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A Secular Age (3): Exclusive Humanism

Hume The transitions in the conditions of belief that culminated in the new idea of society constituted as individuals, and the growing sense of a “disenchanted” world, brought about a considerable shift in the both the practice and understanding of Christianity among the élites of the eighteenth century. The “buffered self”, which was a key requirement for disenchantment, gradually served to drive towards an idea of a “buffered world”. This lead to new ideas about God which marked a radical break from earlier theology, and the arrival of a new outlook often referred to as “Deism”.

The move towards Deism was in effect a narrowing of the purposes of divine providence. The basic idea in Deistic theology is that rather than God being constantly and actively intervening in the world, the natural order was created by God for our benefit, and our commitment in return was simply to flourish in order to fulfill God’s plan. This was an significant shift from earlier theology, which may also have recognised this facet, but which also expected more – God’s purposes were inscrutable, but they included our love and worship of him (for whatever reason), and thus immediately placed upon us a demand that went beyond human flourishing.

The theology that emerges in the eighteenth century shows a profound anthropomorphic shift: any sense of further purpose becomes eclipsed by the concept that what we owe to God is simply the realisation of his plan, which is to say, the achievement of our own good. With the shift in the social imaginary towards the notion of society constituted as individuals, this meant that by committing to a moral order of mutual benefit, we were doing what was asked of us by God. This was the rise of Providential Deism, a theology which believed that the natural order of things had been established for our benefit – even though it was up to us, as the inhabitants of the resulting world, to co-operate towards our own flourishing. 

The anthropocentric shift towards a belief in the primacy of the order of mutual benefit also brought with it a transformation in the view of the world towards an idea of impersonal order. Previously, the orthodox Christian conception was of “God as an agent interacting with humans and intervening in human history”. Via Deism, this was to change towards the notion of “God as architect of a universe operating by unchanging laws, which humans have to conform to or suffer the consequences”.

We can see the extent to which these new theological beliefs changed the attitude towards religious practice by looking at what were considered “dangerous” expressions of religion in the eighteenth century: 

Three kinds of dangerous religion were categorized as “superstition”, “fanaticism”, and “enthusiasm”. The first designated the enchanted dimension of religion, the rites and cults and practices which partook of magic in their understanding… ‘Fanaticism’ designated the kind of religious certainty that seemed to the agent concerned to licence going well beyond, and even committing gross violations against the order of mutual benefit. While ‘enthusiasm’ meant the certainty that one heard the voice of God, and could act on it, without having to rely on external authority, ecclesiastical or civil.

Now, the Deist theology was largely the domain of elites at this time, but it was still creating profound shifts within Christianity, including what Taylor terms “the decline of Hell”, which is to say a growing reluctance to accept traditional beliefs about God as an implacable source of punishment. The old juridical-penal doctrine – that by sinning we offended God’s honour and thus he was obligated to punish us – began to be seen as quite repulsive by the intellectuals of the Enlightenment.  

Indeed, this hostility towards the older, orthodox interpretations of Christianity allows for the creation of radical new ways of approaching both religion and morality, and this in turn created conflicting philosophical tensions. Thus we see philosophers such as David Hume (pictured above) pulling away from Christianity, which he was greatly hostile towards, and dismissing notions such as miracles on an a priori basis (a leap of faith away from orthodox religious thought). Hume in turn inspires Immanuel Kant, considered to be the greatest philosopher of the modern age, who remains a Christian but radically reformulates what this means and develops the idea of reason as the basis for morality. Kant sees this as founded in God – reason is God-given, if you will – but this new viewpoint still marks a significant step away from older notions of morality being prescribed by God. Now, what is moral can be derived intellectually.

Thus a massive shift in horizon occurs: humanity is now seen as forming societies under the modern moral order of mutual benefit, fulfilling their purposes by using what Nature provides by exploring the impersonal order with the aid of disengaged reason. This is wholly new epistemic predicament. And we can see how this shift opened the door for what Taylor terms “exclusive humanism”, which is to say, the acceptance of the kind of view of the world closely related to that espoused by Providential Deism, in which human flourishing is the highest good which we co-operate towards, but without reference to God or any kind of higher reality. (It can be argued that calling this “atheism” places the emphasis in the wrong place: it implies a necessary opposition that obscures what is actually of value about this kind of belief system).  

