Can Humanism Save Humanity?

Recently, I have been watching Ken Burns’ excellent 1996 documentary, The WestYou could say it’s a 9-part commentary on how the American west was won. But, it would be more accurate to say that it’s a chilling and brutal story of how human beings of any race will hate and kill each other whenever they have the power to do so.

Native Americans against Native Americans, Europeans against Native Americans or Africans, or Native Americans against Europeans—it doesn’t matter how you trace your bloodline, blood-letting seems to be in our blood. The history of the American west is a history of bloodshed in the name of a king, or a president, or God, or a tribe, or mere hatred for anyone not us.

It’s enough to make me be ashamed—not to be white, or American—but to be human. The  more I learn about history, any history, the less faith I have in humanity, including myself.

And yet, the dominant western philosophy since the Enlightenment, Humanismwould have me believe that humanity itself will create a better future for all people, that we are our own best hope.

Humanism is intellectually committed to faith in the innate nobility, goodness and wisdom of people (individually and collectively) to effect positive change in the world around us for all people. It’s the Star Trek vision of the universe in which humanity—having already solved poverty, hunger, ignorance, disease, crime and war on earth—goes boldly out into the galaxy (“…where no man has gone before…”) to do the same for non-humans.

I suppose this means that if I was watching The West as a humanist I should say, “If I had been there, I would have helped everyone behave more nobly, more kindly, and more generously. I could have helped everyone see the nobility in each other so that they could come together to achieve shared goals for the common good.”

But that would be pretty naive of me, wouldn’t it?—not to mention, self-righteous.

No, I’m afraid I don’t have that much faith in you (collectively) or myself (individually). If you and I had been there and had had the power, we may have stolen, raided, lynched, exploited, or raped or butchered just like everyone else, in the name of our family, or tribe, or race, or faith, or employer, or gold, or government. The philanthropic exceptions among us prove the tyrannical rule.

I’m sorry Humanism, but I don’t believe you’ll be able to save humanity. The broad sweep of human history and a smattering of honest self-awareness are enough to convince me of what the Bible teaches about humanity: that left to ourselves we will go on destroying one another with our will to power.

“There you go again,” says Humanism, “appealing to ancient human writings as if they were divinely breathed. How can you believe in God, when there is so much evil in the world?”

To which I reply, “How can you believe in us, when we are the self-evident cause?”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach [the crucified and risen Christ] to save those who believe.–1 Corinthians 1:20-21

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