On Humanism

Rob Wheeler reviews On Humanism, by Richard Norman Routledge. 2004. 170pp. £8.99. ISBN: 0415305233

This is another book in the excellent ‘Thinking in Action’ series from Routledge, which provide short but intelligent introductions to the Big Questions for the general reader. A book in the same series, ‘On Religion’, has been favourably reviewed in a previous edition of this magazine and in my opinion this one comes up to the same high standard. In fact this is the first book of humanist apologetics that I would not feel embarrassed to give to a friend to read.

The trouble with most books arguing for humanism is that they start with a crude critique of religion, focusing in an entirely unbalanced way on the horrors committed by Roman Catholicism in the past and the idiocies of Evangelicals and Fundamentalist in the present. Having shown that religion is mad, bad, dangerous and false they tend to assume that there is nothing else they have to do. Secular humanism naturally follows by default, QED, and requires no justification in its own right. At this point we can all stop thinking.

At best this is just intellectually lazy and at worst it smacks of the ‘bad faith’ or inauthenticity described by Jean Paul Sartre in many of his novels – the failure to take responsibility for establishing one’s own philosophy of life. In this case the failure consists in defining oneself entirely in terms of an enemy. ‘Do you want to know who I am? Well I’m NOT THAT,’ the vulgar humanist says pointing to their hated religious opponent. The logic of this move is in many ways similar to that made by racists who choose to define themselves exclusively in terms of their hatred and opposition to minority ethnic groups. Ironically, it displays just the shallow-minded sectarianism that humanists frequently criticise in conservative religionists!

It is refreshing to find in Richard Norman’s book a more sophisticated approach to humanist apologetics that does not commit this fault and makes a clear, honest, and I think successful, effort to meet some of the genuine and substantive objections to humanism. This may in some part be due to the author being a professional philosopher in the Anglo-Saxon analytical tradition (formerly professor of philosophy at the University of Kent) and therefore practised in such critical thinking.

The book’s opening chapters follow the usual themes that have now become almost obligatory in humanist apologetics – the origin and history of the word ‘humanism’, the conflict between science and religion, the failure of natural theology arguments for the existence of God and the possibility of morality without religion. These topics are competently covered and the arguments cogent. However, as the author himself admits this is not new ground and there is nothing original in his treatment. Where I feel the book really scores is in its refusal simply to dismiss objections to humanism; it takes them seriously and tries to meet them by supplying a case for humanism in its own terms.

The starting point of humanism, Norman says, is not just in its rejection of supernaturalism and religion but also in ‘the positive affirmation that human beings can find from within themselves the good life without religion’. However, he admits that an optimistic celebration of human dignity and worth is in danger of lapsing into naivety. Indeed, some of the Enlightenment philosophers tended to argue that all that was required for the perfection of Man (yes man) was the removal of superstition and the application of education so that thereafter Reason would flourish, Humanity would live in harmony and Progress with a capital ‘P’ would be inevitable. This dream seems to have been shattered by the horrors of the Twentieth Century: the slaughter in the trenches of the First World War, Nazism, Stalinism, the Holocaust and Hiroshima. And what is worse for the humanist is that many of these atrocities were frequently perpetrated in the name of secular ideologies.

Norman bites the bullet and accepts that humanity is capable of terrible acts. However, he does not admit that this must necessarily lead to cynicism, despair or a religious belief in Original Sin. He looks to specific examples of human compassion, dignity and heroism for hope and consolation. In particular, he refers to the experiences of Primo Levi in Auschwitz, where despite the suffering and degradation, some were able to preserve their humanity. He quotes Levi : ‘I was... helped by the determination, which I stubbornly preserved, to recognise always, even in the darkest days, in my companions and in myself, men, not things, and thus to avoid total humiliation and demoralisation which led so many to spiritual shipwreck.’

Levi’s humanism is seen as an example of finding meaning and purpose in the particular, the provisional, the immanent instead of in the transcendent. This is a theme that Norman returns to several times in the book, since a frequent challenge put to humanists is how they can find meaning and purpose in a world with no overarching supernatural structure. Norman argues that there is plenty of scope for finding meaning within the realisation of characteristically human values: the satisfaction of creative achievement; the excitement of curiosity and discovery; relationships with others; the life of the emotions; the enjoyment of beauty in nature and art. However, human values are fragile and provisional and failure and disappointment cannot be universally avoided. Thus tragedy is a constant possibility of the human condition.

The absence of a transcendent structure or guiding plan from the humanist world-picture is not seen by Norman as a shortcoming of humanism. Rather, we can look to art, and more particularly the narrative arts, to provide that patterning function. It is not just that narratives help us to think about how to live, rather, ‘to appreciate aesthetic form, the qualities of a work that make it aesthetically satisfying, is at the same time to recognise ways of shaping and giving significant structure to our own experience’. It is not by providing abstract, universal truths about the human condition but by their ‘paradigmatic particularity’ that stories inform us about life. Furthermore, the meanings articulated in stories are ‘fragile, provisional and particular’ and cannot be abstracted from their narrative containers without net loss. Norman illustrates his point by reference to two novels: Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and Graham Swift’s Waterland.

Overall I think that this is a philosophically satisfying exposition and defence of the subject that represents a humanism that is maturing and coming of age. I also think that the chapters covering Norman’s treatment of narrative would alone justify one in buying the book.

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