Debating Humanism (Societas: essays in political and cultural criticism). Edited by Dolan Cummings


Pp. viii, 118 , London , Imprint Academic , 2006 . £8.95/$17.90.

These twelve brief essays, most of which originated at London's Battle of Ideas Festival in October 2005, offer a range of (positive) perspectives on contemporary humanism. These are loosely divided into five main sections, respectively ‘debating’ the current crisis in secularism; humanism and religion; humanism and identity politics; humanism and education; and the future of humanism. In his long and useful introduction, Dolan Cummings emphasizes that ‘The question of humanism is about what brings us together as human beings and what we can hope to achieve as such, about the barriers to success and how we might overcome them’ (p. 2). As such, the avowedly practical orientation of so many of the essays is not surprising. Generally speaking, it is not ‘humanism’ that is being debated – but rather, assuming that humanism is both true and desirable, what is to be done?

Despite the contributors' diverse topics, and indeed their varied understandings of what humanism actually entails, two central issues come repeatedly to the fore. The first is humanism's relationship to religion – that is, is humanism necessarily atheistic, or even necessarily anti-theistic? The simple elision of humanism with atheism is understandably rejected by Cummings, who points instead to the ‘long tradition of humanism as a more expansive and meaningful worldview in its own right’ (p. 2). However, by noting of the Catholics Rabelais and Erasmus only that ‘these early humanists did not define themselves against religion’ (p. 2), Cummings is surely disingenuous, and betrays an unwillingness to acknowledge the genuinely Christian origins of Renaissance humanism. Other contributors are more explicit. Thus Bob Brecher avers that ‘humanism arose in the West in opposition to Christianity’ (p. 114), and opposes humanistic praxis to the ‘fundamentalist denial of the possibility of making the world a better place’ (p. 109) which he imputes to religious believers. Likewise, A. C. Grayling avouches that ‘Humanist culture, meaning philosophy and science, is (says religion) the folly of the wise that blinds them to their true duty of submission to God. The fellowship of man, in the sense of political striving for justice in human affairs, is (says religion) likewise a distraction’ (pp. 49–50). Grayling argues on this basis that ‘the religious outlook contrasts with the humanist outlook, and nothing could be sharper than the battle-lines thus demarcated over the question of the good life for humankind’ (p. 50). This excludes, evidently, the existence of a religious humanism, and the possibility of dialogue and cooperation between humanists and religious adherents. Certainly, there is no room here for a Church that shares in ‘The joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or are in any way afflicted’ (Gaudium et spes 1).

Other contributors, thankfully, evince a less antagonistic approach. Josie Appleton, for example, commends the theologian Richard Neuhaus for defending human dignity in response to (for Appleton) the anti-humanistic campaigns against ‘speciesism’. On her view, ‘Those who will fight this battle will be those who are humanist in spirit, not just in name’ (p. 97). Leaving this doctrine of anonymous humanists to one side, Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn advocates a via media between ‘rabid secularism’ and ‘fundamentalist religion’ (p. 34) – a sentiment shared also by Dylan Evans. Evans, whose primary target is the intolerance of Dawkinsian ‘secular fundamentalism’, instead suggests (albeit rather patronizingly) that ‘humanists could see value in religions by viewing them as works of art – human creations that give wonderful testimony to the remarkable creativity and inventiveness of their creators’ (p. 12). (He errs, however, in assuming that ‘Since they do not believe in God, atheists and humanists cannot appeal to any objective or absolute basis to legitimise their own sacred values. They are, in other words, committed to moral relativism’ (pp. 16–17). This brand of metaethics, most commonly espoused by religious apologists, is rightly challenged by Simon Blackburn elsewhere in the collection.) Given the positive approach to religion taken by at least some of the contributors, Anthony Freeman's insipid vision of a ‘Christian Humanism’, seemingly purged of anything distinctively Christian, is distinctly disappointing.

The contributors' second central concern is with, as Frank Furedi puts it, ‘the low esteem accorded to the status of humanity. The world today is dominated by a widespread disenchantment with the record of humanity's achievements’ (p. 25). This ‘prevailing climate of misanthropy’, and the social and political apathy that accompanies it, is indeed a concern. And in this vein, Dennis Hayes is correct in thinking that the ‘wish to educate future generations requires that we still have confidence in human potential’ (p. 84). Contra Hayes, however, it is by no means clear that ‘personalising’ education to suit the needs of teenage heroin addicts (his own example) signifies a lack of such confidence, or implies any ‘pathetic picture of humanity’ (p. 88) – quite the contrary, in fact. Equally, Josie Appleton's fear that recent environmental worries, allegedly exhibiting ‘a craven attitude towards nature’, mean that ‘we have become estranged from our own humanity’ (p. 93) is also unfounded. In fact, these concerns are primarily motivated by the emphatically anthropocentric – if not, indeed, outrightly humanistic – desire to avert human catastrophe on an unprecedented scale.

Debating Humanism contains some interesting contributions, though whether these, as Cummings affirms, ‘move the debate onto new terrain’ (p. 11) is somewhat doubtful. In particular, the question of what humanism actually is requires some serious attention. Judging from these pages, it might seem to be, at best, a vague and platitudinous commitment to doing good, and at worst, a mere euphemism for ‘not-Godism’. Simon Blackburn, in the volume's sharpest essay, criticizes both misunderstandings – and rightly so. More essays in this mode, actually debating ‘humanism’, are required in order to ensure that – in line with Cummings' concluding hope – that ‘readers, whether or not they consider themselves card-carrying ‘humanists’, will be inspired to take the debate into the public sphere more generally, to develop and argue over the next step for humanism’ (p. 118).