An Essay on Man: A Trumpet Blast Against the “New” Humanism

Pressed to apologize for a silly comment he’d made about the full-frontal atheism of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, the humanist chaplain at Harvard replied to Brian Fleming (The God who Wasn’t There, etc.) – the slightly offended party – as follows:

I think apologizing is really a wonderful, necessary thing to do often. We human beings are so imperfect, we hurt each other and fail to live up to our own standards so often that learning to properly apologize is practically a survival tool. At least in my life it has been – I fail often to be as loving, or as smart, or just plain as right as I’d like to be. And I have seen how liberating, how humanistic, it can be to simply apologize, admit I was wrong, and ask for forgiveness. The value of a good apology is one of those things that both religious people and secular people have done well to recognize the power of.

The hell you say? I remember reading something about wrongdoing and forgiveness eerily like this statement recently. Here it is: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” The author is the unmistakable St Paul writing to the Christians at Rome in the mid-first-century. He is explaining how love is always having to say you’re sorry, not merely for individual acts of malice and thoughtlessness, but for the human condition itself which makes you naturally corrupt, or to use his favorite word, “sinful.” Human nature is purulent; what it produces is pus. Human nature causes us to “fail to be as loving or as smart or just plain as right” as we should be: “I can will what is right,” the clever apostle says, “but I cannot do it…What I do is the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7.1415ff.).

This isn’t humanism, of course. It’s Christianity. In fact it’s the central doctrine of Christianity. It begins with an overwhelming feeling of worthlessness and lack of self control, and ends with the happy recognition that since you can’t change your nature anyway, you’re just happy there’s someone out there who can: God (through Jesus) who takes away your sins. You only have to apologize for your worthlessness to the perfectly good God who made you the imperfect, worthless, purulent creature you are. The chaplain seems to have learned a lot from the saint: We are so imperfect, that we ought to apologize often “for failing to live up to our own standards.”

I don’t know what living up to imperfect standards means in that opaque sentence, but I personally endorse imperfect standards, on the off-chance I might attain them without effort. I do know that as a humanist I can completely reject the disguised theology behind the statement. Religion (not humanism) postulates a gap between God and man (and women, of course) as wide as the gap between the natural world and the supernatural order. It’s what sent Adam into hiding, Isaac to his near-death experience, Job to the dung heap, and Saul into insanity and retirement. You don’t screw around with this God because, as he reminds Job, little you can’t save the world, put the stars in the skies, subdue Leviathan, or send lightning down from the heavens. Given the total stupidity and blind wickedness of the race he created, about all his creatures can hope for is forgiveness and “salvation” from the humanity that ties us to this world. The school chaplain in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life had the Christian view right:

Chaplain: Let us praise God. Oh Lord…

Congregation: Oh Lord…

Chaplain: Oooh you are so big…

Congregation: Oooh you are so big…

Chaplain: So absolutely huge.

Congregation: So ab – solutely huge.

Chaplain: Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here I can tell you.

Congregation: Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here I can tell you.

Chaplain: Forgive Us, O Lord, for this dreadful toadying.

Congregation: And barefaced flattery.

Chaplain: But you are so strong and, well, just so super.

Congregation: Fan – tastic.

All: Amen.

True, the New Humanism will say that it doesn’t advocate frequent apology for “religious reasons” It’s not about striking your breast for God or laying your faults on Jesus. It’s about saying “Sorry” to each other—building community, making things right, hugging. Having lost all metaphysical pretenses and infinite gradations between this world and the next, we just need to be kind. If we disagree, we respectfully disagree. Better yet, we learn not to disagree, because, after all, isn’t disagreement unpleasant? Shouldn’t we apologize for needing to disagree? In the New Humanism, where Oprah! and Dr Wayne Dyer replace Socrates, the answer is Yes, as long as the apology doesn’t limit our ability to make self-affirming choices. Whatever that means.

What the New Humanism isn’t about is the intellectual self-confidence that calls a spade a spade and faulty judgment faulty. Intellectualism is unkind. Smart is mean. Spirited debate may incur feelings of low self-esteem, especially among the losers. But then, dumb is dangerous – in life, art, and politics. Never mind that it’s religion that encourages blind agreement and intellectual submission, or that what we look back on as “the enlightenment” was forged in the fires of the bitterest scholarly debates the West had ever seen, or that thousands of very, very bright men and women learned what being sorry meant because their apologies were extracted from them through violence to reason and conscience. Never mind the robust intellectualism of old humanists – a Huxley, a Dewey, a Santayana, a Lippmann, What would a New Humanist make of Lippmann’s comparison of an average voter to a theater-goer walking into a play in the middle of the third act and leaving before the last curtain? Should he apologize to hoi polloi? Or Russell on the same theme: “Our great democracies still tend to think that a stupid man is more likely to be honest than a clever man.” Elitism. Pure elitism. We should apologize for that.

The legacy of great minds and bold ideas crashing like cymbals in the orchestra of human progress has become a sad reminder of the aristocracy of intellect that American democracy – for reasons unclear to me – has moved beyond. The New Humanism wants to move beyond it, beyond the cruelty of intellect to where truth is what you feel it is and where confession is good for the soul. But strangely enough, it preserves the Pauline model of the human person as imperfect. That’s why we apologize, after all: because we’re “wrong.” In the new humanist order we have returned to the religious evaluation of human nature as sullied, wanton, abandoning the gains that humanism has achieved since Pico della Mirandola first sniffed the spring-time air of human freedom and the essential givenness of human nature as a gift limited by years, but not by evil.

Oh, Chaplain, I do not believe apology is a survival tool. I do not believe I hurt people because I am “imperfect.” And I refuse to acknowledge that humanism has anything to do with the liberating power of forgiveness, or that this X marks the spot where religious and secular people can meet. Humanism, old and newer, as far as I know, consists ethically in the recognition that we are free to choose our actions and responsible for evaluating the consequences of our actions – as human agents. In that process, apology is very low down on my list of virtues and owning up to my imperfection is not there at all.

R. Joseph Hoffmann
Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion
Center for Inquiry
Amherst, New York

Comments are closed.