Humanism in the Modern World: An Unfortunate Shift

We’ve been learning for the past week now about the worldview that, supposedly, started the Renaissance: humanism. We’ve also learned that humanism as a belief still exists today. But it can’t be the same religiously naturalistic worldview as it was six centuries ago… can it? The short answer is no. Why? Read on, intrepid bloggers.

Humanism, many believe, began with the teachings of Petrarch, a philosopher of the 14th century who decided to read religious texts in a different way. Instead of reading snippets from the text, as most 14th-century philosophers did, Petrarch believed that understanding the context of the quotes that had made Christianity what it was. In addition, Petrarch came up with the idea of not looking to external influences for moral guidance, but instead to look inwards; Petrarch believed that the greatest (“tallest”) religious book was “scarcely a cubit high compared with the range of human contemplation”. But it only took a few centuries to go to an even more extreme point.

Now, humanism still exists. But it’s in a very different form. Humanists today believe far less (if at all) in a higher power, and consider themselves, by and large, atheists. Even though Petrarch, the original humanist, believed fervently in God (even if he believed that, though, God does not tempt and cannot be tempted, “he still may prove us, and often permits us to be beset with many and grievous trials”), it has become clear that there is no trace of Christianity left in humanism. This is a rather unfortunate fact, as humanists refuse to believe that such a thing as a supernatural world exists, or that a loving power such as God can be possible. Not all of the effects of humanism’s modernization have been negative, though. Science, truly begun during and after the Renaissance, is a key part of the beliefs of humanism. The use of humanist philosophies and naturalism in schools (consider OES’s mission statement: students “may realize their power for good”) has probably helped the scientific and mathematical world. But the crucial problem remains for humanism. This atheistic worldview seems to have forgotten its beginnings as the idea of a very religious man, and in doing so, it has left its members and philosophers without a power to pray to; this means no assistance in difficult times, nowhere to travel for moral guidance, and the depressing belief that death is final. In essence, many of those who believe in this worldview have lost some of the most precious commodity in this world or the next: hope.

Works Cited:

Petrarch. “The Story of Griselda.” Hanover Historical Texts Project. N.p., Mar 2001. Web. 14 Feb 2012. <http://history.hanover.edu/texts/petrarch/pet06.html&gt;.

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5 comments

  1. natalie518

    Hey John, this was a really, really good blog post. It made me think a lot, and I appreciate what you’ve said here. I think that you are definitely right when you say that humanists have forgotten their religious beginnings, and that is not necessarily a good thing. However, it does seem to me that perhaps humanism itself can act as moral guidance, in the place of religion.
    On another note, do you think that it would be possible for someone today to consider his or herself both a humanist and a Christian? And do you think that even though humanism’s roots are in Christianity, someone could believe in an utterly different faith (say Buddhism, for example) and still identify as a humanist?
    Thanks again for your thought-provoking article.
    ~Natalie

    • john726

      Natalie,
      Thanks so much for your thoughts on this post. I agree that humanism does provide its own form of guidance; however, I feel that this guidance comes from one’s own self instead of at least, for religion, the conscience. My belief is that one’s conscience is potentially a more reliable source of guidance than a rationalizing, perhaps biased mind.
      As for your question about Christian humanism, here is a quote from the American Humanism Association: “Humanism is a progressive lifestance that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” Supernaturalism is defined as “the belief that supernatural or divine beings and phenomena intervene in human events”. So certain religions which are not supernatural, such as Buddhism, could coexist with a humanist philosophy. Thanks for reading my post, John.

  2. Hi John:
    I agree with you that the idea of Humanism has twisted over a period of time and most Humanists would rather consider themselves atheist even though there used to be a strong believe in Christianity in the original Humanism idea.
    I think humanism definitely makes people think more rationally and thus people start inventing a lot of innovative things. But how to find a balance point between following the morality guidance and thinking rationally can also be another challenge, perhaps you can suggest an idea that may solve this unfortunate shift?

    -Gary

  3. I enjoyed reading this post, John! I agree with you on how humanism has changed since it first came to be. Do you think that any more changes will occur in the future regarding humanism?

    -Ajay

  4. erinwritesagain

    Your post is really thought provoking! I wonder about how the other pieces of humanism (parts that still have to do with supernaturalism) have manifest themselves in the present. Did they become adopted by other religious organizations or just disappear? Are there groups, however small, that reflect more of the “original humanism” today?
    Thanks for such a great post.
    -Erin

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