I would like to explore the somewhat counter-intuitive claim that humanism is inherently fascist. But first I will need to define my terms: what do I mean by “humanism” and what do I mean by “fascist”?
By “humanism” I mean secular humanism. I’m not talking about Renaissance humanism or Christian humanism. And I am using “fascist” in the popular sense of the violent imposition of a particular ideology, not the specific ideas of Benito Mussolini or any other self-avowed political fascist.
So in what way is humanism fascist? Well, the first thing we might say about “secular humanism” is that it is a contradiction in terms. Humanism, if it is about anything, is about human beings and being human. Implicit in the very idea of humanity is the assumption that there are universal human characteristics. In other words, there is such a thing as “human nature”.
We can quibble over the contours of the “nature – nurture” debate, but no-one with even the flimsiest grasp of human history and prehistory can deny that religiosity is part of human nature, that it is a natural expression of what it means to be human. Which is why some anthropologists refer to humanity as “homo religiosus”.
So secular humanism is a misnomer. But it has a useful function for evangelical atheists. It smuggles in the a dubious assumption that atheism is our natural state, and that religion is a purely cultural accretion. But this is clearly untrue. Atheism is a learnt doctrine, derivative of and purely reactive to, theism.
The atheist narrative tries to invert this fact and persuade us that religiosity is merely an epi-phenomenon, an archaic, superstitious, unnatural con-job imposed on unsuspecting dupes by the church and other nefarious entities. In the name of secular humanism atheists are therefore committed to destroying the natural religious impulse in people for their own good.
This is a form of fascism. The Reign of Terror which flowed ineluctably from the atheistic ideals of the French Revolution shows us the true face of fascistic atheism. But there is a deeper reason why humanism is inherently fascist, which the French debacle perfectly illustrates.
The Jacobins were both political and religious revolutionaries. Their targets were both the monarchy (and aristocracy) and the church. In the place of the deposed monarchy they installed democracy (or tried to anyway) and in the place of God and the church they installed Reason and the philosophes. At the height of their rationalist hubris, the revolutionaries even renamed Notre Dame “The Temple of Reason”.
So at the heart of the French Enlightenment and the Enlightenment more generally was the re-invention of humanity as a purely rational animal. This was the real revolution of “The Age of Reason”. The essential nature or characteristic of humanity itself was transformed, heralding the beginning of the end of “homo religiosus” and the dawn of “homo rationalis”.
Instead of the ontological claim that human beings are related to a transcendent reality, and that we are in fact made in the image of this transcendent reality, the Enlightenment thinkers, following Descartes, argued that all we really know is what we can think and reason our way to knowing. We are not made in the image of God, we are made in the image of Reason.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, faith in Reason came to replace faith in God as the primary defining characteristic of what it means to be human. Soon Reason itself (with its proud capital ‘R’) was treated as a god, or rather, as the Hebrew prophets would instantly recognize, as an idol. The philosophes appeared to have forgotten the First Commandment brought down from Mount Sinai, “You shall put no god before your God”.
My contention is that idolatry is in fact the root cause of all forms of fascism. If you make an idol out of any particular human characteristic, you instantly create a hierarchy of value with your idol at the top. If Reason is at the top of your hierarchy, what happens to emotion? What happens to intuition? And what happens to reason itself? Reason is not God, but treated as such, it first becomes tyrannical, lording it over all other human capacities, and eventually collapses under its own weight. It deconstructs itself. Which is exactly what happened in the twentieth century.
If you make an idol of your racial identity and put that at the top of your value hierarchy, what happens to all the other races? And ultimately, what happens to your own race? Just when you thought you were the Master Race, you find that morally, you have actually become the Nazi scum of the Earth. If you make an idol out of the workers, what happens to everyone else? What happens to the ruling class and the middle class? And what, ultimately, happens to the workers themselves? The Communist experiments of the twentieth century witnessed the greatest massacre of ordinary working people ever seen in all recorded history.
According to Yuval Noah Harari, the two world wars of the last century were similar to the wars of religion a few centuries earlier in that they were ideologically motivated, except that these were not religious wars but humanist wars. He identifies three competing humanisms fighting for supremacy: “liberal humanism”, “socialist humanism” and “evolutionary humanism”.
