Throughout history, what can generally be regarded as the ideals of Humanism have been responsible for all the benefits of human progress. Only Humanist ideals have motivated opposition to ignorance, superstition, dogma and tyranny. It is also Humanist ideals that have led to the reduction of poverty. Yet not only has credit for all this not been given where it is due, but humanists have been consistently denigrated and often persecuted for their efforts. This continues to this day with humanists being regarded as unworthy and Humanism being absurdly accused of being responsible, in a recent book, for the “wreck of western culture”. History has been written by those with an anti-Humanist bias, and this still greatly distorts current perceptions. The extent of this bias represents a Great Fraud, designed to perpetuate existing dominant religious ideologies. A brief survey of how history is commonly presented will illustrate how Humanism has been defrauded.
It is commonly acknowledged that the ancient Greeks made a significant contribution to human development. They were notable for seeking knowledge independent of religion, gaining knowledge by thinking, reasoning and theorising. They originated early scientific knowledge, the discussion of ethics, logic and the nature of being. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were some of the more famous, as well as Epicurus, who put forward the theory of “materialism”, which was that matter, composed of atoms, is the only reality. The Greeks were the first to advance the ideals of Humanism. Socrates, for his trouble, was condemned to death for atheism. The concepts of democracy and republican government, also basic Humanist ideals, were first practised by the ancient Greeks and Romans. While these Humanist achievements are admired and respected, Humanism itself is not credited. Thus begins the Great Fraud.
The Athenian schools of philosophy were closed down by the Christian emperor Justinian in 529 CE. After that followed the Dark Ages in Christian Europe, in which works of the ancient Greeks were lost, and from which it took Europe a thousand years to recover. Fraudulently, no blame is attached to Christianity for this. Meanwhile, the teachings of the Greek philosophers were preserved in the East and were continued by Muslim philosophers. During the Abbasid dynasty, which ruled from Baghdad from 750 to 1258, Jews worked side by side with Muslims translating the works of the ancient Greeks into Arabic. This Muslim civilisation rose to its peak and led the world due to scientific investigation and the synthesis of cultures, a success based on the seeking of Humanist ideals. Its demise occurred when philosophers began to question the dogmas of Islam and the “gate of ijtihad” (independent judgement) was closed by religious tyrants. Muslims, like some Christians, are still unable to recognise that Humanism, rather than religion, is the key to success, and its suppression the path to failure.
The seeds of the Renaissance were sown when the Europeans began to assimilate the works of the Eastern philosophers and scientists and with the revival of the works of Aristotle. Much of the work done by European scientists is claimed as Christian heritage, but to suggest as some do, that Christianity was the cause of the scientific revolution, is a fraud. Experiment as a way of obtaining knowledge and empirical observation as championed by Francis Bacon lay the foundations for scientific method. These were Humanist, not Christian ideals. Many such as Bruno and Galileo paid a high price for their pursuit of Humanist ideals. The tyranny of religion did not foster progress, as fraudulently claimed, it prevented it. Many philosophical arguments, such as those put forward by Galileo, Hume and Schopenhauer, had to be construed in the form of a dialog, so as to avoid scorn or persecution. Even arguments opposing those purporting to prove the existence of a deity were guardedly construed as if the Christian conception of the supernatural was the only culturally acceptable alternative.
In terms of the political expression of Humanist ideals, the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 was a significant achievement. That particular advance in the cause of human freedom, the first major Humanist victory in a millennium, was still thwarted for centuries by the doctrine of the divine right of kings. This persistent tyranny was not overcome until the Glorious Revolution and the Bill of Rights in 1689, establishing English parliamentary rule. Although again of course it is not recognised as such, this was a further significant victory for Humanist ideals in the cause of human progress. Even more so was the French Revolution of 1789, establishing forever the Humanist ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, rather than slavery to religious dogma and unmerited privilege, as desirable goals in human advancement. It has only been the anti-Humanist forces of fascism, sometimes falsely portrayed as Humanist by religionist ideologues, and tyrannical religious dogmatism itself, that has inhibited progress towards these goals.
In a global context, a significant contribution was made by the ideals of Humanism with the adoption of the United States Constitution 1789. This was followed by the ten amendments, also known as the Bill of Rights, adopted in 1791. In the First Amendment it is stated that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free expression thereof”. A comment regarding this in a letter by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 referred to the amendment as “building a wall of separation between Church and State”. This philosophy has become an important feature of public debate on religion in the U.S., and is regarded as having provided an important safeguard against sectarian influences on governments as well as a guarantee of religious freedoms. Without this significant Humanist restraint on the exercise of religious fervour, we may only speculate as to where the combination of military power and religious excess in the United States may have led in the past, considering where, even with this constraint in place, it has now led.
