HUMANISM
            Look at the word. HUMAN…ism. When God is moved out, MAN moves in! This way of thinking and living has had an enormous influence on our culture. God has been “dethroned.” Man has been “enthroned.” Secular humanism promotes the idea that belief in God is the highest form of self-deception. There is no God who created the universe. The world merely evolved out of chaos and is itself a chaos until, through human genius, a way is found to organize and mange it.
            There is no Divine purpose or providence for the human species. We must save ourselves. Humans are not answerable to any Higher Power or Divine Law. Each individual must pursue happiness while being careful not to offend a neighbor. There are no absolute standards for determining right and wrong–humans must create their own standards as they go, changing the rules whenever necessary. Happiness and peace in this world are all that humankind can hope for–no life hereafter!
            This is secularistic humanism which ultimately creates a culture free of God. Strange! Once we believed in God. Then we didn’t believe in God. Now, we think we are God!”

            This, I think, is the crux. When God is moved off the throne, Man is put in his place. In the Theist worldview, one is Good or Evil in how closely one conforms to the dictates of God, how well one serves the Cross. In the Secular Humanism view, one is Good or Bad in one’s own eyes, and the eyes of one’s fellow Man. In the Theist view, one has value as a creation of God, in the Secular Humanism view, one has value because one believes oneself to have value.

            Specific tenants are almost superfluous, they are not where the distinction lies. “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”, Secular Humanists claim it, so to do Theists. The difference is _why_. A Theist is free because God gave him freedom, a Theist is equal because all are equal before God, etc.

            Where, then, the Enlightenment? In my view, the Enlightenment was a taking up again of what had been long suppressed. The pre-Socratics, Democritus and his contemporaries, overthrown by the Pythagoreans, then Plato, then Plato’s heirs, the Christians. Two thousand years, Plato and Plato’s God was on the throne, holding tight the reins of Human destiny (Europe and her colonies). The Age of Enlightenment may not have dethroned God, but we took back the reins.

          • Iota

            > Having given it a great deal of though…

            For which I thank you.

            Now, if you want me to comment on what you wrote, please tell me. If you don’t I’ll consider the case closed (I asked a question and got a response).

          • Darren

            Iota;

            By all means, comment away, I love to learn.

          • Iota

            The very first thing that strikes me about the word “humanism” is that it doesn’t really have an obvious antonym. What is the reverse of humanism? God-ism? But there are Christian Humanists, and whole bunches of relevant people in the 15th and 16th century were priests, bishops, cardinals… We even have a relatively high-class humanist and Catholic martyr, St. Thomas More.

            The way the story usually goes is that (Renaissance) Humanism was the rediscovery of interest in humans after the Dark Ages (in that particular interpretation they are “Dark” and not simply “Middle”). This is part of the really short, five minute version of “World” History almost everyone in “the West” knows.

            Here’s the problem as I see it: the humanists weren’t rebelling against medieval culture as such but against educational Scholasticism. Humanism, in this sense, neither implies nor necessitates any conflict with God (I had to smile at the quote you provided…). The basic opposition, at this point, I would very tentatively argue, is not Humanism/God-ism but Humanism/Scholasticism (i.e. – at that particular time, to put it very simplistically – an interest in living humans versus an interest in minute formal rules of reasoning).

            The same problem crops up, to an extent, with the Enlightenment. It’s true that one of the most known directions the Enlightenment took was against established religion (note: not synonymous with “against God”). But even that is just one of the ways the Enlightenment(s) manifested itself.

            I do speak from a weird position, historically, since my country, when the ideas of the Enlightenment hit it, was a nobility-democracy (i.e. around 10% of the population voting for the king), pretty extensive laws concerning religious tolerance (insufficient by today’s standards, but still), extensive involvement of the clergy in spreading the ideas (since they were the best educated group in the society at this point). Certainly not what most people think of when they say “Enlightenment Europe”. But that oddness is kind of as point I’d like to highlight.

            There is a simplified narrative on Western intellectual progress that goes something like this:
            - There was a Golden Dawn of the Western Civilization, somewhere in the vicinity of Ancient Greece and (Republican?) Rome. It’s kind of weird, because they used to hold salves, were extremely patriarchal and so on, but somehow we still like them…
            - Then came the Dark Ages when much knowledge was lost, people became brute barbarians, clawing their way out of the abyss and murdering each other in the meantime
            - Eventually they reached a sufficient level of sophistication to direct their own focus towards themselves again (Humanism, with its interest in all things classical)
            - Then there was baroque, but many people kind of skip this part
            - Then, as the next instalment of humanity’s approach to reason in the Enlightenment (again, it’s kind of weird, if you look at the French Revolution, but oh well).