At the turn of the century, it seemed that liberal humanism was unassailable. But then came the First World War and the Russian Revolution and liberalism was suddenly in serious trouble. Two rival ideologies, the socialist humanism of Lenin and the fascist humanism and racialist humanism of Mussolini and Hitler seemed poised to take humanity into the future.
The Nazi experiment ended with their military defeat in 1945. The Communist experiment ended with the fall of the Soviet empire in 1989. Liberal humanism emerged triumphant once more. Some saw this victory as so decisive as to herald not just the End of the War of Rival Humanisms, but as the End of History.
But history is clearly far from over. Harari predicts that the logical outcome of secularism and liberal humanism is “homo deus”: basically, in the absence of God (his death is taken for granted) we will attempt to make ourselves into gods. We will strive for omnipotence, omniscience and immortality, primarily through the application of ever more sophisticated technology.
I disagree. The liberal humanist experiment is not over yet. But it does show signs of going the same way as its sister humanisms, into the great dustbin of history, unless it can pull itself back from the brink. Strange as it sounds, liberalism can be as extremist as any other -ism.
Both the socialist and evolutionary humanist pipe-dreams ended in disaster. Between them they destroyed the lives of hundreds of millions of innocent people, and plumbed the very depths of inhumanity. Paradoxically, though avowedly humanist, the actual value of a human life was as nothing to them. Both ideologies were fascistic to the core.
The Nazis were “evolutionary” fascists, honestly believing that they represented the evolutionary tip of humanity, the “ubermenschen” or “supermen” of the world. The Communists were “socialist” fascists, and sincerely believed that forcing their egalitarian vision on everyone would usher in a beautiful utopia of brotherly love, prosperity and peace.
They both went the way of fascistic violence and ended up destroying themselves. Let’s hope the same thing doesn’t happen to liberal humanism.
Perhaps liberal humanism is immune to the fascist virus? Sadly not. And the evidence is mounting. Jonah Goldberg’s excellent book Liberal Fascism shows how easy it is for liberalism to adopt fascist strategies. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what you put at the top of your humanist hierarchy. If you make an idol out of liberalism, or even of completely worthy causes such as anti-racism or anti-fascism, it will always end up biting you in the ass.
Who can seriously deny that Antifa are actually a fascistic organisation, reminiscent of the brown shirts? Who can fail to notice how illiberal and intolerant public discourse has become? Political correctness has imposed a liberal mono-culture in humanities departments and other public institutions. Freedom of speech is under threat, more now than it has been for decades, and on liberal grounds.
Brave New World and 1984 are the two classic dystopian visions of fascist humanism. Who can fail to see them both mirrored in our contemporary society? All our idols twist and warp society, including the ever-present idolatry of money, the worship of Mammon.
No idol, however well-meaning, can ever take the place of God. Why? Because God is beyond all human hierarchies. He is not one element in the system trying to dominate the system. He transcends the system, and therefore includes it all. Fascism results from one part of the whole taking over everything else. It results from the self-defeating attempt to raise a human value to the status of a god, a temptation which can only be effectively resisted through a prior commitment to the true transcendent God above and beyond all human commitments.
The only sane human societies are ones established on the rock of the true transcendent God. This is the essence of what it means to be human, the essence of what it is to be “homo religiosus”, and the essence of the Law followed by Moses and the Prophets and Jesus: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and love your neighbour as yourself”.
If we are to restore sanity to the Western World, we need to restore the more benign meaning of “secular humanism”, where “secular” refers to a space of religious freedom and tolerance. We need to keep Church and State separate and respect the rights of individuals to follow their own faith or none. We learnt that lesson in the wars of religion.
But if we make atheism the State Religion by default, then we open the door to all the dangers of idolatry we saw play out in the twentieth century. Were Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung and friends not idols for the godless? Did they not believe that they were accountable to no-one above them because there was no-one above them?
Liberal humanism is different, of course. It doesn’t look likely that there will be a liberal totalitarian state, although some people fear that this is happening surreptitiously through the back door. Liberal humanism is actually the best we’ve got, tempered of course by its natural spouse, conservatism. This is the marriage that should keep us on the straight and narrow.
A liberal humanism, rooted in the humanism of the sixteenth century, rather than the militant atheist humanism of the nineteenth, will surely survive the future, with a little help from its friends.