Religious Humanism and Hellenismos


Dr. Kelley at wrote a very good essay on Religious Humanism. This essay has some good points to be made, IMHO regarding humanism in general and some points that I believe are well expressed in the full article which reflect strong parallels to my own beliefs. I will try to apply these thoughts of Dr. Kelley’s and myself to Hellenismos.

Greek philosophy began with the physikoì philósophoi, the “natural philosophers” (in Latin, philosophi naturales). Their focus on nature contrasts with the emphasis in Indian and Chinese philosophy (on salvation and morality) and suggests the later development of science in Western philosophy. But eventually there was a reaction in Greek philosophy. The reaction can be characterized as Greek Humanism. Humanism proper began in the Renaissance as a movement associated with Classical literature and Classical values. “Humanism” comes from the Latin word for man, homo, and the derived adjective, humanus, “human.” Applying the term to Greek humanism thus involves a retrospective judgment, that Greek values were comparable, indeed were the origin, of the humanistic values of the Renaissance.

“Humanism” now is often defined, or at least leaves the impression, as the exclusion of religion. We see this at The Humanist and the American Humanist Association. Someone merely familiar with the language of these sites would be surprised to learn that Renaissance humanists were Christians, or that the greatest Greek humanist, Socrates, regarded his own work as a mission for his patron god, Apollo at Delphi. These cases, which are historically central, show that humanism was originally a religious humanism. Some recent humanist organizations are clearly aware of this, for instance the American Ethical Union, which says, “Ethical Culture is a humanistic religious and educational movement inspired by the ideal that the supreme aim of human life is working to create a more humane society.” Similarly, if some humanism is religious, then a humanism that explicitly excluded religion would be something else, a “secular humanism,” such as we see in the name of the Council for Secular Humanism.

So what would humanism in general, religious and secular, ancient and modern, be about? We see the origin in the contrast with Greek natural philosophy. Humanism is a concern with issues relevant to the human condition. Since the human condition is, as Buddhism would say, birth, disease, old age, and death, one begins to wonder about the meaning, value, and purpose of life. With such concerns, inquiry frequently turns, as Socrates puts it, to questions about the “just, beautiful, ugly, good, and bad.”

So Humanism is a concern with the human condition applying reason to them. This is an admirable approach, and one which utilizes both man’s religious and rational faculties. As thus it is a fuller use of the human potential, and thus a greater virtue than mere rationalism or faith alone.

If a religious humanism can become essentially rationalistic, it is central to note what it does regard as religious and how this differs from the more intrinsic and genuine requirements of religion. Religion, as it happens, can be divided into matters of belief and matters of practice, while practice can be divided into ritual practices and morality. To a religious humanism, morality is all that really matters about religion, and if there are matters of faith that are not strictly matters of rational knowledge, these are only metaphors and parables for rational truths, formulated so that the latter will be intelligible to the masses. Matters of faith that represent something outside of rational understanding altogether, i.e. matters of dogma, are regarded by religious humanism with all the distrust and opprobrium that now clings to the term “dogma” quite generally. By the same token, the requirements of ritual practice, reduced greatly enough in Protestantism, come to be regarded as absolutely unnecessery and absurd.

Hellenic humanists, among the Philosophers did indeed tend to interpret myths in a such a manner, that they expressed rational knowledge in a symbolic form. Plato and Aristotle both discussed how myths and religious rituals and prohibitions were necessary in order to explain moral values in a fashion accessible to all men. In the Republic, though he uses rational dialectic to explain how virtue and justice are what makes men experience eudaimonia, Plato still feels the need to back this up with the Myth of Er, and the implicit threat of divine sanction.

Earlier Philosophers, among the Pre-Socratics, argued similarly. Xenophanes cast doubt on the validity of the traditional mythology and dogma. Herekleitos like Hume, questioned traditional rituals, arguing that speaking to a God’s statue was as absurd as speaking to a man’s house, rather than the man.

Thus, to Hume, ritual acts, lacking rational purpose, are senseless “mummeries.” Although Hume was an infamous atheist, similar views are noteworthy in Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson, for each of whom the point and content of religion was moral, while doctrines more at the heart of traditional Christianity, like the Redemptive role of Jesus, are rejected as improper and superstitious, or even morally offensive. Jefferson even redacted his own edition of the New Testament, eliminating everthing except the actual moral teachings of Jesus. He had nothing but contempt for notions of the divinity of Jesus, which he blamed on the Patriarch Athanasius — who was in fact the champion of the Christian orthodoxy formulated at Nicaea in 325 [note]. Kant and Jefferson were outwardly nowhere near as observant as Erasmus had been, but they represent the logical continuation of the humanistic tendency to dismiss dogma and ritual as offensive to reason and inessential to the real, moral purpose of religion.