This was no trivial change in perspective! As Taylor notes:

A standard subtractionist story would convince us that once the old religious and metaphysical beliefs withered away, room was finally made for the existing, purely human moral motivation. But this was not the case. It may seem to be, because the locus now of the highest moral capacities was identified as in “human nature”. And that links up with centuries of non-exclusive humanism, and in particular with the moral theories that came down to us from the ancients… But it is already evident that, in one sense, this modern humanism is different from most ancient ethics of human nature, in that it is exclusive, that is, its notion of human flourishing makes no reference to something higher which humans should reverence or love or acknowledge. And this clearly distinguishes it from, say, Plato, or the Stoics.

Furthermore, the emergence of exclusive humanism wasn’t something that was inevitably going to come about – we have no reason (beyond a leap of faith) to believe that under different circumstances this would have occurred. The new system of belief abandons all notions of transcendence (of a reality beyond that of everyday experience) in preference for a view of the world as entirely immanent. Taylor stresses that this development of exclusive humanism should be surprising:

So exclusive humanism wasn’t just something we fell into, once the old myths dissolved, or the “infamous” ancien régime church was crushed. It opened up new human potentialities, viz. to live in these modes of moral life in which the sources are radically immanentized. The substraction story doesn’t allow us to be as surprised as we ought to be at this achievement – or as admiring of it; because it is after all one of the great realizations in the history of human development, whatever our ultimate views about its scope or limitations.

And this amazing achievement originated from religious motives, it grew out of Providential Deism, which drove a process between (say) 1650 and 1800 which allowed freedom to emerge as a value in itself – something which came to be seen as a crucial feature of any acceptable political system. That religion was intimately connected with this process can be seen from the fact that one of the primary forms of freedom that was valued during this transition was in fact freedom of belief. This can be clearly discerned in the early days of the American Republic, particularly in Thomas Jefferson’s push for “a wall of separation between Church and State” – not to protect the citizens from religion, but to prevent the government from interfering with the citizenry’s right to determine their own manner of worship.

Thus, while emergence of this new perspective is open to interpretation in many different ways, one of the most common ideas concerning the origin of exclusive humanism is demonstrably false: it did not originate out of a conflict between religion and science. Although Galileo's story in the 17th century had  already foreshadowed it, this battle had yet to begin in earnest.

Next week: “Religion” versus “Science”


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The second coming of God is at hand. Take heed and make note. God has returned. He has come to dismantel a broken down split-up disfunctional Church. He is going to strike out the words of the Romans and rebuild the Church in his own words. Start by opening your bible to the title page that reads "New Testament". Strike out the words New Testament and retitle this page "Roman Mythology". You have now completed the first step in rebuilding Gods Church. Don't toss your bible out, Gods word is mixed in with the word of man. God is going to tell you what is his and what belongs to the Romans.

Mel: no idea if this is serious, or sarcastic or what - it can be quite hard to tell on the internet these days! :) I guess if it's important to you, you'll come back and explain.

Just a quick thought: does Taylor ever mention anything about Islamic influences, specifically with regards to the role that reason and logic plays in religious faith? The work of Avicenna in the eleventh century comes to mind, specifically.

Deirdra: Taylor is obviously extremely well read, but he keeps his focus on the changes in Christianity because this is the subject he is most experienced with (indeed, he is ridiculously erudite on the subject!)

Islam comes up in numerous references at various times, but offhand I can't remember any of them in their specifics. Buddhism is also mentioned quite a lot in the later stages of the book.

But the book covers 1500-2000, so Avicenna would be before the scope of this tome. Personally, I find this sort of Muslim history fascinating - if you have a book you can recommend on this subject I would enjoy adding it to my reading list pile. ;)

Best wishes!

Hi Chris,
Yes, this is a serious message. God does not talk to anyone very often. So when he does show up with a message no one believes it.

In the Spring of 2006 god sent a message. It is about the meaning of First is Last and Last is First. The message is this:

In the morning I go to Heaven. In the afternoon I live my life. In the evening I die, death.
What does this mean? It means that Birth is Last and Last is Birth. God also gives an example so that you can understand this better. Example: Mike Douglas died on his Birthday, August 11. (Note that Mike Douglas and Michael Douglas are two different people.)

Mel: thanks for coming back, although I really don't feel you explained your message to any degree. To whom did God send this message in Spring 2006? To you, I assume?

I'm really not sure this is on-topic here - although it does seem to be a fine example of what is referenced as "enthusiasm" in this part of the serial. :)

I can see from a quick web search that you appear in the comments of lots of different blogs with any kind of Christian or anti-Christian content, each time with short prophetic outbursts like the two you have provided here. One is word-for-word identical to the one you provided above.

Honestly, the comments here are intended for discussion of the topics at hand. If you want to discuss the topic with me or the others on the blog, you are more than welcome, but if you have another agenda you'll have to conduct it elsewhere.

