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Avoid the idealistic nonsense

Regarding Paul Andersen’s op-ed “Drop Religion and Embrace Humanism,” on Aug. 18.

Paul Andersen had an important point to make, with which I happen to agree: “If your church rules out contrary beliefs and denigrates others in the name of God, give it up.”

But the idea that we’re better off without any religion at all is worthy of question – precisely because “we’ve already been there, done that.” Marxism, fascism, and unfettered capitalism are all outgrowths of secular humanism which have cut themselves off from the original religious impulse, i.e., the deep human need to go beyond the ego and its separatistic tendencies.

Granted that most Main Street religions have less to do with transcending the ego than with trying to give it a boost – thereby furthering the sectarian violence Mr. Andersen rightly decries – still, do we really want to throw the baby out with the bath and do away with religion altogether?

Because what happens in the wake of throwing the religious impulse out the window is that it comes back through the basement door in the form of all the various utopian idealisms that have plagued the world since the 19th century. Then you find yourself believing in all that idealistic nonsense about human progress and the world getting better and better every day.

This does not only include the more obvious forms of failed utopianism like Marxism and fascism. Even President Woodrow Wilson’s intervention in World War I was not based on some primary “religious” impulse, but on the plainly secular humanistic intent of “making the world safe for democracy,” thereby, supposedly, opening up the way for humanity’s unimpeded forward march through history. What we ended up with turned out to be something quite different, as the subsequent history of the 20th century goes to show.

Nowhere was was this discrepancy between between secular idealism and reality itself more apparent than at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, which celebrated the whole idea of humanity’s progress. All the different pavilions were organized like a theme park around this one central idea.

Conclusive proof of how utopia was just around the corner was provided in the form of all the latest gadgets of technological engineering, farm equipment, kitchen accessories, etc. – all supposedly making possible a quality of life far beyond humanity’s wildest imaginations.

And right in the midst of all these paeans to Human Progress came the announcement of Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the declaration of World War II. So much for the utopias of secular humanism.

What we are now facing with the secular neocons presently steering U.S. foreign policy seems to be just another extrapolation of precisely the same kind of utopian idealism that led us into World War I.

It is another case of trying to make, this time, the Middle East “safe for democracy” by imposing on Iraq and other Islamic countries OUR solution to THEIR problems – as though a forcible demonstration of our military power in the Arab-Muslim region would ever be able, as some neocons suggest, to help it embrace modernity and make it it less angry at the world.

That is why, as an alternative to Paul Andersen’s proposal of dropping religion and embracing humanism, I would suggest instead that not only religionists, but secular humanists as well, give up the separatistic and utopian idealistic tendencies inherent in their particular “ism”, and join in the deeply human religious impulse to transcend ourselves – both individually, and collectively, as a species.

Perhaps, only then, will we get a taste if what it means to be “homo sapiens” in more than name only.

Joel Brence, M.D.

Aspen


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