Sat, 11 Nov 2000

No religion without humanism

By Franz Magnis-Suseno SJ

JAKARTA (JP): Religious people like to be suspicious of humanism. For them, it smells of trying to center on humanity instead of God. Sometimes, a distinction is made between two kinds of humanism: Religious humanism, which is the good humanism, and secular humanism, which is the bad one.

Thus religious humanism is OK, while secular humanism is not. The case against secular humanism is reinforced by the undeniable fact that in Europe, humanism often had an anti-Christian, especially anti-Catholic edge.

But, in fact, humanism -- a concept which first surfaced in 14th century Italy when pre-Christian Roman and Greek literature and art were rediscovered -- has, in the 20th century, taken on a new meaning in face of totalitarian, fascist and sectarian threads to human dignity.

Humanism now is, first of all, a strong moral belief, a moral conviction. It is the belief that every human being should be respected as a person, as a full human being, not because he or she is wise or stupid, a good or a bad guy, and irrespective of what region, ethnic or religious community he or she belongs to, or whether it is a man or a woman.

It means respecting him or her for his or her identity, with his or her beliefs, ideals, anxieties and needs. It means a perspective where fundamental respect does not depend on the qualities or capabilities of the respective person, but only on the fact that this person is a human being.

This implies (to quote Richard Rorty) that the worst thing we can do to others is cruelty. Cruelty can under no circumstances, and on behalf of no reasons, be justified. Humanism means refusing cruelty in principle. There can be no reason justifying being cruel to other persons.

Not being cruel means: Never inflict pain on others except if they give you the right to do so (think of the dentist), neither physically by hurting other persons, nor psychologically by humiliating or despising them.

The important thing for the humanist is: You don't need any theoretical reasons for not being cruel. To offer reasons why one should better not be cruel would be an obscene idea. Looking for justifications for not being cruel would imply that you might be prepared to be cruel if you had convincing reasons for being so.

But it is precisely this what is incompatible with humanism. If you do not know this, you are a dangerous and evil person, because if you could find the right reasons you would be cruel without feeling bad. One of the most disgusting things is asking for reasons why one should not be cruel.

Humanism, then, means solidarity on principle with the other person, what ever he or she is. It means an attitude of caring, being sensitive to the vulnerability of other persons. It means compassion crossing the lines of primordial or other social partitions.

It implies the nonacceptance of injustice: Unjust treatment can never be right, and this holds true also toward strangers or people outside one's own community, even toward our enemies. Humanism implies fairness and love of justice.

It is obvious that this humanism extends above the narrow boundaries of "my own group," be it my religious community, my peer group, my ethnical community, my tribal or regional group. This is the power of humanism, that it is no longer bound to ideologies and other theoretical justifications. It is a principled stand affecting "my position" in all dimensions.

Two more remarks. First, religious and secular humanism should not be put up against each other. Humanism is humanism, and it does not depend on a certain religious or ideological background.

Humanism as the firm conviction that other people always should be treated as human beings can powerfully unite people from different religions and creeds, in building a society where the safeguarding of the dignity of all its members as human persons is regarded as its most important objective.

Second: Certainly, it is most appropriate that religious people and institutions stand in the forefront of humanism. They should, without exception and conditions, endeavor to make society a place for every member of the society, regardless of whether he or she belongs to one's own religious community or not.

Humanism is nothing less than the criteria of the genuineness of religion. Religious teachings that justify cruel behavior toward other sentient beings, that inflict pain on, or humiliate, other human beings because of religious reasons, for instance to preserve "the right faith", disqualifies themselves, or, better, their protagonists.

Inhumane behavior, cruelty in the name of God, should be something abhorrent. It should be regarded as blasphemous. It is a fact that during history, up until today, people were persecuted, tortured, shot, burned or killed by the sword in the name of religious laws or orthodoxy.

This is a terrible misunderstanding of what religion really is. It is a perversion of God's will. It goes on account of human blindness, hardness of heart and arrogance. What has happened cannot be undone again.

But now, we should draw a line: No religion without humanism!

Religious people of all creeds and denominations should stand united in their resolution to outlaw all inhumane, cruel behavior, especially in the name of religion.

Father Franz Magnis-Suseno SJ, a Jesuit priest, is a professor of social philosophy at Driyarkara School of Philosophy in Jakarta.