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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. 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
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on 19 October 2012
I was happy to read this my first book on humanism. I was not happy about the way it was written, partly because I can not see who it is for. There are rambling specious pseudo-academic discussions about humanism, religion and morality and their controversies from the 6th century BCE and onwards. I would like an up-to-date introduction because knowledge of the world and universe is quite different from that of only a few tens of years ago. Humanism changes because of this knowledge.
The discussion of a meaningful life is poor. If you can not say what it is why write about it? The illustrations are no help. Ten year old children can understand they could think more. How does a picture of the face of a small old foreign compass help them or anyone else?
A well written introduction might use 8,000 words, the vocabulary of a good newspaper or maybe a high school graduate. My own meagre 80,000 word vocabulary did not include Swiftian satires, apophatacism or catophatacism. Charles Simmonds. M.A. (Cantab)
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on 11 March 2011
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... believe that this life is the only life we have... [are committed] to the existence and importance of moral value... offer moral justifications and arguments rooted other than in religious authority and dogma... emphasize our individual moral autonomy... believe our lives can have meaning without it being bestowed from above by God".

The absence of God is perhaps the most salient feature of this characterization, and anyone who wants to be a humanist must deal with this. How is the average person, with no training in theology or philosophy, going to face down a couple of thousand years of tradition and a few billion believers who all attest, sometimes vehemently, to the existence of a higher power?

Part of the answer lies in precisely that plurality. As Law puts it, people "have experienced literally thousands of gods and other supernatural beings" and have never been able to agree on just what it is that is supposed to exist, let alone demonstrate this existence to a non-believer. They can't all be right, but they can all be wrong. Religious experience simply isn't a reliable indicator of truth. For another part of the answer, Law simply points out that "religion has an extraordinary track record of getting even intelligent, well-educated people to believe things that are obviously false".

Could it be fairly obvious that there is no God? Law's "personal view is that, yes, it could". In addition to the embarrassing absence of evidence, the "evil god hypothesis" presents a powerful challenge to anyone who imagines that the only possibility under discussion is the existence of a good god. Why not an evil one? Of course, those "who believe in an evil god face the evidential problem of good": why is there so much good in the world if there is an evil god who can prevent it? One theodicy is that our experience of the good makes suffering all the more terrible: to experience the joy of bringing a new life into the world only to have it destroyed is far more satisfying to an evil god than our being uniformly miserable.

One of the most refreshing things about humanism is that it does not treat the big questions as merely rhetorical devices to intimidate the curious into intellectual deference, or as an excuse to trot out tired old stories (as the evil god hypothesis shows, there are always new ways to think about these issues). Humanism provides clear answers where these are available; otherwise, humanists are perfectly comfortable owning up to not knowing. And only occasionally will "mystery" (a favourite of obfuscators the world over) be invoked. As Law puts it, "atheists can admit that there is a mystery about why the universe exists, and that they are utterly baffled by it, while nevertheless insisting that there's overwhelming evidence that, however it came to be, it certainly wasn't created by the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God of Christian theology".

Ah, the religious apologist retorts, how can we be certain of anything? Again, this is a rhetorical move, intended to close down discussion rather than open it up. When a humanist asks for proof, or claims certainty, this is not proof beyond all possible doubt. Understanding this standard of reasonable proof is essential to not mistaking an atheist's confidence about the non-existence of angels, deities, fairies, etc., for unthinking arrogance. The beauty of reading a philosopher like Stephen Law is that he relies on the power of reasoned argument rather than the polemic of position-taking.

Law acknowledges that "the rabbit of morality cannot be conjured entirely out of the hat of reason" and yet, when it comes to "making moral progress, reason is an indispensable tool". He deals very effectively with the widespread slander that humanists are moral relativists, since if the moral truth is just what people say it is, then why bother "bringing our critical faculties to bear in figuring our what's right or wrong"? And in the classroom, humanists advocate freedom of thought, not freedom of action. Indeed, thinking before acting is useful humanist advice for adults, and thinking is made all the more pleasurable with philosophers like Stephen Law around.
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on 7 February 2011
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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on 6 July 2016
This a must read for all atheists, humanists, secularists and anti-theists, who 'dislike' religion and think humans don't need religion in society or in their lives.....on any level.

