If we’re going to do a serious study of humanism, one of the things we have to do is take seriously any serious critiques of humanism. What I’d like to do is go through and give you six possible critiques of humanism, critiques that I consider interesting and worthy of thoughtful consideration. I’m not going to resolve these critiques for you; I’m just going to lay out seven arguments against humanism, and let you do with them what you will.
(1) Critique number one is the critique that humanism is no comfort to persons in a time of crisis. In its crudest aspect, this critique takes the form of saying, Well if you’re a humanist and you get cancer, to whom can you pray? But do not dismiss this critique on the basis of that crude critique.
Jean-Paul Sartre raises this issue in a subplot in his short story “The Wall.” The protagonist in this story was fighting in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. He is captured, sentenced to be executed, and spends his last night in a cell with some others who have also been sentenced to death. The protagonist, who has no apparent belief in God, watches as one of the other condemned prisoners who believes in God gives way to fear. Sartre’s protagonist faces his impending death with courage, and even finds himself relishing his last moments of living, as opposed to the believer who gives way to fear. But is this going to be convincing for most people?
From Book of Prayers by Mohandas K. Gandhi, ed. John Strohmeier (Berkeley Hills Books, 1999), this passage in the introduction discusses why Gandhi took the time for daily worship:
Why, one might wonder, take the time to do all this [daily prayer services] in the middle of a revolution? Gandhi was not one to cling to empty forms. An answer may be found in the testimony of someone who observed Gandhi during one of those evening prayers. As you read it, bear in mind that the nineteen verses of the second chapter of the [Bhagavad] Gita, the description of the illumined man [sic], is widely regarded as the Sermon on the Mount of Hinduism:
“The sun had set when we got back [from his regular evening walk]. Hurricane lanterns were lit; Gandhi settled down at the base of a neem tree as ashramites and the rest of us huddled in Some hymns were sung, then Gandhi’s secretary began reciting the second chapter of the… Bhagavad Gita. Then it happened.
“Not that I can describe it very easily. Gandhi’s eyes closed; his body went stock still; it seemed as though centuries had rolled away and I was seeing the Buddha in a living person. I was what we had almost forgotten was possible in the modern world: a man who had conquered himself to the extent that some force greater than a human being… moved through him and affected everyone.”
…Gandhi had the power to shake India, in part, because he drew on resources within himself that are not normally accessible. And that access happened, among other occasions, at the high point of these prayer meetings….
There is a tendency to think that meditation and action are opposties, that one chooses between one way of life or the other. But as the Bhagavad Gita insists, meditation and selfless action are inseparable. They are opposite sides of the same coin, as complementary as breathing in and breathing out….” [pp. 14-15]
While of course we might phrase this differently to fit the context of our Western religious tradition, it is still true that worship services in our tradition are not escapes from the world, but a way for us to change the world. Worship unleashes powers that can heal us and heal the world; and it is probably dangerous for us to ignore this point.