The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity
By Daniel J. Mahoney
Foreword by Pierre Manent.
Encounter Books, 2018.
Hardcover, 163 pages, $24.

Reviewed by Grant Havers

In this age of numerous polemics against “political correctness,” “Social Justice Warriors,” and “Cultural Marxism,” Catholic philosopher Daniel J. Mahoney has composed a masterful critique of the intellectual roots that nourish these phenomena. More specifically, he leaves no doubt that an authentic critique of these phenomena is incomplete without an understanding of how they all represent the “religion of humanity.” Mahoney, a professor of political science at Assumption College in Massachusetts, demonstrates that this faux religion is actually an ideology that dates back to Auguste Comte. In a collection of essays that discuss the ideology’s famous defenders (Comte, Pope Francis, Jürgen Habermas) as well as opponents (Orestes Brownson, Vladimir Soloviev, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Aurel Kolnai), Mahoney takes aim at the dangers this secular “idol” poses to civilization as we know it. Given his vast scholarship on liberalism, including studies of its most perceptive critics (such as Solzhenitsyn) and defenders (such as Raymond Aron), Mahoney brings an impressive expertise to his subject. His study also offers our time some much needed good news. For this idolatrous religion, which was forged by human hands (as the Bible reveals about all idols), can be overcome with faith and reason, as he shows.

First, we need to understand the nature of the threat this religion presents. The “humanitarianism” it promulgates is in fact not humane at all. According to Mahoney, a cruel and dishonest relativism forms the hollow core at the twisted heart of this pseudo-faith:

A cursory reflection shows that humanitarianism subverts Christianity and the moral law and leaves nothing but confusion in their place. As a result, relativism coexists with limitless moralism. This is the most striking feature of the modern “moral” order. Left-wing humanitarians and “progressive” churchmen spout on about “social justice” as if opponents of doctrinaire egalitarianism hate the poor or support social injustice. But they never really tell us what “social justice” is or what the adjective adds to the noun. The taking of an unborn life is merely a “choice,” which is, one assumes, completely beyond good and evil.

The influence of this ideology is so pervasive that it has arguably captured the Vatican itself. Although Mahoney gives due credit to Pope Francis for taking orthodox positions on certain subjects (such as opposing “gender theory” and endless sexual constructivism), he leaves the reader in no doubt that the Pope’s denunciations of capitalism as well as his numerous deviations from the natural law teachings of the Catholic Church make him part of the problem, not the solution. Mahoney is also determined to show that the religion of humanity, which seeks to replace Christianity, would not have enjoyed its considerable success were it not for the fact that its defenders have employed Christian language to fulfill anti-Christian aims. For this reason, he appreciates how easy it has been for his Christian brethren to fall prey to a faux moralism that decries the nation-state, affirms toleration of what is intolerable (like radical Islam), and confuses real Christian charity with leftist cant about human rights.

The positivistic theorist Auguste Comte established this fateful precedent by appealing to “charity,” “love,” “spirituality,” and “faith” to advance a new and intolerant secular religion that seeks to replace Christianity. Mahoney leans heavily on the analyses of Pierre Manent and Eric Voegelin to demonstrate the paradox that Comte’s idolatrous dream of replacing God with Man sounds deceptively Christian precisely because charity (or the command to love the neighbor as one would love God) is falsely conflated with a “humanitarianism” that celebrates hedonistic freedom, atheism, the reduction of human motivation to economic self-interest, and the totalitarian dream of reconstructing human nature—all in the name of love or compassion. Authentic Christian charity requires a deep understanding of human frailty, which will never be overcome by humanitarian dreams that rationalize statist social engineering. What Voegelin calls “magical” thinking has inspired not only relativism, progressivism, and Marxism but also undermines the Holy See today. Mahoney writes:

The pope’s thinking on these matters is strangely economistic, even para-Marxist, and shows no engagement with the rich and varied motives—rooted in pleasure, virtue, the noble, the just, anger at injustice, the ambition to rule or even change the world—that animates the souls of men. One expects more expertise in the soul from the Holy Roman Pontiff, and not the crude and reductive economism he regularly displays.

Mahoney makes no secret of his belief that the collective intellect of the church has been on a steep decline since the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI, who astutely warned against the dangers of reducing Christianity to a “humanitarian moral message” in his 2007 Regensburg Address.

