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There’s room for theists and atheists at the watering-hole of humanism

Wisdom is a watering-hole at which animals of many different species can come and drink – as long as they don’t insist on trying to convert, denounce or attack each other, but instead meet in friendship and good humour.

Last month, I took part in a slightly silly stunt for World Philosophy Day. I and some other writer-types dressed up in togas and re-created Raphael’s School of Athens on the steps of St Paul’s. There are Cynics, Stoics, Platonists and various ‘not sures’ among us, all gathered together to celebrate wisdom. Our number included a theologian, Nick Spencer from the Christian think-tank Theos, in the orange-and-red toga on the right. I’ll come back to him.


I love Raphael’s painting, because it’s a portrait of intellectual friendship. There are philosophers of many different creeds gathered together in the painting, but they’re not denouncing each other or cutting each other’s heads off. They’re enjoying a friendly conversation. The intellectual diversity of the scene is all the more remarkable considering the mural is on Pope Julius II’s library wall in the Vatican Palace.

The painting reminds me of a group I have met up with fairly regularly for the last year or so. It grew out of the RSA’s spirituality project, organized by Jonathan Rowson. Some of the people involved in that group started to meet at each other’s homes for dinner every couple of months.

The group members hold a wide variety of metaphysical positions – for example, they include Toby Flint, who runs the Alpha course at Holy Trinity Brompton, and also Pippa Evans, who founded the Sunday Assembly, the humanist church. Toby and Pippa get on like a church on fire, not least because they have a similar sense of humour, and a similar desire to help people and provide them with community.

I think the fact that the founder of an atheist church and the organizer of the Alpha course can meet in friendship and humour is a triumph of Anglicanism. I define Anglicanism as broader than Christianity – Philip Pullman is a self-declared Anglican atheist, so is Richard Dawkins. It’s an open table, a shared culture of good humour, affability, and love of wisdom. The friendship between George Bernard Shaw and GK Chesterton is an example of Anglicanism. This exchange, on Twitter, between the Reverend Richard Coles and Richard Dawkins is another.

I think Anglican open-mindedness and friendliness is closely related to humanism. Humanism means a love of wisdom, particularly the wisdom of Greek and Roman philosophy. It also means a love of the arts and sciences, and a belief in their power to improve life. But above all, humanism is about people gathering together in friendship to share ideas, enjoying each other’s company even if we don’t share all of the same beliefs. As Terence put it: ‘I am human, nothing human is alien to me.’

Humanism is a social philosophy. It grew up in groups of friends, like the circle of Scipio, which helped bring Greek philosophy to Rome, or the humanist circles that flourished in 14th century Florence, around Boccaccio, Salutati, Bruni, and (some decades later) Marsilio Ficino, or in 15th century England and Holland, around Erasmus and Thomas More. These circles were quite heterogeneous – they might include Christians, Epicureans, Neo-Platonists, Kabbalists and Hermeticists. But they met in friendship and good humour.

Ficino’s Academy in Florence

My humanism is better than yours…

Today, alas, humanism is not quite such a broad or friendly church. One of my fellow toga-wearers from that gathering at St Paul’s, Nick Spencer of Theos, co-authored a report last week which bemoaned the fact that ‘humanism’ is now used to mean people who are non-religious or even anti-religious. The Theos report points out that there’s a long and proud tradition of Christian humanism too. Fair enough.

But the report then insists that Christian humanism is the best form of humanism, while atheist humanism doesn’t actually make sense. Na na na, my humanism is better than your humanism. This naturally riled atheist humanists, who called the report a land-grab, a ‘trolling of a whole world-view’. So, alas, what could have been an essay celebrating the shared foundations of Christian and secular humanism instead turned into a slanging match.

I am all for Christian humanism. I spent several years exploring and celebrating Greek and Roman philosophy and how people use it today. By the end of that journey, I was beginning to explore Christianity, and I’ve gone to church for the last two years. But I still take part in things like Stoic Week, because what I love about Greek philosophy – and wisdom in general – is that it can help free people from suffering no matter what their precise metaphysical beliefs.

