Religion, Marx said, is the opiate of the masses. But some drugs are better than others. The religion of our day, writes political philosopher Daniel J. Mahoney, is a “religion of humanity” or even “humanitarianism” and takes not God but man as the measure of all things. It’s not a new religion, really. In The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman called it the “religion of civilization,” noting that it pops up in the ancient world as well as the modern. Mahoney traces its contemporary incarnation (or perhaps excarnation, given its anti-Christian and abstract quality) to the 19th-century philosopher Auguste Comte, “one of the unseen masters of our world.” Comte understood that secularism as secularism wouldn’t work. Man is Homo religiosus. Unfortunately, worshipers of a mankind not made in the divine image will often destroy it once they realize that their idol is not worth the incense. Humanitarianism apart from a transcendent moral order quickly becomes “anti-human in decisive respects.”
“How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity,” the subtitle of Mahoney’s The Idol of Our Age, might make the casual reader imagine that this book is simply about how secular humanism ruins Christianity. There is that, particularly in his chapter titled “Pope Francis’s Humanitarian Version of Catholic Social Teaching.” Mahoney locates Francis “at the intersection of authentic Christianity and a misplaced contemporary humanitarianism.” The pope, only “half-humanitarian,” makes a full mess. Among Francis’s negative critics I’ve read, Mahoney takes the pope’s official documents the most seriously, finding in his work continuity with the Catholic tradition and, even in the most controversial documents, important insights. But he also criticizes the inconsistencies that smack of the young Jorge Bergoglio’s youthful Peronism. For instance, Pope Francis talks localism and decentralization and then also wealth redistribution and a world state. It’s no surprise that one side of this inconsistency will usually win out; Francis too often plays acolyte to left-wing autocrats such as Evo Morales and the Castros, exercising what historian Carlos Eire calls a “preferential option for oppressors.”
So too in his teachings on personal morality. There he combines challenging gospel words with muddled appeals to mercy that often seem shorn of the categories of sin and responsibility: “Pope Francis has interesting and important things to say about sin, relativism, and divine mercy. But he does not put these insights together.” As with the political thought, one can see how confusion and a surrender to the strongest impulses result. Francis “tends to conflate divine mercy and democratic compassion.” Such a vision, when not at the service of tyrants, generally elicits boredom in the not quite faithful. Mahoney doesn’t say it, but the vaunted “Francis effect” has been to depress religious and priestly vocations, not to mention religious practice by ordinary people. Priestly vocations, after increasing for more than 20 years under John Paul II and Benedict, declined by 2.6 percent between 2012 and 2015, according to the Vatican Press Office. And, the Pew Research Center reported last year, from 2012 to 2018 self-reported weekly Mass attendance among American Catholics dropped from 41 to 38 percent.
Humanitarian religion ruins not only real religion. Indeed, our modern humanitarian illusions “remind us of the protean character of the ideological lie under the conditions of modernity.” The lie is to deny the spiritual and political nature of man “in any substantial sense of the terms.” Mahoney, whose career has been dedicated to the defense and recovery of the conservative and largely pre-political foundations of the modern liberal order, follows French Catholic political philosopher Pierre Manent in arguing that the flight from religion — in particular, from Christianity — has led to a flight from any authentic political life. This depoliticization is on stage front and center in the EU, with its “democracy deficit,” but finds its home also in the American administrative state and elsewhere in our modern world.
Mahoney’s small chapter on Jürgen Habermas, the modern European giant of humanitarian “post-political” thinking, reveals a European intellectual filled with democratic compassion and, the heart of humanitarian political religion, rights talk. Habermas’s language is “inelegant,” his thought “bloodless and abstract,” with nearly no reference to foreign policy. Why should there be, anyway, when nations and particular communities are destined (he hopes) to melt away into a global community? In the Book of Revelation, the nations are pictured parading into the City of God; in Elder Jürgen’s apocalypse, nations are “legal fictions” that will knuckle under to the City of Davos. He knows that the positive “rights” to material welfare (and increasingly to self-definition) are not to be discussed as matters of prudence. They are to be treated as moral absolutes, even though, in a technical sense, there are no moral absolutes since there is no moral law to be discovered. Mahoney cites the fine adaptation of Kant’s lines by the poet Czeslaw Milosz: “Modern man finds himself with only ‘the starry sky above and no moral law within.’”
And yet, even without the moral law, human beings will invent a moral law, albeit one that is arbitrary, confused, and confusing even to its enforcers. Right now we are subject to the confusions of those who, though they tell us that all women must be believed, cannot define what a woman is. They have no problems with euthanasia and abortion but find the idea of capital punishment and just war . . . well, they just can’t even. But their absolutes will be relativized by the next bosses. What else would one expect in an age in which, as Mahoney puts it quite elegantly, “relativism coexists with boundless moralism”?
The humanitarian’s anti-humanism is what C. S. Lewis called “the abolition of man.” Man as the measure of all things really means some men will measure — compassionately, of course! — all things for everybody else. Democratic compassion is the tenderness that might lead to loss of work or deplatforming on Twitter because of “misgendering” others. But given the opportunity, it can, as Flannery O’Connor said, lead to the gas chambers. Bye-bye, starry sky.
Contrary to the official humanitarian narrative, the totalitarian movements of the 20th century were not caused by “totalizing truth” or intellectual “monism.” They were caused by the denial of truth, especially a moral law within. Mahoney in his closing chapter meditates on the nature of conscience, which he calls both “our portal to the natural law” and, following King Solomon and Pope Benedict, “a listening heart.” Not merely a “source of feelings and intuitions,” conscience is a “cognitive and moral faculty” giving us “access to an objective moral order that transcends mere subjectivity.” It is, per Benedict, “a reason that is open to the language of being” and not limited to the instrumental rationality that dominates our concerns. To gain strength and the capacity to discern good or evil in new situations, conscience doesn’t go it alone but relies on “civilizing traditions and memories.”
Mahoney is no facile optimist or facile pessimist. He’s a prophet calling us to listen with the heart, avoid the humanitarian siren song, and heed the civilizing memories of some figures, too little remembered, whom he introduces in his middle chapters. Orestes Brownson, who warned of political atheism’s threat to republican government, and Vladimir Solovyov, who in his book War, Progress, and the End of History vividly paints a picture of how evil “may lodge itself in the highest moral principles,” are in Mahoney’s cloud of witnesses. So too are Solzhenitsyn and Aurel Kolnai. In The Red Wheel, Solzhenitsyn tells a story of how “humane Christian realism” will resist evil in the name of the nation while Tolstoyan cosmopolitan “love” will stand idle; in his essay “The Humanitarian versus the Religious Attitude,” Kolnai explains the curiously flattened souls — afflicted, amid unprecedented prosperity, with acedia, boredom, even despair — of the moderns whose bodies haven’t been flattened under humanitarianism.
Short and suggestive while also full-bodied and programmatic, The Idol of Our Age is a guidebook to the spiritual opioid crisis of an age that denies we are spiritual. Like The Abolition of Man, it may not be pleasant reading, but it produces light for rediscovering, as Manent writes in his foreword, a civic life “devoted to the common good” and a Christian life “devoted to the highest, more than human good.”