Friday, April 13, 2007

Two Cheers for Humanism!

I have previously described myself as a recovering humanist. American society is strongly humanist, and I drank deep from that well, particularly during my years in atheism. American humanism is not a new phenomenon, but is intrinsic to its national character.

Yet humanism, it is pure form, is incompatible with Christianity. Humanism has a very high moral view of humanity, in contrast to Total Depravity. The American church, both Right and Left tends to feel icky about the notion that humans, though made in God's image, have somehow brutally effaced that image to the point where we cannot repair it on our own, but must rely on God's unmerited grace to be saved. We like being self-reliant, not other-reliant, and our popular heroes reflect this tendency.

I reflexively rejected this as a new Christian, but through formal instruction (Asbury made me Totally Depraved) and God's convicting grace in prayer, I came to understand that I was hopelessly lost, not simply from the tribulations of this earthly life, but from the spiritual forces in my corrupted soul.

But before I became a Christian, I was a libertarian, and I still am now. And libertarianism, or any political philosophy which supports limited and representative government, is predicated upon the belief that humans are basically decent creatures who deserve to rule their own lives. The notion of human rights presupposes that people deserve certain things simply by being born human.

From the beginning, this humanistic concept was written into the fabric of America's self-definition. For example:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

My studies of libertarian political philosophers, such as the Founding Fathers, Friedrich Hayek, and Ayn Rand led me to place high value to the word "individualism". The concept of the individual is the essential foundation of all limited-government political philosophies. Ayn Rand wrote:

The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.

These rights are, when summarised in Lockean fashion, life, liberty, and property. Limited-government political philosophies hold that there are certain things that the government may not do. The founders of the American republic strongly believed this premise, and hence provided for a Bill of Rights.

But if individualism is wrong and misguided, then the ideas built upon that foundation stone must collapse. If individualism is in total error, then there should not be limited government.

As I said, I traditionally attached positive, not negative value, to individualism. My first encounter with widespread rejection of this notion was in the Methodist Blogger Profile Series. One of the questions that I ask is "What philosophical thesis do you think is most important to combat?" Many, many people responded that it was individualism. A simple word search for 'individualism' in my blog's archives show how prevalent this view is. I was initially shocked by this response, especially since my response for my Methodist Blogger Profile was 'collectivism' -- the exact opposite of individualism.

But I was thinking of these terms politically, whereas my colleagues were thinking theologically. Many of them hold that American Christianity has a privatized faith, where there is a separation between public and private lives, as well as a rejection of the need for a rigorous community life. Postmodernism, which holds that truth is not objective, but subjective to the individual, is contributing to the development of this individualized Christianity.

All well and good. I happen to agree that people can excessively privatize their faith and create a false dichotomy between how they live and private and how they worship in public. But theological premises have political consequences, which is why my libertarian spidey-senses get inflamed when I hear Christians attack individualism.

No society predicated on individualism has ever built a death camp. But other societies, such as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, have determined, as an official concept of national self-definition, that the collective is more important than the individual. A death camp is a political statement to the effect "For the good of the collective, this individual must die."

Now this is not to say that those who raise concerns about individualism in American Christianity would to build death camps or destroy democracy. They are thinking of these terms as theological, not political assertions. But as I said, theological premises have political applications. The road that begins with "The individual is less important than the collective" ends at the gates of Auschwitz.

So having been attentive to politics since the age of twelve, I tend to reflexively contemplate how different ideas, theological and philosophical, could be used or abused in a political dimension. In this manner, arguments that the individual is unimportant or that human beings are helpless and incapable of directing their own lives set off all sorts of political alarms in my head.

Limited and representative government cannot exist without the acceptance of certain humanistic beliefs. Yet humanism is contrary to the Gospel. Humanism is responsible for distorting true Christian belief and the full confrontation of our sinful nature. Nevertheless, humanism is useful. In fact, it's essential if we wish to live in anything remotely resembling a free society. And I think that the proper measure of an idea is how it effects people's lives when it is carried out.

American democracy, although imperfect, has proven that humanism has some real advantages. Americans may prefer to think of their political philosophy as somehow Christian, but even cursory study overthrows this notion. Again, the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Here, the Founding Fathers make a traditional nod to Christianity as the essential presupposition of their new society. But Biblically speaking, their claim is nonsensical (hence why they do not quote any passage of Scripture). Although one may proof-text Biblical passages to support democracy, historically, democracy came from humanism, not Christianity.

So what is the impact of humanism? It has simultaneously undermined the Gospel and made human existence far more livable. So I cannot proclaim "Three cheers for humanism!" But I can manage two.*

*Line paraphrased from What's So Great About America? by Dinesh D'Souza.

13 comments:

truevyne said...