At the heart of all humanisms is the belief that wisdom heals. This idea is at the heart of Christian humanism, Islamic humanism, Jewish humanism, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian humanism, and atheist or agnostic humanism. We might have different ideas about where beauty and wisdom come from, or what happens to us after death, but we can still agree on certain ideas and practices which heal us of suffering and help us to flourish.

Wisdom is like a watering-pool at which animals of many different species can come and drink, as long as they don’t insist on trying to convert, denounce or behead each other, but instead meet in friendship and good humour. Humanisms of all stripes need to get along, to withstand the real enemies: on the one hand, narrow and violent fanaticism, on the other, apathy and indifference.

The decline of humanisms

Humanisms are not in great shape at the moment. The centuries-old tradition of Islamic humanism seems to be overwhelmed by fundamentalism. Likewise Jewish humanism. Secular humanism is often shrill, hectoring, hostile to outsiders, and keener to denounce than befriend. And Christian humanism is also in dramatic decline.

The old tradition of humanist Anglicanism – with its poetry, its music and architecture, its wisdom, its open-mindedness and good humour – has been replaced by a narrower evangelicalism imported from America and Africa. This evangelicalism is not all bad – it has energy and ecstasy (and there’s a long tradition of ecstasy in humanism). But the intellectual side of Christianity has been sidelined in favour of a gushing and uncritical emotionalism.

George Herbert. Not a big draw in churches these days
George Herbert. Not a big draw in churches these days

In previous centuries, Anglicans like George Herbert, or Thomas Traherne would have been as familiar with Greco-Roman arts and philosophy as with the Bible. Today, most Christians view philosophy as a threat, and would have no awareness at all of, say, Dante, Milton, Raphael or Bach. Church bookstores are filled with crass American evangelical tracts, and would never dream of stocking works by, say, Donne, Blake, TS Eliot, Launcelot Andrewes, Julian of Norwich, or Erasmus. Anglicanism is losing its humanist roots.

I remember seeing a priest at a mega-church, who told the huge congregation how much he loved Milton, then attributed this quote to him: ‘Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life.’ Anyone who thinks Milton said that has, clearly, never read Milton in their life. I don’t mind him not having read Milton, but don’t pretend you have, and check your facts before passing them on (in the same sermon he claimed the Segrada Familia in Barcelona was built in the 14th century).

The deeper problem with this anti-intellectualism is it encourages an uncritical emotionalism. Any testimony about God’s healing power is uncritically swallowed with whoops of joy and cries of wonder. Christians become utterly credulous, embarrassingly so. That makes it very easy for any ambitious preacher to manipulate them with made-up stories and anecdotes – even well-respected preachers are happy to pass on fabricated internet anecdotes as if they were gospel truth. If we can’t trust them on that, why should we trust them when they tell us the Bible is literally true?

And a second big problem with this anti-intellectualism is there is no sense in the modern church that wisdom heals. If you have emotional problems, the only solution is to pray to Jesus and hope He exorcises your pain. This anti-intellectualism would seem bizarre and primitive to humanist Anglicans like Thomas More or Thomas Traherne, who understood that wisdom empowers us to change our minds and heal ourselves. As that founding father of humanism, Cicero, put it, ‘there is a medical art for the soul, and its name is philosophy’.

I wish more Christians knew this – it would help them suffer less from things like depression or ME. The celebration of wisdom is not anti-Christian, it’s completely Biblical. But when I offered to do a workshop on healing wisdom at my local church, the young evangelical vicar brushed it warily aside. So I did it at the Sunday Assembly instead.