            [there is of course a kind of reverse narrative, for some religious people - I think your quote demonstrated as much]

            The problem with this narrative is that my country clearly doesn’t fit it. And this kind of leads to the bigger problem: that this is a very simplistic story, built around the premise that reason and religion are necessarily antithetical and history chronicles their struggle (often it is also implied that by some Historical Necessity reason will ultimately win). It all, IMO, simply isn’t true.

            In view of the fact that lots of people have this little narrative internalised, I’m kind of doubtful whether picking Secular Humanists as the heirs of intellectual/moral/political development of any particular sort is actually warranted by anything else than the common memes about “The Dark (religious) Ages” and “the Enlightenment” (especially so when you realize that neither “Secular” nor “Humanist” implies anything in terms of how they treated fellow men – and as thomasc pointed out, in a neighbouring comment thread – there were some strong absolutists tendencies at that time).

            Now, mind you, I can still see how someone could say that secularism is an advancement regardless of any historical legacy. We’d obviously disagree, but I can sort of get that. The problem I have *here* is with the quasi-historical narrative that people try to pin onto the process. Unless, of course, there is an actual bunch of data or historical interpretation behind that claim, rather than the hazy “Religions are authoritarian therefore secularists are better” meme. Is there? (I’m not a historian, remember, so if you give me a plausibly sounding historical narrative I will concede you had a point – I’m not equipped to nitpick).

            (I disagree with the idea that secularism is an advancement largely because I don’t believe it’s even possible to “dethrone” God – it’s like trying to “dethrone’” your digestive system.)

            > Plato and Plato’s God was on the throne, holding tight the reins of Human destiny

            I kind of suspect Plato may be getting too much credit here. The only thing by him I actually read is The Republic, so I’m probably severely undereducated, but I did get the impression some of his conclusions are alien to much of Christianity. Off the top of my head: he puts educated reason on such a high pedestal (it would seem) that he foresees education being the only thing needed to govern well. From a Christian perspective, at least the one where you have such a thing as Original Sin and Free Will, this seems wrongheaded.

            So, another question, if you will, why do you think the being sitting on the metaphorical throne was “Plato’s God”?

            > In the Theist worldview, one is Good or Evil in how closely one conforms to the dictates of God, how well one serves the Cross.
            Objection, your Honour!
            A) Lots of Theists would be unhappy about conflating them with mainstream Christianity,
            b) This is an extremely simplified idea about some forms of Christianity. I repeatedly said I’m not a theologian, but it’s pretty simplistic for Catholicism, I’ say.

            I know it’s kind of both fashionable and sometimes necessary to choose such a scale that you divide the world into Theists/Atheists to signal difference between the two groups. But I do want to signal there is a very thin line between necessary simplifications for a particular purpose and simplifying reality to such a point that the you get simplistic conclusions.

          • Darren

            Iota;
            Well, that was just lovely to read, thank you so very much for your time and thoughts. I said I enjoyed learning, and your last post certainly qualifies as that.

            ” The very first thing that strikes me about the word “humanism” is that it doesn’t really have an obvious antonym. What is the reverse of humanism? God-ism? But there are Christian Humanists, and whole bunches of relevant people in the 15th and 16th century were priests, bishops, cardinals… We even have a relatively high-class humanist and Catholic martyr, St. Thomas More.”

            A very valid question in what counts as an antonym for Humanist. I do tend to think along the lines of the fundamentalist quote (God or Human on the throne), but I am willing to consider this might be an artifact in my reasoning. As I ponder, according to ‘my’ model, why a Theist of any persuasion would wish to be party to such an overthrow, it occurs to me that it need not be a zero-sum operation, there is no reason to think that God and Man could not share the throne, or at least adjacent thrones. I would not be surprised, now that I think of it, to find Theists viewing the entire point of Jesus as God + Man as elevating Man back to a position of equivalence to God. Or something like that.

            ” The basic opposition, at this point, I would very tentatively argue, is not Humanism/God-ism but Humanism/Scholasticism (i.e. – at that particular time, to put it very simplistically – an interest in living humans versus an interest in minute formal rules of reasoning).”

