Of “Secular Humanism” and Other Panchrestons

The panchreston is a rhetorical device often employed by demagogues, bigots, and conspiracy theorists. In fact, almost any monolithic conspiracy theory (for instance, the idea that the “Illuminati” or Jewish Bankers own everything and are planning our eventual enslavement) can be considered an example of this tactic, or “error of thought” if we wish to be generous. A favorite example of this, which turns up in two apparently opposed but oddly similar camps, is the phrase “Secular Humanism.”

The largely fictitious version of “Secular Humanism” described by reactionaries exemplifies all the problems with panchrestons in general. First, it bares little resemblance to actual secular humanism as understood by those who actually adhere to that philosophy. What the detractors of secular humanism have done is create a strawman based on their own reactions to the ideas of secularism and humanism. Secularism is “bad” because it involves rejecting the idea that religion must play a key part in our lives. Humanism is also suspect, either because the critic in question believes human beings to be fallen and thus incapable of running their own lives, or simply too generally stupid to be trusted with heavy machinery and ethical theory.

Second, the strawman version of “Secular Humanism” is said to be at the root of every problem we face in our world. Or at least most of them, including the popularity of Lady Gaga. If you’ve spent any time looking at conspiracy theory or for that matter Marxist philosophy, you’ve seen the kind of logical gymnastics that are required to justify the idea that One Thing and Only One Thing explains All Our Problems. The problem isn’t that these theories don’t hang together with any coherence. What you notice after being exposed to enough of them is that they all present perfectly coherent arguments that their favorite target is the Root of All Evil Including Lady Gaga. They often do this by a slight of hand that involves hitting you with so much data that you’ll impose the pattern they want you to simply to make sense of it all, but they do all make perfect sense within their given frame of reference.

There are two basic conclusions we can draw from this. One is that either there is One Correct Theory and all others are either wrong or Involved in the Conspiracy. The other is that the entire idea that the problems of human society can be reduced to even a handful of basic factors let alone One is foolish and simpleminded. Frankly, having tried out various iterations of the former, I lean strongly toward the latter.

Which brings me back to the panchrestion in question. I know of two groups which regularly employ the term “Secular Humanism” in a pejorative fashion. One is the Christian Right. Fighting “Secular Humanism” is part of their core ideology.

The other, oddly, is the MFC (Muscular Fascist Crowlianite) camp. I say oddly because one would think that people identifying as “Thelemites” would be sensitive to errors of thinking that put them in ideological agreement with the demonstrably insane.

Neither the Christian Right or the MFCs are The Problem by the way. They, or rather their ideologies, are the dingleberries hanging from the ass of one of the larger overall negative trends in human society: the quest to be better than everyone else. Bettering yourself is one thing. Comparing your progress to others… you’re likely to find yourself engaged in little psychological games. Depending on the amount of data you can recall to support these, they can get quite sophisticated. Someone with a junior high education and a vocabulary of two hundred words is actually better off in this regard, since he is only likely to think of himself as “the baddest motherfucker on the block.” This is easily remedied by having someone larger kick their ass once or twice. A person with an advanced degree who frames their personal search in terms of how much more awake they are than the rest of the herd can create a baroque edifice of terminology that few can even attempt to assail.

The ways we can fool ourselves into thinking we’re getting somewhere are legion. Avoiding them is not simple, and nothing in the above should be taken as saying that the present author has mastered his own ego and never gets in trouble this way. It is simply to point out one of the many kinds of trap that one can and will fall in on the way to wherever it is we’re supposed to be going with all this weird shit…

1 comment
  1. Gabriel said:

    You are right about the Secular Humanism boogeyman, of course, but a bit off about Marxism. Marxism does not attempt to reduce all human endeavor to economics, as is so often the charge – only bad grad student academic papers do that.

    But that’s a quibble. Interesting place you have here. I stumbled upon it while searching for hits between Wilber and magick, and am glad I did.

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