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Humanism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) Paperback – 27 Jan 2011


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Product details

  • Paperback: 168 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford (27 Jan 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199553645
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199553648
  • Product Dimensions: 17.3 x 1.3 x 11.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 44,366 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Product Description

About the Author

Stephen Law is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London. He has written many books including several popular philosophy titles including The Philosophy Gym (Headline, 2003), Companion Guide to Philosophy (Dorling Kindersley, 2007), and Greatest Philosophers (Quercus, 2008). He is also the Editor of THINK, the journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy.

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3.6 out of 5 stars

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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Sphex on 11 Mar 2011
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Stephen Law hits the ground running with this excellent introduction to humanism, exactly what is needed when space is limited and life is short. Within a religious context, the "big questions" - Does God exist? What makes for a meaningful life? What makes things morally right or wrong? Is there an afterlife? - often invite interminable and confused responses that can make you wish you hadn't bothered asking. No wonder many people are indifferent to organized religion, as falling church attendance shows. While the pressures to conform to a particular religious tradition may have largely gone away (at least in modern Europe), the questions haven't. For those with a taste for this kind of inquiry and who don't want to be fobbed off with supernatural explanations, humanism provides a satisfying framework, and this book a rigorous and readable guide.

There is no single snappy definition to which all humanists sign up. Indeed, a lack of doctrine is part of its appeal, but this does not mean that anything goes, or that humanists turn to intellectual mush when faced with questions about ethics or the existence of gods or angels. It's the approach to these questions that matters. Humanists "believe science, and reason more generally, are invaluable tools we can and should apply to all areas of life". Reason is the bedrock of humanism as it can never be for religion, which ultimately appeals to faith, and often takes pride in faith trumping reason. An emphasis on reason does not have to diminish human emotional experience or eliminate love, hope, purpose and everything else that goes to make life worth living: humanists value these aspects as well.

Law continues his "seven-point characterization of humanism": "humanists are either atheists or at least agnostic...
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful By D. Smith on 7 Feb 2011
Format: Paperback
This is a lucid and accessible account of modern-day humanism, marred slightly by some repetition. The author, Stephen Law, is a philosophy lecturer who knows his subject well and who acts as an advocate rather than as a neutral observer.

In the introductory chapter, he outlines a "minimal, seven point characterization" of the humanist worldview. He suggests most humanists: believe science and reason are invaluable tools that can be applied in all areas of life; are sceptical about the existence of gods and other supernatural beings; don't believe in an after-life; take a strong moral stance; encourage individual moral autonomy; consider that life can be meaningful without recourse to religion; and "favour an open, democratic society in which the state takes a neutral position with respect to religion". Subsequent chapters deal with: the history of humanism; arguments for and against theism; humanist views on morality, education, secularism and 'the meaning of life'; and humanist ceremonies.

Several general points occur to me. First, humanism comes across as 'sensible' rather than 'inspiring'. Second, it tends to be presented as an alternative to Christianity rather than as a worldview standing in its own right. Third, it is not clear whether humanists share a common view on environmental issues and on the treatment of animals. Perhaps the author might have anticipated and responded to misgivings such as these.
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I read this book to find out what humanism was about and finished it feeling rather short-changed. In my view, the author spends so long arguing in the negative - against the existence of and need for God - that it diminishes the positive, uplifting message about humanism which he obviously wishes to convey and which many people clearly subscribe to. And I write this as an agnostic theist who was genuinely interested in what he had to say. On the plus side, the author strives hard throughout - sometimes biting his tongue - to maintain a decent tone, acknowledges the evils of some atheistic regimes, and advocates tolerance for and collaboration with liberal-thinking religious groups. If there were a second edition, I would recommend he briefly outline the reasons humanists do not believe there is a God and then get on with the plot. For those, such as myself, who hold the opposite view, the arguments currently presented are nowhere near long enough to mount any kind of 'attack' anyway, while for the vast majority of humanists I suspect they are taken as read. (The only section of the book I found to be risible was that pondering whether it can be 'fairly obvious' that there is no God. Based on the plurality of views held by millions of intelligent, reflective people, I would have though it was 'absolutely obvious' that this was not the case; irrespective of one's personal viewpoint.) In short, accenting the positive would better suit readers of all world views.
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Humanism: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Law, Oxford University Press, 2011,
168 ff.

As might be expected the author, who is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Heythrop College of the University of London, begins by explaining the term ‘humanism’ in the context of this book. On the one hand, humanism may mean simply putting the welfare of humans at the forefront of our philosophy of life: such humanists may very well also be theists or deists. A more restrictive view of humanism is that of the Renaissance that swept aside the view of the Church as authority on all matters, spiritual and temporal, to be replaced by Protagoras’ view that ‘Man is the measure of all things’. Law comments: ‘personally, I would rather see the world as it is, than as I might like it to be’. This statement echoes the words of Carl Sagan, another humanist: ‘It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring’.

This is the line followed by the author. Such humanists are unbelieving, or at least sceptical, of the existence of gods or an afterlife so are almost invariably atheists. Those beliefs that are, or need not be, part of humanist belief are laid out very clearly in the introductory chapter.
Law then goes on in Chapter 1 to explore the history of humanism, from the ideas of ancient China, India and Greece, through the Renaissance and Enlightenment, up to the views of 20th Century humanists like Bertrand Russell and Peter Singer. Chapters 2 and 3 then discuss arguments for and against the existence of God: these are good but I think Mackie’s book ‘The Miracle of Theism’ is more detailed and therefore more informative.
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