How could so slim a book bear so bold a title as The Idol of Our Age? In these times of overhype, when fatuous exaggerations are de rigueur, “revolution” is a mere marketing shtick, and “glib” is the new “groovy,” Daniel J. Mahoney’s erudite essays may well be met with a skeptical shrug. How can anything count as the idol of our age—how to choose among the myriad social, socialist, and antisocial media icons, the colossal nymphs gracing the screens of Times Square, the deconstructionist demigods of the academy? Yet Mahoney, who holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College, is undaunted. As revealed in the book’s subtitle, he proposes to explain nothing less than “How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity” and thus, implicitly, civilization itself.
As ambitious as its subject might sound, the book delivers.
The “Religion of Humanity” was the lofty name that French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857) gave to his Positivist worldview, an anti-theological doctrine by which he intended to substitute “the love of Humanity for the love of God.” An avowed atheist, Comte despised all metaphysics—a term of derision that he hurled at what he considered futile, unanswerable, silly queries into the meaning and origin of life, the nature of thought, and other similarly unproductive speculations. Which did nothing to stop him from using such quintessentially Christian concepts as charity, spirituality, and faith (consistency was not his forte).
Having rejected traditional religion, Comte enthrones the twin deities of Progress and Social Feeling, which he treats as all the more sacred for being left conspicuously undefined. As the Positivists use science to usher in Progress, Social Feeling triumphs, and man inherits the earth. It is facile logic and wishful thinking masquerading as argument, but it definitely took hold, setting us on the path to modern science-worship in the name of a superficial humanism that champions mankind at the expense of real human beings. Mahoney cites approvingly the German American philosopher Eric Voegelin’s (1901-1985) critique of Comte’s utterly “naïve faith that believes history will simply leave evil behind in the new, positive age.”
Mahoney and Voegelin are both appalled by Comte’s cavalier contempt for spiritual ideas, which he nonetheless proceeds to adopt, subvert, and finally invert. Succumbing to the ultimate hubris, Comte himself “takes the place of Christ, just as ‘the love of Humanity,’ the jealous Grand-Etre, takes the place of ‘love of God.’” The self-anointed messiah of positive science obviously could not resist the narcissistic temptation to genuflect before his own image. “In this sense, Comte has divinized his own existence, making himself the herald of a new Humanity worshipping itself. Comte’s existence, and Comte’s alone, truly has universal significance as the harbinger of human self-deification.” Mahoney does not need to add that in 1826, the hapless philosopher was admitted to a mental hospital, which he soon left without being cured. Narcissus too had drowned.
If the worship of man by man is what defines the Religion of Humanity, it does so in defiance of the genuine respect that real human beings are bound to show for other human beings. For in the name of some amorphous, relativistic, “moral” order, writes Mahoney, “Left-wing humanitarians and ‘progressive’ churchmen spout on about ‘social justice’” even as “they never really tell us what ‘social justice’ is or what the adjective adds to the noun.” It all amounts to “a kind of juvenile existentialism, marked more by farce than angst.” But make no mistake, it “has become the default position of our age.”
Perhaps most appalling of all is the underlying, though hardly unconscious, hypocrisy. Mahoney points out that the virtue-signaling, self-described humanitarians are principally concerned with their self-image as “caring.” He agrees with French philosopher Pierre Manent that humanitarian moral posturing “makes the avant-garde of humanity feel smug and self-satisfied” but dispenses with genuine grace, which can only come from a higher moral sphere. Charity takes more than posturing, and cannot be reduced to handouts. The greatest theological virtue, “genuine love of one’s neighbor,” is “only possible because one discerns in him or her ‘the image of God.’” On that basis, no one may presume to decide for someone else; everyone is equal before God in the special sense enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence, which has nothing to do with the “homogenizing egalitarianism” of the humanitarians, which is in fact anathema to true freedom.
Manent, in his Foreword to this volume, agrees that so-called humanitarianism “is the single most powerful factor in the shaping of our public and private thoughts, feelings, and actions. It is an opinion that commands and forbids, inspires and intimidates: it is a ruling opinion.” Confident that they are “intrinsically right and ‘progressive,’” the self-righteous whose ideas and attitudes so decisively shape our society are typically secular. Yet the hubristic temptation has infected even denizens of the church—even Pope Francis.
