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The Madman's Speech

by Tim Madigan


The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 12, Number 3.


Tower Of Babble

During my teen years, I was an ardent reader of The Catholic Digest. I particularly enjoyed a feature known as "The Open Door", which described the process by which converts had come to accept the Catholic religion as their vessel to salvation. This helped to reaffirm me in my own faith: if people were freely choosing to join rather than simply following what they'd been taught since childhood, that made the teachings all the more plausible. I never expected that I would soon be walking out of the open door the converts were so eagerly rushing into.

I think it is too little noted how influential converts often are to a religion, ideology or political cause. They tend to bring with them an enthusiasm and drive which can fire up those who'd been born into the system and never thought very deeply about it. Christianity surely wouldn't have gotten off the ground if Saul hadn't converted into Paul. One of the strengths of humanism is that it is a haven for individuals who have chosen to leave the indoctrination of their childhood. Yet there is still something to the old saying reputed to the Jesuits: "Give me a child at an early age and it is mine for life." We tend to bring to our new outlook presuppositions from the past.

This tendency is amusingly described in an article found in Bertrand Russell's classic book Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (Simon and Schuster, 1957). Entitled "On Catholic and Protestant Skeptics," and written originally in 1928, it states that "Any person who has had much contact with freethinking people of different countries and diverse antecedents must have been struck by the remarkable difference between those of Catholic and Protestant origin, however much they may imagine that they have thrown off the theology that they were taught in youth" (p. 118). He goes on to describe the "Protestant" freethinkers as being obsessed with a strict advocacy of duty and moral fervor. The Utilitarian thinkers Jeremy Bentham and James and John Stuart Mill, for instance, while maintaining that pleasure is the goal of life, remained Puritanical and self-denying throughout their lives. He writes that "a Protestant freethinker would have been capable of deciding in the abstract in favor of free love, and nevertheless living all his days a life of strict celibacy."

"Catholic" freethinkers, on the other hand, having been taught from birth that theirs is the one true church and that they should accept no substitutes, are much more prone to become full-blooded hedonists, tossing out the baby of duty along with the bath water of dogma. "The chief distinction that one notices," Russell adds, "is that in the Protestant type departure from tradition is primarily intellectual, whereas in the Catholic type it is primarily practical. The typical Protestant freethinker has not the slightest desire to do anything of which his neighbors disapprove apart from the advocacy of heretical opinions" (p. 124).

One can see the twinkle in Lord Russell's eye as he wrote these lines. As a good logician, he recognized the problems of overgeneralizing, and he himself, while raised as a Protestant, certainly pursued a rather hedonistic lifestyle at times, as his most recent biography attests (Ray Monk, Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1996). Still, I think he's touched on an important point, one which may help explain the controversies that often rage within humanist movements. Freethinkers raised within Protestant traditions took their protests one step further than most, denying such tenets as the existence of any God at all. Yet they were still in accord with such Protestant virtues as opposition to authority, noncomformism and radical individualism. Almost all Protestant congregations came about because they split off from an already established church. Freethinkers raised as Catholics, on the other hand, had a greater tendency to be anti-clerical, exuberantly chanting Voltaire's call to "Crush the infamous thing." To them, there is but one true Church, and even it isn't true.

Of course, these attitudes have been changing. In recent times, there is much more interaction between Catholicism and Protestantism - witness the rather bizarre spectacle of Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed singing the high praises of Mother Teresa. And the Catholic church in the United States has been aptly described as this country's largest Protestant congregation. No doubt John Paul II would ruefully agree!

Russell's essay also helps one to understand better the dynamics of the humanist movement. Like a contemporary tower of Babel, it welcomes in people who've fled from all manners of belief systems. In my travels across the United States organizing humanist groups, I've come across former Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, Baptists, Methodists, Greek Orthodox, and pre- and post-Vatican II Catholics. And I've met with former members of Buddhist, Muslim , Hindu and other non-Christian religions. There are sizable numbers of Jewish freethinkers, who debate amongst themselves over whether or not Judaism is a religion, and whether doubting the existence of God also entails giving up keeping kosher. In addition, there are many people within the humanist movement who were not raised as members of any religion, and who consider themselves to be modern-day Alices in Wonderland, shaking their heads at the curious beliefs that motivate so many of their contemporaries.

Such a mingling of different traditions adds to the health of the humanist movement, just as such "Open Door" policies keep other movements supplied with fresh blood. Yet unlike most of these, humanism is forthright in welcoming new directions and challenges. Former Mormons within our midst, for instance, have stressed the need to develop community support among humanists along the lines of that which they had previously experienced. In his article, Russell wisely pointed out that "It is a mistake to suppose that the admirable consequences achieved in the first moment of breakdown can continue indefinitely" (p. 125). How we use and channel this energy is important. And while humanism might be a Tower of Babel - or more aptly Babble, as those who've attended any humanist conference can confirm - it does have a lingua franca through which all members can converse: the shared notion that only humans working together can solve the problems that beset us. No deity will save us. Metaphysical differences should not separate us into warring camps, nor should differing traditions keep us from emphasizing our common humanity. With all due respect to Robert Schuller, ours is the real tower of power.


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