Mahoney should be commended for treating contemporary defenders of this secular faith with fairness, even though he doubts that their atheology actually encourages true good will or compassion. “In its own way, humanitarianism is neither politically nor morally demanding. It makes the avant-garde of humanity feel smug and self-satisfied, needing neither grace nor the full exercise of the moral or civic virtues.” Nevertheless, in a short yet incisive chapter on the Frankfurt School theorist Jürgen Habermas, he praises this cultural Marxist as a “man of peace and reason” who also has “fundamental decency,” even though Habermas seeks to advance the universal nature of the religion of humanity by seeking the abolition of the modern nation-state, one of the last obstacles against this globalist vision. Good intentions notwithstanding, the Francis–Habermas vision of the world poses acute dangers, not least of which is a shared unwillingness to address the threat of radical Islam. Habermas is “completely silent about the threat that radical Islam poses to the integrity of Europe,” while he considers Christianity to be quite dispensable. Pope Francis ignorantly claims that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.” Given the Marxian heritage that both men share, it is hardly a surprise that their understanding of humanitarianism is identical to whatever passes for thought in left-liberal circles today.

Mahoney, however, is not a cultural pessimist, given his contention that the peoples of the West can still draw upon an array of rich intellectual resources in order to understand as well as counter the rising threat of this pseudo-humanitarianism. In several well-written and well-argued chapters, he demonstrates the relevance of intellectual giants such as the American Catholic thinker Orestes Brownson, the famed Russian philosopher-litterateurs Vladimir Soloviev and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and the Hungarian philosopher Aurel Kolnai. Despite their different backgrounds, all of these gentlemen share an animus towards the religion of humanity.

Yet the most important tradition that the West must rediscover to counter the dangers of humanitarian doxa is Thomism. In one of the few places where he agrees with Pope Francis, Mahoney credits him for appreciating “that the Catholic Church remains the best spiritual and institutional vehicle for the defense of the natural moral law and that it needs to remind Europe and the world of old wisdom.” From the beginning of his study, he also contends that the religion of humanity has this tradition in its sights. “It is the self-conscious negation of a natural order of things, an objective hierarchy of moral goods, accessible to human beings through natural reason, conscience, and common sense.”

Mahoney is also on solid ground when he argues that charity should not be conflated with unconditional tolerance, borderless states, or radical egalitarianism. In general, “love of neighbor” should not condone a utopian indifference to political conflict or the frailties of human nature. Both Soloviev and Solzhenitsyn, as he shows, spied one of the earliest versions of this disturbing trend in their countryman Leo Tolstoy’s attempt to conflate true Christianity with pacifism. As I similarly argued in my Lincoln and the Politics of Christian Love (2009), the sixteenth president’s famous and eloquent invocations of charity, particularly against the evil of slavery as well as in defense of magnanimous treatment of the defeated Confederacy, should not be used to justify a politics of perfect equality for all human beings.

Still, Mahoney maintains that the natural law tradition must supplement an ethic of charity, in light of the fact that the Left makes grandiose use of “love” in order to justify cruelty. In a time of spiritual crisis, this tradition has always enjoyed considerable appeal. Still, it is far from clear that the natural law tradition enjoys enough support to mount a successful defense against the heirs of Comte. For one thing, there is the regnant philosophical view that the cosmology driving this metaphysics of nature was rendered obsolete by the modern scientific revolution (Mahoney seems to accept this view in part when he rejects Pope Francis’s facile environmentalist position that the modern “mastery over nature” was a bad thing, ignoring all the poverty that this revolution reduced).

There are also serious political challenges. The full recovery of this tradition in the West may require the sort of counter-revolution that is vulnerable to Voegelinian doubts about radically changing the world. It is a safe bet that only conservative Catholics would be attracted to the recovery of this tradition. It is less likely that Mahoney’s homeland would be receptive to this project, given his own view that America’s founding is based on a “misplaced theory (social contractualism of the sort proffered by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau) that undermines all the legitimate aspirations of the American people to a dignified and ordered liberty.” Although there is merit to the claim that the Enlightenment, including its American incarnation, contributed to the religion of humanity, it is hard to imagine how exactly the modern nation-states that are also its products would embrace the strict moral teachings of natural law theory (applied against abortion or homosexuality) anytime soon. Given America’s massive debt to the Enlightenment, the republic may have to be reinvented to be saved.

As a defender of natural law theory, it is also evident that Mahoney does not believe that a non-Catholic version of Christianity is suited to counter the religion of humanity. He agrees with Pope Benedict that the “dehellenization of Christianity,” or the severance of biblical religion from Greek philosophy in modernity has only weakened the Church and the West as a whole. It does not take too much hermeneutical digging to surmise that Protestantism, in Mahoney’s view, is complicit in advancing the religion of humanity, given its historic opposition to natural law theory.

