nthposition online magazine

Viva Papa!; or, Humanism betrayed

by Joe Palmer

[ opinion - october 03 ]

In a post-religious world we need a solid morality with which to combat the realisation that the Heavens are empty. - George Orwell

In 1949 President Eisenhower, the soldier of freedom, praised John Dewey on his 90th birthday as "the philosopher of freedom," the father of pragmatic and progressive education based on the evolution of truth and democracy. In 2003, Albert Ellis, the Stoic philosopher and psychotherapist, on his 90th birthday declared that "All human beings are out of their fucken minds - every single one of them."

Worldly-wise people know that what you see is what you get, that there exists a shared, natural world that we must try to come to terms with, get a grip on, conquer, control, and manipulate for our common good. This sophisticated way of looking at the world is based on scientific naturalism or common sense, once highly prized wisdom that is becoming only a memory for many people. The forward-looking endeavors we call humanism, the promising goals of naturalism, phenomenology, existentialism, logical positivism, and analytic philosophy are being questioned and denied with increasing frequency. Our shared modern world of free inquiry and broad-minded, objective evaluation is changing in ways we thought we had left behind us. Secular humanism was recognized legally as a religion in 1961 (Torasco v Watkins 367US) but even so, our cherished rationalist, enlightened values are threatened anew, more pervasively and thoroughly than ever before.

Alan Lightman, author of Einstein's Dreams, a novel about relativity, says "what's happening now is somewhat of a return to a more holistic approach to human inquiry," which I consider to mean taking seriously any individual's private revelations, hallucinations, or day-dreams, as he gives free rein to the most personal fantasies.

Lawrence LeShan compares the language of mystics and physicists, and finds that the statements they use to describe their experiences and findings cannot be told apart. The language does not have words to express the differences, if any. The philosopher Huston Smith delves into the "ecology of mind" and finds that as we continue to search, the interior and exterior come together, Atman, the God within, becoming Brahman, the God without. We are divine, each of us, in our own ways. We are the god in a sort of trivial reduction.

Individual, personal consciousness may be a recent evolutionary development, according to Julian Jaynes (1920-97) in his Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Before that evolutionary step, a change in the wiring of the brain, people were led blindly by signals from the right brain, like trained animals. The linguistic and intellectual faculties of the left brain, language and mathematical reasoning, were rudimentary. Now we know that these faculties remain undeveloped in the individual person or in whole populations unless they are stimulated and reinforced at the critical age. Furthermore, this new ability to process information has led to science and humanism, and if this gift is not used, people may be left in an ancient daze, a frightening urge to recognize the authority of any individual hallucination and the agenda of any totalitarian organization, a descent into mob psychology. If the intellectual left brain is not activated and exercised during the maturation period, coinciding roughly with puberty, the result is the old mob brain, the sheep brain, the need to be led by the nose. And if people are left incapable of leading themselves democratically, who is to do it?

An analogy to what has been going on in Western liberal society can be seen in the official pronouncements and acts of the Roman Catholic Church over several decades.

Science and art had made staggering advances in the preceding half-millennium, and so with science triumphant and religion reeling, Pio Nono, Giovanni Ferretti, Pius IX (1792-1878), after whom Boulevard Pie IX in Montréal, known locally as "Pie Nine," was named, the man Garibaldi had in mind when he said he would hang the last king with the guts of the last pope, denounced the "errors" of modernism in 1864 in the encyclical Quanta Cura. He also declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception [Look it up. I'd bet you don't know.], and he enunciated the doctrine of papal infallibility, making the Church irrelevant or odious to many people.

One hundred years later, secular humanism flourished, Europeans and Americans better educated and more sophisticated than ever before. Standards of living rose throughout the world, a consequence of the Cold War, of the competition for markets that entailed both exploitation and economic development, changing the Third World for the better. After all, communism is a Christian heresy.

Thinking that if they couldn't beat them they had better join them, Pope John XXIII, Angelo Roncalli (1881-1963) in his encyclical Mater et Magistra, 1961, in a startling voltafaccia called for world social welfare and dialogue with other Christians. He convened the Second Vatican Council, 1962-65, with invited Protestant and Orthodox observers to foster ecumenism for the purpose of spiritual renewal. He called for aggiornamiento, modernizing, to bring the Church up to date, in a word, Christian humanism. He instituted using vernacular languages in the Mass, allowing lay people to participate with a mind to putting insular autocracy behind. He approved the propagation of the Faith through liberation theology, the movement in the Third World that combined usually Marxist political philosophy with a theology of salvation as liberation from injustice and poverty. I recall a young priest in Ann Arbor at a folk mass, tearing apart a baked chicken and throwing pieces as the Host to the worshipers, not just as the Body of Christ, but also as physical sustenance. It was then that Cuba, liberated from the Mafia, became a strict, Jesuit boarding school very much like the Colegio Belen, a religious school in Havana that Dr Fidel Castro was graduated from before he studied law at the University of Havana and went on to create an heretical state.

