Humanism and its Critics

Many of the problems we are faced with in the world today seem to be connected in some way with religion. There are bitter drawn-out conflicts that seem to be fuelled by opposing religious beliefs, increasing numbers of people are retreating into a variety of religious fundamentalisms, and people in high political positions are justifying their policies by claiming access to and approval by, a supernatural authority.

If we look in particular at Australia and the United States two further problems arise.  The first is that many political leaders claim to be in the Christian tradition, but support moral positions diametrically opposed to the recorded teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Secondly there is a lack of a sustained, confident public response to these moral inadequacies and instead there is despair and cynicism and a withdrawal from real involvement in the political process. Can humanists also learn from Dorothy McRae-McMahon in her presentation at this Conference, in finding ways of sustaining of hope in dark times? Is it possible that a strengthening and wider acceptance of a rational, secular humanism could provide a way of moving beyond such problems? Or does humanism itself have shortcomings as a philosophy of life?

An exploration of two quite different contemporary thinkers provides an opportunity to re-evaluate both the religious and humanist position. A traditional humanist position is represented in the work of John Ralston Saul, the Canadian writer and thinker, while a virulent critic of Humanism is the Australian Sociologist, John Carroll who has described what he sees as a 400 year process of the destruction of the humanist position.


John Ralston Saul

John Ralston Saul shares with most humanists scepticism about religion. This is demonstrated in his book The Doubter’s Companion where he provides critical definitions of terms. For example under “Moral Crusade” he writes:

Public activity undertaken by middle-aged men who are cheating on their wives or diddling little boys. Moral crusades are particularly popular among those seeking power for their own personal pleasure, politicians who can’t think of anything useful to do with their mandates, and religious professionals suffering from a personal inability to communicate with their god. [1]

In his book Voltaire’s Bastards he rejects the religious and spiritual approach but he also rejects what could be called the “Rational Humanist” position. Ralston Saul showed how Enlightenment Thinkers used Reason to begin a transformation of their society: ‘Reason’ could be used oppose torture, cruel punishments and absolutist arbitrary power (This is a gain of the enlightenment which seems again at risk in the War on Terror). But there was a price to pay for such progress: if reason became divorced from ethics rationalism could be itself a threat to democracy:

The exercise of power, without the moderating influences of any ethical structure, rapidly became the religion of these new elites … an unparalleled and permanent institutionalisation of state violence … was accompanied by a growing struggle between democratic and rational methods, with the rational increasingly at an advantage. [2]

He argues that today Voltaire, would be outraged by the way in which his dream of an enlightened, rational world had been deformed, and this is the implication of his title, Voltaire’s Bastards. In Australia Economic Rationalism has been invoked to carry out policies that weaken democratic institutions such as libraries and public schools.

In On Equilibrium Ralston Saul argues that the way to avoid the negative effects of a worship of Reason is to keep in balance six human qualities, of which reason is only one:

  • Common sense
  • Ethics (which he contrasts with morality)
  • Imagination
  • Intuition
  • Memory
  • Reason

He deliberately places them in alphabetical order because he considers no quality is more important than the other, and, as the title “Equilibrium” implies, they must be kept in balance with each other.

For the purpose of exploring humanism, his section on Ethics is most relevant, because any discussion of ethics will raise two questions: the question of the nature of the ‘Good’ and whether there is some ultimate and transcendent good.


The question of the Good

It is actually hard to pin down what Ralston Saul sees as the basis for ethical decision making, but this is not necessarily a criticism – it may describe the actual situation we are faced with when trying to make ethical decisions. The nature of ‘the good’ has been debated for thousands of years, but each of us must make decisions in a concrete situation, in a limited amount of time and based on qualities such as intuition and imagination.

