The subject of `wellbeing' (or `flourishing' or `happiness') has always been of interest to Humanists who believe that wellbeing can be achieved without recourse to God or religion. I fear that Mark Vernon's latest book will be disappointing however. He takes his cue from the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor who has made a distinction between `lower flourishing' and `higher flourishing'. Lower flourishing concerns ordinary matters such as having good friends, a happy family and so on. Higher flourishing is more esoteric and concerns `love of the good itself' and an openness to `the transcendent.' To dismiss such notions as platonist nonsense invites the charge that Humanists are dry, desiccated rationalists but for me they create an unpleasant, cloying atmosphere of metaphysical mist and fog.
I agree with Vernon that competitive striving for `bigger houses, better holidays, larger paypackets, swisher clothes' can be counterproductive but we should not decry the advances we have made against the evils of cramped housing, pitiful wages, ragged clothes and so on. Material progress is a dignified part of the Humanist project. The trick is knowing the difference between the enjoyment of material goods and an obsessive concern for them. This approach, as Vernon reminds us, is captured by the Greek word ataraxia - a balanced, calm state of mind as taught by Epicurus.
Vernon, a 'religiously-inclined agnostic', employs Taylor's disparaging term 'exclusive humanism' for the type of Humanism that is not open to the transcendent. After a novel of the same name, he also suggests that exclusive humanists live in a two-dimensional, Enlightenment 'Flatland'. I would like to challenge this kind of elitism head-on and say that, for me, the sweeping away of metaphysics is a not a loss but a great gain in terms of mental hygiene and psychological wellbeing. Far from closing the door on 'lasting wellbeing', as Vernon suggests, it is one of its preconditions. I like to claim that 'atheism is a spiritual necessity' because of its bracing, cleansing, and liberating effects on the human subject.
Perhaps, as Jung proposed, there simply is no recipe for wellbeing which suits everyone and we should all be wary of the universalist assumption that there is 'one best way', Humanist or otherwise.