These are thoughts I'd never strung together before, so thanks for putting them out there. I know when I think of America as a
Christian nation, I guffaw. I certainly don't really want this nation to become more of that brand of Christianity- the Republican, gay hating, earth raping club who are secretly addicted to porn. No thanks! I'm not fond of being lumped into that crowd by default. Are you?
I'm grateful I live in a humanist nation which allows me (and every person of othe religions) to worship as I please.
Ever studied _Pedagogy of the Oppressed_ by Paulo Friere? It's my favorite humanist book of all time.

John said...

If I had to choose, I would rather be governed by secular libertarians than by Christian statists.

Brett said...

I majored in Political Science, so this post really intrigues me. One of my favorite papers I wrote in college was about how the views of the Founding Fathers (From the Federalist Papers) on humanity is not Biblically sound. Over the years, I have looked for that paper, but can't find it. I remember that it was exactly 42 pages, and I was very proud of it.
You've actually inspired me to dig out my copy of The Federalist Papers and start digging again. Hope my wife hasn't made plans for us this weekend.

Kenny said...

I responded briefly on my blog a while back to an article summarizing the basic principles of libertarianism which I thought was too humanist. The article in question redeemed itself at the end by including the following quote from Thomas Jefferson:

"Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he then be trusted with the government of others? Or, have we found angels in the form of kings, to govern him? Let history answer this question."

In this alternate perspective, we don't accept libertarianism because human beings are so good that they can be trusted to govern themselves, but because they are so bad that they cannot be trusted to govern others.

One of these days I'm going to post on how I see libertarianism cohering with Scriptural values. I don't pretend that libertarianism is actually taught by Scripture, but do I think it fits together with biblical principles better than any other system of political philosophy with which I am familiar.

Rick said...

Very interesting post. I consider myself a moral libertarian, while others call me a Constitutionalist.

John, I often think the same thing, that I would not want to be governed by Christian statists. Nothing in the last decade has changed my thinking.

A buddy and I recently started Patriots & Tyrants as a means for discussing politics without all the typical labels. We have direct links to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers. Brett, just don't smear highlighter on your monitor. :-)

Andrew C. Thompson said...

This is blogging in its highest form, John. I am one again impressed by your blogging prowess. Thanks for your thoughts.

A few thoughts of my own:

I would caution you against statements like, "No society predicated on individualism has ever built death camps." One might say, with equally, "Only individualistic democracies drop nuclear bombs intended to kill whole cities of civilians." That, too, is a historical truth, as residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki could well attest.

Your own well-articulated statements about the total depravity of human beings should caution us away from too much faith in any form of government to be more "just" than others. As long as governments are run by totally depraved human beings - as they always will be - then they will commit atrocious crimes.

I'm pretty sure that's why God begged Israel not to ask for a human king. They traded Yahweh for Saul, which isn't much of a trade.

At any rate, a close inspection of the history of the great individualistic societies of the world - Great Britain and the United States, for example - will show that they are typically just as vicious as other types of societies (Nazi Germany is not typical, of course). For example, the Indians of North America didn't fare well against individualistic and democratic America. Nor did imported slaves from west Africa.

We don't usually recognize the worst about ourselves because we don't have the critical distance necessary. I assume that is the reason why so many Americans cannot understand the deep anti-Americanism in countries all over the globe.

One area you might consider is how Stanley Hauerwas articulates the church as polis. The community where we can and should find life is not in the liberal democratic nation-state, in any of its various expressions and forms of government. It is rather in the community called into being by Jesus Christ. This is not a theocratic move. Hauerwas would point out that theocracies, given the chance, are no better than any other form of mass government. The church must rather "govern" locally, through means no more coercive than genuine friendship grounded in love and common devotion to the ways of Jesus Christ. It's worth considering, especially as forms of mass government become ever more impersonal, bureaucratic, and violent.

John said...

Kenny wrote:

In this alternate perspective, we don't accept libertarianism because human beings are so good that they can be trusted to govern themselves, but because they are so bad that they cannot be trusted to govern others.

Indeed. As Jefferson wrote "Put not your faith in men, but bind them down with the chains of the constitution."

John said...

Andrew wrote:

This is blogging in its highest form, John. I am one again impressed by your blogging prowess. Thanks for your thoughts.

Thanks!

I would caution you against statements like, "No society predicated on individualism has ever built death camps." One might say, with equally, "Only individualistic democracies drop nuclear bombs intended to kill whole cities of civilians." That, too, is a historical truth, as residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki could well attest.

With atomic bombing, we have a sample of two. With sysematic genocide, we have hundreds of concerted attempts to destroy whole nations in human history. Feel free to name a few perpetrated by a individualistic society.

At any rate, a close inspection of the history of the great individualistic societies of the world - Great Britain and the United States, for example - will show that they are typically just as vicious as other types of societies (Nazi Germany is not typical, of course). For example, the Indians of North America didn't fare well against individualistic and democratic America. Nor did imported slaves from west Africa.

