The Mythology of Humanism and the Battle Against It
This article is the latest in a series on the theme of whether we can find a new mythology, a common vision, to unite humanity in an attempt to solve the world’s problems. (For links to all the earlier articles, see footnote 1 in the previous one.) At the moment I am discussing some thinkers who are trying to create such a mythology from the worldview and findings of modern science. Humanism is one significant foundation stone of their new mythology, and I discussed it in relation to Steven Pinker in an earlier article (click here). I’m now going to turn my attention to the late Julian Huxley, who was a passionate advocate of Humanism, witness the titles of two of his books. (See Bibliography below. All quotes here are from Essays of a Humanist, unless otherwise stated.)
Humanism is a ‘religion without God’. Put another way, it is claimed to be the most optimistic worldview that humans can come up with, if it is assumed that there is no God, nothing supernatural, nothing spiritual, nothing beyond the observed universe we inhabit. Here is Huxley holding forth on that theme, making statements similar to those of Steven Pinker and David Christian in earlier articles in the series: “The knowledge explosion of the last hundred years since Darwin is giving us a new vision of our human destiny — of the world, of man, and of man’s place and role in the world. It is an evolutionary and comprehensive vision, showing us all reality as a self-transforming process. It is a monistic vision, showing us all reality as a unitary and continuous process, with no dualistic split between soul and body, between matter and mind, between life and not-life, no cleavage between natural and supernatural; it reveals that all phenomena, from worms to women, from radiation to religion, are natural.
“It will inevitably lead to a new general organization of thought and belief, and to the development, after centuries of ideological fragmentation, of a new and comprehensive idea-system… The present is the first period in history when man has begun to have a comprehensive knowledge of stars and atoms, of chemical molecules and geological strata, of plants and animals, of physiology and psychology, of human origins and human history… It is comprehensive, in the sense of covering every aspect of reality, the whole field of human experience” (p124–5).
This is therefore the vision (myth) that Huxley wants to be taught to all humanity. Some of his Humanism sounds wonderful; it affirms “the unity of mind and body… the continuity of man with the rest of life, and of life with the rest of the universe… the unity of all mankind” (p77). This is not especially Humanist, however; this might equally have been said from a spiritual perspective. There is also this striking passage: “Man must remember that he is part of nature, and must learn to live in harmonious symbiosis with the environment provided by his planet, a relation of responsible partnership instead of irresponsible exploitation. If he is to make a success of his job as guiding agent for evolution, he must abandon the arrogant idea of conquering and exploiting nature; he must cooperate and conserve” (p125). It would be hard to disagree with this. Elsewhere, however, he does reveal his spiritual ignorance: “The evolution of mind or sentiency is an extremely rare event in the vast meaninglessness of the insentient universe, and man’s particular brand of sentiency may well be unique” (p82).
And of course, Humanism is intimately linked with Darwinism, which Humanists freely admit is their intellectual foundation. Huxley says: “This new vision is inevitably an evolutionary one” (p78), and the Humanist Manifesto III of 2003 states it clearly: “Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change”¹.
Humanism is therefore built on a very shaky foundation. I said earlier in the series that if this “new and comprehensive idea-system”, otherwise known as the ‘Enlightenment’, has led Steven Pinker to believe the things he does, then his book is its own refutation. The same can therefore be said of Julian Huxley.
Humanist Richard Dawkins is well known for saying:“Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist”. You might think that it is not possible to be more Darwinian and Humanist than Dawkins, but if such a person exists or existed, then a very strong candidate would be Julian Huxley, who wants to make Darwinism the foundation of this new religion, in his language a “new dominant thought-organization” called Evolutionary Humanism.
He was the grandson of Thomas Huxley, whose passionate campaigning for the ideas of Darwin led him to be called ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, so Darwinism clearly ran in the family. Julian was a graduate of Balliol College Oxford, interestingly the same as Richard Dawkins. (Is this just a coincidence, or is Balliol a breeding ground for rabid Darwinian atheists?) He went on to have a distinguished academic career, was also the first Director-General of UNESCO, and the first President of the British Humanist Association, obviously a highly influential figure.
