When Humanism Becomes Fundamentalism

The trap was not of history. History, if objectively observed, would have warned that in Europe both educated and uneducated, religious and secular, left-wing and right-wing gentiles have murdered, maimed, raped, and savaged Jews for the last two millennia. Jews at the advent of the Holocaust, no less than Daniel Pearl, fell into the trap not of history, but of humanism.

Humanism is the philosophy "that emphasizes the dignity and worth of the individual, with the basic premise that people are rational beings who possess the capacity for truth and goodness."

Jews believe that human beings were created in the image of God, which most Jews take to mean that all human beings are essentially good. Peel away the misguided notions of this or that system, and you have a good, decent, kind human being who would not deliberately choose evil.

But it's precisely the ability to choose evil that is the uniqueness of human beings. "Created in the image of God," as the sages inform us, means that human beings were created, like God, with free choice. Animals act from instinct. Humans have the unique ability to choose between good and evil.

The starting point of each human being's free choice varies, according mostly to his or her upbringing. Thus, I suspect that none of the readers of this article would murder for money -- even a lot of money. It is simply beyond our choice box, given the values our parents inculcated in us. But many of us would cheat on our income tax; others of us would not bother to report a bank error in our favor; while some of us would gladly pocket the extra change a supermarket cashier mistakenly gives us. Each of these scenarios poses a choice to the average, ethical human being. "Choice" implies it could go either way.

We are created by our choices. The person who chooses not to report a bank error in his favor will go on to choose to cheat in small ways, which will grow to bigger, more egregious deceptions. Enron executives are not born swindlers; they got there by a myriad of graduated choices.

But once they are there, do not trust them with your money! A person or a nation who has chosen perversity becomes perverse. "The capacity for truth and goodness" that humanism credits to all people can be deactivated by consistently choosing evil. The result is evil people, evil groups, evil nations.

When President Bush speaks about the "axis of evil," humanists shift uncomfortably in their seats. The word "evil" to a humanist is like the word "God" to an atheist. It is simply not part of his or her belief system.

Evil is a reality, not a matter of taste or relative values. "One person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter" is a repudiation of any meaningful values. Such mesmerizing of our moral capacities is the ultimate legerdemain of evil; if you can't see it, you can't fight it.

Humanists, who usually inhabit the liberal end of the political spectrum, are quick to array themselves against those they call "fundamentalists." Such "fundamentalists" are usually painted as Bible-thumping, religious fanatics. But "fundamentalism" also refers to "a point of view characterized by rigid adherence to fundamental or basic principles." What could be more rigid than adhering to the belief in the essential goodness of man after the Holocaust? After the Ramallah lynching? After the beheading of Daniel Pearl?

Photo courtesy of ZekeSneaker via C.C. license at FlickrIf They Knew Us, They Would Love Us

Professor Judea Pearl of UCLA marked the yahrzeit of his son by writing an article published in the Wall Street Journal (February 20):

The murder weapon in Danny's case was aimed not at a faceless enemy or institution, but at a gentle human being -- one whose face is now familiar to millions of people around the world. Danny's murderers spent a week with him; they must have seen his radiating humanity. Killing him so brutally, and in front of a video camera, marked a new low in man's inhumanity to man. People of all faiths were thus shocked to realize that mankind can still be dragged to such depths by certain myths and ideologies.

Personally, I am shocked that two years after the Ramallah lynching, fifty-eight years after the Holocaust, and seventy-four years after the Hebron massacre, that we could be "shocked to realize that mankind can still be dragged to such depths."

The whole world saw the video of Arabs murdering two hapless Israeli reservists who took a wrong turn into Ramallah a year and a half before Daniel Pearl's kidnapping. The Arab mob disemboweled their victims and danced with their entrails.

6/17/2010 4:00:00 AM