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True and False Humanism


Secular Humanism rests on an unperceived fallacy. In effect it says that man can love and esteem himself more if he does not have to share that love and esteem with God.


THE TERM HUMANISM is ambiguous from a Christian stand point. In one sense its common use is to be welcomed, since it tends to make things clear. Christians ultimately trust in God, Humanists in themselves. In another sense, it is unfortunate that religious believers have allowed nonbelievers to preempt the term for their own use. In the end, Christians are the true humanists.

Secular Humanism rests on an unperceived fallacy. In effect it says that man can love and esteem himself more if he does not have to share that love and esteem with God. But love is something which grows the more it is shared. When men love God, their genuine self-love does not diminish, it increases. Finally, it is only because they love God that men are properly enabled to love themselves.

There is a long tradition in Christianity which warns against self-love. What is meant by that term is something fairly close to Secular Humanism if not an outright atheism, then at least so close an attachment to one's own will that the will of God can have no place in one's life. Self-love in this sense is not love at all but a kind of narcissistic self-worship.

Modern liberal Christians are right in insisting that those who would love God must first love themselves in the true sense. It is something which orthodox Christians can forget, if they understand warnings against self-love in the wrong way or if they dwell on their sins to the exclusion of everything else about themselves. Where liberals go wrong is in often confusing genuine love of self with the narcissistic self-indulgence that spiritual teachers have always warned against.

Man must love himself because he is lovable in the sight of God. He is created in God's image and likeness and placed over God's creation. He is given talents which God expects to be used for his own glory, and to fulfill the divine plan. Although prone to sin, he is never rejected by God, until such time as the sinner in effect damns himself by his recalcitrance. Unrepentant sinfulness can often be a result of despair the inability to believe that God could actually love or forgive the sinner. There are few things more open to misunderstanding, sometimes fatal misunderstanding, than Christian self-love. At the present time, it has been so distorted that it might seem better not to speak of it at all, but Christians cannot surrender love of humanity to nonbelievers.

The same is true with respect to the ambition to achieve a good society. There is no necessary opposition between belief in eternity and the will to make a better life on earth. The teachings of Christ have much to say about the responsibilities of men towards one another. The error is in a socialized form of perverted self-love, the belief that a good life on earth is all that matters and that men somehow deserve such a life. In modern times, it has been principally the secularists who have proposed a contradiction between time and eternity. Christians have been found in virtually every movement to transform the world. Unfortunately, many Christians have accepted the secularist assumption. They think they must prescind from all considerations of eternity so as not to distract themselves from the struggle for a better world.

Like self-love, the idea of the good society, which can be found in Christian thought going back to early centuries, is subject to crippling distortions. Perhaps the most lethal is the assumption that men somehow deserve earthly happiness in all its fullness. Christianity, drawing on the full range of human experience as well as on divine revelation, points out that the struggle for happiness is precisely that, a struggle. It is a struggle which will only be completed in God. On earth, because of sin and because of God's mysterious Providence, there will be many disappointments. The person who expects full earthly happiness as his birthright will inevitably fall into disappointment and bitterness. His last state will be worse than his first.

The ultimate failure of Secular Humanism is in the fact that of its very nature it promises what it cannot fulfill. By encouraging people to put their trust in earthly happiness it programs them for disillusionment. This is in large measure the reason why the history of the modern world has been characterized, intellectually, by philosophies of pessimism like Existentialism and by often-rancorous bitterness over various plans for worldly improvement. In the twentieth century, mass slaughter has been perpetrated not by religious believers in opposition to heresy but by secularists convinced that their plan for a worldly utopia is the only possible one.

It is not often noticed how modern totalitarianism is inherent in certain kinds of Secular Humanism. Totalitarianism is a political system which seeks to shape and control every aspect of people's lives in the interest of creating a perfect worldly society. Obviously, if one believes such a thing is possible, there is almost an obligation to try to bring it into being. Human happiness depends on it.

But people seem blind and shortsighted. Many resist conformity to the laws which promise to make them truly happy. They fail to obey blindly the nation-state and thus struggle against Fascism. They shortsightedly cling to their property and thus resist Communism. They persist in believing in God, which the prophets of the new age have identified as an obstacle to progress. They must therefore be forced to obey, because such obedience is in their own interest and that of humanity. In modern times much greater suffering has been perpetrated in the name of humanity than has ever been done in the name of religion.

