A HUMANIST VIEW | Modernity and its Discontents

Photo by Chuko Cribb on Unsplash

The world which we’ve created remains a fragile place. We are reminded daily of the difficult times in which we live. It is a very confusing time to be a human. These are times of plenty and scarcity, extremist violence and invigorated social justice movements, unbelievable technological innovation and spreading ignorance that threatens the very foundations of reason and secular democracy.

For more than two years, the globe has been fraught by an ongoing pandemic the likes of which have not been seen for more than one hundred years. Because of COVID-19, we’ve lost too many family members, friends, and other loved ones. At the same time, we’ve had to confront an ongoing disinformation campaign, led by people who eagerly see political or economic gain in convincing others that public health policy seeks to harm rather than heal and that science authorities are liars with secret conspiratorial agendas.

Now to make matters worse, Vladimir Putin, the oligarchical leader of Russia, has mounted an aggressive campaign to retake provinces that have received international acknowledgment as sovereign states. Nations like Ukraine with their own governments, economies, citizens, and cultural identities are at risk.

Putin’s war is ongoing as I write this. The historical irony and tragedy of this war, as well as the loss of life, are all very real. There has not been a war of territorial conflict in Europe for sixty years, since the then-Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and Hungary in the 1950s and 1960s, while simultaneously forcing other eastern-bloc states like Poland and Romania into servitude. Rewind just a few decades, and we see a rampaging Adolph Hitler plunge Germany and the Axis powers—Italy and Japan—into a global war of conquest which caused immense violence and suffering on a global scale.

Perhaps these next ideas are speculative, but they may be worthy of ongoing discussion. Will the nation of China, a country with its own long history of social oppression and contempt of international laws of sovereignty, see this as an opportunity to make a play for Taiwan or expand its own spheres of influence? Will Russia’s actions in Europe bleed onto other continents and into nations whose anti-democratic leaders see opportunities for expansion? Will the modern United Nations be relegated to League of Nations status as an aspirational diplomatic world body deemed ineffective or irrelevant by bullies and events that make it vestigial and powerless to stop unwarranted aggression and suffering?

Here at home as around the world, the United States is not immune to the ravages of our human capability to be so inhumane to each other. There is a marked upswing in violence and, in particular, a steep rise in hate crimes against many ethnic groups and immigrants. Such violence reviles and confronts our common decency, our secular humanism, and our constitutional liberties.

Voting maps are being redrawn and state laws are being passed that inhibit every citizen from having the equal and autonomous right to vote. Legislation to reduce or entirely remove a woman’s right to reproductive freedom is growing across the nation. Many forms of media and many elected to high office eagerly seek to create wedges between us and fracture every political discussion over well-defined culture-war boundaries rendering civil debate impossible.

Finally, and eerily, local and state government acts of censorship and book burnings are in the news almost every week. While denial of access to information has its own historical precedents in the United States, over the last half dozen years those who wish to take away our right to read and speak freely have been emboldened by religious and political leaders. So much so that now I believe we are seeing a series of what best can be described as blasphemy laws, being passed by state legislators that hope to silence educators from teaching history, debating past and current events, and denying information and facts because they upset someone’s religious beliefs or feelings of racial entitlement.

Case in point: the “Don’t Say Gay” bills, passed in Florida and Tennessee. These laws have support within Republican legislatures simply because they stop modernity while simultaneously awarding power to white Christians. Their ongoing social and political hope is to make history and the real world go away as they seek to rewrite and remake history and the real world into an exclusively white evangelical and nativist narrative and reality.

These bills that are becoming law essentially demand that if facts, or past and current reality, confront any religious belief, promote feelings of self-examination or guilt, or create any social discomfort, that white people shouldn’t be forced to be confronted with those facts, or past and present realities. The bills also give legal sanction to parents to sue school boards and individual teachers for teaching and allowing curriculums that they find offensive, discomforting, or disquieting.

These forms of legal censorship attack the teaching of history by removing information and regulating our understanding of humanity. They make learning about slavery and sexuality taboo subjects. For decades, this has been the purview of religiously orthodox evangelicals and the Alt-Right (and in some cases, the Alt-Left). They’ve tried to replace teaching evolution and natural selection with creationism, tried to deny access to books and media that seek to understand what makes us human, and substituted civics with nativist hyper-Americanism that borders on fascism.

If the “Don’t Say Gay” bills and laws do not meet the definition of blasphemy, then there must be another definition of blasphemy that I am unaware of in our lexicon. We often think of blasphemy laws as being non-Western or being the hallmark and guiding principles in religious-based nations in the Middle East. But it has always been easier to look out the window rather than in the mirror when confronted with the failings of one’s own culture, politics, and history. These “Don’t Say Gay” legislations are blasphemy laws and are antithetical to secular democracy and freedom. Period.

Modern America is not immune to the mistakes of the past. Just as it is not immune to the rise of global anti-democracy movements or creeping religious fascism. We only need to look back a year to the violent insurrection of January 6, 2021. And now, forward to today as the Republican Party has labeled that terrible day perpetrated by religious fascists and Pro-Trump supporters as “legitimate political discourse” and wonder, how did we get here and what can we do about it?

As humanists, this is what we must confront. As citizens of the United States and as global citizens we must stand together against the anarchy offered by the old, new, and in some cases, growing religious and anti-democratic movements. Not only for the sake of our own modernity, which must be based on the acceptance of our human place in the cosmos, on reason, on the acceptance of science and facts, and on the aspirational ideals set in the secular democratic freedoms laid out in our Constitution and the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights.

But also for the sake of passing this modernity onto the next generation that will be confronted with similar issues. We must show that enough good people will stand up and beat back those wishing to censor, harm, and deny the truth. Indeed, if we had the political will to do so, I believe we could erase global poverty, remove disparities in healthcare, and educate every person on the planet today.

There is much at risk and much we can lose as humanists and as modern humans when we deny our modernity. If we are not links in a positive chain to make the world safer, richer, and kinder, then we have lost for future generations the gift that was passed down and given us.

That gift is the fighting chance to make the world we share a better place for each other. A safe world where all are free to learn more about the nature of nature than our ancestors could ever have imagined. This is the world we must strive to make and pass forward.

That is a gift humanists should not take lightly. I know I never will.