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Secular deities and the problem of humanism

by BrainPolice

An atheist criticism of contemporary secularism

Most atheists and agnostics still have a religious mindset, only they have replaced the formal concept of a god with other concepts. In the absence of faith in an all-knowing and all-loving god outside of the universe, they have substituted faith in other artificial constructs that are considered to be inside of the universe. They rely on faith in an abstraction to be confident in the existence of order and morality. They act as if the non-existence of such abstractions, or at least the lack of them as a rationale, would lead to chaos and immorality. The abstraction worshiped may be the state, the nation, humanity, the planet or environment. These things are treated as if they were spirits or ghosts and are used as an appeal to authority.

To be sure, abstractions can be sensible and useful insofar as they are derived from reality by reason. But most secular people either do not derive their abstractions from reality or treat certain things that exist in reality as if they were deities. Collective concepts such as nations are treated holistically as if they were sentient entities in and of themselves and are used as an authority for justification of goals and actions. But strictly speaking a nation does not exist, at least in the manner it is being viewed by the nationalist, as an individual entity or actor. And for an example of the adoption of things in reality as deities, radical environmentalists tend to treat the planet itself as if it were a deity with intrinsic value. The planet most certainly does exist in reality, but it does not have intrinsic value and is not a sensible source of morality.

The vast majority of contemporary secularists still believe in things that do not exist, particularly collective constructs. They refer to specific groups of people, such as races and economic classes, as if they existed as singular conscious actors. But realistically speaking, there is no race or economic class as a whole that one can point to as being responsible for anything. Nor can an individual reasonably claim to be acting on the behalf of such collective abstractions. "The white race" or "the proletariat class" cannot rationally be used as a reason justifying one’s actions. Racists merely use the abstraction of a race as a deity. Classists merely use the abstraction of a class as a deity. Statists merely use the abstraction of a state as a deity. In all cases, the functionality is the same as a deity. All deities in formal religions, of course, originated from the anthropomorphisation of elements that people interpreted from around them in the world. The contemporary atheist, while they may have abandoned the formal concept of a god, is merely repeating this process in reverse.

It is unfortunate but most atheists are statists, and usually of the "left" variety. I think this is partially due to the cliche way in which contemporary cultural politics is framed in public discourse. Since it is assumed that the "right" is for religious people, the secularist has more of a tendency to flock to the "left". Of course, I reject the notion that the "right" is necessarily any less statist then the "right", but that’s beside the point. The overall point is that while many atheists don’t worship a god external to the universe, they nonetheless still worship human beings or leaders or rulers. They treat certain human beings in positions of power as if they were a god anyway. But in my view atheists should reject the state and other such worldly "ghosts" for some of the exact same reasons that they reject the concept of a god. If you reject the concept of a god, you should have no more reason to treat humans as a god. Human beings should not be treated as gods. No one deserves to be worshipped. No one deserves to be a ruler. You have no more reason to consider rulers worthy of your respect then any non-existent deity. While the rulers might actually exist in reality, they nonetheless don’t necessarily deserve your respect any more then a deity.

While I’m not the biggest fan of Max Stirner and I think that he uses very odd language to get his point across, in his writing The Ego and His Own he pointed out the problem of secular people deifying either humanity as a whole as an abstraction or certain other human beings in general. Allow me to leave you off with a quote from The Ego and His Own that touches on this:

Atheists keep up their scoffing at the higher being, which was also honoured under the name of the "highest" or être suprême, and trample in the dust one "proof of his existence" after another, without noticing that they themselves, out of need for a higher being, only annihilate the old to make room for a new. Is "Man" perchance not a higher essence than an individual man, and must not the truths, rights, and ideas which result from the concept of him be honoured and — counted sacred, as revelations of this very concept? For, even though we should abrogate again many a truth that seemed to be made manifest by this concept, yet this would only evince a misunderstanding on our part, without in the least degree harming the sacred concept itself or taking their sacredness from those truths that must "rightly" be looked upon as its revelations. Man reaches beyond every individual man, and yet — though he be "his essence" — is not in fact his essence (which rather would be as single as he the individual himself), but a general and "higher," yes, for atheists "the highest essence." And, as the divine revelations were not written down by God with his own hand, but made public through "the Lord’s instruments," so also the new highest essence does not write out its revelations itself, but lets them come to our knowledge through "true men." Only the new essence betrays, in fact, a more spiritual style of conception than the old God, because the latter was still represented in a sort of embodiedness or form, while the undimmed spirituality of the new is retained, and no special material body is fancied for it. And withal it does not lack corporeity, which even takes on a yet more seductive appearance because it looks more natural and mundane and consists in nothing less than in every bodily man — yes, or outright in "humanity" or "all men." Thereby the spectralness of the spirit in a seeming-body has once again become really solid and popular.

Sacred, then, is the highest essence and everything in which this highest essence reveals or will reveal itself; but hallowed are they who recognise this highest essence together with its own, i.e., together with its revelations. The sacred hallows in turn its reverer, who by his worship becomes himself a saint, as likewise what he does is saintly, a saintly walk, saintly thoughts and actions, imaginations and aspirations, etc.

It is easily understood that the conflict over what is revered as the highest essence can be significant only so long as even the most embittered opponents concede to each other the main point — that there is a highest essence to which worship or service is due. If one should smile compassionately at the whole struggle over a highest essence, as a Christian might at the war of words between a Shiite and a Sunnite or between a Brahman and a Buddhist, then the hypothesis of a highest essence would be null in his eyes, and the conflict on this basis an idle play. Whether then the one God or the three in one, whether the Lutheran God or the être suprême or not God at all, but "Man," may represent the highest essence, that makes no difference at all for him who denies the highest essence itself, for in his eyes those servants of a highest essence are one and all—pious people, the most raging atheist not less than the most faith-filled Christian.

In the foremost place of the sacred,* then, stands the highest essence and the faith in this essence, our "holy faith.”

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