The Odd Couple: Humanism and Religious Revelation
By Pete Haug
One of the most remarkable books I’ve encountered is Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress.” It’s a sweeping review and synthesis of how human thought has shaped the progress of humankind. “Enlightenment” refers to an intellectual and philosophical movement, the Age of Enlightenment, that dominated European ideas during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Pinker draws on broad foundations of philosophy, science, and technology to argue that, despite assertions to the contrary, we live in a progressive world that’s improving daily. Copious examples illustrate how the world has gotten better over the last four centuries. This progress he attributes to humanism, “a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good.”
Humanism thus denies God. This “nonexistence” of God, with active denigration of religion, is a theme recurrent throughout Pinker’s book. Yet religion existed before recorded history and has continued to influence most societies. I applaud and mostly accept Pinker’s remarkable thesis about society’s development around concepts of human dignity, but I balk at his treatment of God. Here’s why.
Most religious revelations share a common flaw: the holy Scriptures were first spoken by their authors and only written down centuries after the words were first revealed. One exception is the Quran, which was recorded by scribes as Muhammad uttered his revelation. Once written, religious texts have been translated and interpreted multiple times. For example, English translations of the Quran differ subtly. Many Muslims believe that the Quran is understood only if read in its original language of Arabic.
Yet despite its intact sacred text, Islam has split into different branches because of disagreements over Hadith. These traditions, or sayings, of Muhammad, are “revered and received as a major source of religious law and moral guidance.”
A parlor game serves as metaphor. “Telephone” goes by many names. You’ve probably played it. One player in a small group writes a few short sentences describing an event and shows the paper to another player. Player two studies it briefly, trying to remember it exactly. Player two then whispers the message to player three, who whispers it to player four, and so on through six or eight players. The last player repeats the message aloud to the whole group. When the laughter dies down, player one reads the original message, again to much laughter.
Much like the game of Telephone, religious history is filled with “inexact renderings of only partially understood statements.” A plethora of unauthoritative interpretation of scriptures – narratives, guidance, admonitions, miracles, and other subjects of religious texts – has plagued all religions. Yet religions endure.
Common threads of religious experience
The miracle is how these fragments of religious revelation have inspired and motivated generations throughout millennia with common basic guidance:
- Love God because He loves you.
- Obey God out of love for Him.
- Love your fellow humans despite their shortcomings.
- Build your lives around this guidance, and you will have peace and prosperity.
Yet, if there is only one God, why are there so many religions? Differences are partially explained by the fact that religious have arisen at different times, under different circumstances, and in different cultures. Abrahamic traditions, recorded in the Bible and Quran, contain the sequence most familiar to us. The great prophets included Abraham, Moses, Christ, and, as recorded in the Quran, Muhammad. Each religion validates the earlier religious dispensations. Many scholars believe the three Magi in Christian tradition were Zoroastrian priests seeking in Christ to find the fulfillment of prophecies in their own religion.
Humanistic ideals from religion
People, Americans in particular, tend to be suspicious of authority. Our nation, founded during the Enlightenment, rebelled against an authoritative king who exploited his American colonies and their natural resources unjustly. The armed rebellion that established our nation was revolutionary in more than one sense: The social revolution that created our nation also birthed a democracy with revolutionary ideals, stated in the Declaration of Independence. Though imperfectly implemented, those ideals have inspired nations worldwide since first disseminated.
Our democracy has weathered many challenges and has stood firm. Part of the reason is that our founding ideals are based in religious values. Interpretations vary, but the values stand. This is where Pinker’s argument falters. The incorporation of American ideals into other democracies suggests their widespread appeal. Yet these ideals, which predate humanism, are derived from religion.
A benevolent authority
Consider the possibility of a benevolent authority trusted by most of humanity. Guided by this authority, the world could establish a just, equitable, peaceful civilization that embraced all humanity. What a world it would be! My next column will begin to explore the possibilities.
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