Humanists claim that there is something special about human beings and that to live well we must grow up, overcome our childish and brutish temptations, and become fully human.
Secular Enlightenment humanists think this is something human beings can and should try to pull off on their own – through personal and collective human efforts. Martha Nussbaum, for example, is hopeful that if we increase the role of reason, culture, and the liberal arts in our personal and collective lives, we can pull ourselves out of any tailspins we are in and re-form and re-orient ourselves in a more happy direction.
To many Christians, however, this secular optimism sounds like prideful hubris. And, given the history of the 20th Century, they argue that it is also culturally and politically dangerous.
In her new book, Forming Humanity, Jennifer Herdt revisits key figures in the German enlightenment tradition in order to educate and soften this Christian reaction to secular humanism, and to open up dialogue between enlightenment atheists and Christian skeptics about if and how we can individually and collectively reform ourselves and live good human lives. If you are interested, I recommend checking out this lively symposium with Herdt and her Christian critics. It has me excited to interview Herdt later this month and to engage with her from my (relatively pessimistic) secular perspective.