Even the theology schools that are supposed to be making Anglicanism more culturally sophisticated are often anti-intellectual. I did a theology course at St Paul’s Theology School, run by Graham Tomlin – a wise Christian humanist who’s written books on Justin Martyr and others. The school’s ‘ethics course’ involves a session on euthanasia, in which a man with cystic fibrosis gives an impassioned testimony about why every life is sacred. This invariably reduces everyone to tears. The other side of the argument – that some terminally ill people might want to end their lives – is not even considered. This anti-intellectual emotionalism is typical of the modern church but astounding in a theology school.

As Christian humanism declines and the church grows narrower, it loses its connection to wider society, and turns in on itself. A Christian friend told me recently they didn’t have any secular friends. How many contemporary apologists have any sort of voice in the wider cultural conversation? They are not converting anyone, they’re just reassuring existing Christians. The cross-cultural friendships are absent. The bridges are closed.

911EtzXkUDLMeanwhile, a quiet tradition of Christian humanism carries on, and actually connects far more people to God, precisely because it does not insist people show their metaphysical credentials before inviting them to sit and eat. I think, for example, of the novels of Marilynne Robinson, or the poetry of George Herbert – brought to a wider audience recently by the biography of John Drury. These humanists are outside the church bubble, meeting their society in friendship, generously sharing the nourishment of Christian transcendence, without insisting people ‘surrender their yes to Jesus’.

Reading this again, I wonder if I sound like an intellectual snob. If I do, it’s probably because I am an intellectual snob. And obviously one of the good things about Christianity – compared to atheist humanism – is that it’s not intellectually snobbish, that it is a broad church which welcomes all, in which an illiterate fisherman might very well be closer to God than an academic. Still, what is also good about Christianity is that it’s a broad church with room for the humanist or intellectual side too. It’s a pity if that aspect of Christian culture disappears – more than a pity, in fact, a tragedy.




Nancy Sherman, the soldiers’ philosopher

20091102+Nancy+Sherman_0018Professor Nancy Sherman has worked with the US military for over 20 years, and has written several books on military ethics, including Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind; and The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds and Souls of Our Soldiers.

How did you come to teach philosophy in the military?

Through a crisis on their part. The US Naval Academy had a cheating scandal. Back, in the 1990s, 130 electrical engineering midshipmen were implicated in cheating on a major exam. They seemed to have got it in advance. These individuals were all brought before various kinds of honour boards, and as part of the ‘moral remediation’ they wanted an ethicist onboard. That was me. After two weeks they asked me to set up an ethics course. One thing led to another, and eventually I was selected as the inaugural distinguished chair of ethics at the Naval Academy.

How did you find teaching in the military?

My dad was a WWII vet, didn’t talk about it much. I was a child of the 60s, many of my friends were conscientious objectors. Now, I was in a place where there were marines and officers who had fought on the Mekong Delta. It was an eye-opener, to see the other side of a conflict that was very formative for me. I hadn’t really met my peers who had served. I learned a lot from them.

1897893_762289500447958_1645314971_nThe Naval Academy is a different sort of university. It’s uniformed. Everyone is Ma’aming and Sir-ing. They’re trying to figure out what rank you are. They were used to a very hierarchical universe. And a lot of Navy people are engineer-focused. They want bottom lines. Discussions without clear endings, or deliberative questions without easy right and wrongs, shades of grey, all of that was not something they were comfortable with.

But you discovered they have a natural interest in Stoic philosophy.

Yes. The course took them through deliberative models and major ethical theories – Aristotle, emotions, deliberation and habits; Kant and universalizability; Mill and Bentham, and notions of maximizing utility. When we got to Stoicism – Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius – they felt ‘this is the stuff I know: suck it up, truck on, externals mean nothing to me. I can’t get back for my wedding because I’m on a ship, well, it’s beyond my control.’

One of the greatest officers in their midst was Admiral James Bond Stockdale. He’d endured seven years in the Hanoi Hilton [the north Vietnamese prison], two of them in leg-irons. He’d been given a little copy of Epictetus when studying at Stanford. He committed it to memory and it became his salvation. That’s a well-known story in the military.

