History is rife with examples of the devastation left behind by Subhumanist philosophies. So then why are people still attracted to them?
Isn’t it strange that the very part of the world where “human rights” was invented as a concept –where freedom, limited government, and the dignity of the person became victorious fighting creeds, and where dethroning tyrants, freeing slaves, empowering workers, offering women equal education and opportunities became historical realities – has become the place where life is not seen as sacred? Where having large families is seen as an irresponsible act, while euthanasia is viewed as a courageous mission of mercy? You need not be a culture critic, or even a Christian, to wonder what went wrong. How is it that the cultural turn toward humanism that began, most people agree, with the Renaissance’s embrace of man’s inherent capacity for greatness, ended up in the concentration camps and killing fields, only to end up today in the empty cradles of the postmodern, dying West?
We have already laid out in the course of this series the intellectual twists and turns by which humanism declined inexorably into subhumanism. That explains the how. What remains is the question, “Why?”
Why was the West attracted to Marxist, Social Darwinist, racist, or other reductionist methods of explaining away human dignity? Don’t the most aggressive atheists claim that their reason for rejecting religious faith is that it hinders “human flourishing”? People who call themselves “secular” will typically follow that word with “humanist,” to underscore how they fight for the claims of man against supernatural encroachment. We even use the word “humane” to evoke kindness to animals. What would move people who have toppled all the gods to enshrine the figure of Man on our highest altars to take out their hammers and chisel away at Adam? It is because modern society views the old image of man as demanding, exhausting and constricting.
Humanism demands that we live up to difficult standards. On how many given mornings do you really feel like you’re a creature who dwells at the apex of creation? Isn’t it much more comforting to decide that you are a mammal in an environment, seeking to meet its needs – and at the moment, what you really need is a cigarette at a strip joint? The long list of virtues specified by classical humanism, which Aristotle catalogued and Aquinas gratefully cribbed, is irrelevant to hapless featherless bipeds in quest of protein, warmth, entertainment and the all-too-infrequent orgasm. No one ever forced Homer Simpson to pose on a pedestal.
Humanism exhausts our empathy, insisting that we try to feel some solidarity with strangers halfway across the world whose village was swamped by a mudslide, or that we concern ourselves with the physical well-being of the alien teenaged serfs who sewed our sneakers. If we grant that we ourselves, and every other human being on earth, have an exalted status and the rights that come along with it, we fear we will have to worry about an unending series of other people’s problems, when we can barely wrap our heads around our own.
Humanism constricts us, and stops us from doing things that would otherwise make sense – like terminating inconvenient pregnancies, then mass-producing embryos in nice, clean petri dishes. We find that scruples arise about bombing thousands of civilians to save our soldiers’ lives, and that in turn makes us unduly timid about attacking the countries that piss us off. We might feel weird about forcing poor countries to sterilize more of their women if they want us to send them rice the next time they have yet another famine.
Enlightenment thinkers claimed that human freedom of action was overly hemmed in by the dictates of religion, by arbitrary rules plucked from a yellowing Bible or imposed by celibate Italians in cobwebbed scarlet robes. But as things turned out, even those of us who renounced or watered down to a homeopathic dosage the specific demands of Christianity found that life didn’t become all that much easier. That is because the vast bulk of the moral code that Western believers adhered to did not come from divine revelation or canon law, but instead arose from rational thought about how man should live, given his uniqueness and dignity as the only rational animal. Being secular wasn’t the answer to the problems posed by humanism. It wasn’t that thoughts of God made man seem too small; instead, they inflated man like a Macy’s parade balloon, and now it became our task to bring the unwieldy creature back down to size, so we could get on with the business of living. Assimilate that insight, and the history of the 20th century writes itself.
Jason Jones is a producer in Hollywood. His films include Bella, Eyes to See, and Crescendo. Learn more about his human rights initiatives at www.iamwholelife.com.
John Zmirak is the author of The Bad Catholics Guide to the Catechism and archives his writing at The Bad Catholics Bingo Hall. This column is from Jones’ and Zmirak’s upcoming book, The Race to Save Our Century (Crossroad, 2014).