Critical Overview

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The early humanists were attacked by the Schoolmen (scholastics) and other clergy as lacking true faith. They were denounced as pagans and were considered heretical. However, the humanists in fact were quite devout. Indeed, leaders, such as Erasmus, never deviated from Catholicism, even though they disparaged Church corruption. These humanists are known as Christian humanists, for they did not question faith itself. Nevertheless, Erasmus was vilified by traditional churchmen throughout his life. Businessmen were skeptical of the humanist curriculum and did not want their sons to waste time studying nonessential topics such as poetry and philosophy. The humanist commitment to public service eventually won over those who feared that humanist study was impractical. Another means of defense happened accidentally. Many humanists found employment with the new print shops, setting type and proofreading copies. They soon discovered that they could carry out their disputes over points of philosophy quite effectively through this new medium instead of staging a formal public debate. Ultimately, their participation in the fledgling industry spurred its success, and in turn, the humanists benefited by reaching a wider audience through their printed essays, tracts, and letters.

During the eighteenth century, humanist thinkers tended to embrace the idea of empirical science developed during the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. At the same time, scientists naturally gravitated toward a system of belief that could be developed by reason and produced measurable and predictable results. The combination led humanists further away from religious belief, and atheism became a part of Humanism. As Howard Radest explains in his book, The Devil and Secular Humanism, “The point of separation [between religion and Humanism] was the Enlightenment; the impulse to separation was modern empirical science.” Radest sees the roots of modern secular Humanism as stemming primarily from the Enlightenment period, with its emphasis on the “Rights of Man,” with only distant roots coming from the Renaissance. This is because modern Secular Humanism is openly atheistic (a concept foreign to Renaissance thinkers) and has been criticized for this by religious fundamentalists. When the first “Humanist Manifesto” was released to newspapers in 1933, it met a huge public outcry against its atheistic principles; Humanism was seen as a dangerous trend away from core religious values. In fact, many outspoken religious conservatives today blame humanists for modern consumerist culture because they see humanists as technocrats, quick to sacrifice nature for the sake Illustration of a sixteenth-century print shop of human gain. They decry Humanism as a religion without a god and without a moral framework. Humanist Paul Kurtz defends his humanist beliefs in his book, In Defense of Secular Humanism, in which he reminds detractors that Humanism does rest upon a set of ethical principles. Whether or not a given humanist subscribes to Kurtz’s particular view of Humanism, modern humanists take on today’s most difficult ethical issues, such as the teaching of evolution in schools, abortion rights, and the right to euthanasia. As humanist Jeaneane Fowler declares, “Humanism has no creed, but many convictions.”

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Essays and Criticism