You met and interviewed Stockdale several times. What was he like?

He had a kind of James Cagney voice. And you couldn’t tell when it was him talking or when he was quoting Epictetus. It was seamless. You sometimes thought you’re in front of an impersonator. He had a noticeable limp in his left leg, from when his plane crashed in Vietnam, and Epictetus also had a limp in his left leg. So there was a physical kinship and perhaps a spiritual kinship too.

Are the Stoics widely read in the US military? I came across quite a few Stoic soldiers when researching my book, particularly in the Green Berets – I didn’t come across any in the British military.

The Roman Stoics are read by officers and commanders, not so much by enlisted men. How they come to it is an interesting question. I think in the Marines and Navy, probably through Stockdale’s influence on the curriculum – he was head of the Naval War College on Rhode Island. Also these are popular writers, easy to read. Everyone understands stoic with a little s.

How useful or appropriate is Stoicism for soldiers?

51h1oiS7REL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_It has curses and blessings. It fits an idealized model of invincibility, of external goods not mattering. I can expand the perimeter of my agency so that the only thing that matters is what I can control – namely my virtue. It meshes with what we know to be pretty natural responses to constant threat. As Stockdale once put it, you’re ‘as cagey a Stoic as you can be’. He was a cagey sage with his captors – this won’t touch me, this won’t affect me.

With that goes the notion that your emotions can be fully controlled and you can turn them off, essentially. Anything your emotions attach to in sticky and graspy ways is dangerous, because they can destabilize you, they can make you mourn and grieve. So there’s the idea of not missing something – a cigarette, your child, your spouse, or your buddy who gets blown up next to you. It’s useful armour. That’s the blessing.

The curse is it can be a way of not feeling, or as a lot of soldiers tell me, you feel ‘dead to the world’ – they can’t feel anymore. And that’s awful. You come home and you have this gorgeous child, and a family you want to adore, and you can’t even feel joy because you’ve turned off your emotions in certain ways. That is an absolute curse.

The Stoics were giving salvation for tough times. It’s a great philosophy for tough times, I’m not sure it’s a great philosophy for everyday living. It’s always good to feel more in control, but it’s not good to think that luck and the vicissitudes of the world can’t touch you or that you can’t show moral outrage, love, grief, and so on.

Do some soldiers manage to put on and take off that Stoic armour?

No, that’s really hard. This is a question about ‘resilience’ – the million-dollar-word in the military right now. The idea of resilience is you can bounce back. We have 2.4 million soldiers coming home from war. They can’t bounce back on their own. They can’t bounce back just with their families. They need a community that gets it. They need to know that we’re not just saying ‘thank you for your service’. They need enormous amounts of trust, hope, medical attention. Above all they need emotional connection.

There’s an idea in Stoicism that your loyalty to the Logos, to the ‘City of God’, comes before your loyalty to the state. The Stoics were quite individualistic, probably not great team-players. How does that fit in with the very strong collective or conformist ethos of the military? What if you’re asked to do something that doesn’t fit with your virtue?

The best service-member will never check their conscience at the door. It will be with them all the time. That’s not just Stoic. That’s any moral philosophy – you do the right thing. Your virtue is your guide. If you have an officer, a commander, who is giving you unlawful, immoral, bad advice, and it’s even part of a system – of torture for example – the moral individual will question that, whatever philosophy they have.

Major Ian Fishback
Major Ian Fishback

One of my friends is Ian Fishback, he now teaches at Westpoint and is going to do a Phd in philosophy at Michigan. He’s a special forces major. He served eight years or so in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was at Abu Ghraib and didn’t like what he saw there. He wrote at least 50 letters to command about what was going on. He got no answers. He finally wrote to Senator John McCain, who’d been a POW with Jim Stockdale, and said ‘this is what I’m seeing’. He went public. He blew the whistle. And from that came a referendum that was put before congress. To know Ian is to know that he is thoughtful. He is conscientious.