            Why Scholasticism, though? When I think Scholasticism, I think Aristotle-Thomas, which appears to strongly inform the Catholic Church still… Or is this a misperception on my part. It seems that Leah’s blog, and Patheos: Catholic seems to have a healthy representation of AT Catholics…

            ”I do speak from a weird position, historically, since my country, when the ideas of the Enlightenment hit it, was a nobility-democracy…”

            Poland, right? I do have the impression that Poland had some significant intellectual and cultural contributions for which it is not given credit, though I have no examples and I am deliberately not looking it up until after this post.

            ”I kind of suspect Plato may be getting too much credit here… …So, another question, if you will, why do you think the being sitting on the metaphorical throne was “Plato’s God”?”

            Perhaps. Is it an error to ascribe to Plato the concept of the Ideal world as something distinct from the material world, superior to, and inaccessible to sense perceptions? This would seem foundational, still, to Christianity and the Christian God.

            ”In the Theist worldview, one is Good or Evil in how closely one conforms to the dictates of God, how well one serves the Cross.
            Objection, your Honour!
            A) Lots of Theists would be unhappy about conflating them with mainstream Christianity,
            b) This is an extremely simplified idea about some forms of Christianity. I repeatedly said I’m not a theologian, but it’s pretty simplistic for Catholicism, I’ say.”

            So far as “serving the Cross”, objection sustained. I overreached with that one.
            I will stand by the first part, though. Whether we ascribe to “Good = Good because God says so” divine command theory or instead “God can only be Good therefore Good = Good” A-T reasoning (I could say obfuscation), we are still back where Human actions are judged in worth by correlation with God’s dictates.

          • Iota

            Darren,

            > Well, that was just lovely to read…

            Thank you kindly. I guarantee you’ll get bored soon. :-)

            > Or something like that.

            Here’s how I see it:
            1. There is no ousting God form His throne. Man has no “jurisdiction” over God and can no more dethrone Him than I (and, say, 400 million people from around the globe) can impeach the US president or (to use a wackier example to get at a different angle) abolish the digestive system by written agreement.

            2. I suspect some of the outrage against secularism is misdirected, in that it comes from a misconception that pure outrage is a moral duty. Perhaps some spiritualities that over-emphasize God as King can twist that way (among them certain strands of Protestantism). But God really IS self-sufficient and we can do nothing to Him that He does not, in the first place allow us to do. IMO there ARE reasons to be concerned about secularism but one of them isn’t being vicariously insulted on God’s behalf (and, as uncharitable as it sounds, that is the vibe I got form the material you had linked to).

            3. Man, made in the image of God, has a throne to occupy. The throne occupied by greatest saints. But it’s a different sort of throne than the throne occupied by God. Jesus is both human and divine, and there is a sense in which we can filled with divinity by and in Him but it’s very distinct from becoming God, because we are “only” humans.

            4. To reach our full potential, as being created by God, and in a sense “under” God, but also “in” God is our greatest possible task. Catholicism has, for a long while, included scholarly pursuits as one path of glorifying God (viz. the spiritualities of Benedictines, Dominicans, Jesuits etc.). Renaissance Humanism matched that goal. As did Scholasticism, at a different point in history.

            > Why Scholasticism, though?

            IMO it’s kind of useful to think of some disciplines (especially in an institutional context) like you would about pancakes. Occasionally they have to be flipped to the other side.

            Scholasticism was a system with many things to offer but it was eventually fried to the point of burning (remember, it was the leading way of thinking for approx 400 years – longer than the US even exists…). St, Thomas Aquinas may have been the best and a great thinker, but, symptomatically, few people who remember him, remember other Scholastics from, say, 200 years later (when it was still the dominant method).

            There had come a point, so the story I know goes, at which Scholasticism as taught at medieval universities (and, therefore, as widely known by the intellectual elite of Europe, sustained, perpetuated and continually “developed”) had become a bog of minute, extremely abstract reasoning. “Everyone” was working within its framework and “everyone” had to think up some new thoughts, so the thoughts became increasingly trivial (junk science with its pressure to publish any and all research comes to mind).

            Then Europe was ready for a paradigm shift in thinking, i.e. ready to flip the pancake. And the resources it could use for that shift were the classics. So it did flip the pancake and we got a massive revival of interest in the classics, a.k.a. Renaissance Humanism.
            Once the grandchildren of the first Humanists had enough and that paradigm got stale, we flipped it again. And we’ll probably go on flipping intellectual pancakes, if the world doesn’t end soon.

            It doesn’t mean that some people can’t continue inspecting the side it had been on some time ago or that frying that other side was pointless. So St. Thomas Aquinas (one of the greatest Scholastics) can still occupy a prominent position. But while he may be a Saint, and might be held in high regard specifically because of his writings, he is “only” that , not the be all end all thinker for all ages.

