The festive season is traditionally a time dedicated to the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ and the Christian message of love and peace between all men and all nations. This period of self-collected meditation may also become an opportunity for reflecting on the human condition. William James was the first to offer a purely psychological interpretation of the religious experience away from theological dogmas. His approach was scientific and in this respect the American thinker assumed a non partisan, ‘humanist’ approach of an aspect of human behaviour normally discussed in highly sensitive theological terms. Renaissance intellectuals like Erasmus and Montaigne had previously looked at the world from a new, human perspective which did not necessarily preclude religious belief but favoured an understanding of Man through the prism of ancient philosophy and classical literature.
The progress of science gradually challenged archaic conceptions of the origins and evolution of the human race through traceable transformations due to changing environmental and climatic conditions. It is perhaps no coincidence that Darwin’s On the Origins of Species was published the same year (1859) as John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and George Eliot’s great humanist novel Adam Bede. For these great nineteenth-century ‘free thinkers’, the future of mankind lay in a deeper knowledge and better understanding of what constitutes our biological, political, and moral nature. Eliot’s characters are drawn from her acute observations of ‘simple folk’ combined with her close study of philosophers such as Spinoza whose ethical works she translated from Latin.
Philip Pullman’s popular fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials is the most famous case of a contemporary writer embracing humanist ideals and confronting his characters with serious philosophical issues such as the perennial conflict between the forces of good and evil. Unlike C.S Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and their hardly veiled Christian undertones, Pullman’s novels encourage the reader to question the existence of God, the legitimacy of authority and the harsh reality of a godless universe. Although the ‘Magisterium’ is depicted as the very symbol of a religious organisation bent on preventing human self-realisation, Pullman’s heroes are never defeated by outside forces as they have unlimited faith in themselves and the unstoppable power of mutual solidarity and cooperation.