Ralston Saul sees philosophical debates as distractions, and is content to simply assert that ethics is something solid, hard, sharp and brilliant – he uses two analogies, steel and diamonds:

 It [ethics] is perhaps the least romantic of all human qualities. It has a steely edge which makes its essential nature impossible to ignore. The steely edge is there precisely because ethics is down-to-earth and practical, a matter of daily habit. [3]

And secondly

Nothing could be more diamond-like, more unforgiving to our weaknesses, more humiliating to our secret self. [4]

However we should not overlook what modern philosophers have to say about ethics in our contemporary situation where decisions need to be made in a world where various secular and religious traditions intersect. Ralston Saul summarily dismisses modern attempts to describe ethical actions, such as those of the American political theorist John Rawls (1921-2002), the English Philosopher Stuart Hampshire (1914-2004) and the German Jürgen Habermas (1929- ). I believe that each of these philosophers explores important issues in our contemporary world, especially when globalism is making national borders less significant, we need to find some cross-cultural commonality.  As well, I feel his position does actually have elements from all of these philosophers and could gain from reflections on these, a point I will return to in my final reflections.

One consequence of this bypassing of philosophical investigations is that one finds Ralston Saul has little discussion of the moral complexity in situations; he makes all the moral judgements in a world that is divided fairly clearly into goodies and baddies.


Is there an absolute good?

There is also something of a contradiction in Ralston Saul’s work. He rejects ‘situational ethics’ – the view that there are no absolute ethical positions. For example today there are those who argue that in some situations torture may be an appropriate tool to use in the defence of some higher value. But at the same time Ralston Saul argues that ethics can not be put above the other qualities: some times one’s intuition or commonsense could lead one to decide to do something that one would normally consider ‘unethical’:

Isolated in this way ethics will become unethical, reason irrational. That would be a manifestation of the fear we all carry within us... And so we choose a single quality as our godhead, and then gather all the rest of our existence beneath its umbrella. This is ideology. [5]


John Carroll

John Carroll is Professor of Sociology at Latrobe University. To explore his position two quite different aspects of his work need to be covered. In ‘The Wreck of Western Culture’ (2004) (a re-working of a book published 11 years earlier) he describes the collapse of humanism, while in ‘The Western Dreaming’ he attempts to provide a contemporary response to this situation.


The Collapse of Humanism

In “the Wreck of Western Culture’ John Carroll uses detailed studies of particular works of literature, art, music and philosophy, to trace what he sees as the self-destruction of humanism. His opening sentences bring to mind images of Berlin as Hitler’s’ Thousand Year Reich’ collapsed around him:

We live amidst the ruins of the great, five-hundred year epoch of humanism. Around us is that ‘colossal wreck’. Our culture is a flat expanse of rubble. It hardly offers shelter from a mild cosmic breeze, never mind one of those icy gales that regularly rip us out of the cosy intimacy of our daily lives and confront us with oblivion. [6]

A review in the British Guardian newspaper described the book as:

Overblown, utterly misguided, sometimes downright dangerous, not to mention half-crazed, but important and at times brilliant. And what if he’s right? [7]

The brilliance comes from the way his thesis of humanism’s collapse is applied to visual artists such as Caravaggio, Poussin, and Vermeer; to literature by Shakespeare and Cervantes; to the music of Bach and Mozart or the movies of John Ford. He has stood and meditated in front of the originals of most the art works he discusses and in arguing his thesis brings a new light to them and the other studies.

But there is also some craziness. He pits Martin Luther against Erasmus, and yet I feel he actually shares much more of the Christian humanism of Erasmus. And he really goes off the rails in his treatment of Charles Darwin. He transmutes Darwin from a scientist to a theologian, by shifting backwards and forwards from Darwin to “Darwinism” until one can’t tell them apart. When one looks at a monkey’s head, says Carroll:

One is caught by a dream image, blurred and distorted, of the human skull. We are uncannily transfixed into the shoes of Holbein’s ambassadors. … ape equals skull … [and] the study of skulls becomes central to the Darwinian enterprise. The thousands of subsequent books on human evolution are full of diagrams of skulls [8]

Darwin, according to Carroll, suffered personally from this:

If there is a personal element, it is in chronic sickness that dogged the second half of his life. Unwittingly Darwin pioneers the scientific worship of death. [9]

The creative writer in Carroll could not resist using the image of the skull in order to create links between Darwin’s work on the one hand and such items as the graveyard scene in Hamlet, the skull in the foreground of Holbein’s Ambassadors (which is reproduced on the cover of the book) and even the angina Darwin suffered.