To be in the military is hard for the thinking soldier. All the people I work closely with, all my PhD students from the military – they have to accept some of the absurd of a career in the military, but you can’t accept some of the missions. You pick your battles. And it may be a career-ender. You face the possibility that you’re not going to be a yes-man.

How well is the military coping with PTSD at the moment? How big a problem is it?

the-untold-war-inside-the-hearts-minds-and-souls-of-our-soldiersWe don’t really know the numbers, but some say there’s maybe 30% incidence of PTSD in soldiers coming home. It’s a central issue which the Americans are taking on in various ways. The Pentagon, and in particular General Peter Chiarelli, wants to drop the D from PTSD. They argue it’s not a disorder, it’s an injury with an external cause. They want to destigmatize it.

Secondly, there’s vast efforts to deal with the suicide peak – for the first time in record-keeping, the rate of suicide in the military exceeds the comparable rate for young male civilians. It’s not always after multiple deployments. Often the precipitating factors have to do with coming home, with difficult family relationships at home. It’s very complex. Some would like to find a ‘biomarker’ for suicidal tendencies.

There aren’t enough mental health workers, that’s pretty clear. And there’s still stigma, still a sense that it’s weak not to be able to handle losing your buddy.

Also, traumatic stress has a moral dimension, often. It’s not just a fear symptom. It’s also that you keep going back to the situation and thinking ‘I should have done that, I wasn’t good enough, I let someone down’. It’s complicated what morality is in the complex of war. You’re in a lethality and violence-soaked environment, increasingly in population-centric environments. There’s a lot of grey area – who’s the enemy, are they a voluntary or involuntary human-shield, and so on.

I read the military isn’t doing a great job at keeping track of what treatments for PTSD actually work.

Well, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy seems to be the leader. But you’re talking about populations that are heavily medicated, on sleeping pills, on anxiety pills, on pain-killers. And that affects their ability to change their thinking.

What do you think of Martin Seligman’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme [ a $180 million programme introduced in 2010 to teach resilient-thinking skills to all service-members, to try and prevent PTSD occurrence]?

This was introduced in 2009 / 2010 when the suicide rate was going up. They needed something fast. As one army psychiatrist said to me, they expected broken bodies, they didn’t expect broken minds. I think Seligman’s work has been shown to be effective in populations of children in tough neighbourhoods. He had not done previous work with combat lethality-saturated environments.

Emotional intelligence is a great thing, being able to talk about things soldiers don’t typically talk about is great. You need forums, you need lots of time. My understanding is you get two hours training twice a year when you’re not deployed. That’s not a lot.

Some military psychiatrists worry that the programme could further stigmatize those who still develop PTSD. If you’ve gone through the preventative programme and you still can’t sleep at night, you’re still racked by guilt, you may feel even worse. Prevention is one thing, but you can’t further stigmatize those who are traumatized. Still, I applaud the armed forces for realizing that mental health is critical for soldiers’ health.

You still work with soldiers now?

I have a lot of veterans enrolled in my classes in Georgetown. I’ve been working with soldiers for 20 years now. They’re my buddies. Next year I have a book coming out about soldiers coming home, called Making Peace with War: Healing the Moral Wounds of our Soldiers, which involved a lot of long interviews with soldiers. My heart goes out to folks who are trying to morally process really complicated issues.

To go back to the beginning, you initially started work with the military because of an ethical crisis, which they thought could be solved with an ethics course. Do you think ethics courses really do improve people’s ethical behaviour?

I think these courses have enormous value. Not when they have sets of right or wrong answers, but when you have small enough groups where you can have discussions. Finding time to think, when you’re not on the spot, is really powerful. It goes into the unconscious and is part of your reserves for hard times.

If you’re interested in the application of Stoicism in modern life, including the military, come to the Stoicism Today event on November 29 at Queen Mary, University of London.