Mahoney devotes an entire chapter to Francis, whose church is now facing a grievous threat in part because of his reluctance to address head-on the sexual misconduct of priests and the covering up of their crimes. Whether the pontiff will pay the price is unclear; it could be he will be protected by the media. For Mahoney discerns “an element of the bien-pensant in Francis’s papacy, a tendency in his utterances and self-presentation to confirm widely held left-liberal elite opinions about politics and the world.” The Pope’s anti-capitalist sentiments are well known: “He has little or nothing positive to say about the market economy.” Instead of seriously exploring social and political measures that really do help the poor, “the pope endorses government action to promote ‘a better distribution of income’” just like they do on NPR.
Peace, Real and Illusory
The book’s other chapters introduce readers to three prophets, as Mahoney calls them in deference to their ability to appreciate well before their contemporaries did the totalitarian implications of totalitarianism. These are the American Orestes Brownson (1803-1876); the Russian Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900), who was in many respects a precursor of Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008); and Aurel Kolnai (1900-1973), a Hungarian Jewish-born Catholic convert. Mahoney describes them as “men of peace, which is precisely why they reject ideological pacifism and the confusion of Christianity with an unthinking sentimentality.”
A significant presence in the background of this book, moreover, is the great French historian Alain Besançon, to whom it is dedicated, and whom Mahoney thanks for helping him appreciate that authentic Christianity is anathema to all forms of “hatred of the real.” In the eloquent concluding chapter, Mahoney restates this anti-utopian stance by appealing to a pontiff whom he does respect, Pope Benedict XVI. “Man,” Benedict wisely stated, “is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself.” This is not to say that we cannot—indeed, we must—improve ourselves. But as Mahoney rightly interprets that message, “the beginning of wisdom is to know men are not gods.”
These essays go well beyond the beginning of wisdom, though it is hard to resist a quibble or two. First of all, there’s Immanuel Kant, about whom Mahoney writes: “No doubt there are worse things than Kant-inspired cosmopolitanism.” In truth, the cosmopolitanism that Kant is alleged to have inspired, and Mahoney rightly condemns, contradicts the German philosopher’s celebrated Categorical Imperative, which Kant himself claimed “coincides with the story told in [the] Holy writ.” As Kant puts it (with rare clarity) in his 1781 essay, “Conjectural Beginning of Human History”:
Thus man had entered into a relation of equality with all rational beings, whatever their rank (Genesis 3:22), with respect of being an end in himself, respected as such by everyone, a being which no one might treat as a mere means to ulterior ends.
Equally glib is Mahoney’s comment about the weakness of “the liberalism of an Isaiah Berlin,” who “constantly invokes pluralism but is afraid to appeal to truth in the most capacious sense of the term.”
Setting aside the matter of Berlin’s courage, which needs no defense (the immensely erudite Oxford classicist worked for British intelligence in World War II), Mahoney denies that pluralism can be defended unless by appealing to truth in the capacious sense. Yet by rejecting what he calls “the dogmatic separation of the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ at the heart of modern philosophical discussions of ethics,” Mahoney risks sharing the same conceptual swamp as his adversaries. For by conflating facts and values, Karl Marx and his followers drew normative conclusions from a determinist ontology: what “has to be” in conformity with physical laws, presumably “must be” from a moral standpoint. Thus “progress” becomes Janus-faced, at once descriptive and prescriptive.
Surely it is better to try to judge whether something be true or false based on whether or not it is empirically falsifiable, on the one hand, and on the other, based on what it is each of us seeks in life, which depends on personal inclinations and preferences—which in no ways implies that all choices are morally on a par. Like Kant, Berlin is Mahoney’s ally, not his adversary.
What the author clearly gets right is that humanitarianism, notwithstanding its lofty pronouncements, is ultimately based on an illusion, revealing “the ideological lie under conditions of modernity. At its center is a willful denial of the political and spiritual nature of man in any substantial sense of the terms.” He is also correct that invoking rights is not only insufficient but may be outright subversive of genuine human dignity when rights are redefined to mean the precise opposite of the Biblical precept that we are all created in God’s image.
Mahoney writes that “believers and non-believers alike can learn . . . how to take evil seriously again and avoid a moral optimism that blinds us to the sempiternal struggle between good and evil in the human soul.” Absolutely. That struggle will not end no matter how successful our intellects might continue to be in discerning the inner workings of the intricate machine that is our ineffable, miraculous universe. We mustn’t pretend that it will.
 Immanuel Kant, “Conjectural Beginning of Human History,” in Immanuel Kant: On History, edited and translated by Lewis White Beck (Macmillan Publishing Co., 1963), p. 54.