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Tom Holland, delivers the 2022 Theos Annual Lecture on ‘Humanism: a Christian heresy’. 23/11/2022
Humanism: a Christian Heresy
[Full text of the Theos Annual lecture 2022, delivered by TH at Conway Hall on Wednesday 23 November]
“There is nothing particular about man. He is but a part of this world.”
This observation on the pretensions of humanity – cool, disillusioned, unsparing of sentimentality – was made in the 1940s, midway between our own time and the publication of The Origin of Species. Darwin did not, in his foundational work on evolution, focus on Homo sapiens. Only with the publication twelve years later, in 1871, of The Descent of Man, did he explicitly set himself to answer the question of “whether man, like every other species, is descended from some pre–existing form”. Nevertheless, the implications of his theory for any notion that humanity might claim a special status for itself had been evident enough all along for those with eyes to see. Bishops might mock, and demand to know whether Darwin’s followers were descended from gorillas on the father’s side or the mother’s side, but humans ranked, in the final reckoning, as organisms just like any other. They were nothing special. For them to imagine otherwise, to regard themselves as somehow superior to the rest of creation, was a conceit so unwarrantable as to verge on the ludicrous.
Darwin was not, of course, the first to have undermined the notion that humans might stand at the centre of the universe. In 1638, the young John Milton – on a tour of Italy – had visited Florence. “There it was,” he later wrote, “that I found and visited the famous Galileo grown old, a prisoner to the Inquisition, for thinking in Astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licencers thought.” It was not the sun that revolved around the earth, so Galileo had taught, but the earth that revolved around the sun. Time came to prove his hypothesis right. The sun, however, did not long maintain its privileged position in the map of the cosmos. Today, we know that it is an undistinctive star in an undistinctive corner of an undistinctive galaxy in a universe so stupefyingly vast that it can hurt the brain even to try and comprehend its size. Set against the icy immensities of space, what is humanity, then, but the merest speck of a speck of dust? What scope is left us as a species to claim any dignity at all? “In science,” as the astronomer Seth Shostak has put it, “if you think you’re special, you probably aren’t.”
Strikingly, however, in an age that has seen the theory of evolution almost universally accepted in Britain, and the limits of our knowledge of the universe pushed to ever more incredible extremes, there seems to have been no diminution in the value that we, as a culture, ascribe to human life. Quite the contrary. That we are all of us possessed of certain fundamental rights, simply by virtue of being human, and of a dignity that embraces our entire species, without exception, are doctrines so widely accepted in contemporary Britain that many of us barely recognise them as doctrines at all. It is a measure of just how radically these beliefs privilege human beings that they have increasingly come to be described, over the course of the past century, as ‘humanist’. The term is a vague one; and the fuzziness of the definition has encouraged – as no doubt it was bound to – various attempts to endow it with a greater precision. In 2002, the World Humanist Congress, meeting in the Netherlands – where fifty years previously the very first such congress had been convened – issued what its delegates presented as “the official defining statement of World Humanism”. The Amsterdam Declaration proclaimed “the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others.” Religions – dismissed as ‘dogmatic’ – were condemned by the World Humanist Congress for their ambition “to impose their world–view on all of humanity”. Science and its methods, by contrast, were highly praised. Not for humanists any Bronze Age mumbo–jumbo. Ethics were to be derived, not from sky fairies, but “through a continuing process of observation, evaluation and revision.” This it was – so the Amsterdam Declaration piously affirmed – that would lead all those capable of emancipating themselves from the malign hold of superstition and priestcraft to true enlightenment: a reverence for human rights and for the entire human species.