Carroll implies that even Darwin’s angina was a psychological consequence of his work result of work on evolution. And do skulls really ‘equal;’ death? There are more pragmatic reasons for skulls featuring in evolution – over the long periods of time involved, skulls and bones are the main objects that remain, and from them such things as eating habits, brains size and structure can be deduced - all important things to know in understanding our origins.

Scientific knowledge does not have to lead to what Max Weber called “disenchantment” of the world. The discoveries of biology and astronomy about origins of the universe and human life can actually lead to new wonder about consciousness, a wonder at how the processes of evolution have created a mind that is able to reflect back on its origins. To think of returning to a pre-Darwin world is as futile as the Medieval Church “banning” the Copernican view of the world.

A final reservation about this book is its appearance to be tracing the history of the “Collapse” of Humanism. The four sections of the book, covering the last four centuries are titled:

  • Foundation
  • Middle Acts
  • Fall
  • Death Throes

There is an interesting parallel with Spengler’s ‘Decline of the West’ (1918, 1923) which claimed that all civilisations had their four seasons of growth and decline, and that the West was going into its winter. History then, in all its ambiguity, had to fit into the metaphor.

Carroll’s account becomes the reverse image of what Herbert Butterfield in 1931 called ‘The Whig Interpretation of History’ where English historians drew a straight line from Luther, through the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Reform Acts of the nineteenth century, to Parliamentary Government of the early twentieth century ‘seeing the modern world emerge as the victory of the children of light over the children of darkness’. While Carroll sees the process more as the victory of darkness over light, the words of Butterfield still apply: that one should see the present emerging:

as the result of a clash of wills, a result which neither party wanted or even dreamed of, a result which indeed both parties would equally have hated, but as a result for the achievement of which the existence of both and the clash of both were necessary. [10]

One way in which Carroll forces a pattern on events is to glide over the shift in the meaning of the word ‘humanism’. Humanism in the Renaissance involved the study of Roman and then Greek texts by those who did not doubt the truths of Christianity. An important element in this study was the comparison of Latin translations with the original Greek and Roman texts that had been rediscovered:

[This} highly focussed philological attention to the details of all manner of written records [pervades] almost all areas of post-medieval culture, including theology, philosophy, political thought, jurisprudence, medicine, mathematics and the creative arts. [11]

As Erasmus demonstrated, philology provided a challenge to authority, when that authority was based on a Latin translation of a Greek text. By going back to the early Greek text of the New Testament, he argued that there was no biblical evidence for Penance being a Christ-ordained Sacrament. [12]

The contemporary meaning of humanism, referring to those who exclude religion in trying to build a philosophy of life only dates back to the 1860s and a significant factor in its rise was as a consequence of the Religious Establishment’s attack on Evolution. Carroll may be trying to trace a “spiritual’ history of humanism’s collapse but it is certainly not an intellectual history of humanism.


Stories as culture

If the ‘Wreck of Humanism’ is a critique of western society, John Carroll’s ‘The Western Dreaming: the western world is dying for want of a story’ [13] is an attempt to provide a positive alternative. Each of his chapters reflects a particular type of character through stories and he uses the word archetypes to refer to these- Magdalene, The Hero and Mother are three examples. The term archetype originates with Jung, but Carroll focuses on archetypes related to a western culture rather than the more generalised view of Jung’s “Collective Unconscious”.