Huxley, like Pinker and Christian, has supreme confidence in the findings of modern science. As noted above, he says that “the present is the first period in history when man has begun to have a comprehensive knowledge” (p125). He also refers to “the knowledge-explosion of the last hundred years (which provides) man with a new revelation, a new vision of his destiny. (THF, p6). He talks about “the failure of older ideas which attempted to organize beliefs round a core of ignorance” (THF, p13). Here he is echoing Steven Pinker who says: “The findings of science imply that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures… are factually mistaken” (p394), and David Christian who says: “Today, we can tell that story with a precision and scientific rigor that was unthinkable (at the beginning of the 20th century)”; and “It draws on a global heritage of carefully tested information and knowledge”². None of them is aware that in ancient times there seem to have been very advanced technologies, which suggests that the science cannot have been too bad. There was also a far more sophisticated understanding of the nature of the universe than their materialism provides.
The Humanists also have supreme confidence in the truth of their ideas, dismissing any objections as irrational or outmoded thinking, and condemning any dissenters as intellectually inferior. In an earlier article I noted that Steven Pinker implied that anyone who disagreed with him must be stupid: “Who could be against reason, science, humanism, or progress?” This is clearly not strong enough for Huxley, who begins one book with a more arrogant and condescending statement: I “remained a firm Darwinian all through the curious phase of anti-Darwinian prejudice which beclouded the minds of many avant-garde biologists for the first three decades of the present century” (p9). Elsewhere he wrote: “To all save those who deliberately shut or averted their eyes, or were not allowed by their pastors or masters to look, it was at once clear that the fact and concept of evolution was bound to act as the central germ or living template of a new dominant thought-organization” (THF, p17).
As I have argued in previous articles, and as is clearly demonstrated by the Dawkins quote above, Darwinian theory has become so popular and entrenched, despite all the objections that can be made against it, because of its appeal to atheists, and because it can be contained within the box of scientific materialism. This is again confirmed by Huxley: “The evidence and the arguments marshalled by Darwin in the Origin were decisive in persuading leaders of scientific thought like (Thomas) Huxley and Hooker that evolution had occurred and that it was based on a natural and scientifically intelligible mechanism” (p23). Darwin obviously believed in his theory. It was nevertheless merely a hypothesis, but was so appealing to the scientific community because it meant that they would not have to stretch their minds beyond their usual limited way of thinking, and because a denial of anything spiritual or supernatural was firmly implanted in their minds.
It is therefore pointless arguing with them, so what follows is not an attempt to persuade them, rather an alternative viewpoint which will hopefully inspire readers to challenge such ideas wherever they find them. My source is Kenneth Oldmeadow, who speaks on behalf of the Perennial Philosophy, the idea that all religions, despite their superficial differences, at their heart are saying the same thing. He calls the Perennial Philosophy Traditionalism, which is also the title of his book³.
As I noted above, Humanism is intended to be the most optimistic worldview that humans can come up with if it is assumed that there is no God, nothing supernatural, nothing spiritual. If that is taken as a given, it would follow logically that “an increasing number of people are coming to feel that man must rely only on himself in coping with the business of living and the problem of destiny…” (p77 and THF, p14). (I would suggest that this can only be because they have been brainwashed by people like Huxley.) On this theme Oldmeadow quotes Brian Keeble: “The human state as such is by definition a mode of ignorance — a blindness that cannot, by merely having recourse to itself, overcome its own unknowingness”⁴. I would add that there are none so blind as those who do not want to see, a deficiency we might call wilful blindness. The same idea is expressed more eloquently by the Perennial Philosophist Frithjof Schuon: “That which is lacking in the present world is a profound knowledge of the nature of things; the fundamental truths are always there, but they do not impose themselves because they cannot impose themselves on those unwilling to listen”⁵ .