To acept the truth of all these various propositions – one might almost call them dogmas – requires, of course, less the exercise of reason than a leap of faith. That science sustains a belief in human rights is hardly an obvious proposition. Implausible too is the conviction of those who issued the Amsterdam Declaration that their own values, their own ethics, their own assumptions are so self–evident, so inevitably where “a continuing process of observation, evaluation and revision” is bound to lead, that they rank, in effect, as universal. International the Humanists may claim to be; but in truth they are preponderantly Western. The delegates who met in Amsterdam for the first World Humanist Congress came from the Netherlands, the United States, Britain and Austria; only one of the eighteen subsequent congresses have been held outside Europe, North America or Australasia; the venue for the twentieth congress, to be staged next year, is Copenhagen. The headquarters of Humanists International is here in London. Its understanding of ‘universal’ is, then, it might be thought, a somewhat culturally contingent one. Indeed, it might legitimately be defined, not as universal at all, but as ‘originating in Western Europe’.
Humanists, unsurprisingly, tend to reject this characterisation. They prefer to see themselves as the heirs of traditions of intellectual enquiry that embrace the globe, and reach back millennia. The spirit of free enquiry, blazing into life in various civilisations and in various periods, is cast as a kind of Pentecostal fire, one that has brought enlightenment to sages and philosophers throughout the entire span of history. In ancient India, in Confucian China, in classical Greece, writings have been identified by humanists that appear to prefigure the very things that they themselves believe. Humanism is thereby able to cast itself, not as a school of thought bred of the modern West, but as an iteration of teachings as ancient as civilisation itself. Just as Hindus, or Buddhists, or Confucians can glory in the antiquity of their sacred texts, so too, it turns out, can humanists.
Yet the risk of this approach is not merely that it results in cherry–picking, but that it can obscure the very alien quality of those texts which are being cherry–picked. Take, for instance, ancient Greece: a civilisation for which humanists have long had a particular fondness. The more we know about the philosophers whom the Greeks described as atheoi, the less like contemporary sceptics they come to seem. Thus Epicurus – for all that he featured in a list of famous atheists drawn up by the philosopher Sextus Empiricus – not only believed in gods but was an initiate of the local mysteries. Indeed, he went so far as to demand sacrifices from his followers “for the care of my holy body”. His materialist convictions were not, as his contemporary admirers are prone to imagining, bred of a scientific cast of mind, but of the precise opposite: a conviction that they would help him to attain inner peace. The only value of research into the natural world, so Epicurus believed, was to enable the philosopher, by properly appreciating the pointlessness of superstition, to attain the state of tranquillity that was, so he taught his disciples, the ultimate goal of life. The closest modern parallel is less Richard Dawkins than the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
To draw on a fittingly Darwinian analogy, ancient atheists and modern humanists resemble one another in the way pterosaurs resemble bats: as examples of similar features developing in unrelated species. As in the natural world, so in the dimension of human thought: convergent evolution has been a recurrent phenomenon. That isolated prefigurings of humanist beliefs are to be found scattered in ancient texts does not in itself demonstrate an evolutionary relationship between them. Humanism exists less as a tick–list of principles than as an entire matrix of assumptions. Two in particular appear fundamental: that every man and woman possesses an inherent worth; and that superstition is the foe of human flourishing. The relationship between these two propositions was taken so for granted by the authors of the Amsterdam Declaration that nowhere did they bother to argue for it: a telling demonstration of just how unthinkingly they took it as read. That humans – no matter their sex, their place of origin, their class – are all of equal value; and that those who walk in darkness must be brought into light: just how common in antiquity was the fusion of those two particular principles? Not common at all, I would say. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it was pretty much a one–off.
