The Gospel of Humanism


Leo Madrigal

In this world filled with ignorance, hatred, suspicion, greed, strife, and oppression, there is but one justifiable cause for optimism.  And that cause is proclaimed gloriously in the Gospel of Humanism.  Now, I know that the word gospel is usually considered anathema to everything related to humanism, that it is most often associated with Christianity’s promise of eternal salvation through faith, a promise, incidentally, that religious liberals universally dismiss as sheer nonsense.  But the word gospel, it should be remembered, has not necessarily any such theological implications.  It means only good tidings.  And the good tidings of liberal religion are to be found in its Gospel of Humanism.

          This message of hope is addressed to every living person:  “Be glad!  Rejoice in your humanity, for greatness is your destiny.”  Nor has this destined greatness anything whatever to do with wealth, fame, or power.  It is an inner or spiritual greatness characterized by childlike innocence, uncommon courage, independence of conscience, tolerance, creativity, intense devotion to Truth, and concern for the welfare of all humankind.

          That such greatness exists will not, I think, be doubted.  One need only call to mind the examples of Marcus Aurelius, Thomas Jefferson, Albert Schweitzer, Clarence Darrow, Mohandas Gandhi, and countless others.  That this greatness is a desirable thing for one’s own life, I suppose, might be doubted.  After all, many of the truly great are, in their own lifetimes, controversial figures, feared, despised, persecuted.  It is only in the perspective of decades or even centuries that they begin to appear godlike to lesser beings.  Yet, they alone—the great in spirit—experience happiness in its fullest measure, for they are at peace with themselves, if not with the world, and their lives have purpose.

          Quite obviously, not all individuals achieve this spiritual greatness, but that sad fact in no way indicates that it is not theirs to claim.  Indeed, this magnificent destiny is the absolute birthright of every human being.  Unfortunately, most persons simply refuse to accept their destiny.  Of course, they would never own that they were doing anything so perverse, but false beliefs and false values, which have contributed to their smallness of spirit, radically distort their perceptions of reality.

          How such false values and false beliefs ever became established is difficult to imagine.  Perhaps they once represented logical solutions to problems peculiar to an age now long forgotten.  Or perhaps they never made sense.  In any event, what is abundantly clear is that the small in spirit, who cling to those false beliefs and values today, revere them as sacred truths, which must be held onto, even in the face of evidence that would seem to discredit them, and which must be perpetuated by their progeny.

          That anyone ever achieves his or her destined greatness is something of a miracle, for all of respectable society conspires against it.  Parents and educators, in particular, demand that children discard their innocence—their naturalness—before entering adulthood, that they embrace accepted values, never entertain an original thought, and aspire only to be normal or average in every way.

          Still, a precious few do somehow transcend society’s expectations to become all that they were meant to be.  And a good thing for humanity it is, for every contribution to progress and every advance toward general enlightenment have been inspired by at least one of these remarkable human beings.

          Both Aristotle and Confucius recognized the superior man and noted the qualities that set him apart from the average man.  Similarly, other sages have described great souls and spoken of Buddha-selves.  They were merely identifying those rare human beings that, in spite of overwhelming negative influences, rise above the rest to claim their rightful inheritance.

          Psychologists of the humanistic and existentialistic schools refer to this destined greatness as self-actualization or self-realization.  Abraham Maslow has even provided a model by which better to understand the phenomenon.  According to that model, there exists a hierarchy of human needs, the most basic of which are physiological, as for food, shelter, and warmth. Above these are the emotional needs for love, belonging, and the esteem of others.  At the top of the hierarchy is self-esteem.  While more-basic needs remain unsatisfied, one cannot easily afford the luxury of being concerned with higher needs.  But if all one’s needs are met in a timely fashion, then self-actualization is assured.  It is a natural step in one’s psychological development.

          In the terminology of humanistic psychology, the self-actualizing person is said to have become being-motivated.  Untroubled by awareness of needs not met, he is free to devote himself to the richness of life, to the sheer enjoyment of being.  The non-self-actualizing person, on the other hand, remains deficiency-motivated.  He may, in fact, be facing no immediate deficiency, but only be remembering some need that went too long unanswered.  Until he can get out of the habit of serving that need, he cannot aspire to self-actualization.

          Certainly, chance provides deprivation enough to impede the psychological development of many, but a vastly more-formidable obstacle is the deliberate and concerted effort by society to require rigid conformity of all its members.  Adults impose conditions of worth on children, withholding positive regard in order to force those children to internalize values contrary to their natural interests and to accept beliefs inconsistent with their actual experience.

          This process of molding individuals to suit society, this systematic indoctrination, is called socialization.  It involves the use of songs and symbols, poetry and pageantry, folk lore, novels, motion pictures, and television to legitimize and reinforce values and beliefs that have been imposed, and it requires many years to be carried out successfully.  Though somewhat more subtle than what is popularly termed brainwashing, socialization is menticide nonetheless, for it disconnects its victims from their honest thoughts and true feelings.  It reduces them to a condition less than fully human.

          Some who manage to retain their innocence into adulthood, and along the way, attain their destined greatness can thank enlightened, unconventional parenting.  Of others, who can say?  Perhaps genetics made them more resilient than most or more refractory.  Perhaps they followed the examples of self-actualizing adults of their acquaintance.  However it happens that they come to fulfill their destiny, the great in spirit invariably assume a tremendous responsibility to do whatever they can to improve the lot of humankind.  A few will be satisfied to serve in strictly humanitarian fields, while others will be called to science or to the arts.  Some may avoid public scorn and conflict with authority, but more will not, for their very compassion will compel them to defy society by encouraging others to try to recover their lost innocence and by offering to any that seek after wisdom what guidance they can.

          There was a time when society would not have suffered such dangerous radicals to go on living and spreading their heterodox opinions.  Consider, for instance, the fate of Socrates.  Yet martyrs, it has finally been recognized, often gain approval and tend, whether their causes be worthy or not, to win converts.  Only by his death on a Roman cross did an otherwise-insignificant country preacher from Nazareth come to be hailed by millions as their Messiah.

          Today procrustean society has a more-effective means of neutralizing the perceived threat to civilization posed by non-conformists, and ironically, it was the mental- health profession that provided it.  The personality disorder once identified as psychopathic it has now become stylish to call sociopathic or antisocial.  Psychopathic was a perfectly good term.  Its meaning was clear to most everyone in and out of the mental-health professions.  A person so diagnosed was rightly understood to be completely bereft of conscience, pathologically incapable of loving or empathizing with others.  But the words sociopathic and antisocial, which should convey exactly the same meaning as psychopathic, are, in fact, much more loosely applied, as if being out of phase with the rest of society were itself a symptom of this extreme disorder.  Qualities of the self-actualizing individual are frequently perceived as antisocial tendencies.  Indeed, anyone not fully and satisfactorily socialized is at risk of being labeled an antisocial personality, his ideas and suggestions casually dismissed.  For who takes seriously the ravings of a mental case?

          Nevertheless, greatness is not to be discouraged.  It does not require others to recognize it.  It is a celebration of self, and no one who has ever so much as imagined its possibility could settle for anything less.  No cost could be too high; no effort, too great; no obstacle, too challenging.

© 2009 LM