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February 9, 2018 3:24 pm

Humanism Is Proof of the Divine

avatar by Pini Dunner

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A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org

Earlier this week, a story floating on the fringes of the news cycle caught my attention.

A man from Pakistan who arrived in the UK in 2011 — and renounced his Muslim faith, declaring that he was now a humanist — applied last year for asylum in Britain, on the grounds that his life was in danger if he returned home. But after being interviewed, Hamza bin Walayat’s application for asylum was rejected by the authorities, and he is now facing deportation back to Pakistan.

Bizarrely, it seems that the clincher was that bin Walayat failed to correctly answer questions about ancient Greek philosophers. According to the Home Office — the UK government department that deals with immigration — he was unable to identify Plato and Aristotle as humanist philosophers, which, they said, demonstrated that his knowledge of humanism was “rudimentary at best,” and that his application for asylum was spurious.

Bin Walayat claims to have received death threats from members of his own family in Pakistan, after they discovered that he had integrated into secular British life and started a relationship with a non-Muslim woman. Pakistani attitudes towards heretics are notoriously harsh; last year, a student in Pakistan who declared his humanism on Facebook was shot and then beaten to death by a hysterical mob of fellow students at his university.

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With bin Walayat’s impending deportation looming, the question of his knowledge vacuum has ruffled countless feathers. Dozens of prominent British academics wrote a letter that was published in the left-leaning The Guardian, in which they dismissed the idea that humanists must, by definition, be familiar with the origins of humanism in Greek philosophy.

“There is no scholarly basis to think that Plato or Aristotle were humanist thinkers,” they wrote; humanism “is defined … as atheists or agnostics who believe in leading a good life on the basis of reason and our common humanity.” To suggest that knowledge of Plato or Aristotle is part of that definition is completely unreasonable, they argued, not least because “both hold that there is a divine realm and stress its philosophical importance.”

To say that I profoundly disagree with this misguided thesis is an understatement. According to Bob Churchill of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), “for many, the broad descriptive ‘humanist’ is just a softer way of saying atheist, especially if you come from a place where identifying as atheist may be regarded as a deeply offensive statement,” as far as I am concerned, to suggest that humanism is an accurate synonym for atheism is not only a mistake, but grossly offensive to people of faith whose belief in God is the driving force behind their concern for others.

Truth be told, the definition of humanism has fluctuated considerably since the term was first coined by German philosopher Friedrich Philipp Immanuel von Niethammer (1766–1848) in the early nineteenth century. Originally based on the concept of humanitas, an idea conceived by Cicero in ancient Rome, humanism, as it is understood today, focuses on the value of human virtue, namely ethics, benevolence, integrity, compassion, mercy, concern for others, and for the stability of society, and also promotes the proactive assertion of these values through education and culture. But modernity has thrust atheism into this package, arguing that religious dogma is the enemy of true humanism.

According to the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), humanism “stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities; it is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”

This definition defies everything we know about the source of Jewish faith —  the Torah — and is best expressed by the medieval commentator, Rashi, at the beginning of Mishpatim, the Torah portion in Exodus that primarily focuses on mundane matters of civil law.

The portion begins: “And these are the rules that you shall set out before them.” Mishpatim almost immediately follows the Sinai revelation narrative, prompting Rashi to make the following observation: “Wherever the phrase ‘these are’ is used to introduce a new chapter, it has nothing to do with the preceding section; however, whenever the phrase ‘and these are’ is used, it is a continuation of the preceding subject.” Which means, says Rashi, that just as the spiritually lofty Ten Commandments were given at Sinai, so too were the mundane civil laws enumerated in Mishpatim.

On the face of it, Rashi’s observation seems superfluous. Why would anyone have thought differently? Surely every directive in the Torah has its roots at Sinai? Rashi appears to be suggesting that one might have legitimately concluded that Judaism is only about incomprehensible ritual and pomp, rather than laws concerning property and respect for fellow humans, and that the connecting phrase at the beginning of the portion was required to dispel this erroneous notion.

Actually, Rashi is making a point that is far more profound. The connective opener is not there to dispel the notion that civil law and concern for society are Godless concepts. On the contrary, it is there to tell you that our drive to fashion a world that is governed by civility and human ethics is proof of the divine within us. The only variance between ritual law and civil law is that for the former God did not create the self-generating logic to motivate us in its execution, while for the latter we can, for the most part, work it out for ourselves. That we can do so is a gift from God, to be valued and cherished as divine inspiration — and certainly not to be used as proof that God does not exist.

I am doubtful this will save Hamza bin Walayat from his violent family if he is ever deported back to Pakistan, but it definitely undermines the view that humanism is purely secular.

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  • Dvirah Talbi

    Try feeling.

    • Brian Westley

      Empathy is part of human reason — no gods involved.

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