These are great evils in American history, but they are not genocide -- the deliberate, planned extermination of a whole people. Our treatment of Native Americans was brutal and savage, but it was always kicking the can down the road -- pushing the Native Americans further back. There were massacres, but they were never a stated national policy, in contrast to the Final Solution of the Nazis. Slaves did not fare well in America, but they fared better here than anywhere else in the New World. American slavery was the only slavery that was able to reproduce itself. Latin American slavery required a constant slave trade because slaves did not live long enough to reproduce. Which is not to say that these practices were good or justified, but history won't let your America=Nazi Germany analogy wash. There is a world of difference between what America has done, and what Hitler's Germany, the Soviet Union, or Pol Pot's Cambodia committed.

We don't usually recognize the worst about ourselves because we don't have the critical distance necessary. I assume that is the reason why so many Americans cannot understand the deep anti-Americanism in countries all over the globe.

I think that Americans cannot understand anti-Americanism around the world because anti-Americanism in the face of silence over far more evil societies and activities makes no sense. Americans do not understand anti-Americanism because anti-Americanism is an irrational obsession.

One area you might consider is how Stanley Hauerwas articulates the church as polis. The community where we can and should find life is not in the liberal democratic nation-state, in any of its various expressions and forms of government. It is rather in the community called into being by Jesus Christ. This is not a theocratic move. Hauerwas would point out that theocracies, given the chance, are no better than any other form of mass government. The church must rather "govern" locally, through means no more coercive than genuine friendship grounded in love and common devotion to the ways of Jesus Christ. It's worth considering, especially as forms of mass government become ever more impersonal, bureaucratic, and violent.

Secular power has always corrupted the Church, which is why the Church should always flee from it. Compare, for example, the reputations of Popes Alexander IV and John Paul II. One had enormous earthly power, and the other had none.

Andrew C. Thompson said...

John -

Just as a point of clarification, I wasn't trying to make an "America=Nazi Germany" analogy. I wrote, "Nazi Germany is not typical, of course," because I do not see America or most other societies as analogous to it. Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, and their ilk represent something exceptional, to be sure. In discussing the relative morality of societies or governments, I would certainly agree that there are a select few that deserve a category of viciousness all their own.

But the difficultly in trying to posit the modern liberal democracy as morally superior to most other forms of government or social organization is that you have to start trying to rank expressions of violence or oppression. I think you hint at that when you compare American slavery to its Latin American counterparts. I have been in old underground slave quarters in Peru, and I can attest that conditions were utterly inhuman. But by all accounts, chattel slavery in America was a much worse institution than slavery in the ancient Roman world. It is not always an apples-to-apples comparision, to be sure, since ancient slavery was predicated on a different understanding of debt service. But it was still slavery. So should we claim that ancient Roman society was more just or moral than modern American society? In most instances, we would say no. But its slavery was more humane.

My only point is that it is problematic to claim any sense of moral superiority for one form of social/governmental organization over any other (when those exceptional easy targets like Hitler's Germany are taken off the table). The New Testament suggests that any place or time where Caesar is Lord is a place or time where God's justice does not reign. That is the case even when the Caesar is the one defined in the U.S. Constitution.

Again, I am not advocating theocracy here. Theocratic governments simply replace one Caesar with another, and one that is particularly insidious because it claims a divine legitimacy. But finding one's primary political existence in the church requires a view of worldly power that is shaped by a New Testament judgment against the powers and principalities of this world. And by "political," of course, I mean the Greek sense of life in the polis rather than the contemporary sense of politics.

John said...

Okay, it is an imprecise measurement. But in general, individualistic societies tend to support human rights better than collectivist societies.

There is no more direct and conscious a statement of collectivism than the death camp. Can you name a single individualistic society that has produced a death camp?

MethoDeist said...

Humanism is an interesting concept. First it was a philosophy that stated that man had potential and then later (in the 1920's) it was turned into an atheistic religion. I don't identify with the new definition of it at all but I do agree with the traditional view that is philosophical in nature rather than religious.

The founding of the USA was based on traditional humanist views but I tend not to use that word because of its modern usage.

Originally, one could be a philosophical humanist and a member of a religion because it was not atheistic in nature. Those were the old days however.

A traditional humanistic approach is certainly not perfect (as perfection cannot exist due to constant change) but it does lead to one of the best forms of governing there is. I know that some might argue otherwise but it is best because it allows for change over time.

We had slavery here and it was immoral and wrong. The slaves were treated horribly but what makes a traditional humanist approach preferable is that it allows for the system to evolve so that a immoral and incorrect part of the equation can be removed.

We no longer have slaves because of the traditional humanistic approach that acts as the base for our form of government. So, overall I agree with your post and in terms of traditional humanism and can go all the way and give three cheers.

MethoDeist

Jonathan said...

Can you name a single individualistic society that has produced a death camp?


Consider the American abortion clinic.

John said...

BAM!

Good thinking, Jonathan.