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A review of Humanism: The Wreck of Western Culture. By John Carroll.

Sep 10, 1994

Fontana Press, 1993.

When Edwin Abbott wrote his turn-of-the-century minor classic, Flatland, he introduced us to a two-dimensional land where all activity was lived out only in terms of length and width. There was no third dimension of height, or depth. As you can imagine, life was somewhat constrained in such a context.

Modern culture is lived out fully in three dimensions – four, if you include time. But a fifth dimension, viewed by many as just as real as the other four, seems just as ignored as the third dimension was in Flatland. The fifth dimension goes by a number of names – the religious, the spiritual, the supernatural, the transcendent, the metaphysical.

It is a dimension which all the world’s religions acknowledge, a dimension that supplements the temporal, the I, secular, the worldly. Indeed, it is a dimension, according to many, that undergirds and sustains all the others.

But in contemporary Western culture, this dimension has been left out of our experience, excluded from the world of ideas and the public arena. In such a world, life can be just as constrained as it was for the inhabitants of Flatland. As Stephen Carter, a Yale Law Professor notes in his recent book, The Culture of Disbelief, modern society has sought to exclude religion and the supernatural from its view of things. The media, the universities, and popular culture either ignore, minimise or trivialise the supernatural.

But many have warned about the danger of throwing God out of the picture. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for example, has warned about the West’s secularism, saying that our modern ills are largely attributable to having abandoned God and all concepts of the supernatural.

Indeed, it could be argued that the past half century or so has been one grand experiment conducted by Western societies to see what life would be like if we reject God. Well, the results are in: social fragmentation, family breakdown, escalation in crime and drug use, alienation and despair are widespread. While many might dispute a connection between the rejection of God and the death of culture, this is exactly the connection which John Carroll makes in his new book.

The La Trobe University Reader in Sociology makes it quite clear that Humanism, in its attempt to replace God by man, has made a direct and tangible contribution to the demise of Western culture: “We live amidst the ruins of the great, five-hundred-year epoch of Humanism. Around is that ‘colossal wreck’. Our culture is a flat expanse of rubble.”

In attempting to put man at the centre of the universe, and to displace God with human reason, the Humanists have not only wrecked the divine, they have wrecked this world as well. With a host of detail and example, Carroll traces the five-hundred year reign of Humanism and chronicles its destructive effects. He examines the arts (especially painting and literature), philosophy, the social sciences and theology in great detail to record this drift into cultural suicide.

Now because I am not a historian by background, I cannot accurately assess many of the historical details Carroll offers to substantiate his thesis. But one suspects that Carroll’s book, with its grand and controversial theme, will not be accepted or rejected on the basis of cultural and historical minutia, but on the basis of its over-riding premise. And one can guess that theists and those of a religious bent will more or less buy the major premise, while secularists and humanists will not.

It is the old argument, in other words, of whether we are better with or without God.

As a theist I, of course, think that Carroll is right. But perhaps agnostics or atheists might agree that the various human attempts to create the Kingdom of God on earth have been nothing short of monumental failures. Two of the most recent attempts quickly spring to mind: Marxism and Nazism. These attempts have not only been failures in what they set out to accomplish, but the human cost which resulted from such attempts has been catastrophic.

Again, one’s metaphysical presuppositions will basically determine whether one finds Carroll convincing or not. But it seems that he has marshaled enough well-argued information and evidence to suggest that a case can well be made that the abandonment of God has been to the West’s detriment. Mind you, this book is more than simply theism versus secularism, and not all theists would accept Dr Carroll’s highly deterministic Calvinism. But wherever one stands on the debate, reading Carroll will throw new light on an old debate.

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