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Community philosophy

The best of times, the worst of times

This is the best time ever to be alive and human. Global life expectancy has doubled in the last century, from 31 to 71. A century ago, 20% of babies died in childbirth, now it’s less than 7%. You’re far, far less likely to die violently than in the Middle Ages, the 19th century, or even in the 1960s. In the last 30 years, the percentage of the world living in abject poverty has fallen from 37% to below 10%. Global literacy has risen from 40% in 1950 to 86%. In 1900, girls in Sub-Saharan Africareceived 7% of the education (in years) that boys’ received, now they receive 82% – and its close to 100% in Latin America and Eastern Europe.

The world is better off in terms of health, education, wealth, gender equality, democracy, and peace, than it was 50 years ago, and far, far better off than it was 200 years ago.

Yet if you ask people in the UK, Germany, the US, France and elsewhere if they think the world is getting better, only around 4% of people think it is. 

Why has the west got the blues? Why aren’t we celebrating the incredible progress we have made? Why do we say things like ‘2016 was the worst year ever’, based on two right-wing election victories and the death of some celebrities?

Firstly, I think it’s fair to say we are spoilt. We have been spoilt by 50 years of peace and affluence. We thought the 90s were normal, when the biggest problem the US faced was Bill Clinton’s zip, rather than a decade unusual for its lack of serious crises or major wars. When we returned to the historical norm of crisis and war, we were bewildered, and we wailed.

Secondly, while the world is doing better, the West, by some measures, is doing worse. Western countries are seeing less dramatic gains in measures like literacy or life expectancy, a relative decline in our global share of GDP versus emerging markets, and actual declines in domestic measures like real income, living standards, home-owning and inequality. The 2008 financial crisis eroded our faith in democracy and capitalism. Liberal capitalist democracy is less obviously the globally triumphant system it was in 2000. It doesn’t seem to be working very well in the US and elsewhere, and the percentage of those in the West who support the idea of military dictatorships is rising, particularly among millennials.

Third, migration has rapidly reshaped the demographics of western countries, with the share of immigrants in some populations almost doubling in the last 20 years. This has changed the look and feel of many European cities – they have become far more multicultural or, sometimes, more segregated. Unfortunately, this sharp rise in immigration in the last 20 years has come at the same time as a period of war and international terrorism in the history of Islam. Every terrorist attack in the West emboldens and amplifies far-right voices saying Western civilization is heading for Islamic destruction. 

Fourth, we’re growing up with the prospect of species-threatening climate change in the next few decades, and we don’t know what to do about it. Some scientists, including James Lovelock, tell us there’s nothing we can do – the world will, in the next 30-50 years, become largely uninhabitable, much of humanity will become refugees, and the human population will be literally decimated. It’s such a dark prospect, and we’re so obviously failing to deal with it, that we don’t really talk about it. But I think it profoundly shapes our emotional and psychic reality.

Finally, there may be an emotional crisis in the West – a rise in loneliness, and in emotional problems like depression and anxiety. I’m not entirely sure on this – I think the rise in those seeking treatment is probably because of greater awareness and access to treatment. Nonetheless, George Monbiot may be right, in his new book Out of the Wreckage, when he argues we’re facing a crisis in meaning brought about by a lack of an over-arching narrative or myth.

Instead, we look to social media for meaning and narrative. We out-source our thinking to pundits like Owen Jones or Glenn Beck, or to a handful of trusted Twitter heroes like Gary Lineker and JK Rowling, who never disturb us with new or contrary ideas, but instead comfort us by articulating what we already feel, and shape the incredibly complex world of global politics into simple narratives of good versus bad, heroes versus villains. This is a perfect recipe for emotional disturbance, social division and political disfunction. Twitter is making us stupid, and sick.

Such is the complexity of the ‘wicked problems’ we face, a part of me feels the allure of unplugging and dropping out. The public space has become too noisy, too bitter. We feel we must have an opinion on everything, yet much of what is happening is beyond our individual or collective control. Perhaps now is the time for a tactical Daoist retreat – the wise man ascends the mountain, and lets nature take its course. 

But I think a better response than Daoist retreat is Stoic engagement: you accept that much of the situation is beyond your control, you accept that some fairly dreadful things are going to happen this century, but you engage politically anyway, with firm resolve, and a hope and faith in the long arc of the cosmos towards wisdom and justice.

We must keep hope, and remind ourselves of humans’ natural bias to negativity. We must remember how often, over the last 2000 years, humans thought the end of the world was nigh, and were proved wrong.We must remind ourselves loudly of the victories we have achieved and are achieving, even if these victories happen thousands of miles away. We must remind ourselves how sudden technological innovations have utterly transformed human existence in the past, and are likely to do so in the future. We must consider the ‘long now’, and plan not just for five years in the future, or 50, but 500.

I think my country – the United Kingdom – needs a ‘Doomsday Trust’, like the Rand Corporation, to go away into a farmhouse in the countryside for five years and think deeply about the challenges our country faces from climate change – to face difficult questions about arable land, dependency on food exports, mass migration, relations with the EU, the possibility of social breakdown – and find a way to help our nation survive this century. That thinking can’t be done on Twitter.

We must re-learn to engage not just through social media, but through face-to-face neighbourliness – speaking personally, I must shake myself out of a period of withdrawal from community organizing and start to organize again, for the common good and my own good.

Finally, what about the crisis of meaning in western culture, and the need for a new narrative? I can only repeat my brother, Alex Evans, whose book The Myth Gap earlier this year called for a new myth to change our relationship to nature and each other.

I also think the new narrative will be a shift from the Cartesian / Hobbesian narrative of the individual rational ego competing with other humans and exploiting a world of inanimate matter and soulless animals, towards a narrative where our consciousness is extended and deeply connected to each other, to other species, and to all of nature and all matter. 

When I develop my consciousness into wisdom and love, you benefit, even if we never meet. When you suffer, I suffer, even if we never meet. When the corals bleach in Australia, I am poorer. When literacy rises in Nigeria, I am richer. We are literally one organism, one consciousness, one interlocking eco-system, one vast I AM. That, I think, is the astonishing and in some ways terrifying truth that humans have been groping towards for millennia.

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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.

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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.