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Introduction: Modernity, humanity and nonhumans

What is it to be human? This is not an exclusively modern question, but it is a question that modernity has both asked and answered in a particular way, and its answer permeates the age; it is the basis of the form of order which defines the modern world. So what is modernity’s answer? The response is necessarily complex, and its proper unravelling comprises a significant part of what follows. But we must have some starting point, some minimal heuristic sense of how the organization of modernity involves and invokes a specific humanity. I think one can say, then, that in the most fundamental way modernity is human-centred; that is, to be modern is to have an anthropocentric view of the universe, of existence itself. For modernity, ‘man’ is truly the measure of all things. This is not to say that modern life is incompatible with religious belief, for clearly such belief continues to proliferate in modern societies, yet modernity in principle is profoundly secular, in the sense that it has incorporated humanism into its very organization, by dispensing with the necessity of any reliance upon an external ‘God’ as the ultimate source of authority for its form of order. Modernity then can be equated with the predominance of secular humanism, with the belief that there is no higher authority than human beings; this is its organizing principle. God may have been crossed out, however, but ‘he’ has not been obliterated, for humanity has become its own God; at the same time as God

has been brought down to earth, humans have been deified. The religious mode of thought has not been dissolved therefore, but has merely assumed a secular form: our age belongs to Feuerbach rather than Nietzsche. From this point of view, modernity is in essence a secular theology, for the fundamental religious cosmology of a centred and meaningful universe remains, albeit with humans as its new centre. Just as God became ‘man’ in Christian theology, so ‘man’ has become God in modern secular humanism. In this sense, humanist discourse is quintessentially theistic; its form is theological, even while its content is secular. The banishment of a supernatural god then does not in itself constitute the negation of religious belief, for theological modes of understanding the world persist in multiple forms, most crucially in the modern conception of what it is to be human.