God Created Humanism by Theo Hobson

10 March 2017

Nick Spencer looks at an argument about Western thought

God Created Humanism: The Christian basis of secular values
Theo Hobson
SPCK £16.99
(978-0-281-07742-7)
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

 

WE ARE slowly losing our amnesia. Thanks to recent tomes — in particular Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (Harvard, 2007) and Larry Siedentop’s masterly Inventing the Individual (Penguin, 2015) — the idea that the modern world was hatched in a smoke-filled room by Voltaire, Kant, and Rousseau is losing to its credibility.

Before the Enlightenment, the West had a history that was marked by more than ignorance, theocratic violence, and industrial-scale witch-burning. Neither a commitment to equal human dignity (let us call this “humanism”) nor to a state whose legitimacy is grounded in its obligation to administer equal justice under the rule of law (let us call this “secularism”) is natural; neither is an invention of the 18th century. Both rest on deep Christian foundations.

Theo Hobson’s is the latest book to argue this case, which he narrates at a brisk pace and in engaging prose. From the Hebrew prophets, through the New Testament, Christendom, Reformation, Enlightenment, and 19th and 20th centuries, to a slightly longer chapter on where we are now, he tells the tale of how what he calls “secular humanism” came to be our common creed today.

His purpose is polemical rather than purely historical. Believers need to be less hostile to “secular humanism”, he argues, as it is the ideological child to which their faith has given birth; and non-believers need to be less hostile to secular humanism’s Christian roots, not least because, he intimates, it is only those roots that will sustain it in the long run. The “humanitarian ideals” that mark our time are not natural, nor “rationally deducible”, but the result of “complex cultural traditions, brewed over centuries . . . the main ingredient [of which] was the story of God taking the side, even taking the form, of the powerless victim”.

His case is provocative and well made, though perhaps not aided by his idiosyncratic use of the phrase “secular humanism”, which, idiomatically at least, describes a world-view that affirms humanism on non-religious, usually naturalistic, grounds. What he means is a commitment to humanism and to (a certain kind of) secularism, both of which do indeed have Christian roots and invite Christian support. “Secular humanism” may be a concise term, but it obscures rather than clarifies his point.

After taking a well-deserved break around the Millennium, history has resumed business as usual. Where we are going is once again a matter for uncertainty and even a little fear. Answering that will be easier if we understand where we have been, to which Hobson’s book is a helpful contribution.

 

Nick Spencer is the author of The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016).

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