Nor is this totalitarianism merely an unfortunate corruption of high-minded idealism. Karl Marx had already justified totalitarian methods in his writings, even as he justified violent revolution in the name of the working class. Religion in the modern world has been the strongest and most tenacious bulwark against totalitarianism. It claims individual obedience to a higher law and loyalty to a higher ruler, which makes impossible a blind obedience to earthly governments. Totalitarian governments are anti-religious on principle. They realize quite clearly that religion gives to each person, as it were, a zone of privacy and personal freedom. The religious believer can, if nothing else, be truly free in an inward sense, which the omnicompetent state cannot permit.

However, it would be unfair to judge Secular Humanism primarily on the basis of totalitarian states, such as Communist Russia. All genuine Communists are by definition Secular Humanists, since they deny God and place their faith in man. But most Secular Humanists are not Communists. They may, in fact, oppose Communism because of its denial of human freedom. (A good example is the Humanist philosopher Sidney Hook, who for most of his life has been equally resolute in both his anti-Communism and his anti-religious positions.)

There are, however, more benign forms of totalitarianism which are often not recognized as such. Many Humanists (and some religious believers) have become so exercised over the prospect of the over-population of the world, for example, that they now talk about enforced restrictions on human breeding. At a minimum this would involve incentives for people who do not have children and penalties for those who do. In a graduated process, it would end quite possibly with enforced abortions or enforced sterilizations for those who have too many children. Such methods have already been employed in China. Some Westerners who are not Communists nonetheless express admiration for the Chinese solution. Although Humanists are usually quite vigilant against anything they construe as a threat to individual liberty, they have been strangely silent about this prospect, when they not have actively endorsed it.

Another plausible door to what might be called soft totalitarianism is the concept of mental health. The Soviet Union is known to use psychiatry as a means of silencing political dissidents or other inconvenient people. This practice has elicited strong protests from the West. However, such flagrant practices are not the only abuses of the concept of mental health. Implicit in much Humanistic Psychology, for example, is the assumption that people of strongly orthodox religious beliefs or firm moral principles are psychologically unhealthy. Such beliefs are treated as signs of a rigid and neurotic personality. So far, there have only been isolated instances of the power of law used against people deemed overly fanatical in their beliefs. (Religious beliefs have been used as a negative factor in deciding child-custody cases.)

The public mood of the 1980s, which is seen as in reaction to the excesses of the previous two decades, probably does not favor the extension of such practices. However, there is no doubt that some people in the helping professions, with some political support, would gradually extend the power of the courts and other public agencies in such a way as to impose disabilities on people whose personal religious and moral beliefs are deemed unbalanced. This would include not only obvious and justified instances, such as cults which seem to brainwash their members, but people whose only offense is that they believe in things (the literal truth of the Bible, for example) in which no rational person could believe.

The battle over morality in the schools sex education, values clarification, etc. is actually an early round in this struggle. In effect, those who control the schools say that they have a right to correct the beliefs which students have learned at home or in church. There is a long-range tendency for the state to take more and more responsibility for the formation of children. This process many people would now extend to the level of comprehensive day-care centers beginning soon after infancy. Ideally, almost the whole responsibility for education of children should be taken out of the hands of parents who may inculcate their own narrow beliefs in their children.

Not all Humanists support this prospect, and some oppose it. On the whole, however, outspoken Humanists tend to be ranged on the side of those who might be called social engineers. Their emphasis on personal freedom mainly serves to liberate people from traditional kinds of moral authority, especially family and church. Seldom do they extend the same freedom to those who want to be liberated from the authority of secularized schools though. Implicit in the Humanist perspective is the claimed ability to identify what is best for humanity and then to implement it through public policy. Thus, with few exceptions, Humanists support the inexorable growth of public agencies with more and more intrusive influence in people's private lives.

