against humanism


Does the term “humanism” really stand for a new and better form of religion? If so, what is that religion? Or is it something designed as a cure for religion itself, a way to get rid of it on Christopher Hitchens’s principle that “religion poisons everything”? Many people, no doubt, agree with Hitchens. But Auguste Comte, the founding father of modern humanism, would not have been one of them. For him, “humanism” was a word parallel to “theism”. It just altered the object worshipped, substituting humanity for God. He called it the “religion of humanity” and devised ritual forms for it that were close to traditional Christian ones. He thought – and many others have agreed with him – that the trouble with religion was simply its having an unreal supernatural object, God. Apart from this, the attitudes and institutions characteristic of religion itself seemed to him valuable, indeed essential. And he certainly had no wish to get rid of the habit of worship, only to give it a more suitable object. Surely (he said) worshipping human beings – who are real natural entities – would easily be able to replace the existing idle and artificial practices? So he ruled that, for instance, the enlightened citizen should start his day by worshipping first his mother, then his wife and then his daughter – after, of course, ensuring that they all did exactly what they were told for the rest of the time. And the other occasions of life could be similarly hallowed. This would all be part of his positivistic enterprise of developing the human scientific faculties that would finally enable us to abandon superstition.

more from Mary Midgley at Eurozine here.