In March, when Federal District Judge W. Brevard Hand ruled that 45 widely used textbooks promote the "religion of secular humanism" and banned them from Alabama schools, he brought attention to what we teach our children. Even more dramatically, the case brought secular humanism into the open. But what does this "religion" believe. And why should you, as a Hindu, or a seeker, even care? The reason is that secular humanism is such an active and dominant intellectual force in the modern world. It influences you in a thousand ways every day. What's more, secular humanist groups actively malign all forms of belief in the supernatural, standing as a bold enemy to the magic of Hinduism. In this article. Hinduism Today's correspondent gives a brief history of this stream of thought. Part Two, next month, will juxtapose secular humanism and Hindu dharma.
Secular humanism is humanistic; it puts man at the center of the cosmos. The human spirit, not God, fills the world with meaning. The development of man, his potential and his spirit is what is worshipful. This system of thought is secular in holding that life is not informed by any divine or sacred intention.
From early days in Western history, the Greeks saw man as the measure of all things. They formulated ways for humankind to flourish and reach the heights from which their religious legends told them man had come. Later the Roman church took on St. Augustine's teaching that nature is evil, that man is flawed and only the kingdom of God offers peace and love.
Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance balanced that teaching. Leonardo, a brilliant student of life, strove to view man objectively. But he did not remove himself from his Christian faith in the process. Instead, he developed an anteroom in his mind in which to study and worship man as a great work of God. The Dutch theologian Erasmus did the same, as did Michelangelo. By the fifteenth century, "humanism," the glorification of the human spirit, was in full bloom.
Christianity and humanism worked together for the most part until the astronomer Galileo. The Catholic church censored his new view of the universe. Galileo recanted, but his theory finally prevailed. And the influence of humanism, with its rational new approach, grew larger. No longer an anteroom, it was now the library, and as such it nurtured scientific inquiry. Thus began humanism's distrust of the sacred institution of the church. In fact, the more the Christian church objected to the findings of science, the stronger humanism grew.
Sigmund Freud's founding of modern psychology in the dawn of the twentieth century signalled the beginning of a full break with Christianity. Freud discovered the subconscious mind, which he saw filled with the same demonic energy that St. Augustine had found in nature. According to Freud, man has an irrational and potentially evil force within him which is contained and harnessed by the negotiating power of the Ego, the "I." This unconscious force Freud called the Id. In its struggle with the Id, said Freud, the Ego has the help of the Superego, that part of the mind formed by cultural traditions. Religion serves a great part in forming the Superego, said Freud, but its values may sometimes hinder human potential.
Thus the standards of "secular humanism" were set. The "I" was at the center; its development foremost. Carl Jung, a early disciple of Freud's, said that the soul, not the Id, was man's true center. But World War II and the Holocaust soon convinced many that Freud had been right. The tremendous, irrational, malignant power which emerged showed that man is indeed capable of the great evil Freud had described.
Some thinkers even declared that "God had died" and, therefore, man was on his own. Men could only trust what came to them through their five senses. "Prove it." Became the catch phrase of the day. Religious expression was viewed as a product of imagination and an unbalanced mind, rather than the real experience of a soul living in a world permeated by God.
Short of the Mark: A religion serves two important functions. First, it answers the central questions: "Who am I? Where did I come from? And where am I going?" Second, religion provides the tools to work with these questions in the most expanded arena possible. Hinduism, for example, answers these questions. And it provides temples and effective rituals through with to communicate with God, Gods and devas. It provides scriptures proclaiming the soul's immortality and oneness with God. And it provides great saints and gurus to show the path toward God's Holy Feet. These tools enable devotees to see themselves in the fullness of the life/reincarnation process and understand that they need not despair in one of life's difficult experiences.
Secular humanism does not provide a complete package. Most secular humanists nowadays see mankind as having evolved from the workings of the universe. Either a comet brought the "stuff of life" to the planet, or some atomic event started the carbon molecules moving and melding until they formed the complex proteins necessary for rudimentary life. These rudiments grew in complexity until eventually, as chance would have it, mankind evolved. "Who am I?" is answered by saying, "I am the result of this process, the result of a fomenting universe." Nor does secular humanism presume to know where mankind is going. After WWII, lead by the secular humanistic philosophy, men and women in the West strove to make their conscious mind comfortable and orderly. That became life's purpose.
Those who were beautiful and lived "well" were worshipped: movie stars, political leaders, television personalities. God no longer was seen as holding sway over life, permeating it with His energy and intelligence. Artists and inventors had taken over. With the greatness of the human spirit foremost, and religious experience seen as an aberration, the year moved from one celebration of human achievement to another.
Today the television set has become the altar in the secular world. People surrender their attention to the tube to be moved through humor and sadness and important issues: to have, with few exceptions, the value of secular life constantly reinforced. The human spirit is held up as it wrestles with issue after issue. TV viewers are not taught to think or feel deeply, to be sentimental. Charisma is more important than character. Self-confidence supercedes self-knowledge.
Most damaging among the central tenets of modern secular humanism is the primacy of feeling good in the moment. Couples divorce when they reach a stand-off because they no longer "feel good" with their vows. A moment of depression leads teenagers to suicide, or drugs.
When secular humanism was an adjunct to Christianity, it did not have to hold a moral center or provide deep meaning to people's lives. It did offer fresh air. Now, on its own, it is unable to hold the social order in place. Because of that, people of all religions need to learn about what secular humanists believe and how deeply woven into the fabric of live in the modern world those beliefs are woven. We explore that next month.