Mahoney, “The Idol of Our Age”

One of the many things for which John Stuart Mill is famous is the development (in his Utilitarianism primarily, but also in Three Essays on Religion and in other work) of the concept of the “religion of humanity.” There is little doubt that Mill intended this religion eventually to supplant Christianity as the dominant socio-cultural force, though it is far less clear whether he thought that this entailed an immediate rejection of the teachings of Christianity. And it is helpful to read his other perhaps more famous work (especially On Liberty) in light of his commitment to the religion of humanity.

What was Mill’s religion of humanity? One thing that it wasn’t was supernaturally grounded. Mill believed that so long as a doctrine was taught, and taught uniformly, it could achieve the necessary power and influence (“Vast efficacy belongs naturally to any doctrine received with tolerable unanimity as true…” Three Essays on Religion). Nor did it depend upon acceptance as part of a long-standing tradition: rational people were always actively re-rationalizing it. Here is something of his description of the religion of humanity in Utilitarianism (Chapter 3):

Not only does all strengthening of all social ties, and all healthy growth of society, Millgive to each individual a stronger personal interest in practically consulting the welfare of others: it also leads him to identify his feelings more and more with their good….This mode of conceiving ourselves and human life, as civilisation goes on, is felt to be more and more natural. Every step in political improvement renders it more so, by removing the sources of opposition of interest, and leveling those inequalities of legal privilege between individuals or classes, owing to which there are large portions of mankind whose happiness it is still practicable to disregard. In an improving state of the human mind, the influences are constantly on the increase, which tend to generate in each individual a feeling of unity with the rest; which, if perfect, would make him never think of, or desire, any beneficial condition for himself, in the benefits of which they are not included.

If we now suppose this feeling of unity to be taught as a religion, and the whole force of education, of institutions, and of opinion, directed, as it once was in the case of religion, to make every person grow up from infancy surrounded on all sides both by the profession and the practice of it, I think that no one who can realise this conception, will feel any misgivings about the sufficiency of the ultimate sanction for the Happiness morality.

Though Mill is not specifically mentioned in the blurb, surely Mill’s view will be Mahoneydiscussed–critically, I suppose–in this new book: The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity (Encounter Books) by Daniel J. Mahoney.

This book is a learned essay at the intersection of politics, philosophy, and religion. It is first and foremost a diagnosis and critique of the secular religion of our time, humanitarianism, or the “religion of humanity.” It argues that the humanitarian impulse to regard modern man as the measure of all things has begun to corrupt Christianity itself, reducing it to an inordinate concern for “social justice,” radical political change, and an increasingly fanatical egalitarianism. Christianity thus loses its transcendental reference points at the same time that it undermines balanced political judgment. Humanitarians, secular or religious, confuse peace with pacifism, equitable social arrangements with socialism, and moral judgment with utopianism and sentimentality.

With a foreword by the distinguished political philosopher Pierre Manent, Mahoney’s book follows Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in affirming that Christianity is in no way reducible to a “humanitarian moral message.” In a pungent if respectful analysis, it demonstrates that Pope Francis has increasingly confused the Gospel with left-wing humanitarianism and egalitarianism that owes little to classical or Christian wisdom. It takes its bearings from a series of thinkers (Orestes Brownson, Aurel Kolnai, Vladimir Soloviev, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) who have been instructive critics of the “religion of humanity.” These thinkers were men of peace who rejected ideological pacifism and never confused Christianity with unthinking sentimentality. The book ends by affirming the power of reason, informed by revealed faith, to provide a humanizing alternative to utopian illusions and nihilistic despair.