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Terrible Tenderness

The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity

By Daniel J. Mahoney

Publisher: Encounter Books

Pages: 186

Price: $17.99

Review Author: Alex Taylor

Alex Taylor is a doctoral student in literature in the multidisciplinary Institute for Philosophic Studies at the University of Dallas. He has published on the virtue theory present in Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal and its literary manifestation in her work, and he is especially interested in the challenge to modern politics and culture presented by the work of O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh, T.S. Eliot, G.K. Chesterton, and others.

What makes our world modern? A widespread lack of faith in God. In 1961 Flannery O’Connor said that in our faithless age “we govern by tenderness.” Tenderness seems to be a pre-eminently modern value, one that Christians everywhere ought to endorse. However, O’Connor saw clearly that, “cut off from the person of Christ,” the “logical outcome” of tenderness is “terror.” To our contemporaries, this logical connection is not apparent. Why do we need religion and, specifically, a relationship with Christ and His Church to be “good people”? In the current coronavirus moment, doesn’t moral uprightness merely require staying at home to “flatten the curve” and getting along decently with the people around us? And doesn’t this apparent “state of exception,” as Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has called it, merely re-inscribe the norm: a need to focus tenderly on those marginalized, at-risk populations that we can benefit by simply following the guidance of societal elites in managerial positions of power, who urge us to a disembodied, abstract love of humanity?

Although the latter question is presented in a somewhat hyperbolic fashion, the heightened tensions of our current moment, in which you are anathematized for questioning the prudence of political quarantine measures, the economic ramifications of which vis-à-vis the most vulnerable have not been fully considered, reveal the short answer to the first question: Human beings are religious animals, even when they consciously reject God. The widespread decrease in church attendance in the United States and Europe that has marked the 20th and 21st centuries has not led to a deadening of the religious impulse but to its redirection from traditional religions toward a secularized system of values, such as fanatical egalitarianism and bodily health as the highest good. These values are, as G.K. Chesterton put it, “the old Christian virtues gone mad.”

In The Idol of Our Age, Daniel J. Mahoney argues that this secular religion, although relying on the transformation Christianity brought about in Western politics, corrupts Christian insights in such a way as to corrode both orthodox Christianity and authentic political life while simultaneously setting up counterfeits of these goods. Thus, “tenderness” leads to terror.

A tenderness lacking respect for the inherent dignity of the human person necessarily reduces suffering by eliminating the sufferer. This violent tenderness was exercised with a religious zeal by early-20th-century eugenicists such as Margaret Sanger. Lest you think this a phenomenon of the past, all you must do is look at today’s advocates for euthanasia and the eugenic program of permissive abortion laws, which promote the killing of unborn children with Down’s syndrome and other disabilities. Contemporary social-media trends such as #ShoutYourAbortion are less surprising when we realize that they are part of secular man’s quest for community. Catholic scholar Bernadette Waterman Ward’s description of “abortion as a sacrament” for our society is, tragically, more apt today than ever.

Mahoney traces our current secular religion back to Auguste Comte, the 19th-century father of positivism. Positivism is the system of thought that founds modern atheism upon an anti-metaphysical, anti-theological spirit. Positivists consider “why” questions worthless, such as “Why are humans uniquely rational among animals?” or “Why are human beings naturally, biologically, either male or female?” What matters are “how” questions, such as “How does one reorganize human life to take no note of God and king?” or (for our contemporary elites) “How can we educate away homophobic bigotry?” or “How can we reduce the spread of coronavirus?” One need not be a positivist to see “how” questions as potentially important, especially with the last example. But positivism makes it more difficult to understand the hierarchical order of the various ends of society. Positivism, the religious adjunct to modern political philosophy, enshrines as the primary good and basis of all other goods the preservation of life — and, as political analyst Yuval Levin notes, “not just any life but a healthy life as free as possible from pain and suffering.”

Like the liberal political philosophy of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, positivism represents a major break from orthodox Christianity and traditional philosophy, but it is important to note, as Mahoney does, that Comte recognized man’s religious nature. Although Comtean man is religious, the human species takes God’s place as the proper object of worship, and the worship of God is, therefore, dethroned from its traditional place as the primary good of human life. Comte was comparable to the Hébertistes in the French Revolution who founded the Cult of Reason, or Maximilien Robespierre who replaced that cult with the Cult of the Supreme Being. Comte announced himself as a prophet of the positive religion of humanity, in which man would be acknowledged as the measure of all things.

Although we do not teach Comte’s Catechism of Positive Religion to our children, or follow his calendar for the new religion, Mahoney contends that too many Americans and Europeans carry on with religious fervor the Comtean project of a unified humanity. This project dissolves allegiances to our own particular nations and enervates Christian faith, which demands concrete charity to our neighbors rather than an abstract love for the species. Mahoney terms our soft form of the religion of humanity “humanitarianism.” He does not mean the activities of organized charitable organizations such as Doctors Without Borders but the positivist religious project. Mahoney then examines the ways in which humanitarianism qua system of values reshapes our world into one that accepts neither the humility of a Mother Teresa nor the magnanimity of a Winston Churchill.

