/ 28 March 2024

The upside of loving our humanity

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Divided heart: Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (below) survived the USSR concentration camps. The inmates were forced to work on projects such as the White Sea-Baltic Canal (above), where up to 240 000 labourers reportedly died in the early 1930s. Photo: Laski Diffusion/Getty Images & Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis/Getty Images
God Edition

In the information age, it seems as if humanity cannot avoid being constantly reminded of its moral shortcomings.

The potential danger of the resulting anti-human sentiments became evident to me when I came across a part of the climate-change debate, which I will use as illustration without making any claims about the issue itself.

In November 2022, a headline which read, “Earth now has eight billion humans. This man wishes there were none,” caught my attention.

The article covered the views of Les Knight, the founder of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. 

Knight argues that there is a moral imperative on humanity to voluntarily stop reproducing because of a connection drawn between population growth and the climate crisis. Along with his movement’s death-wish slogan, “May we live long and die out”, Knight describes humanity as a “net detriment to the Earth” and “not a good species”.

These clearly anti-human views are not as fringe as one might hope.

The post advertising the article about Knight had received more than 225 000 likes on Instagram as of December 2022, which dwarfs most of the posts on The New York Times’ page, on average ranging from 15 000 to 50 000 likes. 

A poll on X posted by Hank Green in April last year produced a similar result. The poll asked, “Which universe is the better one?” and gave options of “One with humans” and “One without humans”. Out of more than 76 000 votes, a startling 41% voted for a universe without humans. 

Green confirms in a sub-post that he has repeated this poll several times with similar results.

Anti-humanism manifests in many spheres outside climate discourse. This includes the celebratory proliferation of brutal combat footage by pundits on either side of international conflicts, the ease with which political commentators celebrate the death of political figures on the opposing side and how easily people gloss over the possible mass-retrenchment of blue-collar labourers by automation.

By dehumanising humanity, we are chipping away at our belief in its inherent value. This puts an ominous spin on Original Sin because it excludes the possibility of redemption. The easier it becomes to dehumanise our opponents, or even our peers, the easier it becomes to treat them inhumanely. 

Bringing up children with this worldview is not only potentially detrimental to their capacity for empathy, but could also lead to low self-esteem and demoralisation.  Furthermore, it could produce a mass guilt complex in those who wish to build families, when reproduction is painted as a net negative.

Humanism has been criticised from myriad angles and often justly so. But separating the wheat from the chaff does not mean burning down the barn. As humanists, we should not misconceive ourselves as angels, but we should certainly not believe ourselves to be devils either.

I am acquainted with the brutal realities of human nature, but I am also no stranger to the hopeful realities of the human spirit. This duality is encapsulated by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, who survived one of the largest human-created horrors of the 20th century — the concentration camps of the USSR.

He argued “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

I am certainly unwilling to destroy humanity’s heart merely because of its potential for evil. 

We should not hate our fellow person because we know the darkness of our own hearts, but rather love them because of the knowledge of our shared heart, a heart which also holds a profound capacity for good.

Just as we have a responsibility of stewardship over the Earth, we have a responsibility of fellowship towards each other — a responsibility which one will only have the strength to bear if one is pro-human.

It is time we start building humanity up rather than breaking it down, in the same fashion as asserted by Bishop Fulton J Sheen when he said: “Can you build anything down? You cannot. Certainly, it is time in our nation to change our words. Let’s begin now to use the word up. Up from all this filth. Up from this violence. Up from this indifference of courts. Up, up to the battlements of eternity. Up, up, to God.”

Mihan C van Zyl is a student in his final year of a two-year postgraduate LLB programme at Stellenbosch University. This article first appeared in Rational Standard.