Perhaps the most significant historical fraud perpetrated by religious ideology is the claim that Christian civilisation was responsible for Western prosperity. It is true that the richest countries in the world mostly have a Protestant Christian heritage, however unfortunately for the religionist wishful thinkers, correlation does not prove causation. Prosperity arose historically when a number of preconditions were met, such as the rule of law and a degree of commercial freedom. But the primary ingredient of prosperity is a Humanist ideal, not a religious one. This is the will to utilise the benefits and the results of scientific method for the betterment of humanity, either through private commercialisation or via public provision. Prosperity and improvement in human well being is created by technical progress and the will to innovate. This is a Humanist aspiration and motivation. Far from being a product of Christianity, such ideals have been systematically opposed and suppressed by it. Civilisation has developed in spite of, not because of religion. Perhaps the sole exception to this is Shintoism, which as a nationalistic religion, did assist the economic progress of Japan, although mainly in response to perceived outside threats.
The most common argument supported by the dominant religious ideology, fraudulently claiming responsibility for modern prosperity, is the absurd idea that one particular variant of Christianity invented the concept of hard work. This is popularised by reference to Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”. However smugly satisfying the idea may be to Protestants, the so-called “work ethic” was neither new nor significant in the development of capitalism. As Karl Marx in fact recognised, what was significant was a new mode of production based on what he called capital. In the economic sense, capital refers to the machinery and equipment used in production. Capital is the embodiment of technology. Innovation has always been the key to increased prosperity, but is was the advent of physical capital over two hundred years ago that intensified its importance and benefits. Despite its sometimes negative applications and abuses, the basic process of increasing productivity via improvement in productive capital, securing the betterment of humanity, is a Humanist ideal. Prosperity is a product of Humanism, to suggest otherwise is to engage in fraudulent misrepresentation.
Of course some degree of economic freedom is required. A historical necessity to finance beneficial long-term investment, either private or public, is the availability of markets for financial capital. The existence of these had long been prevented by religious doctrines on usury, where money lending was prohibited or severely limited. A great Humanist historian William Lecky, who is largely unknown because of the oppressive dominant ideology, clearly identified the problem in his 1865 book, “History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe”:
"As it is quite certain that commercial and industrial enterprise cannot be carried on on a large scale without borrowing, and as it is equally certain that these loans can only be effected by paying for them in the shape of interest, it is no exaggeration to say that the Church had cursed the material development of civilisation. As long as her doctrine of usury was believed and acted on, the arm of industry was paralysed, the expansion of commerce was arrested, and all the countless blessings that have flowed from them were withheld"
The only advantage that may be ascribed to Protestantism in assisting the undoubted Humanist benefits that could be provided and redistributed as a result of capitalist production, was that Protestantism was more tolerant of Humanism than Catholicism. The crime of usury was abolished in England in 1624, when interest rates of up to 10 percent were permitted. The Catholic Church did not finally abolish its doctrine on usury until 1830. Tragically, Humanist ideals, including economic ones, are still severely curtailed in Islamic countries today. It was rejection of Humanist ideals, which began the seven-hundred-year relative decline in Islamic culture. The recent intensification of Islamism, together with its inherent social and economic handicaps, can only accelerate this relative decline, the consequences of which are foreboding for global peace and harmony.
Despite the great injustice and misrepresentation perpetrated against Humanism throughout history, perhaps the greatest fraud of all committed by our religionist opponents, and one that is still frequently propounded, is the pretension of religions to moral superiority. Despite the obvious moral failure of many priests, the injustice perpetrated against women and children in the name of religion, the dishonest claims of “Truth”, and the egregious violence of terrorism and wars motivated by religion, religious ideologues somehow mange to claim advantage in the perception of “moral clarity”. The fraudulent nature of this claims at least, is now becoming increasingly apparent.
Characterising the perceptions engendered by the dominant religious ideology as all a giant anti-Humanist fraud may perhaps be a slight exaggeration. However even Humanists may be to some extent victims of our culture’s pervasive anti-Humanist socialisation. By regarding this as a fraud, we may more effectively recognise the true benefits of our ideals. Without this recognition we may be less able to present our ideals as ones to which all should aspire. Without this aspiration our goals are unlikely to be achieved. So, consistent with history, humanity’s best hope lies with the exposure of the Great Fraud, and the promotion of the superior moral values of Humanism, based on universal principles of compassion, freedom, honesty and justice.
This paper was originally published in Austral;ian Humanist, No 77,
(C) Copyright 2005 John L Perkins