Apparently, taking Christian principles directly to people didn't work well enough, and when most of the Marxists gave up, as hopeless, the pursuit of the perfection of mankind, the Soviet Union fell apart, Gorbachev and Bush declaring the Cold War over in 1989, with all parties on the conservative side taking credit for the collapse of communism. Right making might in this case, now we have John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla (1920-  ), the theologically conservative and anti-feminist upholder of papal infallibility, the proscriber of birth control and the ordination of women, the destroyer of Vatican II, popery no longer a potpourri of varieties of faith and practice, the Holy Inquisition lurking just off stage, waiting to enter. During his "extraordinary tenure" (Time) John Paul II has centralized the powers of the absolute monarchy, beatified Pius IX, arbitrarily appointed doctrinaire bishops and cardinals, fired free-thinking professors like Hans Kung, and banned dancing, singing, hand-clapping, altar girls, and texts other than the Gospels. His harsh policies have driven young men away from the priesthood and ignored correcting sexual abuse in the clergy. The 1989 Cologne Declaration, made by 300 theologians, denounced him and his policies, but nevertheless the Pope is more popular today than the Beatles and Cassius Clay ever were, thanks to the media, who will exaggerate and milk any story that sells advertising.

When Marxism collapsed, anticlericalism seemed to collapse too; it is as if people have traded one pipe dream for another. The Cold War has been replaced by a Crusade against all those who would resist free-market capitalism and the hegemony of a triumphant American imperialism. In the new Holy Roman Empire, for that is what the West has become, George Bush is the new Charlemagne, with Evangelicals, Pentecostals and Papists allied against Islam, and all of them allied against secular and Christian humanism.

Christian humanism remains the ideal for many Protestant groups and ethical cults, with only Joseph Hough of the Union Theological Seminary calling for resistance to the theft of opportunity in the US, the ruination of the American Dream, the bankruptcy of the social-welfare state, and the descent back into poverty of much of the world.

With the Moral Majority, Fundamentalists, popular pietism and religiosity pervading the White House, and sincere theism spreading throughout all the intellectual disciplines, with Billy Graham held to be a statesman, with the Pledge of Allegiance trivialized, the ideals of scientific humanism are being betrayed. New and old cults are flourishing, from Wicca to Scientology, from Roman Catholicism to the Cowboy Church Sunday School.

The leading apologist for secular humanism, Paul Kurtz, editor of Free Inquiry, laments the loss of the human ethos, especially in America where it has become impossible to express nonreligious viewpoints. There is no support for unbelief, agnosticism, atheism, or nonreligious humanism. Irrationality dominates and threatens our age. What is urgent is to keep church and state separate, to maintain our appeal to evidence and reason, to hard facts and comparison as we use the scientific method in our social life as well as in our industrial-technological production, and to reject the Bible, the Qur'an, the Book of Mormon and the Buddhist and Hindu texts as ancient, out-of- date views of human existence.

The new Know Nothing movement, what the intellectuals are calling Postmodernism, is in part the lumping together of all ways of looking at all experience as equally valid. It was Paul Feyerabend (1924-94), the German-American philosopher, who asserted that "Science is the myth of today," as he elaborated his contextual theory of meaning, an anarchic theory of knowledge. In his 1975 book Against Method he explained "epistemological anarchism," which is a fancy way of asking "Who knows?" Applying the principles of liberalism, of free inquiry, to scientific methodology he found that there is no such thing as the scientific method. Great scientists use every move, hunch, feeling, coincidence, and parallel available, even if it isn't scientific. Physical experience is not necessary at any point in making, understanding, or proving scientific theories. In the history of science there is change, but no progress. He then became clinically depressed, and died of a brain tumor.

Christos Papadimitriou, author of the novel Turing, about the development of the computer, is writing another about the development of logic in the 19th and 20th Centuries, a rather sad story because the developers, like Alan Turing and John Nash (A Beautiful Mind), ended up insane.

The renowned physicist Henry Stapp (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) in his book Mind, Matter, and Quantum Mechanics (1993) presents a theory of consciousness that elaborates on Werner Heisenberg's interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. He concludes that there are many "knowers," and each person's knowledge results in a new state of the universe for everyone. Thinking is a tripartite process of perceiving matter: from a set of possibilities we make a choice, then we affect the state of the universe by asking questions and thereby influencing nature, but nature is random and arbitrary. These mysteries are echoed in books like Quantum Reality, by Nick Herbert, The Conscious Universe, by Dean Rodin, and The Tao of Physics, by Fritjoff Capra.