By denying man any link to eternity or any ability to transcend time, Humanists place man in bondage to history. The most extreme statement of this was made by Karl Marx, who made the march of history inexorable and prescribed for his followers a program of identifying and then supporting that march. Those who do not will, inevitably, be crushed by impersonal forces beyond any power of individual control. Marxism has derived much of its appeal from its claim to be in touch with the forces of change and its guarantee that its followers will end up on the victorious side in all historical conflicts.

However, all forms of Humanism, in effect, preach bondage to history, even if not as explicitly or systematically as Marxism. Most Humanists would allow man at least a measure of freedom and thus some ability to influence his destiny. But since man cannot transcend history, Humanism implies that he must make his peace with it. He is effectively passive before all the more progressive movements which history spawns. (There is much attachment, in liberal Humanist circles, to the notion of an idea whose time has come. One by one the beliefs of the past must be systematically negated in order to make progress possible.)

It may appear that there is a contradiction here, since Humanist rhetoric concentrates so heavily on the notion of freedom and Humanists are so often ranged on the side of those seeking to liberate themselves from situations they consider oppressive. However, this espousal of freedom takes place within a narrow context only. It is mainly liberation from traditional kinds of moral authority and, increasingly, from personal moral responsibility, such as towards one's family. The result of this liberation is the creation of the atomized individual, the man who is free of all entanglements with family, church, religion, nation, etc., and who therefore stands isolated. Such individuals are wholly the prey of powerful forces which promise a better future and which are prepared to bring that future into being by coercion. The ideal Humanist free man is one who has thrown over the traces of past authorities but who, as a result, has made himself all the more malleable to future authorities. The atomized man thus produced is the raw material of totalitarianism, since he lacks the personal convictions or the social ties (family or religion) which would impel him to resist. When totalitarianism promises a future in which all the individual's needs are catered to, its promise becomes nearly irresistible.

Put another way, the prevailing Humanist idea of freedom tends to undermine the sense of personal moral responsibility which the individual possesses. It discredits the sources of this responsibility and systematically encourages people to assert their rights against all the demands of duty. (Thus if a parent abandons the family, it is assumed that this is because the parent need outweighs whatever responsibility he or she owes the family.) No society can exist in a chaotic state in which personal moral responsibility is being systematically undermined. Thus, for the sake of order, people must be compelled to behave by superior force. Law rests no longer on a sense of moral rightness but on the demands of social order. The state must become more and more dictatorial simply as a way of insuring orderly behavior.

This is not to say that all Humanists are personally irresponsible. Many are good people trying to live moral lives. But most of this morality is the residue of thousands of years of religiously based ethics, an ethics which has been deeply ingrained in people all over the world. Humanists have not found a persuasive basis for morality which can command widespread acceptance. Nor have they discovered any effective means of inculcating moral belief in young people. Their attempts at moral education, as in the public schools, usually have the effect of discrediting whatever moral beliefs children already have.

One by one, basic principles of traditional morality are crumbling. This is most dramatic with regard to sexual behavior, but more ominous in the sanctity of human life. Avant-garde thinkers now routinely justify abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia. It seems clear that almost all moral taboos are under systematic assault. Although some Humanists may have misgivings about this, most support it at least passively, as part of man's continuing march towards progress and as further blows struck on behalf of personal freedom. Humanists have found no basis for a common human morality and do not seem particularly concerned about the problem.

Perhaps the greatest irony of Humanism is the fact that, in the end, it can no longer support the human freedom and dignity which it extols. This is graphically demonstrated in the appearance of B.F. Skinner's name on the second Humanist Manifesto. Skinner has written a book called Beyond Freedom and Dignity. He is perhaps America's most influential exponent of Behavioristic Psychology, which regards human actions as essentially the results of impersonal psychological stimuli rather than of free and reasoned decisions. Humanistic Psychology, for all its flaws, is infinitely preferrable to Behaviorism, in which man is reduced not only to a mere biological creature but almost to a mechanical automaton. Strangely, although not all Humanists are Behaviorists, they seem impervious to Behaviorism's assaults on humanity.

