Humanism and The Tradition of Dissent, by Edward L. Ericson

James Madison described custom as “second nature.” making his observation in the context of expressing skepticism of the social engineering being attempted by the reformer, Robert Owen. Such dreamers presumed to be “first nature.” Madison’s lack of illusion about the easy malleability of human character in a living society has gained impressive justification in the failure of every attempt since his time to redesign “the new man” of revolutionary vision. If it is difficult for psychotherapy to alter the deeply ingrained character traits of a maturing individual, it can hardly be simpler to command the radical transformation in mass of human traits formed over time within a deeply rooted and dynamic historical community.

This fact was understood at least as early as the tradition that denied to Moses and his generation admission into the promised land. Indeed, the Biblical writers – or rather the immemorial storytellers from whom they derived their lore – were wildly romantic to suppose that a mere forty years of desert wandering – the passing of but a single generation – would suffice to effect the transformation that their legend sought to explain. Forty generations, rather than forty summers, might be a more insightful rendering of the tale. At least when we come nearer to our own time we can say with considerable confidence that the cluster of cultural traits that produced and still supports the Bill of Rights and the tradition of liberty of conscience as we know it has involved some forty generations in the English speaking world – even without considering any of that culture’s near relatives and antecedents in Western civilization. This resilient and stubborn tradition – living at first a furtive, underground existence – had made considerable headway as early as Chaucer’s time. Traits of character embodying independence of mind and resistance toward state-supported ideology and religion became endemic in the English population. Parallel developments can be seen in many other nations, past and present, that have fallen under the control of an alien elite, or of a class or party viewed as subservient to a foreign power. As we shall attempt to show, this was the situation of English popular culture and religion during the centuries of control by a French speaking court aristocracy and their church hierarchy.

But while other cultures have undergone similar histories of conquest and subservience, the special circumstances of the English experience were unusually favorable for the emergence and survival of cultural traits and of institutional practices upon which the ideology of human rights and freedom of conscience has since been so dependent. Antedating the Anglican reformation by centuries, this grassroots movement immediately overflowed the boundaries of the new Protestant establishment and to a considerable degree superceded it, not only in Great Britain but especially in the overseas colonies where the restraints of the motherland were weakened or absent. Thus dissent became a deeply engrained set of attitudes and mental habits, a veritable “second nature” to a large and expanding populace that eventually found its opportunity in the circumstances accompanying and following the American Revolution. The contemporary humanist movement is heir to that temperament and tradition, although this side of humanism’s descent has been largely conceded to separatist Protestantism.

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