Although the term “humanism” has been used in a variety of ways over the centuries, it is often paired with the adjective “secular” and suggests a sense of the inherent worth of humankind. The World Humanist Association’s 2002 Amsterdam Declaration, for instance, celebrated “the worth, dignity, and autonomy of the individual” and praised human freedom while condemning religion as “dogmatic” and inimical to these ideals. Yet, Tom Holland observes, the very notion of the sanctity of the individual cannot be found in modern science nor in ancient Greek thinkers like Protagoras, but is above all rooted in the second chapter of Genesis:
Gods in antiquity were not in the habit of endowing humanity with an inherent dignity. Quite the opposite. “I will make man, who shall inhabit the world, that the service of the gods may be established, and their shrines built.” So spoke Marduk, who according to the Babylonians created humanity out of a sticky compound of dust and blood to be the slaves of deities. Here was an understanding of man’s purpose, bleak and despairing, that it would have been very easy for the exiles brought to the banks of the Euphrates from sacked Jerusalem to accept: for it would certainly have corresponded to a sense of their puniness before the immensity of Babylon the Great.
But the exiles from Judah did not accept it. They clung instead to the conviction that it was their own God who had brought humanity into being, per Genesis. Man and woman, in the various stories told by the exiles, were endowed with a uniquely privileged status. They alone had been shaped in God’s image; they alone had been granted mastery over every living creature.
So it is, for instance, that the Amsterdam Declaration can airily dismiss the dogmas of religion, even as it simultaneously takes for granted the existence of “universal legal human rights.” Yet to believe in the existence of human rights requires no less of a leap of faith than does a belief in, say, angels, or the Trinity. The origins of the concept lie not in “the application of the methods of science” so prized by the Amsterdam Declaration but in medieval theology.