Secular humanists on the real planet of the apes
By Michael Lind
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By delicious coincidence, the new movie “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was showing in theaters nationwide, even as two contenders for the Republican presidential nomination debated whether it is a fact or a theory that humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and gibbons descend from a common ancestor. On Thursday, Aug. 18, Jon Huntsman tweeted: “To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” On the same day, campaigning in New Hampshire, Texas Gov. Rick Perry described evolution as “a theory that’s out there” and one that’s “got some gaps in it.”
How times have changed. During his successful campaign for the presidency in 1912, Woodrow Wilson, Ph.D., the former president of Princeton University, was asked whether he believed in evolution. He replied, “that of course like every other man of intelligence and education I do believe in organic evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised.” Theodore Roosevelt, his predecessor in the White House, wrote in “My Life as a Naturalist” about his childhood reading: “Thank Heaven, I sat at the feet of Darwin and Huxley.”
The rise of creationist Protestant fundamentalism in America has been paralleled by the decay of liberal Protestantism, which supplied much of the moral energy for the progressive movement, the New Deal and the civil rights movement. For the most part, the liberal Protestant churches are losing members, not to more conservative denominations, but to a growing minority of the unchurched. Some are self-described atheists or agnostics while others profess a vague belief in God.
The religious vacuum to the left of center in the U.S. and Britain, where liberal Protestantism has undergone a similar collapse, has been filled with three new creeds. The first is radical environmentalism, which is best understood as a kind of nature-worshipping pantheism. The second is the “new atheism,” with champions like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. The militantly anticlerical tone of the new atheism is not particularly new; it differs little from that espoused from the 1960s to ’80s by the late Madalyn Murray O’Hare of the American Atheists Association.
The third and perhaps hardiest creed, now nearly a half-century old, is “secular humanism.” With less fanfare and more tact than the new atheists, “secular humanists” have attempted to provide an all-encompassing public philosophy based on science, as an alternative to moralities and political programs justified by supernatural religion. While the scientific naturalism that inspires it is true, American “secular humanism” is a naive and sentimental creed that, ironically, is too unworldly to serve as a practical guide to ethics and politics on this, the real planet of the apes.
This article raises a good point: the loss of the real secularism (so to speak) in the proliferation of post-enlightenment decline. If we examine the early modern transition we see a field of rich potential, a field still inchoate, incomplete, but with a balance of perspectives that could have defined a robust modernity. In many ways we see hints of that in generation of the late enlightenment, from Kant to Hegel. Then the rise of positivism, the coming of scientism, the coming of Darwinism, etc, etc, produces a milieu that has never recovered, and cannot produce a coherent public philosophy, from the phases of ‘secular humanism’ to the ‘new atheism’.
It seems that what is needed first is to stop the obsession with a cultic belief set, adopting an intelligent version of dialectics, which neither Hegel nor Marx understood, and which is simply a field of potential notions coexisting in a spectrum. This merely means that one remains open, without the slide into crystallized belief systems.
This approach would spare secularists the useless recrystallization of ‘theism’ as ‘atheism’, another brittle idiocy that should take its place instead in a dialectical field….
Hegel was in many ways one of the perpetrators, by reaction, to a broad secular philosphy, as the reaction of Marx to Hegelianism makes clear. But the field pointed to by Hegel beyond his own curiously limited philosophy is one of tremendous breadth, and should be the real milieu of the secular.
The question of evolution, despite what this article suggests, citing Wilson’s comments, is not so simple. We can protest the creationists, but we should see that Darwininists, by hijacking evolution, have produced precisely the muddle that secular humanists can’t escape.
Before we attack religious critics, we should remember that if you accept Darwinism (and then turn around and equate it with ‘evolution’) you have adopted an extreme form of reductionism, that allows no belief in soul, free will, ethical agency, real consciousness, and almost everything else required for a true discussion of man. I doubt if Wilson, in this sense, accepted ‘evolution’.
So, the idiocy of Darwinists and scientific reductionists has produced a viewpoint so unreastic that they have actually energized the most narrow band of the Protestant culture, formerly the foundation of secular modernity.