The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity, by Daniel J. Mahoney (Encounter Books, 163 pp., $23.99)
In his new book, Daniel J. Mahoney argues that a creed has emerged to replace Christianity among many Western elites. Drawing on the work of nineteenth-century American Catholic apologist Orestes Brownson, Mahoney describes “the religion of humanity,” which derived from the positivism of Auguste Comte. Brownson, a primary subject of Mahoney’s book, understood this quasi-religion intimately, having been a pantheist and materialist before his conversion in 1845. Before then, Brownson saw a religion of humanity as the true essence of Christianity, but later came to realize that it was opposed not only to traditional Christianity but also to political liberty.
Mahoney draws on a tradition of reflection on humanitarianism, including Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Hungarian philosopher Aurel Kolnai, and Russian Orthodox thinker Vladimir Soloviev. As Mahoney frames the debate, “woefully ignorant of sin and of the tragic dimension of the human condition, [humanitarianism] reduced religion to a project of this-worldly amelioration. Free-floating compassion substitutes for charity, and a humanity conscious of its unity (and utter self-sufficiency) puts itself in the place of the visible and invisible Church.” From this perspective, the rise of humanitarianism is a story of the fading of Christianity. Indeed, Mahoney cites French philosopher Pierre Manent to explain that humanitarianism may actually represent the last flowering of Christian charity, and could have arisen only in cultures with a Christian tradition.
To develop this concept, Mahoney turns to Kolnai, whose work is being rediscovered here in the United States. In his 1944 essay, “The Humanitarian versus the Religious Attitude,” Kolnai traces the combination of relativism and moralism that characterizes humanitarian politics. Humanitarianism is relativistic because, without a transcendent source of value, all reasons for action become equally valid. But this relativism is shot through with intense moralism, particularly in regard to individual rights, which it derives from Christianity’s emphasis on the personal soul. For the humanitarian, all obstacles to individual rights must be abolished, since no obligation, especially one with a theological basis, can be based on anything but superstition.
In this, Kolnai is in accord with the Italian philosopher Augusto del Noce, who wrote 20 years later that, with modernity, “everything becomes purely an object of commerce. This is symbolized by the disappearance of modesty; in the most elementary forms everything is reduced to ‘water, sleep, sex,’ falling, in short, into pure animalism.” Kolnai, too focuses on modesty and the range of intimate relationships that virtue was meant to regulate. For the humanitarian, living up to or in accord with virtue is unnecessary because virtue is unnecessary—the category implies that people may want something that is not good. “Humanitarianism,” explains Mahoney, “ultimately impairs human cognition, since a horizon that deifies undifferentiated ‘human needs’ has a hard time acknowledging the ‘unpleasant,’ the truly morally demanding dimensions of the moral life.”
Paradoxically, now that humanitarianism has fully cut itself loose from Christianity, its categories and language have inserted themselves back into Christian thought. This infiltration prevents Christians at times from noticing that they’re arguing not in Christian categories but humanitarian ones. Almost every national bishops’ conference in the West, for example, speaks the language of humanitarianism. Mahoney sees this as the problem with much of Pope Francis’s language as well— too often, the language of mercy is emptied of theological content, and condemnations of “rigidity” seem to echo a rights-based view of the person. This trend is problematic because humanitarian language is antithetical to the Christian message, and also because it elides the sharp criticism of humanitarian thinking offered by, among others, Pope Emeritus Benedict. Benedict clearly distinguished between authentic Christian teaching and the “humanitarian moral message” in his Introduction to Christianity and his Regensberg lecture, both of which Mahoney discusses. Mahoney calls for the return of an older way of reasoning about our moral selves, which involves a transcendent dimension through which we can know our obligations to ourselves and one another.
Mahoney acknowledges that many of his co-religionists already accept his message—but why should atheists care that humanitarianism seeks to replace Christianity, when they reject the significance of the West’s moral collapse? Mahoney explains, using the powerful witness of Solzhenitsyn, that without a divine warrant, humanitarianism points to tyranny and the negation of true politics. We may already be seeing what a post-Christian politics might look like. The humanitarian religion of the twenty-first century will not be the same one as that of the twentieth; rather than Soviet Man, it will elevate the “woke” protester or Twitter provocateur. Both the authoritarian and racialist Right and the identity-obsessed Left offer glimpses of a post-Christian politics, and neither is a model for a healthy democracy.
Indeed, as Christianity fades, we don’t see a decline in religious fervor or doctrinal vigilance. Humanitarianism is itself a religion, and as Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule has argued, modern secularism has its own eschatology (the eternal overcoming of “hatred”), its own sacraments and holidays, and various prohibitions and commandments, usually centered around specific groups. Coupled with the rise of various would-be pagan religions and the cult of the self, these movements represent a retreat from rational reflection on politics.
Catholic scholar Christopher Dawson once wrote that the modern project, having cut itself off from God, “had entered so triumphantly on its career of explaining nature and man to itself by its own unaided power, ended in a kind of rational suicide by explaining itself away.” The Idol of our Age seeks to reconnect rationality to a larger tradition of thought.
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