God Created Humanism: The Christian Basis of Secular Values
By Theo Hobson, SPCK, £16.99
Theo Hobson wants to get a couple of things straight about secular humanism. First, the creed of the modern West is mankind’s best hope. It surpasses frail, fallible benevolence with a desire for authentic universalism.
Second, secular humanism is paradoxical. It is post-religious, yet incoherent when separated from its roots, which, Hobson argues, are entirely Christian. Humanitarianism springs from “the story of a God taking the side, even the form, of the powerless victim.”
A large part of this passionate, intelligent, prickly book is devoted to digging up these roots and holding them up for inspection, especially for the benefit of those who would doubt, deny or decry them.
Hobson’s story takes in the Old Testament prophets; Christ himself, of course; the Church’s dogged insistence on the equality of souls; and much else. All of this would eventually breed a desire to see religious truth expressed in “lay rather than churchy forms”, the “mother of revolutions”, according to Charles Taylor.
While there are countless differences, Hobson is nevertheless something of a Belloc for the modern age: “The faith is Europe. Europe is the faith,” is not a bad summary of his argument. He is also following in the more recent footsteps of Larry Siedentop and his landmark study Inventing the Individual.
Things get muddier, though, with the Reformation and then the Enlightenment. Hobson, an Anglican, dubs the subsequent developments “mutations of Protestantism”. Catholics may raise an eyebrow here, but this is, in part, a means of keeping the sources of modernity within the Christian fold, rather than surrendering them to something new and external called Rationalism.
Hobson is not one to ignore elephants in a room. Islam, he observes, completely does away with the distinction between religion and politics. It eschews the tortuous position of a Christian political order having to admit being at odds with “its force-denying source”, and it sees no need for an entity like the Church, since to do so would obstruct the assumption that the caliph is God’s representative. Islam has “no pacific hinterland, away from its success or failure as a political force.” In a rather strange formulation, Hobson concludes that Islam is “not more violent than other civilisations”, but that it is “more accepting of violence”.
Hobson is good at plotting the strange dynamics of secular humanism in the 20th-century with post-religious people seeking to convince themselves that, somehow, they have not become “soulless”.
There is a beguiling account of Martin Luther King’s “unified theopolitical vision”, while the New Atheists receive a real pasting. The traps laid in our consciences by the migrant crisis are also expertly mapped. There is even an account of Russell Brand that credits him with more insight than his detractors would ever allow.
Hobson believes that Christianity needs both to criticise and affirm secular humanism, avoiding any “nebulous synthesis”. He makes a short, probing foray into apologetics in which, drawing heavily on the Psalms, St Paul and Luther, he argues that Christians can and should internalise the argument between scepticism and trust, to create a “stable instability”. Christians are meant to be in two minds.
Interestingly, Hobson thinks that, nowadays in the West, national loyalty is offered on the condition that the nation serves secular humanism. This sounds like a bit of a stretch. If other nations and cultures consciously, aggressively, decisively reject secular humanism, in part because of their very different religious roots, then is universalism not a busted flush? Will national loyalty not need to look elsewhere for sustenance, especially if the nation is in jeopardy?
Hobson talks, vaguely but ominously, about the West standing up to threats coming from China, Russia and especially the Middle East. But it isn’t made clear what exactly he thinks will happen if the West doesn’t follow his advice and commit itself to secular humanism, proudly grounded in Christianity. For this, it seems, we will have to wait and see.
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