Humanism: The Humanist Tradition Through History

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Origins

Humanism as a movement that is recognisable in its current form can be traced back most obviously to the ideals and writings of the Enlightenment. However, these thinkers cite influences as far back as ancient Greece and Rome; especially when arguing for liberalism, rationalism, and republicanism. 

Ancient Greece and Rome provided fertile ground for Humanist theology due to their emphasis on the importance of Human Reason, and the significance placed on individual freedom. The Enlightenment has long been portrayed as a return to these classical ideals after Europeans were finally able to release themselves from the shackles of Christian theology. This is seen in the birth of Secularism as well as the later transferral of the Sacred from the Church and Monarchies, institutions perceived as being initiated and supported respectively by the Abrahamic God; to the State, an institution initiated by the People. 

Thinkers like John Locke and Jean-Jac Rousseau are foundational to this tradition. Their writings incorporate the difficult mix of Liberalism and Colonialism that gave Humanist theology its foundations; foundations that it has struggled with ever since. The theology that these and other Enlightenment thinkers inspired led directly to the Age of Revolutions. It is in these revolutions, and the systems of government that they produced, that we see perhaps the purest attempt to build a socio-theological system in the Humanist Tradition. Already in these revolutions we can see the diversity of Humanist thought. Revolutionaries around the world had various views on Nationalism, Imperialism, and even who did and did not count as Human. The tradition ever since it gained dominance through these violent revolutions, has struggled with its origins and has failed to deliver consistent and singular answers to these questions.

Evolution

Humanist theology by this measure is little over 200 years old as a system, as a tradition of thought it stretches back a further 200 years to seeds planted in the European Enlightenment. In this context Humanist Theology’s first home was the Euro-centric thought of the Imperial powers of the time. This is a form of Civilisational Monotheism which we have already discussed. It saw a single Humanity that found its best expression in European culture and ideals. This theology was spread around the world and became perhaps the first Global theological system.

The Age of Revolutions in many cases was an adaptation of certain strands of Humanist theology that brought about a shift away from this Monotheism as the dominant school of Humanist theology. As we have discussed previously , it is a mistake to conflate the development of Nationalism and Humanism, Nations as we know them today are as much a product of the technologies available than a shift in Theology. However, this doesn’t mean that they don’t represent a shift in theology as well. New technologies engender new ways of imagining our relationship with the world around us, and thus necessarily produce shifts in theology. This is exactly what we see happen with Humanism. The move away from Colonialist Monotheism fit perfectly with the more Polytheistic worldview that comes with Nationalism.

The original ideal for Nationalism was called Westphalian, and whilst never a reality, it represents a more Polytheistic version of nations: one where the internal affairs are clearly demarcated. Over time it can be argued that this became less and less true as a shift further down the spectrum towards monotheism became a dominant global trend. The twentieth century can be seen as an extremely violent move towards a more unified vision for the guiding principles that the world lived under: culminating in an international order led by US hegemony.

Globalisation is often viewed in this context. But it is an attractive concept outside the narrow view of US hegemony. The Nation-State is still the dominant form of organisation and theo-political model for the world. But the international community, as far as there is such a thing, is akin to a global pantheon with each nation its own god, with various levels of power and influence over each other, at various times cooperating or in conflict. Not unlike the ancient pantheons that come to mind when we picture a polytheist system. The point to make is that due to the conception that these powers ‘share’ the world, there is also an element of monotheism here. This is what Globalisation entails Humanist theology’s shift into being a truly Global Theological tradition.

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Current State

Humanism as a Global Theology is currently dominated by a form of liberal internationalism, the most prominent example of which is the United Nations (UN). This is locked in ideological conflict with both the other Global Theological traditions as well as the various versions of nationalism around the world, which also can be seen as belonging in part to the Humanist tradition.

Humanism as a Global Theology has for the most part failed to convince the people of the world that it works for their best interests. It is seen as only benefitting a few at the expense of many. There are huge challenges facing the world, unprecedented in their scale. Many of them have their origins in Humanism’s rise to dominance and the Racial, economic, and social inequalities that came with it, not to mention the widespread environmental exploitation and degradation. We seem to be at a point of crisis in Humanist theology. Solutions are needed for these problems, but the inherent confidence that we can solve these problems through our strength, ingenuity, and technology has been brought into question. Many point out that it is exactly these things that brought rise to these existential crises in the first place. 

Future

Humanism is the dominant theological tradition on the planet. It has risen to this position by simultaneously offering rapid material advances while also marginalising and reducing the other great theological traditions of the world through the use of the label ‘religions’.

The major theological debate of our time is an internal one between monotheistic humanism, in the form of liberal internationalism, and polytheistic humanism, in the form of the various nationalisms around the world. The logic of Humanism is such that a move towards monotheism seems natural, this trend is supported by the ease with which technology has allowed communication across the globe. However, despite these points, nations remain the dominant theological system across the world at the moment. 

Humanism key weakness is also potentially a strength. It presents Humanity in divine terms and thus often fails to see the value in recognising human frailty, humility, and the necessity of relying on a power greater than ourselves. It is hard to find a power greater than ourselves in a system when we are God. However, this focus on Humanity leaves Humanism endlessly adaptable, as anything that is Human is accepted. This is happening more and more, and could provide fertile ground for Humanism to fully engage with the other great theological traditions of the world. Pragmatism could lead to humility, and progress could yet be made, though it is unlikely to look anything like the ‘progress’ of the past. Humanism as a Global Theology has built institutions that are increasingly seen as necessary if humanity is to overcome the global threats that face it; primarily climate change, but also the global spread of disease. Whether these institutions succeed, or even survive, is yet to be seen.

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In these pages we have attempted to present Humanism as a coherent Theological tradition. This is made difficult by the sheer diversity of the tradition. Nevertheless, we hope that you have found the experience enjoyable and informative. These pages, and this wider project, are works in progress. We want your feedback, criticism, and comments. Please feel free to get in touch. Also, please explore our sections dedicated to the other great theological traditions of the world by clicking the button below.

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