There is no single text, perhaps, that is more consistently the object of humanist contempt than the book of Genesis. The creation of the cosmos in six days; Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; Noah’s flood: here are stories that have long served free–thinkers as prime exhibits in their contention that religion is merely a farrago of childish nonsense. This is why, in round–ups of the ancient texts that humanists are prepared to acknowledge as influences on their own beliefs, Genesis can pretty much be guaranteed not to feature. Yet humanists no less than Jews or Christians are indelibly stamped by its influence. Indeed, one might go so far as to argue that, if there is a single wellspring for the reverence they display towards their own species, it is to be found in the opening chapter of the Bible. Gods in antiquity were not in the habit of endowing humanity with an inherent dignity. Quite the opposite. “I will make man, who shall inhabit the world, that the service of the gods may be established, and their shrines built.” So spoke the god Marduk, who according to the Babylonians had fashioned the heavens and the earth from the twin halves of a dragon’s corpse, and who ruled as their king. Rather than condemn his fellow deities to perpetual toil, he had created humanity out of a sticky compound of dust and blood to serve them as their slaves. Here was an understanding of man’s purpose, bleak and despairing, that it would have been very easy for the exiles brought to the banks of the Euphrates from sacked Jerusalem to accept: for it would certainly have corresponded to a sense of their puniness before the immensity of Babylon the Great. But the exiles from Judah did not accept it. Rather than fall to the worship of Marduk, they clung instead, like drowning men clutching after wreckage, to the conviction that it was their own god who had brought humanity into being. Man and woman, in the various stories told by the exiles, were endowed with a uniquely privileged status. They alone had been shaped in God’s image; they alone had been granted mastery over every living creature; they alone, after five days of divine labour, which had seen heaven itself, and earth, and everything within heaven and earth brought into being, had been created on the sixth day. Humans were possessed of an especial dignity because they shared in the dignity of the one true God.
The corollary of this was, of course, very clear: that the cult of Marduk ranked as the merest superstition. So too did the pantheons worshipped by other peoples: the Canaanites, the Egyptians, the Assyrians. Male gods and female gods; warrior gods and craftsmen gods; storm gods and fertility gods: they were all of them, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “less than nothing.” There were no spirits lurking in springs, or in groves, or on the tops of mountains, that required mollification. The temples built by the Babylonians, so steepling that they seemed to brush the sky, merited neither awe nor admiration, but scorn. Their statues were stock and stone. “All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit; their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. Who fashions a god or casts an image, that is profitable for nothing? Behold, all his fellows shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are but men; let them all assemble, let them stand forth, they shall be terrified, they shall be put to shame together.”
The book of Genesis, the prophecies of Isaiah: these texts, anthologised alongside numerous others, and called by Christian the Bible, were fated to have an utterly saturating influence upon what the great Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin has termed “the most powerful of hegemonic cultural systems in the history of the world.” In the Middle Ages, no civilisation in Eurasia was as congruent with a single dominant set of beliefs as was the Latin West with Christianity. Elsewhere, whether in the lands of Islam, or in India, or in China, there were various understandings of the divine, and numerous institutions which served to define them; but in Europe, in the lands which acknowledged the primacy of the Pope, there was only the odd community of Jews to disrupt the otherwise total monopoly of the Church. Just as humanists do today, it cast its values and ideals as universal – ‘catholic’. There was barely a rhythm of life that it did not define. From dawn to dusk, from midsummer to the depths of winter, from the hour of their birth to the very last drawing of their breath, the men and women of medieval Europe absorbed its assumptions into their bones. Even when, in the sixteenth century, Christendom began to fragment, and new forms of Christianity to emerge, the conviction of Europeans that their faith was universal, and destined to embrace the entire world, remained. It inspired them in their exploration of continents undreamed of by their forefathers; in their conquest of those that they were able to seize, and reconsecrate as a Promised Land; in their attempt to convert the inhabitants of those that they were not. Today, at a time of seismic geopolitical re–alignment, when our values are proving to be not nearly as universal as most of us in the West had assumed them to be, the need to recognise just how culturally contingent they are and not to confuse them with ‘human nature’ is, perhaps, more pressing than it has ever been. To live in a Western country is to live in a society that for centuries – and in many cases millennia – has been utterly transformed by Christian concepts and assumptions. This is no less true for atheists than it is for believers. So profound has been the impact of Christianity on the development of Western civilisation that it has come to be hidden from view. We are all of us – Catholics, Protestants, Catholic atheists, Protestant atheists – goldfish swimming in Christian waters. To identify the precursors of humanism with Indian philosophers and Confucian sages, while never once mentioning the heritage of Christianity, is akin to describing the forebears of birds as crocodiles or snakes, while never once thinking to mention dinosaurs.
