Romancing the Skull

“I have found little ‘good’ about human beings.
In my experience, most of them are trash.”

—Sigmund Freud

An old professor of mine once joked that ecumenism was a case of “the bland leading the bland,” an epithet that could just as appropriately describe contemporary humanism.  Cast your net at Google, and you will haul in a wriggling boatload of rational humanists, ethical humanists, anarchohumanists, scientific humanists, vegan humanists, “gay and lesbian” humanists, and, of course, transsexual transhumanists.  Nor must we forget their fellow-traveler Christian, Jewish, and Muslim humanists.  However diverse, they are all infected with the same urge to babble endlessly and sentimentally about the essential goodness of humanity.

This past year, the American Humanist Association launched a holiday ad campaign.  Its slogan, “Why believe in God? Just be good for goodness’ sake,” invited us to consider anew just how precious we really are.  Of course, most Americans these days are already convinced of their goodness, so it hardly seems to matter whether they believe in God.

As John Carroll’s latest book reminds us, humanism once possessed more gravitas.  At its instauration in the 15th century, Renaissance humanism was a formidable force forged by...

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