It is in his approach here that another contradiction arises – in The wreck of Humanism he seemed to describing the collapse of western civilisation from the Renaissance on, whereas in The Western Dreaming he is, like a thinker from the Renaissance, drawing on the stories of the Greek and Roman Classical World and exploring how the values expressed intersect and contrast with the lives of Jesus as recorded the gospels. He then adds another level by exploring how both these traditions have been interpreted in works of art, literature music and film.

Carroll, like the Humanist Erasmus, goes back to the earlier Greek text to question the contemporary fundamentalist church’s focus on particular “sins”, such as their obsession with homosexuality. The original Greek word is hamartia – “missing the mark”- and refers to a general lack of perfection in every individual’s rather than a particular action. He concludes that the established churches have in effect violated their own formative stories in the synoptic gospels. In essence the churches

Have stood on a twin foundation – unquestioned faith in a just and merciful all-seeing God as one leg; moral rearmament as the other. Here is the key to their modern Western Downfall. [14] 



Many humanists would probably have no problem with John Ralston Saul’s critique of rationalism, but in the end there is still some life missing in his philosophy. He is aware of the criticism that compassion is not listed as a quality and his reply is that that this somehow arises from our reflections on how difficult it is to balance all the six qualities:

Perhaps compassion is one result of our search for equilibrium; our use of more than one quality at once, and so of an uncertain non-ideological approach. Being conscious of how well or poorly we ourselves walk enables us to see the other walking in his way. [15]

He goes on to say that it is those who are sure of the truth who are the ones without compassion, and this often applies to Ralston Saul himself. A negative approach – based on awareness of our uncertainty - seems a strange way to define compassion. If humanism is to be a belief that can assist in transforming a society such as ours for the better, rather than just be part of a culture of criticism, we need a wider view of its scope and potential. John Carroll provides an indication of why humanism as a philosophy is limited in being able to bring about social change for the better. In referring to the Terror of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars that followed he writes:

We are back to the fact that humanism is not a culture, and the attempt to make more of it than it was opened the way for demonic forces that only real cultures can check. [16]

There is not the time here to unpack all the implications of what ‘real culture’ might mean, but if we take culture as the sum total of ways in which humans try to make sense of their existence we could include a wide variety of areas: music and philosophy, religion and science, economics and art.

Over two thousand years ago the Roman playwright Terence said: Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto – I am a man, and consider nothing human alien to me. A true humanist today, as in the Renaissance, is a woman or man who embraces all that is human, and one of these human constructs is religion. I see religion as the developing way in which individuals and communities try to discover and express their connections with others and with the cosmos.

In proposing a view of humanism that moves it from a philosophical attitude to a more central role as part of a common culture I am drawing on the ideas of Julian Huxley in his essay‘The New Divinity”, published in Essays of a Humanist[17], and the section on New Humanism in David McKnight’s Beyond Right and Left. [18]

Certainly in the Monotheistic religions of the Middle East, but also to a large extent in the Hindu, Buddhist and Confucian traditions humanity’s understanding of its place in the universe has been a historical process of increasing Revelation and I do not see why this process should not continue, and instead be fixed in a particular time.

I propose three premises that would keep the original inspiration of the great religions alive, but allow for the possibility of remaining relevant to the modern world.

  1. However inspired (or as Ralston Saul would say ‘guided by intuition and imagination’) the great religious founders have been they seem to be have been outstanding humans whose teachings always pointed beyond themselves. The moment they, rather than their messages, have been put at centre stage, idolatry has crept in.
  2. All religions have arisen in a cultural context, and the challenge is always to separate the insights from the context. This is a current challenge in Islam: to separate the tenets of Arabic cultures from the teachings of Mahomet.
  3. There is only one world that we live in, and ultimately only one reality, however dimly perceived and any religious creed not prepared to engage in a loving struggle with other creeds to explore this reality together is showing a failure to journey on a spiritual quest.


A humanist religion?