So it is, for instance, that the Amsterdam Declaration can airily dismiss the dogmas of religion, even as it simultaneously takes for granted the existence of “universal legal human rights”. Yet to believe in the existence of human rights requires no less of a leap of faith than does a belief in, say, angels, or the Trinity. The origins of the concept lie not in “the application of the methods of science” so prized by the Amsterdam Declaration but in medieval theology. When, in the 12th century, Christian scholars sought to fashion a properly Christian legal system, they naturally turned to the Bible for guidance. There, both in Genesis and in the New Testament, they could read that all men and women were endowed with an inherent dignity. All souls were equal in the eyes of God. Yet how – that being so – were Christians to square the rampant inequality between rich and poor with the insistence of numerous Church Fathers that “the use of all things should be common to all”? The problem was one that, for decades, demanded the attention of the most distinguished scholars in the Latin West. The solution, arrived at by 1200, was one fertile with implications for the future. A starving pauper who stole from a rich man did so, according to those learned in the Church’s canons, iure naturali – ‘in accordance with natural law’. As such, they argued, he could not be reckoned guilty of a crime. Instead, he was merely taking what was properly owed him. It was the wealthy miser, not the starving thief, who was the object of divine disapproval. Any bishop confronted by such a case, so canon lawyers decreed, had a duty to ensure that the wealthy pay their due of alms. Charity, no longer voluntary, was being rendered something novel: a legal obligation. That the rich had a duty to give to the poor was, of course, a principle as old as Christianity itself. What no one had thought to argue before, however, was a matching principal: that the poor had an entitlement to the necessities of life. It was – in a formulation increasingly deployed by lawyers in medieval Christendom – their ius: their ‘right’.
Yet this doctrine – despite its origins in Christian jurisprudence – was one that would come, in time, to slip the moorings of doctrinal Christianity. Indeed, first in the American Revolution, and then in the French, the claim would be made that human rights owned nothing at all to the distinctive history of Latin Christendom. They were instead eternal and universal. To radicals in the French Revolution – who tended to live and breathe anti–clericalism – the notion that anything of value might have sprung from the mulch of medieval superstition was a possibility too grotesque even to contemplate. “The Declaration of Rights,” they proclaimed, “is the Constitution of all peoples, all other laws being variable by nature, and subordinated to this one.” A momentous discovery had been made: that the surest way to promote Christian teachings as universal was to portray them as deriving from anything other than Christianity. The West, over the duration of its global hegemony, would prove itself brilliantly adept at exploiting this realisation. Repeatedly, Christian concepts were re–packaged for non–Christian audiences. Today, as in the eighteenth century, a doctrine such as that of human rights is far likelier to be signed up to if its orgins among the canon lawyers of medieval Europe is kept scrupulously concealed. The emphasis placed by United Nations agencies on “the antiquity and broad acceptance of the conception of the rights of man” was a necessary precondition for their claim to a global, rather than a merely Western, jurisdiction – just as it was a precondition for the humanist promotion of human rights as a concept entirely distinct from the dogmas of religion.
Yet this in turn veiled a further irony: for what was the contempt displayed by the iconoclasts of the French Revolution for Christianity if not itself a tribute paid to the inescapable influence on the West of Christian paradigms? “The old has gone, the new has come!” So Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, had proclaimed. The tone of radicalism, the sense that an entire order had been judged and found wanting, could not help but seem shocking to his contemporaries. Change, in the opinion of the Romans, was by definition sinister. The phrase res novae – ‘new things’ – served them as a synonym for everything in society that was most menacing, pernicious, malign. Consciously to banish the past, to overturn custom: here was a fearsome project, one so monstrous as barely to seem explicable to the peoples of the Roman world. Nothing better exemplified the revolutionary quality of Christianity than its glorification of revolution. Fissile within its scriptures and rituals, the portrayal of change as a force for good opened up to humanity a novel understanding of what the future might represent: the road to a brighter future. Just as Isaiah had condemned the gods of the Egyptians and the Babylonians as mere idols, fit to be toppled into the mire, so had Christians in the early Middle Ages equated progress with the banishment of superstition. Trees sacred to pagan gods were exultantly felled by missionaries, and churches planted where blood–stained altars had originally stood. Then, during the Reformation, the same sense of devout hostility towards idolatry came to be turned against the Roman church; and during the French Revolution against the entire massy structure of Christianity itself. Just as the reverence felt by enthusiasts for the Enlightenment for the doctrine of human rights would have been unthinkable without medieval canon law, so did the hostility of the Jacobins towards institutional religion palpably stand in a line of descent that reached back in time to Luther, to Boniface, to Isaiah. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.”
