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God Created Humanism: the Christian basis of secular valuesTheo Hobson SPCK, 2017
We are slowly losing our amnesia. Thanks to recent tomes – in particular Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and Larry Siedentop’s masterly Inventing the Individual – the idea that the modern world was hatched in smoke–filled room by Voltaire, Kant and Rousseau is losing to its credibility. The West had a history before the Enlightenment that was marked by more than ignorance, theocratic violence and industrial–scale witch–burning. Neither a commitment to equal human dignity (let us call this ‘humanism’), nor to a state whose legitimacy is grounded in its obligation to administer equal justice under the rule of law (let us call this ‘secularism’) is natural; neither is an invention of the 18th century. Both rest on deep Christian foundations.
Theo Hobson’s is the latest book to argue this case, which he narrates at a brisk pace and in engaging prose. From the Hebrew prophets, through New Testament, Christendom, Reformation, Enlightenment, 19th and 20th centuries, to a slightly longer chapter on where we are now, he tells the tale of how what he calls “secular humanism” came to be our common creed today.
His purpose is polemical rather than purely historical. Believers need to be less hostile to “secular humanism”, he argues, as it is the ideological child to which their faith has given birth; non–believers need to be less hostile to secular humanism’s Christian roots, not least because, he intimates, it is only those roots that will sustain it in the long run. The “humanitarian ideals” which mark our time are not natural, nor “rationally deducible” but the result of “complex cultural traditions, brewed over centuries… the main ingredient [of which] was the story of God taking the side, even taking the form, of the powerless victim.”
His case is provocative and well–made, though perhaps not aided by his idiosyncratic use of the phrase “secular humanism” which, idiomatically at least, describes a worldview that affirms humanism on non–religious, usually naturalistic, grounds. What he means is a commitment to humanism and to (a certain kind of) secularism, both of which do indeed have Christian roots and invite Christian support. “Secular humanism” may be a compression justified on the grounds of conciseness, but it obscures rather than clarifies his point.
After taking a well–deserved break around the millennium, history has resumed business–as–usual. Where we are going is once again a matter for uncertainty and even a little fear. Answering that will be easier if we understand where we have been, to which Hobson’s book is a helpful contribution.
Nick Spencer is Acting Director of Theos and author of The Evolution of the West: how Christianity shaped our values
This review first appeared in Church Times on 10 March.
Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014).
Posted 3 April 2017
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