Research Proposal: Secular Humanism

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Secular Humanism

The rise and influence of Secular Humanism in the 20th century

Index

Brief Overview of the Antecedents of Secular Humanism

The Enlightenment and Renaissance

Political and Economic Factors

The Modern Era

Historical aspects; The Formalism of Secular Humanism

The Role of Science

Secularization in the West

Influential Thinkers

Secular Humanism in the Twentieth Century and its Crisis

The Influence of Secular Humanism

The phenomenon of secular humanism is a central facet of the constitution and character of contemporary Western culture and society. The modern development of this ideology or worldview has progressed from the humanism of the Enlightenment to the particle style of secular humanism that we find in the twentieth century. This cultural phenomenon became a dominant social and cultural force during the last century as a result of a wide array of contributing factors. This study is intended as an in-depth overview of these factors, such as the importance of the scientific mode of thought in the creation of as type of humanism that is essentially secular in character. Furthermore, the formalization and institutionalization of secular humanism in academic and other institutions is discussed as central to its acceptance and prevalence in society. The issue of secular as opposed to religious humanism also forms an important part of this dissertation. This study therefore takes into account the various critiques of secular humanism that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century.

1. Introduction

In Hamlet by William Shakespeare the main protagonist in the play states the following view of humanity:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! In form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals

However, there is a certain amount of irony in this is veneration of human nature in that prior to the above statement the protagonist suggests a very different and more negative assessment of the human condition.

I have of late, - but wherefore I know not, - lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.

Commenting on the difference between these two passages and their relevance to the question of secular humanism, Richard Norman ( 2004) states that, "we are presented with some challenging questions for humanism. Whatever we may say, in the abstract, about the powers of reason and action which human beings possess, is this enough to sustain us in the practical business of making sense of our lives?"

While the avowed secular humanist would answer yes to this question, there are those who would oppose an optimistic assessment of human potential and progress These critics would question this belief in mankind to create its own destiny independently of any religion or spiritual assistance simply by citing the many wars, massacres, genocides and other failures in modern human history.

This brief discussion brings to light the problematics of secular humanism. The debate about secular humanism rests on two major issues or assertions. The one view posits that human nature and human rationality is able to independently manage and create a world and society that is characterized by freedom, the observance of human rights and democracy. On the other hand there are many critics who question the fundamental secular nature of humanism, especially as a view of reality that is radically human-centered and subjective.

As will be discussed in this dissertation, many modern twentieth century thinkers place into deconstructive doubt the view of humanism that has developed and grown since the Enlightenment. The twentieth century philosopher Marin Heidegger, for example, questions the very human-centric ethos and basis of western metaphysical thinking and suggests that it is erroneous in its philosophical and social trajectory. One also has to take into account the fact that the twentieth century was a period that was characterized by immense social political as well as philosophical upheavals, which was to result not only in the questioning of the acceptance of religious and moral traditions but was also later to lead to the interrogation of the original impetus that led to the ideal of humanism.

This study will explore these various views, contention and debates in detail. However, the central thesis or focus of this dissertation will be on the rise, development and influence of this very important cultural and philosophical movement in the twentieth century. Particular emphasis will be placed on the effects and the repercussions in various fields and disciplines of the acceptance and increasing popularity of the secular humanistic ethos -- particularly in the academic field. It should also be noted that secular humanism is not just an academic or philosophical movement and that secular humanism has in fact had a deep impact on every aspect of modern Western culture. As will be discussed, the twentieth century was the age when the ideals of secular humanism became an endemic part of the mass or popular culture and infiltrated almost every aspect of society.

It is only fairly recently that secular humanism as a world view has begun to be questioned and critiqued by post-structuralist and postmodern thinkers and critics. Furthermore, two central aspects that will be explored in this dissertation are the link between secularization and materialism as well as the philosophy of existentialism and its modern and postmodern derivatives. An important aspect of this study will be to differentiate between religious humanism and secular humanism. Although this distinction is blurred in the Renaissance and earlier forms of humanism, it becomes a central facet of modern twentieth century humanism. In fact a central focus of debate and contention is the difference between these two forms of humanism and the implications of the term secular which will be explored in depth in this dissertation.

A central focus of the study will therefore be the particular relationship of secularization to the contemporary development of humanism.

1.2. Brief overview of the literature

This section is intended as a brief overview of the literature that was consulted for this study. There is a wide and extensive range of books, journals and Internet resources on this topic. The progression and development of the ethos of secular humanism is well documented and discussed in almost every academic discipline- which is evidence of the pervasiveness of this ideology in contemporary thought.

An attempt was made to draw from as many diverse sources and resources as possible. Books and research studies on the antecedents and origins of humanism were consulted as well as works that were directed mainly at the century under discussion. The initial research was aimed at accessing as many relevant studies and works as possible in order to provide insight into the origins of this phenomenon as well as its contemporary manifestation in modernism and the twentieth century. In this regard sources that were not directly related to secular humanism but dealt with the topic in an oblique sense were also consulted; such as works on art and literature which refer to secular humanism.

The following is a small selection of the most useful and insightful resources that were consulted. An extremely useful secondary source that provides an overview of the historical development of secular humanism is On Humanism by Richard Norman, (2004). This work not only provides extensive and well-written background to the cultural and social development of humanism as well as secular humanism but it also succeeds in illuminating central aspects and points of contention in the debate about secular humanism. The work was also useful in that it provided insight into the various historical critiques of this ideology

Another book that was useful in terms of the historical aspects of secular humanism was Paul Kurtz's, In Defense of Secular Humanism (1983). This work was particularly important as a resource in terms of the debate between secular and religious humanism that was to be a point of contention in the second half of the twentieth century.

The term secular is contentious with many differing definitions. Among the wide range of resources that shed light on this imports concept is The Post-Secular: A Jewish Perspective by James S. Diamond ( 2004). An important aspect of this study is a discussion of the complicity and problematics in defining the term secular in the modern and postmodern contact. This work provides insight into the effects and the influence of secularization in the context of the debate about modernist humanism. Another work that explores the issue of the secular in relation to the traditional and religious perspective is Our Religio-Secular World by Martin E. Marty (2003).

Among the plethora of general studies and overviews of the Renaissance origins of contemporary humanism is Paul… [END OF PREVIEW]

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