            > Poland, right?

            Yes. Although at that point it was the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. I come from the Polish side (I’m almost sure Lithuanians would have a different historical narrative if you asked them). It’s a rather crazy country. :)

            > This would seem foundational, still, to Christianity and the Christian God.

            I still think it’s kind of simplistic (remember, I give you full permission to constructively tear my conclusions to shreds).

            Platonism was useful and, of course, Early Christians used Platonism (as some would use every future paradigm in thinking that was not antithetical to Christianity) to explain things. There were some good things about it and some bad things about it. The good things was that there was a commonly known language for talking about spirituality that could reach Gentiles. The bad part was that it downplayed the importance of the physical.

            The “problem” with Catholicism, about which I can obviously say the most in-depth, is that it lives permanently on the edge between ideas. There IS a spiritual realm, far more important than the physical one, in the sense that God in not material. But the physical realm was created by God and was Good, it was also Incarnated into. And, as Catholics AFAIK we believe, there will be a day after the Final Judgement when the physical Universe itself will be perfected, i.e. fully redeemed, and we will live in it, with resurrected bodies. (<a href="http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p123a12.htm#VI"CCC 1042 onwards). So it would be profoundly silly to depreciate all matter.

            There is actually a whole bunch of “problems” that the Catholic (and presumably Orthodox) ideas about matter and spirit pose for any staunch Platonist, I’d venture. And that did crop up, rather regularly, as heresies or perversions in spirituality. Gnostics, Manicheans, Cathars (who would not – so my source tells me – give their consolamentum to a pregnant woman BECAUSE she was pregnant, i.e. carried new material life) – they were all much “stricter” in trying to follow the simplified version of Plato that says spirit is better than matter. As were, I would tentatively venture, people “into” extreme asceticism motivated mainly by the idea that the world is dirty.

            Although I’m rather convinced Plato could have had some disagreements with them too. Generally I’d be wary of using any thinker who is +100-300 years old to completely or largely explain anything newer. He may have come from the other side of a given intellectual pancake, or even from a different pancake altogether. The only reason I make an exception for Jesus Christ (and because of Him for very specific bits of Church teaching) is, obviously, that I think He is the owner of all the pancakes. :-)

            > I will stand by the first part, though.

            I would gently nitpick and say that the exact way we formulate ideas has an impact on what mental images we have of things. It’s important not just what words mean but also what they connote. And “You are as good as you are willing to follow God’s dictates” connotes (IMO) a simple, black and white authoritarian regime. The Good guys are saintly and follow God, the bad guys are evil. I posit it’s a little more complicated than that.

          • Darren

            Iota;

            Not bored, just overbudget.

            I thank you for the insight. I think we are now at a point where:

            1. You have convinced me through your superior understanding of things Enlightement and Scholastic (I appreciate the take on _why_ the Enlightenment may have occured)
            2. We are bumping axioms as to who sits on the throne and related topics.

            :)

          • Iota

            Whether I convinced you is kind of unimportant. It would also probably be a BAD thing, if I convinced you completely – I don’t know THAT much. :) But I am glad if you actually found it worthwhile. And if it’s not too obnoxious of me – I do recommend reading histories of ideas. IMO they provide a very cool sense of distance from which you (or I) can look at whatever ideas you (or I) have.
            Of course only in your spare-speare time. :)

            Axioms – yup. I was demonstrating my POV more than arguing though.
            If you even want to throw me something else to think about, feel invited to. :)

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  • Liz

    “If you show me your philosophy, I’ll show you mine. Let’s both write up 500-750 words explaining what we believe about ethics and metaphysics. That’s way to short to defend our beliefs, so no fair complaining about that, commenters. It’s also too short to cover everything we think, so the goal is really just making it as easy as possible to tell us apart as compactly as possible.”

    I’d love to read that, as well as a longer defense. I’ve been following your blog and agreeing with specific posts, but I don’t know how you get from there to virtue ethics and Catholicism. If you are right about Catholicism, that is really, really important and I’d like to know! For the record my prior probabilities are quite updatable, as are the actions I base on them. For instance, a compelling argument for Catholicism might not convince me to convert, but might convince me to abstain from premarital sex.

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  • Random Linker

    Croft has responded (on Feb 25th) http://www.patheos.com/blogs/templeofthefuture/2013/02/my-philosophy-a-rough-sketch/ I didn’t see a link, so I thought I’d add it.


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