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The case for a humanitarian philosophy to replace religion
on 21 May 2014
Humanism: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Law, Oxford University Press, 2011,
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. There is an excellent discussion in the next chapter of humanism and morality and how belief in a god is unnecessary to inspire a moral life. Then in Chapter 5 we have what might be considered at first sight a surprising interpretation of secularism – not that every individual should be non-religious but that the State should uphold freedom of the individual to follow whatever beliefs they choose, without any coercion.
This leads on in the final chapters to a discussion of religious indoctrination of children, supporting the Dawkins view of the practice as child abuse, and how humanism, even in the absence of belief in God, can still lead to a moral society, and one that is by no means without purpose for the individuals in it. The book ends with short sections of References, Further Reading and an Index. This is an excellent introduction to the subject.
Some reviewers have criticised this book for its emphasis on attacking religion. But one of the goals of humanism is precisely to provide a basis for morality and to give life a purpose - without all the falsehoods of religion. I do not find the arguments here unhelpful in that regard.
Howard Jones is the author of The World as Spirit and Evolution of Consciousness