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  • The Humanitarian Subversion of Christianity
  • Daniel J. Mahoney (bio)

If secular modernity has a religion, it is undoubtedly “the religion of humanity” (I will leave to the side for the moment the immensely destructive totalitarian political or secular religions of the twentieth century). The idea of a secularized Christianity, of a Christianity without Christ or transcendence, was first theorized by Saint-Simon and Comte in the nineteenth century. These self-described “positivists” were astute enough to realize humanity could not live well without religion, even if it was still necessary to dispense with a transcendent God and a moral law that appealed to something beyond the immanent needs of human beings. Formalizing what Aurel Kolnai called “a non-religious, immanentistic, secular moral orientation,” Saint-Simon and Comte saw this as a quasi-religious replacement of authentic religion. (Kolnai made clear that authentic religion [End Page 140] always entailed a “corporate” and “socially relevant . . . outlook which contains a reference to a ‘higher’ Power.”)

As the Hungarian-born moral and political philosopher Kolnai (1900–73) noted in his remarkably penetrating and prescient 1944 article “The Humanitarian versus the Religious Attitude,” humanitarianism is “the standard type of non-religious philosophy” that has arisen “on a soil tilled by Christianity.”1 Christianity is “universalistic, personalistic, and moralistic” and thus readily gives rise to a humanitarian distortion of itself. Those who lose confidence in the promises of God, or repudiate the supernatural dimensions of their faith, fall back on a humanitarian ethos where “man as such” is the “measure of everything.” They tend to reduce Christianity to a concern for “social welfare” and the alleviation of poverty and suffering. Humanitarianism eventually is seen as that part of Christianity that is truly “essential” and “worthy of respect.” This view is not only held by secular humanitarians but by many liberal or demi-Christians who identify Christianity exclusively with a project of this-worldly amelioration.

Kolnai insists that humanitarianism takes its bearings from an “immanent,” and remarkably truncated, view of human beings—it does not acknowledge the hierarchy of goods and values that characterize the moral order and the life of the soul. It combines relativism and moralism (each equally insistent) in a way that is characteristic of a “morality” that loses sight of the capacious natural and supernatural destinies of human beings. Humanitarianism also gave rise to totalitarian secular religions, such as Communism and National Socialism, that abhorred soft humanitarianism and aimed to build the “kingdom of heaven on earth.” With Communism in mind, Reinhold Niebuhr spoke suggestively of the differences between “hard” and “soft” utopians and liberal humanitarianism’s vulnerability to co-optation by those who will do anything to build a “new man” and a “new society.”

Much more emphatically than democratic humanitarianism, totalitarian secular religions repudiate the moral law and are radically anthropocentric in character. They posit a collective self-deification of man that Kolnai insists always leads to man’s self-enslavement (see [End Page 141] his magisterial 1949 essay “Privilege and Liberty” for a particularly profound development of this theme). As the great Russian writer Solzhenitsyn argued in his 1978 Harvard Address, the more moderate versions of humanitarianism and anthropocentricity are always vulnerable to appropriation by more radical and consistent versions of atheism, materialism, and humanitarianism. Liberal and democratic versions of humanitarianism are then haunted by a totalitarianism that culminates in what Kolnai calls “the ‘identitarian’ loss of liberty and personality.” Drawing on Kolnai and Solzhenitsyn, one can understand “the self-idolatry of society”—society and humanity worshiping itself and succumbing to a totalitarian order—as one possible outcome of the humanitarian reduction of man and reality to a merely material order.

Kolnai insisted that more moderate and decent forms of humanitarianism are dialectically dependent “on the dwindling resources of Christianity.” Writing in 1944, he acknowledged that the “modern civilization of Western mankind” was not wholly irreligious; it was “still in part actually Christian.” That is surely less the case today. But already, he saw that the religious attitude and ethos was rapidly giving way to an immanentistic humanitarian ethos that no longer knew how to look up to everything in the order of things that was truly substantial and...


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pp. 140-150
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