Humanists, when they celebrate the liberation from dogma and superstition that it is to be gained, in their opinion, from “the application of the methods of science,” are bearing witness to the enduring hold on Western civilisation, not of Greek philosophy, still less of the teachings of Indian and Chinese sages, but of Biblical prophecy. It was certainly no accident that many of Darwin’s most enthusiastic defenders should have borne the unmistakeable stamp of radical Protestantism. “Few see it, but I believe we are on the Eve of a new Reformation and if I have a wish to live thirty years, it is that I may see the foot of Science on the necks of her Enemies.” So wrote Thomas Henry Huxley, an anatomist and biologist whose genius for savaging bishops led to him being described as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’. That it was his duty to bring light to the world, and that the more the fog of superstition was banished, so the more apparent would become the contours of truth, was his devoutest conviction. Huxley’s sense of himself as a member of an elect had – as contemporaries were quick to note – a familiarly radical quality. “He has the moral earnestness, the volitional energy, the absolute confidence in his own convictions, the desire and determination to impress them upon all mankind, which are the essential marks of the Puritan character.” These qualities, however, were not all that Huxley owed to the Reformation. His conviction that medieval Christendom had been nothing but bigotry and backwardness, a hellish landscape stalked by fanatical inquisitors, was one that ultimately descended, not from Voltaire, but from Luther. Agnostics – a term coined by Huxley – have always tended to display, in their attitudes towards Christianity, a marked susceptibility towards Protestant propaganda. The conviction of Milton that Galileo’s fate illustrated the fundamentally pernicious character of popery and priestcraft has had many heirs. That “the Franciscan and Dominican licencers” were fanatics too benighted by superstition to permit the study of the heavens is a myth clung to no less devotedly by humanists today than it was by Puritans back in the time of the Thirty Years War. It is in that sense that Huxley, when he exulted in the prospect of “a new Reformation,” was speaking more truly than he knew. Humanism is not an emancipation from Christianity. It does not offer redemption from the great cycle of revolutions and reformations that for two thousand years now has marked the course of Christian history. It is merely another illustration of the great paradox of our age: that Christianity has no need of actual Christians for its assumptions still to flourish.
That human beings have rights; that they are born equal; that values should be translated, as Sam Harris has argued, “into facts that can be scientifically understood”: these are not, nor ever have been, self–evident truths. It is hardly surprising, of course, in a society that has increasingly abandoned the institutional practise of Christianity, yet still clings to its assumptions, its values, its myths, that we should shrink from staring the implications of our current predicament fully in the face. “When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet.” Such was the warning given almost a century and a half ago by Friedrich Nietzsche: the most radical because the most unsparingly honest of modern atheists. No one – not Spinoza, not Darwin, not Marx – had ever before dared to gaze quite so unblinkingly at what the murder of its god might mean for a civilisation. Socialists, democrats, liberals: all were equally deluded. Humanism, despised by Nietzsche as an ideology to which the English were peculiarly prone, was dismissed by him as palpable idiocy. “When the English actually believe that they know “intuitively” what is good and evil, when they therefore suppose that they no longer require Christianity as the guarantee of morality, we merely witness the effects of the dominion of the Christian value judgment and an expression of the strength and depth of this dominion: such that the origin of English morality has been forgotten, such that the very conditional character of its right to existence is no longer felt. For the English,” Nietzsche concluded witheringly, “morality is not yet a problem.” It was not from reason that the doctrine of human dignity derived, but rather from the very faith which humanists believed themselves – in their conceit – to have banished. Proclamations of rights were nothing but flotsam and jetsam left behind by the retreating tide of Christianity: bleached and stranded relics. God was dead – but in the great cave that once had been Christendom his shadow still fell, an immense and frightful shadow. For centuries, perhaps, it would linger. Christianity had reigned for two millennia. It could not easily be banished. Its myths would long endure. And yet they were no less myths, for all that, because they now wore the show of the secular. “Such phantoms as the dignity of man, the dignity of labour”: these were Christian through and through.
