against humanism

The language that has been developed over the centuries for talking about the mental and spiritual side of life is not some feeble, amateurish ‘folk-psychology’. It is a highly sophisticated toolbox adapted for just that difficult purpose. The vocabularies of the sciences are also well adapted for their own purposes, but this means they cannot be used anywhere else. Physical truths can only be answers to physical questions. Indeed, the great achievement of Galileo, Newton and their friends consisted in narrowing the scope of those sciences to concentrate them on topics where their methods were wholly suitable. People who are now led by that success to treat them as a panacea for other kinds of problem are being naive.

The moral of all this is, I think, that Hitchens is simply wrong. The poison does not come from religion itself but from political misuses of it. The kinds of idea that we class as religious actually range from the excellent to the awful, from the poisonous to the most nourishing. But there is a general tendency for new imaginative ways of understanding life to emerge from religious thinking – that is, from thoughts which go beyond current human horizons. This is bound to happen simply because they have quite new kinds of truth to convey. Thus the Greeks, when they came to grasp the idea that the earth as a whole bountifully supplied all their needs, worshipped it under the name of Gaia, mother of gods and men. And thus Pythagoras, when he discovered a new mathematical order pervading phenomena from the heavens to the laws of sound, naturally conceived that order as something greater than humanity; something therefore that should be deeply venerated.

In this way many of the moral insights we value highly today – for instance, the coherence of the cosmos and the value of the individual soul, as well as the conviction that All is Number – have originally been shaped in religious contexts. If we decide to drop those contexts as obsolete we lose half the meaning of the ideas themselves.

— Mary Midgley