Humanism is a significant ingredient in what Oldmeadow calls Modernism, “the prevalent assumptions, values and attitudes of a world-view fashioned by the most pervasive intellectual and moral influences of recent European history, an outlook in conformity with the Zeitgeist of the times” (p117). We could therefore equate this with ‘Enlightenment’ thinking, something that Steven Pinker is so keen on, and which I have criticised in previous articles. It is typically “humanist, rationalist, materialist”, and marked by secularism, evolutionist progressivism, the absence of any sense of the sacred, and an unrelieved ignorance of metaphysical principles”⁶.
He continues: “Modernism is nothing less than a spiritual disease which continues to spread like a plague across the globe… Its symptoms can be detected in a wide assortment of inter-related ‘mind sets’ and ‘-isms’… always united by the same underlying principles. Scientism, rationalism, relativism, materialism, positivism, empiricism, psychologism, individualism, humanism, existentialism: these are some of the prime follies of modernist thought”.
Exposing much of what is called science, so beloved by Pinker, Christian, and Huxley, to be mere scientism, he says: “European science is not simply a disinterested and, as it were, a detached and ‘objective’ mode of inquiry into the material world: it is an aggregate of disciplines anchored in a bed of very specific and culture-bound assumptions about the nature of reality and about the proper means whereby it might be explored, explained and controlled”. “By its very nature modern science is thus unable to apprehend or accommodate any realities of a suprasensorial order. Science becomes scientism when it refuses to acknowledge the limits of its competence, denies the authority of any sources which lie outside its ambit” (p118, p119).
Specifically on the subject of Humanism, Oldmeadow says that it is one of modernism’s “most typical off-spring”. “Humanism is not, of course, a single-headed monster but an ideological hydra stalking the modern world seeking whom it may devour… We can isolate a defining characteristic in all (various) secular humanisms be they atheistic or agnostic, ‘optimistic’ or ‘pessimistic’, Marxist or existentialist or ‘scientific’: the insistence that man’s nature and purpose is to be defined and understood purely in terms of his terrestrial existence. This amounts to a kind of first principle in humanism wherein man is seen as an autonomous, self-sufficient being who need look no further than himself in ‘explaining’ the meaning of life and who need pay homage to nothing beyond himself” (p138).
On the denial of God and the supernatural: “The humanist failure to recognise the transcendent dimension in human life and its indifference or hostility to the very idea of God has all manner of ramifications: it impoverishes our view of reality, breeds all kinds of false definitions of man, and produces a chimerical ‘humanitarianism’, as well as encouraging negative attitudes to the past and to tradition itself. Humanists, by definition, are sceptical about the claims of the great religious teachings. The humanist outlook is seen, by its exponents, as ‘open-minded’, ‘sane’, unfettered by ‘prejudices’ and ‘superstitions’. It seems not to occur to humanists that their own attitudes are simply the prejudices of a modernist rationalistic materialism, nor that scepticism may be a function of ignorance rather than knowledge” (p139).
There is a dark side to atheism in politics. The Communist regimes under Stalin in the USSR and Mao in China, while claiming to be “liberating the proletariat”, had no qualms about murdering their own citizens. Richard Dawkins complains correctly about all the violence and murder that has been committed in the name of religion. When challenged by an interviewer on a radio programme that similar violence and murder has been committed by atheists, his somewhat weak response was that they did not do this because they were atheists. That may be true strictly speaking, but holding such views would certainly lead someone to believe that there are no consequences for one’s actions, no judgment, no retribution. Pinker assures us that there is no such thing as karma. Perhaps he’s right. The Bible, however, says: “You reap whatever you sow”⁷ (although that is not how Christians interpret the saying). Perhaps that is what St. Paul meant, however, and it would certainly be helpful if everyone did believe in karma. That might stop such despots believing that they can freely indulge in acts of murder without suffering any consequences.
There is a similar dark side to science. The last three chapters of Huxley’s Essays of a Humanist are entitled The Enlightenment and the Population Problem, The Crowded World, and Eugenics in Evolutionary Perspective. Does this not sound very frightening? What exactly is he advocating?