Nietzsche did not mean this as a compliment. It was not just as frauds that he despised those who clung to Christian morality, even as their knives were dripping with the blood of God; he loathed them as well for believing in it. Concern for the lowly and the suffering, far from serving the cause of justice, was a form of poison. Nietzsche, more radically than many a theologian, had penetrated to the heart of everything that was most revolutionary about the Christian faith. Christianity, by taking the side of everything ill–constituted, and weak, and feeble, had made all of humanity sick. Its ideals of compassion and equality before God were bred, not of love, but of hatred: a hatred of the deepest and most sublime order, one which had transformed the very character of morality, a hatred the like of which had never before been seen on earth. Nietzsche, when he lamented what Christians had done to classical civilisation, did not mourn it as a precursor to humanism. He admired the Greeks, not despite, but because of their cruelty. Indeed, so scornful was he of any notion of ancient Greece as a land of sunny rationalism that large numbers of students, by the end of his tenure as a professor, had been shocked into abandoning his classes. The radicalism of Nietzsche’s atheism lay in his recognition that morals and values were no less dependent for their viability upon faith than was faith in a god. This dark insight it was that enabled him to value the ancients for the pleasure they had taken in inflicting suffering; for knowing that punishment might be festive; for demonstrating that, “in the days before mankind grew ashamed of its cruelty, before pessimists existed, life on earth was more cheerful than it is now.”
“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” Nietzsche, a man who had renounced his citizenship, despised nationalism, and praised the Jews as the most remarkable people in history, had warned what confusions were bound to follow from the death of God. Good and evil would become merely relative. Moral codes would drift unanchored. Deeds of massive and terrible violence would be perpetrated. “After a terrible earthquake, a tremendous reflection, with new questions.” Half a century after Nietzsche wrote this, and almost two decades after the outbreak of the Great War, the Nazis came to power in Germany. Hitler, who in 1928 had loudly proclaimed how Christian his movement was, had come increasingly to share in Nietzsche’s contempt for Christianity. Its morality, its concern for the weak, the Führer viewed as cowardly and shameful. Christian teachings had resulted in any number of grotesque excrescences: alcoholics breeding promiscuously while upstanding national comrades struggled to put food on the table for their families; mental patients enjoying clean sheets while healthy children were obliged to sleep three or four to a bed; cripples having money and attention lavished on them that should properly be devoted to the fit. Idiocies such as these were precisely what National Socialism existed to terminate. The churches had had their day. The new order, if it were to endure for a millennium, would require a new order of man. It would require Übermenschen. This, in the opinion of devout Nazis, was a conviction bred not of fantasy or faith, but of the proper understanding of science. The strong – as Darwin had conclusively demonstrated – had both a duty and an obligation to eliminate the weak.
“There is nothing particular about man. He is but a part of this world.” These words – with which I opened my talk – were spoken by Heinrich Himmler. Here, in his conviction that Homo sapiens had no claim to a special status, and that it was unwarrantable conceit for humans to imagine themselves somehow superior to the rest of creation, was all the sanction he needed for genocide. He, at any rate, had understood what licence was opened up by the abandonment of Christianity. Perhaps it is this that lies behind our readiness to accuse those with whom we disagree of being fascists, or Nazis, or Hitler: the dread of what might happen should such words cease to be taken as insults. Certainly, the humanist assumption that atheism and liberalism go together is plainly just that: an assumption. It is not truth that science offers moralists, but a mirror. Racists identify it with racist values; liberals with liberal values. The primary dogma of humanism – “that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others” – finds no more corroboration in science than did the dogma of the Nazis that anyone not fit for life should be exterminated. The well–spring of humanist values lie not in reason, not in evidence–based thinking, but in history: the history of Christianity.
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