Another curious example of Humanism's eventual sapping of the foundations of human dignity is pornography. Not all Humanists defend pornography. Some no doubt find it offensive. But Humanists almost always defend the legal rights of pornographers. They have made the right to distribute pornography, almost without restriction, one of the key tests of the freedom of the press. Inevitably, however, many Humanists go beyond merely defending the legal rights of pornographers to defending the thing itself. This is certainly the case with Sol Gordon, also a signer of the second Humanist Manifesto, whose work in sex education has tended towards abolishing any distinction between pornography and healthy sex. The Humanist magazine, although admitting to some misgivings about pornography, nonetheless, on the whole, defends it.

This is ironic because pornography is surely one of the greatest anti-human manifestations of contemporary culture. Pornographic literature and films have advanced far beyond pictures of undressed women or descriptions of sex acts to sado-masochism and every other kind of perversion. Contemporary pornography appeals to the desire to debase, punish, even to annihilate the human body. It is strange that it is defended by those who claim to be promoting a healthy attitude towards sex.

Humanists (and some misguided Christians) mainly defend pornography because they have accepted the human ego as the ultimate criterion of moral rightness. Thus, although they may have personal misgivings about it, they cannot bring themselves to condemn it. That would be interference with freedom. To state unequivocally that pornography is bad would be to invoke some objective moral standard higher than the individual, which Humanists find unacceptable.

In addition, many Humanists take satisfaction from all acts of what might be called moral transgression. Every time an individual defies some traditional moral rule this is seen as an admirable expression of freedom which expands the limits of human behavior. As such it is to be welcomed, even if one has reservations about the act itself. Here, as elsewhere, Humanists try to draw a line at the point where defiant moral acts begin to hurt someone. In contemporary pornography there are many ways in which people are deliberately hurt, including in some cases the actual killing of human victims for the titillation of the spectator. While Humanists disapprove of this, they do not recognize that it is the logical outcome of the pornographic mind which they justify. In practice they tend to leave it to each individual as to whether his actions hurt others.

The great seventeenth-century Christian apologist Blaise Pascal wrote, He who plays the angel plays the beast. When man aspires to a higher place in creation than the one to which he is entitled, he ends up in a lower place. Contemporary Humanists do not play the angel in the obvious sense of comparing themselves to angels. They do not believe in a spiritual world. They do aspire to be angelic in the sense that they regard man as the pinnacle of the universe, the highest level of existence, able to dispense with God. They also free man from any necessary obedience to an objective moral law, confident that if given complete freedom man will eventually learn to live responsibly and virtuously.

Contemporary society shows in many ways how mistaken that belief is. As man more and more declares his independence from traditional moral and religious constraints he does not soar to the heights of Nietzsche's superman, but finds himself more and more drawn down by his lower nature. He can no longer even distinguish between his higher and lower natures but feels compelled to rationalize whatever it is that human beings actually do. Popular culture over the past twenty years has exhorted men to exalt themselves, cater to themselves, almost to adore themselves. Yet the result has been that people have sunk deeper and deeper into moral and spiritual confusion and social breakdown. The formulas proclaimed to exalt men and make them happy have led to debasement and cynicism.

As the Jesuit theologian Henri DeLubac showed in his book, The Drama of Atheist Humanism (primarily a study of nineteenth-century atheism), every Humanist system in the end betrays man. There is a major and inevitable gulf between what it promises and what it is able to fulfill.

Humanism promises total freedom, but man can exercise freedom, paradoxically, only in fulfillment of the commands of his Creator. All men chafe against the limitations of life, but the Humanist acts of defiance and heedless disregard end by enslaving the individual to his passions and to the inexorable march of history.

Since man was created by an all-wise and all-loving God, he cannot be truly free or truly happy except in loving obedience to his Creator's will. You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.



Hitchcock, James. "True and False Humanism. Chapter 9 in What is Secular Humanism. (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1982), 139-151.

Reprinted by permission of the author.

The Author

James Hitchcock, historian, author, and lecturer, writes frequently on current events in the Church and in the world. Dr. Hitchcock, a St. Louis native, is professor emeritus of history at St. Louis University (1966-2013). His latest book is History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium (2012, Ignatius). Other books include The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life volume one and two, published by Princeton University Press, and Recovery of the Sacred (1974, 1995), his classic work on liturgy available here. James Hitchcock is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1982 James Hitchcock
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