Notwithstanding sectarian differences in Christian theology, it is also unclear whether every conservative opponent of the religion of humanity will be attracted to the overtly Christian foundations of Mahoney’s alternative. Atheists on the Right may take comfort from his agreement with Kolnai that “the cultivation of moral virtue and the recognition of the distinction between Good and Evil did not depend only on religious faith. A cursory examination of the world shows that unbelievers can be just and kind and can exercise self-control.” Still, Mahoney is absolutely clear that a true morality requires Christianity.

The Christian notion of the person affirms human liberty and dignity while avoiding the illusion of thoroughgoing human “autonomy.” The dignity of man ultimately depends upon the primacy of the Good and the affirmation of the sovereignty of God.

If that is truly the case, then the survival of the West falls more on Christians than anyone else. Despite his fascinating discussion of Soloviev’s and Benedict’s prophecy that the Antichrist will come in the guise of a religious humanitarian, it is hard to see how non-Christians would take this prophecy seriously enough to join the fight against the heirs of Comte.

Another problem related to Mahoney’s dependence on Christianity (at least the Catholic version) as the last, best hope of the West involves the complex relation between this faith and the religion of humanity. Although he makes excellent use of Voegelin’s critique of radical religious movements that threaten to “immanentize the eschaton,” Voegelin goes farther in averring that the roots of immanentist heresies take nourishment from the Christian tradition. At times he argued that modern ideologies were just ”‘variations” of Pauline eschatology, with its emphasis on Christ’s final victory in history. In a lecture that Mahoney includes as an appendix to his study, Kolnai sounds closer to Voegelin in emphasizing the inextricable historical relation between Christianity and political radicalism:

Humanitarianism, however, is the standard type of non-religious philosophy. It has risen, in unprecedented vigor, on a soil tilled by Christianity: that is to say, in our own modern age characterized by a decaying and shrinking Christian religiousness. Obviously, Christianity at a stage of disintegration and retreat is calculated to prepare the ground for humanitarianism, for the Christian religion itself, being universalistic, personalistic and moralistic, we may even say in a sense rationalistic, bears a strong connotation of humanitarianism in the broader sense of the term.

Or, as Churchill once remarked, communism is “Christianity with a tomahawk.” If that is the case, it is unclear how any political tradition (including natural law scholasticism) could completely dampen down immanentizing tendencies or beliefs that are already heavily embedded in the Christian tradition.

Of course, Mahoney recognizes that a good theological education on its own is not enough to counter the religion of humanity. There are also secular forces at work that strength the appeal of this ideology. In his chapter on the American Catholic philosopher Orestes Brownson, Mahoney discusses Brownson’s view that democratic freedom and equality would emancipate the human will, leading to atheism, utilitarian morality, and oligarchy. Brownson’s analysis serves as a warning to our time:

Brownson’s critique of the democratic principle never leads to a complacent conservatism. America had become more oligarchic over time. Paradoxically, the “democratic principle” unleashed the increasingly unconstrained influence of the powerful and the rich. The contemporary relevance of this ought to be clear enough: the domination of the powerful and ambitious flows from democracy’s founding premises, which over time undermines self-limitation and the wellsprings of moral obligation.

While it is mightily tempting to dismiss the absurdities of humanitarianism dressed up as religion, it is noteworthy that the near-death experience of global capitalism in 2008 and the resultant populist anger that targeted the liberal democratic consensus in the West also made the religion of humanity attractive again. This anger may help explain why Pope Francis has so fiercely condemned liberal capitalism, as Mahoney notes. The recent election of socialist Democrats to Congress such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who professes belief in Catholicism) may just be the beginning of a new chapter in this narrative.

Of course, it will take more than a return to stable and fair economics to redress the spiritual sickness of the West (as well as attendant ills such as a declining birth rate, libertine morality, and state-imposed egalitarianism). In another perilous age, Whittaker Chambers warned that communism was dangerous precisely because it was “the great alternative faith of mankind.” As Mahoney shows, it takes a true religion to defeat a false one. His analysis gives thoughtful moderns not only faith but also reason to hope that the tide has not yet irrevocably turned in favor of Comte and his heirs.  

Grant Havers is Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Trinity Western University (Canada) He is the author of Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Conservative Critique (Northern Illinois University Press, 2013).