Mahoney provides a sustained analysis of several early prophets who spoke against the religion of humanity and its likely offspring, totalitarianism. He introduces American journalist and Catholic convert Orestes Brownson (1803-1876), learned Russian author Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900), and Hungarian moral and political philosopher Aurel Kolnai (1900-1973) in a way that convinces readers of humanitarianism’s problems for the American Republic. He also illuminates the dangerous way that humanitarianism “falsifies the good” and disguises itself as Christianity, and diagnoses the real disparity between the humanitarian and Christian orientation. Though Mahoney briefly discusses the relationship of humanitarianism and totalitarianism by noting how their shared anthropology leaves open the possibility of a tyrannical, totalizing state for the humanitarian society, this relationship wants further elucidation, perhaps in a later book. When Mahoney turns to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, he makes clear how Solzhenitsyn, like Soloviev, responded to the humanitarian corruption of Christianity. Mahoney, known worldwide as a Solzhenitsyn scholar, pays due attention to historical context and the astonishing relevance of these prophetic thinkers for our own time.

The first five chapters of The Idol of Our Age are a foundation for the end of the book, in which Mahoney critiques two major contemporary figures in political philosophy and Christianity: Jürgen Habermas and Pope Francis. The chapter in which Mahoney argues that Francis is at least half-humanitarian has received quite a bit of attention, and rightfully so. But the chapter on Habermas should not be passed over. In his discussion of Habermas, Mahoney isolates the theorist who has most lucidly articulated the post-political temptation at work deep in the souls of European elites. Mahoney is a charitable reader of Habermas, prefacing his serious criticism of the German philosopher’s globalism with an acknowledgment that Habermas is no Alain Badiou or Slavoj Žižek, both of whom have attempted to justify the totalitarian violence of communist regimes.

The same combination of charity and zeal for the truth characterizes Mahoney’s extended examination of the major writings of Pope Francis. An odd paradox of life is that the most loyal friends can be the most devastating critics. All of us imperfect sinners need correction from time to time, delivered (we hope) in a spirit of charity and a desire for our increase in spiritual perfection. Mahoney “updated” his critique of Francis in a February 2020 National Review article, providing more recent context for continued concerns than are evident in his book. In the article, as in the book, Mahoney focuses on the advent of the “religion of humanity” into the Church.

In both works, Mahoney is attentive to the instances in which Francis, in his magisterial proclamations, albeit not always in his governance of the Church, is intelligently in continuity with his venerable predecessors and the tradition of the Church. Mahoney ultimately finds, however, that at times the Pontiff’s words “confuse humanitarian concerns with properly Christian ones.” Mahoney reminds us that, as Kolnai put it, “misplaced emphasis” can do great harm, and Francis’s emphatic appeals for political perfection are filled with vague platitudes rather than prudential observations. Francis’s vagueness of phrasing echoes his occasional vagueness of thought, so Mahoney argues (see, for example, Francis’s one-sided criticism of markets and technology in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’). Mahoney rightly admits that both a moderate critique of capitalism and a denunciation of the modern understanding of technology (according to which, pace Francis Bacon, man should subjugate nature) are at home within traditional Catholic social teaching. However, Mahoney sees that Francis’s characterization of markets and technology is based on a “progressivist” reading of Catholic social thought and summary judgment of empirical matters in which the Pope has no special authority. Additionally, Francis’s excessive focus on particulars ill befits the dignity of the sovereign pontiff (see, for instance, his description of the apparent evils of air conditioning in Laudato Si’).

Mahoney is not the only Catholic disturbed by Francis’s silence concerning the evils of leftist totalitarian regimes, both in his encyclicals and his visits to countries such as Cuba and Bolivia, where the Church has been subject to violent oppression. The Pope’s alternation between silence and loquaciousness — silence in matters where clarity is demanded, such as answering the dubia regarding his 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, and loquaciousness concerning his own personal opinions — is a major source of the present confusion.

In the end, Pope Francis would seldom find a better reader than Mahoney, who, in deference to the pontiff’s office to safeguard and hand down the deposit of the faith, carefully examines his words in light of Catholic tradition, pointing out both where the Pope proclaims the Gospel and where he has penned confusing passages that ought to be clarified.

Likewise, those seeking to understand the present state of confusion within the Catholic Church will find few better teachers than Mahoney in The Idol of Our Age. While many may find it difficult to consider intellectual concerns as pressing matters amid a pandemic, historical hindsight reminds us that physical contagion and loss come and go. Situations of crisis reveal the true connection between what we think and who we are. Will we be like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, who loves humanity in general but hates man in particular and proclaims he can’t live in the same room as anyone else for even two days? Or will we follow Christian faith and philosophy, which call us to do the one thing necessary, to worship God and serve those persons physically nearest us: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Mt. 22:37-39)?


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