The unfortunate subtitle of Darwin’s Origin of Species was “the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”. What was he thinking of? We can assume that he would not have approved, but it is well known that Hitler, in his desire to create a master race, was inspired by Darwin’s ideas. To be fair to Huxley, he does not openly advocate extermination, but he does talk about “the massive imperfection of man as a species” (p257). He says: “The human species is in desperate need of genetic improvement if the whole process of psychosocial evolution which it has set in train is not to get bogged down in unplanned disorder, negated by over-multiplication, clogged up by more complexity, or even blown to pieces by obsessional stupidity” (p262). He is in favour of “discouraging genetically defective or inferior types from breeding, reducing human over-multiplication in general and the high differential fertility of various regions, nations, and classes in particular. Then (man) can proceed to the much more important task of positive improvement… Eugenics can make an important contribution to man’s further evolution: but it can only do so if it considers itself as one branch of that new nascent science, and fearlessly explores all the possibilities that are open to it” (p255).
What does ‘fearlessly explores’ mean in practice? It sounds very sinister. Whatever happened to compassion, and “the unity of all mankind” in which he claims to believe? If this is where Humanism, Darwinism, and the Scientific Dictatorship⁸ are leading us, we are definitely living in dangerous times. Huxley claims that Humanism offers a solution to the world’s problems. I would suggest that he is looking in the wrong direction, and the real problem is Humanism itself which, as Oldmeadow suggests, is one of atheism’s most dangerous offspring. Huxley, however, is passionate about his vision, and thinks that it is the best option for the future of humanity!
In condemning Huxley, I accept that not all those who call themselves Humanists are necessarily like him, that there are more innocent Humanists, who merely seek a secular, humanitarian society. For example, Humanist Steven Pinker seems blissfully unaware of Julian Huxley and his ideas on eugenics. We should nevertheless be aware of the danger that lies at the heart of Huxley’s brand of Humanism with its atheistic agenda; Huxley was, after all, the first President of the British Humanist Society, a Life Fellow of the British Eugenics Society from 1925 and later its President(!). He was also the first Director-General of UNESCO (!!). What were they thinking of when they appointed him? Did they subscribe to his ideas?
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“Those abiding in the midst of ignorance, self-wise, thinking themselves learned, hard smitten, go around deluded, like blind men by one who is himself blind”⁹.
UPDATE September 28th 2019
Starting next week the BBC are beginning a two-part documentary on the subject of eugenics, the subtitle being Science’s Greatest Scandal. TV programme-guide Radio Times says this of the first episode: “The controversial theory of eugenics was a driving force behind the Nazi death camps. Adherents believed it was possible to improve the genetic quality of the human race by discouraging reproduction by people with ‘undesirable’ traits. Journalist Angela Saini and disability rights activist Adam Pearson reveal how these shocking beliefs permeated the British establishment in the first half of the 20th century, gaining influential supporters such as Winston Churchill and Marie Stopes”.
This just goes to show the dangers inherent in the onward march of atheistic science, and the rise of the Scientific Dictatorship. Yet in Huxley’s eyes eugenics represents progress, something desirable, part of his Humanist agenda. Humans everywhere, beware!
Click here for the next article in the series.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website www.spiritualityinpolitics.com (click here and here).
Essays of a Humanist (EOH), Penguin, 1966
The Humanist Frame (THF), Julian Huxley, ed., Harper & Brothers, 1962
1. quoted by Pinker, Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, Penguin, 2018, p411
2. Origin Story, Allen Lane, 2018, Pviii and Px
3. Kenneth Oldmeadow, Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy, Sri Lanka Institute of Traditional Studies, 2000
4. ‘Tradition, Intelligence and the Artist’, Studies in Comparative Religion XI, iv, 1977, p239, quoted in Oldmeadow, p62
5. ‘No Activity Without Truth’, in The Sword of Gnosis, J. Needleman (ed.), p28), Oldmeadow’s epigram to chapter 10
6. Here Oldmeadow, p117, is referring to the thoughts of S. H. Nasr
7. Galatians 6:7
8. A term coined, interestingly, by Huxley’s brother Aldous, who gave a chilling prophecy of where it was leading in Brave New World. It is also the title of an earlier article of mine.
9. Mundaka Upanisad 1.2., 8–11, quoted by Joseph Campbell, Flight of the Wild Gander, New World Library, 2002, p38