Monday 9 September 2013

A humanist on New Atheism

                     Petrarch -not hard enough on sky fairies to count as a proper humanist?

Perhaps it's a bit difficult for 'New Atheists' to take a telling from Catholics, but maybe they'll listen to one of their own:

It was only slightly amusing to watch these religion haters develop all of the essential symptoms and pathologies of a cult, traits which were less obvious to them because they had never studied religious behavior and the psychopathology of cults.

But all the markers were there: a book, or canon of four books; a savior and a few lesser avatars; the promise of intellectual salvation using a formula for separateness and difference; most of all, the certainty that they are on the straight path, the right road, that others are wrong, and its behavioral corollary: intolerance of contradiction and correction.

With a few of my friends...I have pleaded for the return of the remains of serious humanism to mainstream intellectual and social life.  But the infiltration of the key outposts of humanism by religion-haters makes the job of reclaiming or “restoration” one for Atlas.  Outside the halls of academe, the word humanism is today almost synonymous with the word atheism, and atheism synonymous with the lowbrow definitions of its loudest, pop science-worshiping groupies.

(R Joseph Hoffmann, here.)

Hoffman gives his own definition of humanism in his article. I tend to take the much simpler view that humanism proper is what the (Renaissance) humanists did -and that really boils down simply to soaking themselves in the Classical World. From that engagement with a culture other than that of Mediaeval Europe, a variety of different things happened as a result: the sola scriptura of Luther; the learned bawdiness of Rabelais; the neo-Platonism of Ficino; the scepticism of Montaigne. But all these developments, some good, some bad, were characterized by a deep engagement with what people are really like, and what a rich literary culture is really like: they were soaked in humanity.

And then you compare that with modern humanism, at least in its Dawkinsian end. In a recent exchange with one New Atheist blogger on what should replace Christianity and the Bible in education, some of the suggestions from the audience were Ursula Le Guin's novels and Iain M. Banks the 'Culture' novels. (A much better suggestion was Shakespeare, although I'd be delighted to know what New Atheist kids would make of Hamlet. ('A good dose of Lithium to clear up the mood swings and hallucinations, and no worries about 'what dreams may come': just euthanize yourself and it'll be fine'...?).) Quite apart from the poverty of the material -what may be a good modern novel is not a complete literary culture- there is the difference of seriousness: what one may read as entertainment (not in a trivial way for amusement, but as ideas -fictions- that one may entertain) is not the same as a world to which one commits oneself. (And read any of the lives of the great Humanists and you'll see that their commitment to Classical learning was complete, not just entertained.) (If you're interested, my exchange with the blogger (The Digital Cuttlefish) is here.)

What so much of modern atheism lacks is what a good education in the humanities should give: a sense of the complexity of human life; the meaningfulness of the universe but the mysteriousness of that universe; the reality of death and suffering but the nobility of the human spirit. New Atheists often pay lip service to such points, but these are not a brief list of items that can be swotted up and recapitulated when necessary: they are much more the 'knowledge how' which emerges from a constant encounter with great minds in great works of art (and, I would add from the Catholic perspective, that greater mind which is God's):

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

(Yeats: Sailing to Byzantium.)

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