T. S. Eliot on Religion and Humanism

In his short essay “Religion Without Humanism,” published in Norman Foerster’s 1930 book Humanism in America, T. S. Eliot argues that humanism is an essential supplement to religion. There is, he says, a “danger, a very real one, of religion without humanism.” This danger, he claims, is twofold. On the one side is the extreme of a “petrified eccleciasticism” and, on the other, the extreme of “modernism.” The former Eliot identifies with the “narrow and bigoted” reactionaries of, for example, the Roman Catholic Church and the latter with the “hypocritical and humanitarian” faction of the same Church. Without humanism, religion “produces the vulgarities and the political compromises of Roman Catholicism” as well as “the vulgarities and the fanaticism of Tennessee” in the Protestant churches.

Eliot’s argument, unfortunately, suffers from his failure to define his terms. His failure to define the term “humanism” is, in this essay, apparently intentional. “As I believe I am writing chiefly for those who know or think they know, what ‘humanism’ means,” he writes, “I have not in this paper attempted any definition of it.” The definition which Eliot implicitly provides, however, seems to contradict the definitions which the humanists whose essays are published in the same volume provide.

Eliot, for example, implies that humanism and religion are in some ways mutually exclusive, humanism behaving as a sort of loyal opposition to religion. He identifies humanism, for example, with “criticism from without” religion as well as “infidelity and agnosticism.” His greatest fear for humanism, he goes on, is that it “should make a tradition of dissent and agnosticism, and so cut itself off from the sphere of influence in which it is most needed.” Within Eliot’s notion of humanism as a force external to religion which, through its criticism of religion, prevents religion from decaying into enthusiasm on the one hand and humanitarianism on the other is the clear, if implicit, understanding that the two, religion and humanism, cannot coexist within the same person. One cannot, after all, be both internal to religion and external to it, and the humanist, at least vis-à-vis his humanism, in Eliot’s account, must be in the latter position.

Irving Babbitt, however, in his essay “Humanism: An Essay at Definition,” seems to assume the opposite position. He argues, for instance, that “the man who sets out to live religiously in the secular order without having recourse to the wisdom of the humanist is likely to fall into vicious confusions.” He goes on to write, “It follows that the Catholic and the non-Catholic should be able to co-operate on the humanistic level.” From this point of view humanism can be seen as possibly, though not necessarily, internal to religion in that the Catholic is capable of adopting and applying humanistic principles while remaining a faithful Catholic. This is patently incompatible with Eliot’s view of the relationship between humanism and religion.

In addition to his failure to define humanism, there is the further trouble of Eliot’s failure to define religion. While the former absence of definition is, according to Eliot, intentional, the latter seems, rather, wholly unintentional. While it is clear that Eliot has in mind a specifically, if ecumenically, Christian cultural milieu, he does include among his references to the potential failures of religion without humanism “the communion of saints in Tibet.” This reference to the decadent theocracy of Tibet under the Buddhist lamas, of course, widens the scope of the word “religion” as it is being used by Eliot in this essay. It also, however, complicates the term due to Eliot’s failure to provide a definition for it. There is, after all, an important distinction between the tenets of Buddhism and the beliefs which must be adopted by the committed orthodox Christian. This distinction is, in turn, such that, if the humanist is, as Eliot claims, to play the role of critic, the career of the humanist where Buddhism is the predominant religion will inevitably be quite different from the career of the humanist whose primary religious relationship is with Christianity.

Eliot’s failure to define both humanism and religion in an essay about the relationship between the two creates significant difficulties for his argument. Even so, however, Eliot’s view of humanism as the loyal opposition to religion provides a valuable perspective on the usefulness of disbelief and the unbelievers who espouse it even within an otherwise religious society. Without the voice of doubt, as Eliot says, the power of religious authorities nearly inevitably degrades into pomposity and the importance of faith into an unquestioning and stifling dogmatism.

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