Yes, Chris, God came and talked to me. I am not boosting or bragging. It would have been better if he talked to at least one other person. I have been searching, I can't find anyone else. It would have been good to at least have a witness.

I would liked to have had someone else to stand up and say YES, God talked to me too, he also said the same thing to me.

My agenda is to Hand over the Information to others. Here you take the ball, you carry it. I can only carry it so far.

What do you think the message about First is Last and Last is First means? I would like to know if others understand it like I do.

Then God links another message to it. God said this in 2007:

We each die in succession, then we are born on the same day.
God also gives proof in the story of 3 famous people. Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin and Nancy Reagan. Mike dies on his birthday, August 11. Merv dies the day after Mike on August 12. Merv and Nancy are born on the same day.

If you want to search more on what I have been blogging, I also use different names. I change them slightly just so I can come back to my recent comments so that I can respond to any questions, comments or insults. What ever people want to throw out there. I also blog as Mel Steffor. Now Mel is a nick for Melanie. I also blog as Melanie Stephan, Melanie Steffan, Melanie Stefine, etc. I only do that so I can group and return to read comments. I only put those other names here so that you or your readers can do a search on those names if they care too. I first started blogging as Melanie Stephan, that is my original name.

Mel: honestly, although I find what you are saying quite fascinating, I'm certain that the comments of this serial post are the wrong place for this discussion. If you provide me a link to your blog, I will happily discuss your experience with you there.

But I'd be grateful if you'd refrain from pursuing this here for the time being, simply because while you seem to be the "featured voice" in the comments for this post it may discourage other people from discussing the subject matter of the serial itself. As a politeness to other visitors here, it would be better to take this discussion 'outside'.

Thanks for your patience and, again, I am happy to discuss this on your "home turf" - just let me know where that is and I will stop by. If you don't have your own blog, can I suggest setting one up? It's only fair that you should have your own space for exploring your own issues.

Best wishes!

Hello Chris,
Again, thank you for your interest. I do not have my own blog. AS you asked, I will not unload my latest Revelations here. You can follow my trail if you wish.

Thanks Mel, I appreciate your understanding in this regard. If you later decide to start your own blog, please let me know.

just though you might enjoy reading this :)

Hey there nomad, long time no comment. ;)

Thanks for this link! This isn't the first time I've come across Haidt, but his ideas are really starting to cohere now (even if he can't remove his metaphysical bias from his writing - calling God a "collective delusion" jumps the burden of proof; few academics would tolerate the opposite metaphysical bias in an article of this kind!).

Taylor talks a lot about Durkeim (whom Haidt is also discussing here) in the middle parts of "A Secular Age" but I factored it out of the serial as one of many things that had to be cut for brevity.

I have to say, living in Knoxville last year really set my head straight about the issue of why impoverished people vote for Republicans who will not obviously ease their burden. There are many reasons for this which (as Haidt alludes to) make perfect sense - they are not confused about their allegiance, but actually quite clear. The Republicans represent the kind of moral vision these people live, and are thus appealing on that front. But also, on an economic front, the Republicans promise to *take less* (lower taxes) which is more appealing than the Democrat promise to *give more* (which means higher taxes, and so *taking more*).

Politics is never as easy as it first seems! :)

Thanks for the link!

Gordon Leff's 'Medieval Thought: St. Augustine to Ockham' has a tasty chapter devoted to the influence of Islamic (and Jewish) thinkers on the theological-philosophical development of 12th to 14th century Christianity. & specifically the interplay of logic, reason and faith.

Well, twenty very erudite pages worth. I've not yet encountered a volume directly on the Muslim intellectual world. I'd love a Henry Corbin title, but he doesn't seem to end up in the local second-hand shops...

Anyway, thanks for this great series of articles!

Robb: thanks for this! Why isn't there a really good book on this subject, I wonder? Or perhaps there is, but no-one knows what it is! :) I've found an ex-library version of Leff's book you mention here for the princely sum of 72 pence, so I'll pick that up.

Thanks also for the kind words!

Correction: To the meaning of First is Last and Last is First. It means that Birth is Last and Birth is First. Sorry for the error. God talks in symbols and opposites at times, so it takes time to figure out what he is saying. Some of his messages are clearer than others, plus they have multiple meanings.

Hm, if it's still of any interest, I did uncover a pair of Corbin's titles online at Scribd: History of Islamic Philosophy I & part II. No doubt they're finer in the flesh, but if you're in the mood for a browse...

Robb: thanks for the additional tip - and remembering my interest! :) I'm reading Leff at the moment (along with several other books). I don't tend to read texts online, but I will get an ebook reader at some point.

Thanks again!

This is fantastic.

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