What would a ‘humanist religion’ look like? A tentative start can be seen in what Julian Huxley wrote in his essay on 'The New Divinity' – tentative because he is obviously primarily contrasting this with one particular religion: Christianity, and because it includes some of his ideas on social evolution which I would not accept:

In place of eternity we shall have to think in terms of enduring process; in place of salvation in terms of attaining the satisfying states of inner being which combine energy and peace. There will be no room for petitionary prayer, but much value in prayer involving aspiration and self-exploration. A religion of fulfilmentmust provide bustling secular man with contacts with all that is permanent and enduring, with the deeper and higher aspects of existence. [19]

John Carroll is correct in stating that the challenge today, where people both inside and outside religious communities, have lost their sense of the spiritual, is to explore some of these great stories that have arisen in this human quest. In the western world at present the stories of Jesus have not yet lost their impact, but I find that despite its intellectual rigour his other areas of focus – Homer, Classical Athenian Playwrights and Western European Art in two centuries from Donatello to Poussin - fail to resonate and in fact are alienating, possibly because I don’t accept the assumption of some lost golden age that can be contrasted with he moral bankruptcy of the present.

With a few exceptions, such as Melville’s Billy Budd and the films of John Ford, there is little from the twenty or twenty first century in Carroll’s explorations and only passing references to Middle Eastern, Hindu or East Asian traditions. Also there is nothing from either an Australian Indigenous or non-Indigenous heritage, where spirituality could be explored in our own unique context.

The English thinker Frank Furedi has written of the process of ‘humanising humanism’:

This will require that failures and mistakes are incorporated into our attitudes of progress and our exercise of rationality. If human agency is assigned an important role in the making of history, then factors like culture, subjective perception, conflict, contingency and limited knowledge all play a role in the way we engage with the world. Such influences can confuse, distort and did orient; they can also provide important experiences from which we learn to move forward. [20]

The real threat to the humanist spirit doesn’t come from religion; it comes from the older demons of arrogance, fear and cynicism - fears which lie at the heart of fundamentalisms of both the Right and Left.

[1] J Ralston Saul, The Doubters Companion, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1995

[2] J Ralston Saul, Voltaire’s Bastards; the Dictatorship of Reason in the West, Penguin, England 1992 p 5.

[3] J Ralston Saul, On Equilibrium, Penguin, Australia, 2002 pp 65-6.

[4] Ralston Saul, On Equilibrium p 92.

[5] Ralston Saul, On Equilibrium, p 13.

[6] J Carroll, The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited, Scribe, Melbourne, 2004, p 1.

[7] As cited in the publisher’s review

[8] Carroll, p 172-3

[9] Carroll p 173

[10] H Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History, Norton, New York, 1965 p 28.

[11] Quoted in L Kekewich (Ed), The Impact of Humanism, Yale University Press, London 2000 p 63-4.

[12] This debate took place over Matthew 4:17 ( ‘Repent; for the kingdom of Heaven is upon you’) The Latin Vulgate translation read poenitentiam agite ‘Make penance’, justifying the Catholic view that Penance or Repentance was one of the Christ-ordained sacraments. Erasmus translated it as poeniteat vos, ‘be penitent’. The concern of the Catholic Church about translations into the vernacular was as much about challenges to its theology as it was about bringing the bible to the masses. R H Bainton, Erasmus of Christendom, Collins, London, 1972 p 173.

[13] J Carroll, The Western Dreaming, Harper Collins, Sydney 2001

[14] Carroll, The Western Dreaming, p 31.

[15] Ralston Saul, On Equilibrium, p 17.

[16] Carroll, Wreck of Western Culture p 116.

[17] J Huxley, Essays of a Humanist, Pelican, Harmondsworth, 1966. The essay ‘The New Divinity’ is also available, with a few spelling mistakes.

[18] D McKnight, Beyond Right and Left: New Politics and the Culture Wars, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2005 p 236-262.

[19] Huxley, I, pp 228-9.

[20] F Furedi ‘Putting the human back into humanism’  (accessed 6/11/2006)

Andrew Keese

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