Physics cannot deal with quality or consciousness, with values or spirits, says Huston Smith, Professor of Religion and Psychology at MIT. A long meditation on the illusion of quality can be found in Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a novel that everyone used to read.

Furthermore, an anti-modern missionary effort to convert people to Islam is going on throughout the world, with the minority of Muslims growing now in Europe and America, and huge majorities in place in the Middle East, Africa, and the Indies. Islam teaches the sanctity of scripture, holding that its holy books are literally true and infallible in matters of politics and morals, just like the Pope and the Evangelicals. "It's in the Book. It is written!" they say, in the faith born of bibliolatry, excessive reverence for the Word, the written text. It is as if the Great Oz has spoken, and all tremble before him. The consequence of this reliance on the frozen text is a militant chauvinism, jihad, and the promotion of the unity of church and state. The 54 Islamic countries have hardly changed; they have been largely theocracies for centuries, grounded in sharia, religious law based on the Hadith, commentaries on the Koran. Unfortunately for those citizens who would like to have education, sanitation, and modern conveniences, the spread and entrenchment of Islam can bring only further stagnation and subservience of local economies. Furthermore, if it were not for oil revenues the Arab countries would not have much in the way of worldly goods, the entire mercantile exports of the Arab world alone amounting to the same as those of little Finland, whose workers out produce the Arabs by 30-to-one.

The preservation of American ideals, of the open society, of democracy under the rule of law, and of human rights first and foremost has been compromised. Executive cabals (the Iraq war), legislative lackeys (cowardly congress), and judicial servants (coup d'état 2000), an accurate characterization of the government of the US, have corrupted the system, with humanism and secularism in hasty retreat, and with democratic politics manipulated, negated and made superfluous. Critical thinking and skeptical inquiry, the bases of the scientific method and ideal democracy, have given way to religious fundamentalism and demagoguery. In this simplistic, even idiotic way of thinking, the man in charge of capturing Osama Bin Laden, Lieutenant General WG Boykin, with tacit approval says that the US is a Christian nation fighting a holy war against Satan and his servants, the Muslims.

People have forgotten that it is impossible to derive humane ethical principles from theological premises because reasoning and evidence are necessary to determine what is right or wrong, and religious dogma does not yield physical evidence or logical thinking. Just think about the current questions related to capital punishment, polygamy, same-sex marriage, abortion, and medical treatment, and ask yourself what they have to do with the good life here and now. Then ask yourself where your opinions come from. You will see that we cannot do without a non-theistic, rational, empirical ethics based on the scientific method. If we do not test moral values with evidence and reason, we find ourselves falling back on ex cathedra and superstitious pronouncements, folkways, and fables - the Hammurabic Code, an eye for an eye, Popery, Adam and Eve - instead of modifying our values in the light of consequences in a scientific manner. When we judge people using old tribal values, as in the Salem Witch Trials, we perpetuate the degradation of all individuals, taking away their freedom and dignity, women first.

Using humanistic ethics we may improve society, contributing to progress as good citizens, honoring each person's right to be of worth, to have freedom and dignity.

Without secular humanism we have a denial of science and belief in the paranormal - creationism, pseudo-science, anti-science, psychics, astrologers, UFOs, lotteries, herb doctors, witch doctors, voodoo, gurus with their clever methods of taking our money, medicines advertised on television like the snake oil of old, the whole New Age panoply of quackery and fraud. We have gone back to auguries, reading the future from the entrails of beasts, the I Ching, Ouija boards, Mrs Reagan's astrologer determining the course of history, with juju, faith healing, homeopathy, dowsing, Qi Gong, parapsychology, mysticism, mediums, crop circles, spiritualism, integrative medicine, the occult, exorcism, the Akashic Records, Pagan magick, and other weird phenomena that The James Randi Educational Foundation warns us about.

In this "holistic return to human inquiry," objective truth is held to be an illusion. The arts and sciences are no longer at odds. All approaches to truth are equally valid, except in China whose dissenters are banished wearing orange robes and big smiles like toothpaste ads, to make their living in the West as Oriental curiosities. Multiculturalism is in. The elders of the tribe know best, even though the tribe was wiped out. There is an anthropological fallacy here: that all ways of knowing are equally valid and truth is relative. Our daily lives have become a long excursion into magic realism and information-commercial messages, a manufactured fairy tale spun of credible lies, engineered, carefully-constructed fibs piled one atop the other like dreams, where know-nothing attitudes are promoted, and the selfish waste of natural resources is tolerated, a banal slavery of television programming, the Patriot Act, and war as foreign policy - the death of secular humanism.

[The author attends Mass at the monastery St-Benoît-du-Lac, Québec, in the mountains where he is a hermit.]