This rips religious ideas of the concept of a 'supreme being' to shreds... and shows how utterly absurd it is, how our minds have been manipulated and controlled by the almightily powerful churches and their corrupt ideas for centuries...

Humans are far more adept at organising themselves and they need the freedom to do it... only Humanism offers that freedom... and it doesn't need to be justified... the justification to leave people alone and not religiousize them or their minds with corrupt ideas is the hallmark of a free mind and human race....

If we take a look around us the world over... religion is utterly destructive force for no good... there is nothing else on planet earth so utterly corrosive... and bad for our mental health... we need better ideas....

We're all humanists until we get corrupted. This book will show you why.
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on 12 October 2016
This is an enjoyable little book - and makes for easy reading! It looks at all the diurnal questions - the existence of God; the meaning of life; morality - and all those conundrums we wrestle with in our lives, but rarely find the answers to! Stephen Law takes a balanced view on the matters we generally find most difficult to pin down.
It's the sort of book you can read in a day or so (on the plane or or on the beach), and then quietly cogitate upon in your more thoughtful moments. Would that more 'philosophical' books were as comprehensible as this gentle analysis! But, as with all such subjects, there can never be the definitive answer - and so we go on searching!
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on 10 November 2011
This book is worthy of it's title. A short introduction about the history of humanism and contemporary humanism. My favorite chapter is the one where the meaning of life from a humanist point of view is explained. That was an eye-opener to me. Very recommendable if you just got interested in humanism or history in general.
A negative aspect is how (anti-)religion drowns this book. Even though two chapters are dedicated to it, you will find it in every chapter. And that's why I don't recommend it for reading.
I want a book that teaches me about Humanism, not a book that gives me arguments why I should not believe in God. And to me that was a big disappointment.
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on 24 March 2016
I only give this book 2 stars because the opening, historical, chapter was good - if it hadn't been for that I would've given it 1. I foolishly expected it to be about Humanism but the vast majority of it was simply anti theism, which, frankly, The God Delusion did far better. This book should either be renamed or simply pulled off shelves so a real Introduction to Humanism can be written by someone who knows what they're talking about. Don't waste your time or money on this.
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on 11 April 2013
I don't envy the editor of this series of books because it may be difficult deciding from which perspective any particular title should be written. Whilst it is certain that the book 'Racism: a very short introduction' should not be written by a racist it is equally certain that the book 'Feminism: a very short introduction' should be written by a feminist. Having not read the former I would imagine though that its title should read 'Anti-Racism: a very......'or something similar to add some consistency between title and perspective in this informative series. 'Humanism: a very short introduction' is written by a humanist.

This book is very easy to read, it is clearly written and easy to follow. It also offers no critique of the humanist position. Stephen Law reiterates from several different locations at the beginning of the book that Humanism is not just about being an atheist {or agnostic} or that it is not about being super rational, he then goes on to devote the vast majority of the book explaining why humanists do not believe in God. Much of this writing is engaging, entertaining and thought provoking - on the issue of why God probably does not exist. Law never ventures very far from this topic. The arguments he presents against the existence of God are all predicated on rationality. Even here Law does not open up the discussion to explore the nature of rationality - its ability or inability to stand outside of itself or the degree to which it can be understood outside the confines of history. Law tries hard to avoid this position - but one can't help but feel that Rationality becomes the new religion.

In limiting the issue to that of religion, Law is being disingenuous or writing in a very limited scope. Humanism is of course implicated in much more than mere discussions around the existence of God. Humanism {served with or without religion} was a pillar of the Enlightenment that cherished rationality, positivism and autonomy and ultimately a modernity that described a 'norm humaneness' - a true essence of what a human should be - which then became the basis of exclusion. Heidegger, in writing his famous 'Letter on Humanism', concluded that Humanism can ultimately only apprehend the human being as a thing amongst other things because it framed the question 'what is it to be human' in too simplistic a term. Rather than circling around the same topic repeatedly, Law could have used the 141 pages of this book to educate readers on how humanism is already a pillar of contemporary society.

An informative book with some well balanced discussion about the nature of society. Ultimately though the book can merely be a place-holder for a book that discusses humanism in much more depth.
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on 31 July 2014
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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