Why Humanism is Problematic

By Spahic Omer

Man is created to submit to and worship his Creator, Almighty Allah. In order to satiate man’s thirst for worship, Allah kept sending His messengers and prophets throughout human history, from Adam to Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon them all). As soon as man was placed on earth, he was promised that he will not be left alone. In his relentless pursuits of meaning and happiness, man will never walk alone. Divine guidance will be his constant companion. 

Man is Allah’s honourable creation. Hence, Allah is always there for him. In a Creator-vs-creation and Master-vs-servant relationship man belongs to Allah and Allah belongs to him. Man originated in the heavenly realm, lives on earth under the auspices of his Creator’s love, care and providence, and ultimately returns to his Creator. Man goes back to a state and context where it all once began, concluding thus his dramatic existential journey and completing a consequential ontological cycle.

The Qur’an says on this: “We said: ‘Get ye down all from here; and if, as is sure, there comes to you Guidance from me, whosoever follows My guidance, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. But those who reject Faith and belie Our Signs, they shall be companions of the Fire; they shall abide therein’” (al-Baqarah, 38-39).

“He said: ‘Get ye down, both of you, all together, from the Garden, with enmity one to another: but if, as is sure, there comes to you Guidance from Me, whosoever follows My Guidance, will not lose his way, nor fall into misery. But whosoever turns away from My Message, verily for him is a life narrowed down, and We shall raise him up blind on the Day of Judgment” (Ta Ha, 123-124).

However, the overwhelming majority of mankind rejected the divine interventions, and with the aim of somehow satisfying the intrinsic religious cravings of theirs, they invented myriads of forms of polytheism, paganism and mythology (God-lore) instead. In the end, a colourful mosaic of religious beliefs and practices emerged, spanning millennia and penetrating each and every corner of the globe. 

The idea that man was made to submit and worship never faded away. Rather, it kept intensifying as well as diversifying, because of the fact that what was served on the religious platters fell way short of gratifying the ever-hankering soul and intelligence of most people. Religions and their denominations grew exponentially, as did the pantheons of gods and goddesses. So much so that the hallmark of every ancient society was their religiousness, both personal and institutionalized, and their complex religious thoughts. 

Some people went so far as to consider that there are as many deities and paths leading to the truth as there are people. What was important is that a person believed in a supernatural source and power, and that he remained faithful. It comes as no surprise that history is virtually nothing but a compendium of religious slants and patterns, which as much vulgarly as primitively defined the earth-heaven and man-divinity relations. Having hitherto rejected the revealed knowledge and direction, man, overwhelmed and lost, was despondently looking for answers. 

At the centre of the ideological ups and downs of humankind stood the religious and socio-political elites. They not only ruled, but also abided as intermediaries between earth and heaven and between ordinary people and divinity. Rulers were allegedly divinely inspired and guided. They were partly human and partly divine. They enjoyed a special treatment in heaven, so they deserved a correspondingly special place and treatment on earth. 

Needless to say, that that is how the theories of the divine rights of kings, God’s mandation, rulers as reincarnations of gods, and finally absolutism, came about. Religion was seen as the most effective means of exploitation and manipulation. Religion was the élan vital of cultural manifestations and civilizational undertakings. Religion and civilization were two sides of the same coin. 

For example, whenever one speaks about any aspect of ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, Indian, Chinese, Roman and Persian civilization, one is bound to end up speaking about a component of either an institutionalized religion or an idiosyncratic supernatural conviction. Either way, faith was the modus operandi and the criterion. However, like most of other things in life, that faith was unknown, unproven and untestable. It did not really work. Blind allegiance to god(s) and rulers – the latter supposedly being the former’s agents – was all that was expected from a “religious” person. No adequate level of either freedom or democracy was in situ.

Greek humanism  

Having thus let down the expectations of man and his inborn yearnings, religions – as concepts and organized structures of thought and traditions – started to lose appeal. Such was the case perhaps for the first time in classical Greece owing to the influences of some of its greatest philosophical minds bent on an intellectual and religious rebellion, such as Protagoras (died c. 415 BC).

Man was turning away from god(s) and heaven and towards himself. Man was to be perceived at once as a subject and object, as the beginning of life adventures and their ultimate end. In so doing, man needed a helping hand neither of fictional and impotent deities, nor of heaven as a barren arena of inquiry and hope.

