Review: The Little Book of Humanism

Review of our November meeting on ‘The little book of humanism’
Review by Hester Brown

“When I read the book I realised I was a humanist” said one person at the meeting to discuss ‘The little book of humanism’, echoed by others who talked of their sense of relief and homecoming when they discovered there was a name for the views they held, and a community of people who share the same outlook.

Twenty of us gathered on Zoom to hear Samuel Becker, SELHuG committee member, introduce the nine short chapters and read some of the rich collection of quotations gathered from over a hundred humanists across the millennia and the globe. A self-professed bibliophile, Sam pointed out that texts have always taken a pivotal role in forming and sustaining worldviews and systems of belief.

In discussion afterwards, there was agreement that this is a lovely introduction to humanism as a worldview: a philosophical, gentle though still incisive invitation to think and explore and live life more fully. Some people questioned whether it should have been more of a polemic against religion or a manifesto for political action, but Sam pointed out that there are searching questions to readers, embedded like tasks through the book, which require self-examination and action.

For instance in the opening section called ‘Children of earth’ which shows our origins and evolution as part of nature, and the wonder and connectedness the natural world inspires, authors Alice Roberts and Andrew Copson (current president and chief executive of Humanists UK respectively) talk about the enormous challenges of climate change and loss of biodiversity. They ask us to imagine what our descendants in a million years will think of us: a population too naïve to wield the power we inherited, or pioneers who made wise choices and nurtured the natural environment?

In the chapter about us as individuals, we are asked to get to know ourselves. Humans are amazing and also vulnerable. Each one of us is different, shaped by our unique mix of genes and experiences. We yearn to change things – to achieve more, have better relationships, create bigger opportunities. The promise here is that by working to understand ourselves and why we behave the way we do, we can gradually improve. Every day is a new opportunity to live a better life.

The section on religion and faith is, as you would expect, thought provoking! It says clearly that religions are human inventions and that humanists do not believe in gods. The ancient Greek philosophers are particularly strong on this, Xenophanes saying: “If cattle, horses and lions had hands and could paint and make art like humans can, then horses would make horse-shaped gods and cattle would make cow-shaped ones.” While Protagorus said: “I can’t know whether the gods existed or not, nor what they are like if they do. Two things in particular prevent any certain knowledge – the topic is obscure and life is short.” But the journeys which lead humanists to their beliefs, and the ways they feel about religion are diverse, reflecting the complexity of religion in society. Ultimately, as Sam iterated, humanists believe in freedom of belief for all. Freedom of thought and expression allow for dialogue. “Violence and censorship are never legitimate responses” to views we disagree with.

This is a book that speaks to concerns of our times, to a world where divisive politics, fake news, racism, sexism, persecution of LGBT+ people, obscene disparities in wealth, and control of global resources often running beyond the reach of democratic governments is in the news, in our faces every day. A book to bring hope and confidence, especially one hopes to young people in search of meaning.

Links mentioned in the meeting:
Article in New Humanist, a Q&A with the authors.
Podcast with the authors discussing their approach and writing the book together.

Also on Friday 4th December at 18.30, there is an online event with the Alice Roberts and Andrew Copson reading a selection of their favourite excerpts from the book and teasing out the ideas behind them as well as their reasons for choosing passages in a back-and-forth discussion, closing off with questions from the audience. Click here for more information and to book (£5 per ticket).