Oakes on Religion without Humanism According to T.S. Eliot

Where would I be without On the Square, First Thing’s site for daily articles on items various and sundry. Yesterday it was YouTube, today there is a fine article by Edward T. Oakes. Here’s a sample:

Without denying humanism’s need for religion, Eliot unsettled that thesis by asserting its converse too: “I stated [in an earlier essay] my belief that humanism is in the end futile without religion. . . . Having called attention to what I believe to be [that] danger, I am bound to call attention to the danger of the other extreme: the danger, a very real one, of religion without humanism.”

In contemporary terms, this counterpart thesis sounds like a jeremiad against fundamentalism or, at least, like a warning against an excessively biblical Christianity untempered by the splendors of Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, and Milton. Oddly, though, given his own renowned appreciation for the poets, Eliot takes his argument, not toward an apology for Christian humanism, but toward an appreciation of the benefits for Christianity of an aggressively anti-Christian secular mind:

I believe that the skeptic, even the pyrrhonist, but particularly the humanist-skeptic, is a very useful ingredient in a world which is no better than it is. In saying this I do not think that I am committing myself to any theological heresy. The ideal world would be the ideal Church. But very little knowledge of human nature is needed to convince us that hierarchy is liable to corruption, and certainly to stupidity; that religious belief, when unquestioned and uncriticised, is liable to degeneration into superstition; that the human mind is much lazier than the human body. . . . If we cannot rely, and it seems that we can never rely, upon adequate criticism from within, it is better that there should be criticism from without.

This perspective is certainly odd. At first glance, it seems to give license to a perpetual culture war between believers and secularists (or the “humanist-skeptic,” in his nomenclature)—and, what’s worse, a culture war with believers perpetually forced on the defensive, as if they were the ones regularly tending toward corruption, with the supposedly disinterested secularists serving as the righteous policeman, prosecutor, and judge in their ongoing campaign against religious obscurantism.


  1. It sounds sensible to me. Shouldn’t all ideas be placed on the defensive, even if it could be proved they were true, to prevent them from becoming stale, as I think Mill states, even without the threat of institutional corruption?

  2. clareygelling1@msn.com says

    i just think and hope that there are people with open minds . no one really knows whats going on everyone has there own views

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