Man was self-sufficient, in which case the prevalent religious dogmas needed not be rejected outright and immediately. Gradation was key. What was needed at first was a measured separation from all forms of organized faith and divinity, followed by laying emphasis on human individual and collective potentials as the sole foundation of integrity, virtue and wisdom. Even if there were gods out there and if there were supernatural spheres, people were tired of their rather “ineffective interferences”. They were becoming obsolete and unwanted. 

It was a time when man needed to rely on himself and his capacities alone. He was urged to calibrate the managing of his personal affairs and to find happiness. He was urged to do so exclusively on his own terms. The truth was not out there, but down here. It furthermore did not reside outside in some remote and shadowy places associated with imaginary entities, but inside human beings latent in the deepest recesses of their corporeal and rational configurations.

Like so – at any rate – the proponents of these ideas planted the seeds of yet another ideology-cum-religion: humanism. According to it, the idea of god(s) has been either marginalized or totally neutralized, in some cases yet humanized, whereas the idea of man has been deified. Man has been declared a deity as an alternative. His creative and inventive powers were placed on the pedestal, knocking those of god(s) off their perch. The agency of human beings was set to reign supreme. 

In this latest religion of humanism, human geniuses performing in diverse fields were regarded as prophets, their words revelations, and their feats miracles. Theology became sociology (social studies) and humanology, humanities or human sciences (study and interpretation of human beings), while religious temples were increasingly rivalled by coliseums, auditoriums, theatres, stadia and other sanctums of human interests. Everything that was human was either celebrated or tried to be put into perspective: successes, failures, tragedies, strengths, weaknesses, breakthroughs, innovations, wants and passions. The battle lines were clearly drawn and what followed next were perpetual wars between man and god(s), earth and heaven, and between the kingdoms of man and the kingdom of god(s).

Protagoras as the father of Greek humanism – and humanism in general – is reported to have said: “Man is the measure of all things, of the things which are, that they are, and of the things which are not, that they are not.” This maxim became the mantra of humanism in all times and places. Protagoras became its biggest prophet, an idol.

The meaning of the maxim is that man and nobody else is the source of the import, purpose and legitimacy with regard to himself, life in general, knowledge (epistemology), values (axiology) and beauty (aesthetics). Man is the master of his own existential and also civilizational destiny. There can be a silver lining in whatever happens things are based on human freedom and choice, which are not merely acknowledged, but as well-glorified. Initiatives and executions are human-centric, and that is what matters the most. As a result, man is set but to improve and “grow”. There is no limit to human optimism and hope. Obeying deities could lead a person towards one direction only, that is, towards those deities, but living freely and following one’s amazing capabilities could lead a person anywhere.

The above maxim of Protagoras exemplified a profound philosophy, while at the same time condensing its remarkable complexity. Thus, Protagoras was regarded as the first professional sophist or teacher, about whom, nevertheless, Plato and Aristotle said that he did not seek the truth but only victory in debates and was prepared to use dishonest means to achieve it (Britannica).

However, there was more to the criticism of Plato and Aristotle of Protagoras than meets the eye. The problem was Protagoras’ penchant for a defiant humanism which was generating all sorts of philosophical, social and religious difficulties. According to Ugo Zilioli, Plato interpreted Protagoras’ maxim that “man is the measure of all things” as “implying that each perception and even each belief is true for the one who has it. Were this true, Plato asks through Socrates, what sense is to be made of Protagoras’ teaching? What would he be able to teach if each of us were the sole judge of his own private and unerring perceptions? Socrates polemically asks: ‘How on earth can it be the case that Protagoras is wise, so that he can justly think himself fit to be a teacher of others at high fees, whereas we are more ignorant, and have to go to his lessons, though each of us is himself the measure of his own wisdom?’” It is no coincidence that Plato emphasized that it was God, and not man, who was the measure of all things (Ugo Zilioli, Protagoras and the Challenge of Relativism).

Renaissance humanism

In the wake of the establishment of the Roman Empire and its adoption of Christianity as an official imperial creed, the significance and jurisdiction of religion, on the whole, took a new turn. A new hope was given. The ultimate victory of heaven and its calling was deemed nigh. All forms of paganism, mythology and falsehood overall were no match for the sweeping spiritual force of Christianity. The global and highly proselytizing character of the new religion was proving exceptionally profitable.

