Religion and Humanism
Until recently, it was widely assumed in the West that the whole world was becoming ever more secular, and that religion would fade away or become a purely private matter as people embraced the rational, scientific worldview associated with liberal democracy and the market, or more radical humanist alternatives. But religion has not only resolutely failed to disappear: in recent years it appears to have made a comeback, sweeping the developing world and increasingly sparking controversy in the West. Debates rage about veils, religious hatred, creationism and so on. Religious extremism, and more generally ‘faith-based politics’ are seen as a threat to secular liberalism. Meanwhile, religious communities often feel under siege, with their values not recognised or respected by wider society.
The chief critics of religion today are not revolutionaries and reformers, but scientists and other rationalists – the so-called New Atheists – seemingly bewildered by people’s willingness to believe without evidence. Whereas progressive critics once argued that religion breeds passivity, detractors now worry that it inspires a little too much political activism and fosters conflict. With the political significance of religion and atheism seemingly in flux, the meaning of ‘humanism’ is up for grabs. These reviews and articles explore the shifting debate about religion and humanism as expressed in popular culture and the arts, as well as books and current affairs.
Unapologetic contains a fascinating précis of the story of that Hamlet-like figure Christ, and perhaps a less interesting apologia concerning the conservative politics of the Christian church, but it is Spufford’s examination of mercy that is key, since it opens up the philosophical area relating to truth, human values, and our sense of the infinite.
The efforts of two critical Bible scholars to bring their expertise to bear on contemporary debates in which the authority of the Bible is regularly invoked or assumed are undermined by their haughty dismissal of anyone else who ‘feels qualified to interpret the scriptures’ without sharing the authors’ learning, and in particular their knowledge of Hebrew
The difference between seeing a manuscript illustration in a book and seeing the real thing is almost absolute. Medieval manuscripts are immensely tactile: the smoothness of the parchment (usually calfskin) on which the hair follicles can sometimes be made out, the richness and vibrancy of the colours based on rare pigments such as lapis lazuli, and above all the astonishing glow of gold leaf.
Given the social designation given to the new web, it at first seems paradoxical to claim that Web 2.0 could be undermining something about our social nature, yet this is precisely what is being claimed by many critics. So is this really the case? Sherry Turkle takes up exactly this question in Alone Together.
‘It is like the TV show, The X Factor, it is the same casting format. It is not true communication. You are part of the jury when you are judging Jesus. The art provokes the viewer to reflect upon their inner view of the image of Jesus from the historical perspective of art history or visits to churches and to be aware of the multiple narratives at work.’
The Faith Machine is a play of accumulation, all the better for revealing its purposes gradually and, even then, never head-on. Campbell steers clear of simplified taglines, but it becomes apparent that he believes God to be dead and society non-existent.
Faustus and Luther make a cracking odd couple; the one a swaggering silver fox, the other a constipated bore. Sean Campion and Andrew Frame spar with just the right combination of affection and animosity. Of course, the dice are loaded in favour of Faustus’ humanism, and that in itself entails pointed accusation.
Seeking to find our uniqueness within the claustrum or anterior cingulate cortex is like trying to unpick the internet by taking apart a single computer. Tallis’ conception of the human subject is one that is ‘embodied’ in a body in the material world as well as the social one, rather than caged only within the confines of the brain.
Mechanical shapes of peachy human flesh extend from the canvas appearing like counterparts of a weapon emerging from the depths of a white void. The slow agony of trench warfare soldiers and a creeping sense of death provides a cutting contrast to scenes reminiscent of the powerful resurrection of Christ in painting and drawings titled ‘Returning to the Trenches’ by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson.
The truth is that the crisis in the humanities is as deep as it is profound. The NCH was never going to solve all that. But it is right and good to defend a more open-ended approach in higher education, regardless of the funding source, while still mustering the strength to be critical of individual experiments when they fall short of the mark.
A startling illustration, a stipple engraving, of a cholera victim, created in 1831 and owned by the Wellcome Library, presents the monstrous presence of the disease. The diptych presents the transformation a neatly coiffed, nubile twenty three year old Venetian woman, into a gnarled, green-lipped hag.
In response to questions, Harris asked, seemingly bewildered, why anyone should be afraid of the idea that scientific experts might determine human values. One answer is that we value democracy; and science, for all its other merits, is not democratic. For the very same reason we object to theocratic rule, we are right to be suspicious of ‘scientistic’ pronouncements.
The situation has, to paraphrase Hegel, the makings of a tragedy: it is a clash not of right against wrong, but of right against right. The solution to the dilemma must therefore attend to both the conflicting values and somehow reconcile them, although not necessarily on equal terms.
This book’s importance is simply justified. There are only two possibilities: either the Earth is the only planet in the universe to harbour sentient life, or it is not. Each of these possibilities is, as Arthur C. Clarke famously noted, so astonishing as to verge on the incredible.
Peter Hitchens made engaging and under-acknowledged arguments. They relate to the extent to which liberal secularism is, or can be, neutral between competing worldviews; the relationship between religion, culture and politics; and the place of moral authority in the context on considerable moral disagreement.