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On Humanism (Thinking in Action) Paperback – 27 Jan 2012
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Praise for the first edition:
'This outline of the humanist philosophy of life by Richard Norman is first class. It covers the history, philosophy, morality and meaning of humanism with extreme clarity ... a book of great lucidity, considerable thought and grace.' - New Humanist
'Balanced presentations like this are indeed welcome ... This is a good book: a book to make one think. It is enjoyable as such, but it might also be included as a reading for a Philosophy of Religion course.' - Philosophical Investigations
'A lucid account of humanism which combines the virtues of a fairly balanced discussion and a passionate polemic. It deserves to become humanism's unofficial manifesto - the only kind a freethinking movement can have.' - Julian Baggini, author of Atheism: A Very Short Introduction
About the Author
Richard Norman is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Kent, UK. His work has been mainly in the areas of ethics and political philosophy.
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Top Customer Reviews
Does that mean humanism is spineless and without substance? Of course not. As Norman shows again and again, humanism requires both intellectual and moral courage to stand up to the worst aspects of our species. To become a humanist in the first place involves a fundamental rejection of religion, hardly an easy step in most times and places. Norman's "objection to religious belief is not that it is universally harmful but, simply, that it is false." He takes the truth claims of religion seriously (in contrast to Alain de Botton, who recently wrote that the "most boring question to ask about religion" is whether or not it's "true"). In the second chapter he argues that, while science undermines religion, no single bit of science proves that there is no god. For example, Darwinian theory does not refute religious belief: what it does refute is the argument from design. Is that such a victory? Yes it is, and a huge one for science, since we no longer need a divine creator "to explain the intricacies of living things and their apparent design".Read more ›
Norman accepts the Darwinian account in a rather unquestioning way, much as he claims believers accept religion with insufficient challenge. Substantial challenges to Darwin include those of Darwin’s contemporary Richard Owen that the theory does not account for the total evolution of any one species, and the point that since species are defined by reproductive isolation (ie pairs of animals capable of reproducing fertile offspring), then a continuous theory has some difficulty explaining such a clearly discrete change. How does the first mutation to cross the species barrier find a mate for fertile reproduction of the new species? Mutations could be responsive rather than random, selection could be random rather than by a strict logic etc.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
In five accessible but rigorous chapters, Norman provides a short history and definitional clarification of humanism; a defense of the superiority of scientific over religious methodology and first principles; a materialistic (but nonreductionistic) philosophical anthropology; a sketch of a godless morality based on the twin values of care and respect; and an analysis of the meaningful life that focuses on provisionality, particularity, and tragedy.
I foud Norman's chapter on morality to be the strongest in the entire book, with his discussion of science and religion and human nature close runners-up. The final chapter, on the meaning of life within a humanistic context, I found the least satisfying--not because I actually thought Norman's arguments were bad, but because I thought they needed to be fleshed out more fully. I was surprised, for example, given the importance for Norman of "narrative," that there was no discussion of philosopher Richard Rorty's discussions of "edifying narratives."
Still, one book can't do everything, and what Norman's book does is really excellent. It's as elegant a defence of humanism as we're likely to see for quite a while.
Norman accepts the Darwinian account in a rather unquestioning way, much as he claims believers accept religion with insufficient challenge. Substantial challenges to Darwin include those of Darwin’s contemporary Richard Owen that the theory does not account for the total evolution of any one species, and the point that since species are defined by reproductive isolation (ie pairs of animals capable of reproducing fertile offspring), then a continuous theory has some difficulty explaining such a clearly discrete change. How does the first mutation to cross the species barrier find a mate for fertile reproduction of the new species? Mutations could be responsive rather than random, selection could be random rather than by a strict logic etc.
Norman claims that ‘the theory of natural selection is now accepted by all reputable biologists’ (p31, although on page 45 he writes that this same argument is ‘not good enough’). This seems a tautology, and an insufficient foundation for a conclusion, since it ignores the social and political nature of scientific theory advanced by Thomas Kuhn. Although Norman does acknowledge that science is not an absolute authority, he does tend to suppose that it is. He could have included some material on the epistemology of science. As genetics researcher Nick Lane in his review of the Adam Rutherford’s book ‘Creation’ observed ‘we know less than we think’ (Observer 6 April 2013). Some philosophy of science would help here.
Turning to religion, Norman reaches the same conclusion as Roy Porter in his ‘Flesh in the Age of Reason’ that ‘there is no separate soul’ (p72). This however does not exclude the possibility of a temporary holistically integrated soul (a philosophy of ‘prevenience’), and therefore a spiritual dimension to human life. Norman’s review of religion interpreted other than as truth statement but as meta-narrative from meaning in myth is sensitive, generous and laudable. He welcomes the contribution which religious story can offer, as long as religion claims no privilege for its mythology. He does however struggle with a resulting human religion which he criticises for being indeterminate (pp 174, 181, 183, 185). It’s not at all clear why religion should be required to be determinate if its contribution is myth rather than truth statement or doctrine. He doesn’t require science to be determinate.
The last chapter, new to this 2012 edition, is excellent, generous in spirit, and hugely welcome. Norman calls for a dialogue between atheism, humanism and religion. ‘Humanists’ he writes (p186), ‘need to engage with it (the cultural heritage of Christianity) not just as form but as content, to work at understanding what we can learn from it and what it can tell us about the human condition’. He offers brief expositions of John Cottingham’s proposed religious virtues of humility, hope, awe, and thankfulness. This exemplifies the dialogue and interaction Norman is calling for. It is enriching. If we can develop this into wider contexts, it will be a most welcome shift towards a creative synthesis to replace the stale confrontation between secular atheism and the religious tradition.
Author ‘An Enlightened Philosophy – Can an Atheist Believe Anything?’
Editor ‘Atheist Spirituality’
Provides an alternative to outdated ideas of religion.