However, just like its distorted counterparts in history, Christianity, too, quickly degenerated into a historical and civilizational liability. As a religious potency, it started to decline and its attractiveness fade away as much in the arena of world religions as in the eyes of its followers. The emergence of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) as the final messenger of Allah to mankind – who restored the altered teachings of Prophet ‘Isa (Jesus) and at the same time abrogated them – and the subsequent rapid spread of Islam all over the world, spelled disaster for any future globalized prospect of Christianity.

Consequently, Christianity was assailed more and more from the inside as well as outside. The assaults varied and were ever more ideologized, bearing upon the very essence of the Christian faith. The process culminated in the advent of the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries that marked a transition from the Middle Ages to modernity. It also served as a prelude to the Enlightenment and, by extension, to the modern materialistic civilization whose benchmarks from the very beginning were scientific discoveries, technological innovations and material progress.

Another characteristic of the Renaissance is that it strove to revive the spirit and achievements of the classical Greco-Roman antiquity (from 8th century BC to 6th century AC), elevating them to a whole new level in the light of the exploratory disposition and prevalent discoveries of the day. There was a surge of interest in the classical scholarship and values, which was preceded by a long period of cultural decline and stagnation. The interest connoted a reaction to the recurring failures of the political and religious leaderships to lead the way amid the mounting challenges that undermined political and religious legitimacies. The situation was so dire that people were pessimistic about the future. 

No answers were forthcoming, therefore, the best way was to look for potential solutions in the past. Thus, “renaissance” means “rebirth”, that is to say, the classical era or antiquity was reborn after a long hiatus, and was robed with the mantle of the existing cultural and intellectual tides. The blame was laid mostly at the door of Christianity and its institutions. Among other things, there was the increasing failure of the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire to provide a stable and unifying framework for the organization of spiritual and material life (Britannica).

The legitimacy and power of the Church, and the legitimacy and power of its Bible, were shaken and compromised, first by the split of European Christianity and, second, by the uneasy relationship between faith and the fast-emerging empirical science. Certain religious beliefs were likewise proven empirically flawed or, at best, seriously questionable. Christians often found themselves “on the back foot”, as they attempted to respond to such alarming developments. Seyyed Hossein Nasr said that predominantly these factors were decisive in the emergence of the Renaissance as a reactive force, which in turn was a main reason why Christianity lost the world to science, and why the Christian view of the order of nature was eclipsed by the scientific worldview during the ensuing Scientific Revolution (Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Religion and the Order of Nature)

Martin Luther (d. 1546), the seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation, was of those who did not mince his words when it came to criticising the religious state of affairs in Christendom and passing judgments on the blameworthy parties. He, for instance, said about the pope, his bishops and the complete body of clergy, that they were unbelievers and non-Christians. He even called the pope “Antichrist”. Martin Luther wrote in his “On War against the Turk”: “And if the emperor were to destroy the unbelievers and non-Christians, he would have to begin with the pope, bishops and clergy and perhaps not spare us, or himself; for there is enough horrible idolatry in his own empire to make it unnecessary for him to fight the Turks for this cause” (Martin Luther, On War against the Turk).

One of the central concepts of the Renaissance was Greek humanism. This was the case because virtually all failures and negativities were associated, one way or another, with the futile religious thought and the corruption of the complex pyramid of its clergies, whereas all successes and positivities – like those connected with philosophy, science and technology – were associated with the free and inquisitive spirit of man. All hope seemed to be in the hands of thefree and enlightened man, whereas all forms of despondency, in contrast, seemed to be inextricably linked to the religious sphere. Nobody doubted that the two ranges were moving in opposite directions.

People stood at a crossroads. Some hard choices had to be made, and it was anything but hard to guess correctly what people were made to be inclined to. The competences and prospects of man were acclaimed across all fields at the expense of the waning benedictions of God and His religion. The latter did not have to be discarded altogether, nonetheless, but was spontaneously side-lined and was put in the shade by the rising brilliance of the former. 

Admittedly this was the first phase in the evolution of the phenomenon of irreligion or non-religion as the ethos of modernity and its affiliative worldviews. The process eventually gave rise to such sophisticated and extreme systems of thought as atheism, secularism, agnosticism, nihilism and hedonism. Religion became the bane of modern materialistic (irreligious) civilizational existence. The feeling morphed into what could be described as ubiquitous religiophobia, which continued to plague the modern man and his domains up to the present time.

(Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer is an academic in Department of History and Civilisation, AbdulHamid AbuSulayman Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences. The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of IIUMToday.)

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