The Idol of Our Age

In times like these, when so much is deeply unsettled in both the Church and the world, there are few reliable guides to our predicament. But one has just appeared: Daniel Mahoney’s brief but powerful book: The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity.

A few decades back, American evangelicals used to denounce secular humanism, rightly – but without knowing what it was other than a denial of religion. During the same period, St. John Paul II tried to recover an authentic Christian humanism, i.e., a rich “anthropology” in which the human person is only rightly understood in relation to God.

A Christian humanism is necessary because unless we properly value life in this world, religion can become distorted, a kind of Puritanism that denies our nature as creatures with bodies, minds, and spirits.

A Christian humanism is necessary, however, because without God, we close in on ourselves. The sciences discover truths about our world, but cannot say anything about why we’re here, what our lives mean, or where we go after death.

In the vacuum left by exclusion of religion and moral truths, we make idols of human desires – repeat the original wrong turn in the Garden of Eden – and think we are gods, as we see only too clearly in our post-Christian culture.

Mahoney provides a wise and wide-ranging account of how we got here, starting with Auguste Comte who, in the decades after the French Revolution, formally developed a “religion of humanity.”

Similar currents cropped up in America, Western Europe, and Russia; Mahoney deftly relates how Orestes Brownson, Aurel Kolnai (a little-known but brilliant Hungarian), and Alexander Solzhenitsyn responded to proliferating branches of “humanitarianism.”

As the great political philosopher Pierre Manent says in a foreword to this book, humanitarianism is the “ruling opinion” in developed Western societies now, it “commands and forbids, inspires and intimidates.”

Humanitarianism is a demanding idol that serves a dual purpose. Initially, it filled the gap left by the abandonment of religion. Though atheism deprived people, individually, of a future life, they could at least see working for “humanity” as something that transcends any single person.

These ersatz religions inevitably go awry, however, because they cannot really fill the spiritual gulf, and therefore have led, historically, to ever more radical – and tyrannical – movements like Marxism, progressivism, and the current “identity” fads.

In recent times, humanitarianism has taken an additional turn. It’s now a stick with which to beat various particularisms: attachments to nations, specific religions, families, communities. Such attachments are now often portrayed as a kind of sectarianism that offends against “humanity” as a whole.

Then again, much depends on where you stand in the progressive “arc of history.” Non-Western and anti-Western groups are allowed their particular “identities.” Muslims, African and Latin American migrants, homosexuals, etc. are useful in undermining the traditional markers of identity – religion, family, and nation – in favor of “humanity.”


Mahoney relates all this to Pope Francis in a particularly trenchant chapter, which is remarkable both for the strength of his critique and his fairness to the often-overlooked traditional sides of the pope. He counsels us to take the pope’s written arguments seriously (not his “remarkably undisciplined off-the-cuff remarks”) as matter demanding careful reflection and appraisal.

The main problem, says Mahoney, has been that “His admirers, and sometimes the pope himself, confuse Christian charity with secular humanitarianism.” Largely because of that emphasis, the pope, though he has expressed opposition to things like abortion and gay “marriage,” also gives the impression that “mercy” means not pushing too hard against them in public. He’s done the same for the divorced and remarried within the Church.

Daniel J. Mahoney

By contrast, he’s been relentless in opposing war and capital punishment, which Church teaching has always classified as sometimes moral necessities.

But “Divine mercy is not humanitarian compassion. It is not a substitute for repentance and the firm, if humane, exercise of the rule of law.” By his blurring of such distinctions, Francis has left the Church “divided and vulnerable to an unthinking political correctness.”

And such confusions lead to others. The pope’s writings on the environment, for example, rightly remind us of the drive towards the Promethean “mastery” of nature that has marred Western science and technology – something quite different than the “dominion” over the Creation in Genesis. Laudato si, therefore, can be partly read as a sort of conservative green stance rooted in a deep Christian spirituality.

But the Vatican’s incautious alliance with radical environmentalists has led to “mistaken emphases.” For instance, the pope often condemns business for greed, rarely commends it for creating wealth and helping out the very poor in whose name he speaks. (To my knowledge, he’s never recognized that globalization – for all its problems – has raised hundreds of millions out of sheer destitution.)

He seems to pay little attention to the fact that modern “humanitarian” regimes – i.e., the Soviet Union, China, Cuba – that claimed to represent “the people” have been among the most murderous, oppressive, environmentally disastrous systems in human history, while evil “capitalist” nations have steadily cleaned up their environments.

Francis vehemently denounces Western leaders for refusing to open borders to migrants. But he’s indulgent towards Venezuela and China, the Castros, Bolivia’s Evo Morales. The Yale historian Carlos Eire, who was born in Cuba, has argued that the pope shows a kind of “preferential option for the oppressors.”

And he also seems to have greater trust in international technocrats and a “world authority” over nations – i.e., smaller groups, more responsive to concrete human conditions.

The Christian tradition has always emphasized moderation, prudence, realism in human affairs. In a fallen world, the attempt to create heaven on earth by fallen creatures, is a recipe for various hells, as recent history shows beyond doubt. And that’s true even when the humanitarianism comes to us dressed in equality, tolerance, acceptance. True Christian charity is a hard school that includes those ideals, but also the sterner virtues that prevent our all-too-human efforts from becoming idolatrous – and demonic.


*Image: The Blind in the Ditch by James J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.