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Humanism – A Very Short Introduction

By Stephen Law

Oxford University Press, £7.99

ISBN 9780199553648

Reviewed by Simon Perry


This book really ought to be part of the Alpha Course literature.  And for several reasons.  The first is that it’s best for Christians to engage directly with those who profoundly disagree with them, rather than hearing what others think mediated through a Christian teacher.


The second, is that the ‘theism’ this book opposes, is largely that which the Alpha Course engenders.  Whilst Stephen Law does his best to be generous to Christians, and to recognise that the convergence between various dimensions of humanist and Christian belief, the assault seems (unwittingly) to be directly upon the Alpha-Course model of Christianity.


And so we read that familiar version of history in which free-thinking was stifled by an oppressive Christian regime with its ‘top-down’ version of ethics and belief, and its utter intolerance of free thinking.  This narrative, peddled by many who regard themselves as radical, free-thinkers, will not convince anyone whose knowledge of history extends beyond Daily-Mail type caricatures.  But even if we concede that ‘all history is fiction,’ there are more serious questions to be asked of Law’s introduction to humanism.


Though Law seems to begin with an insistence that we cannot step outside the traditions that shape us (even if we are compelled to critique those traditions), by the end, he is calling for ‘independent, critical thinkers.’  Is there such thing as an ‘independent’ human thinker?


This contradiction is borne out, for instance, in the discussion about morality, which addresses only personal and private behaviour and opinions.  No engagement with the great economic and ecological disasters that face all humans.  Does the humanist concern for freedom extend beyond the personal freedoms of privileged western individuals?  How many ‘humans’ are likely to benefit from ‘humanist’ ethics?  Does being independent and free sever us from concern over our fellow humans?  Maybe there wasn’t space to address those questions in a ‘very short introduction’.


Finally, this concise, well-written book would work well as a kind of Alpha Course for humanists.  With Alpha, those who want look for more substantial Christian theology, philosophy and ethics, will find them.  Whether the same can be said of humanism remains a big question.