While most Philosophers discussed the Gods and Theology, most focused on a combination of morality and contemplation of the divine rather than traditional religious ritual. Socrates was an exception, to a great degree. He heard voices, and considered himself on a religious mission from Apollon, as he made clear in his Defense (the Apology of Socrates).

A further level of dispute, however, arises over morality itself, for the justification of the moral doctrine of religions itself is subject to a rationalistic critique; and it also becomes an issue whether morality ought to mainly be about personal behavior or if it really means action for political and social purposes. Thus, I recall again the statement of the American Ethical Union that “the supreme aim of human life is working to create a more humane society.” In many public debates, we often see the concern of the traditionally religious with issues like abortion and sexual promiscuity, while those whose inspiration is humanistically religious frequently dismiss these concerns with brusque affirmations that the real concern of religious action should be with the poor, the hungry, the homeless, etc.

This is more of a modern concern, though elements of this come out in the ancient humanists. However, a subordination of morality to the interests of politics was common in the ancient world. However, it is also the case, that most Philosophical discussion on ethics accepted traditional morality, and only looked to find a rational basis for that morality. The commonly accepted Cardinal Virtues, were the starting point of ethical discussion, and the issue was why one should follow them. Whether, as Socrates argued, one did good because to do bad caused suffering. Or whether creating the virtues through habit and rational control produced a successful life or eudaimonia as Aristotle suggested, or if it produced ataraxia as Zeno or Epikuros argued. They tended to support and seek to understand traditional morality and see how it can be changed, while avoiding the hubris of an overweening rationality.

While the essence of religion is the irreducible irrationality of the numinous, the holy, expressed in dogmatic belief and ritual, as discussed in detail elsewhere, traditional morality also can often embody truths that escape the analysis of the rational humanist. This is because traditional morality can easily be the result of centuries of trial and error, the natural experimental environment of history itself. This was well understood by classical conservatives like Hume and Edmund Burke. More recently, F.A. Hayek stated the case, characterizing as a “fatal conceit” the idea that an extended social order can be understood or constructed just from a priori and rationalistic speculation.

This itself is a kind of rationalistic thesis, as is particularly obvious in Hume (Hayek’s own touchstone), for it means that, at least retrospectively, we may eventually understand why particular social customs and moral precepts have come to be and what purposes they serve. As such, it also means that we are not always unwarranted in tampering with customs and tradition. Burke clearly understood that change was something that always happens and that intentional reforms at different times may be justified … Thus, Hayek himself simply and famously denied that he was a conservative at all. This is how even religious conservatives like Burke display streaks of humanism, for genuine religious morality is as fixed and authoritative as faith and ritual. For instance, reluctance to entertain the notion that Islamic Law might have to be adapted to the modern world has led to fierce reaction and conflict in many places, hampering the economic and social progress of many Islamic countries, and spawning the development of Islamic terrorist ideology. This form of religious dogma is counterproductive, dangerous, and vicious and reveals that an element of religious humanism, and rationalism, is not always a bad idea.

Fortunately, the sort of fixed and authoritative morality was not really an issue in the ancient world. There was an almost built-in humanism. The times authoritarian tendencies broke out were rare, e.g., the trial of Sokrates, or with Nero. However, in almost all cases, these were mostly examples of politically motivated activity, rather than outbursts of traditional morality or dogma, though they were couched in those terms. To a large degree, they involved a concern that new beliefs were undermining the loyalty of the people, or the favor of the Gods.

Thus, a role for humanism and its rationalism emerges. Humanism is not just a concern with issues relevant to the human condition, it is a willingness to bring these under human control. Secular humanism embodies the conceit that everything is both subject and reducible to human control. Religious humanism acknowledges that the human condition may involve something more, but then this is split according to the degree of control and rationalism that is expected. We can call the alternatives there “limited rationalism,” as with the qualified conservatism of Hume, Burke, and Hayek, or “unlimited rationalism,” where religion itself may be reduced to the symbolic shell of rationalistic doctrine, and no doubt is entertained about the power of rational control. At the extremes, the latter may be all but indistinguishable, certainly in effect, from secular humanism. Just what this means in political, economic, or social terms depends on the ideological direction to which the rationalism tends.

I doubt that the ancients would go the full secular humanist conceit that everything is reducible to reason. They understood the arational element of the numinous, and the wisdom of the trial and error experience developed in tradition. I doubt they would think everything was subject to rational control.

I myself, fall in the limited rationalism end of the religioius humanism. I believe this is the most logical in light of experience, and which does not diminish the religious element to the point of extinction. This avoids the pitfalls of excessive dogmatism and rationalistic hubris. It is the road that I walk, and which I believe, the ancient Philosophers walked as well.


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