In researching and exploring humanism’s conquest of morality, proper terms have proven elusive. Humanism is a broad descriptor, defining everything from “Renaissance” philosophy of man’s latent ability to shape the world via the power of reason, to the political thought processes behind the rise of classical liberalism, to modern secularism that prioritizes the liberty of each individual.
Nevertheless, I’ve stuck with humanism, however insufficient, because I believe it most accurately describes the underlying philosophy that shapes modern ethical thinking. It is the primacy of the individual, the power of the person to shape their life, to chart their course, to chase their dream that drives the emerging morality. Humanism is not inherently secular, as some believe; after all, if your dream is religious then you are welcome to pursue it–whatever works for you. Perhaps this ambivalence to personal faith is what makes the concept so difficult to define and understand.
Humanism tolerates faith, but also introduces a new set of cardinal sins. A judgmental spirit is a particularly grievous heresy for humanists; if the highest aim of man is fulfillment then what right do you have to cast judgment on someone else’s pursuit? Just because a particular lifestyle doesn’t work for you doesn’t mean you have a right to judge its effectiveness for someone else. The social construct is designed to maximize each person’s personal freedom to pursue their own happiness. Boundaries are only erected when they infringe on another person’s liberties (such as murder, rape, or stealing), not because they fail to conform to some ideal that transcends mankind (such as idol worship or pornography).
Most early humanists were not hostile to faith, in fact, the embryonic philosophy sprang out of devout minds. Human reason was seen as the pursuit of understanding creation and thus its perfect Creator. This led to an age of science and art, but not one that was contrary to Christianity.
The American political system was shaped by this early humanism, yet many of its framers were strong Christians. They built a system designed to offset man’s abuse of power through the rule of law and a series of checks and balances. The essential idea is that people have the capacity to rule themselves, but must be protected against the inevitable quest for power pursued by tyrants. This was a stark contrast to the contemporary philosophy found throughout Christian Europe of the divine right of kings that taught certain people were appointed by God to rule others.
Despite its humanist foundations, this was not a reaction against religious belief but rather a bulwark against the sinfulness of man. The deist and the devout could each appreciate the wisdom behind this radical experiment. Though John Stuart Mill and others further developed this philosophy beyond the constraint of Christian ethics, it’s only in modern times that their perspective has finally eclipsed the morality of average, ordinary people.
I’m indebted to Charles Taylor’s book, “A Secular Age,” which I only recently discovered, for refining and broadening my exploration of this topic. This is by the far the most in-depth study of humanism as contrasted to the Christian ethic that I’ve yet discovered (though undoubtedly there is much more out there!). Patrick Deneen’s “Why Liberalism Failed” was also deeply insightful in exploring the philosophical notion of the freedom of the individual over all other constraints–both cultural and religious–that underpins virtually all modern political thought. I’ve also enjoyed Rodney Stark’s “The Triumph of Christianity” for much of the historical context behind the rise of humanism.
The topic is complex and the definition of terms feels incomplete, but perhaps this is the reality of trying to describe any massive social change while it is still taking place. It will be the role of later generations to determine the most accurate descriptors. However, I’m a pastor–not a sociologist nor a historian. My motivation is awareness. I want us to wake up to the reality of the seismic changes deep below the foundations of our society, even if I must describe it inadequately.