A review of Mark Vernon’s “Teach Yourself Humanism”

This review (3 August 2011) of Mark Vernon’s “Understand Humanism: Teach Yourself” was posted on the Amazon website as a warning to prospective purchasers! Those who want a worthwhile introductory book on the subject would be far better served by Richard Norman’s “On Humanism” (Routledge, 2012), Stephen Law’s “Humanism – A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford, 2011) or Jim Herrick;s “Humanism – An Introduction” (Rationalist Press Association, 2009).

This dreadful book should be called, not Teach Yourself Humanism but Teach Yourself about the flounderings of an ex-priest’s mind as he struggles with his loss of faith. Vernon is singularly ill-equipped to write about Humanism in its modern sense – that of a non-religious ethical lifestance. Of this he knows almost nothing: it is not so much that there are gaping holes in his treatment of it as that there is no such treatment. The word “lifestance” is never used. Occasional distorted glimpses are caught through the whirling mists of his confusion; these rare expositions of ideas typically run to half a dozen lines, followed by pages of criticism that reveal his basic lack of understanding. Yet he mentions the British Humanist Association on the first page of his introduction as “one of the leading societies championing humanist causes” as if he were familiar with and had written about Humanism in the BHA sense of the word – but he is not and has not. His knowledge of the humanist movement seems to date from some decades ago – maybe when he was in training as a priest?

Undergraduates might find the book useful as five-eighths of it is filled with notes – another relic of his priestly training? – on philosophers from ancient Greece to the mid-twentieth century (almost nothing beyond) – though he fails to mention Spinoza and reports Hume as dying a “pagan” death! This disproportionate and largely irrelevant section is included because Vernon treats everything that has ever been labelled `humanist’ as part of a single movement, which he then finds full of contradictions. No wonder when his idea of Humanism is wide enough to embrace Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Marx, Sartre, Foucault, and – even more ludicrously – Stalin and Hitler, both “inspired by atheistic humanism”, he claims. (Even if – which is disputed – they were atheists, they were not inspired by atheism and were certainly not humanists!) So, in his final chapter, he has to admit that “anthropocentrism” is “the one characteristic which draws the many humanisms we have encountered together”.

Having pointed out the recent origin of the word “humanist” and its original and continuing meaning in relation of Renaissance learning, Vernon nevertheless writes of figures who lived before the word was invented as humanists as if they were members of a coherent movement. (Victorian “humanists” would apparently find it absurd that today’s humanists may not have read a word of Cicero!) When the humanist movement actually started, his account is scanty or fails altogether: the National Secular Society and Rationalist Press Association get brief mentions but the Ethical Union goes unmentioned, as is the BHA except for two passing references. His idea of Humanism in the present day is so wide that he can present as a matter of “vigorous debate within humanism” the question “whether or not humanism can in some sense be religious” – a debate settled for the organised humanist movement at least fifty years ago. But the ex-priest Vernon is desperate to rescue religion in some form, and his book displays a weird combination of repeated equation of atheism with Humanism along with constant attempts to include religion within Humanism. His religion is always sub-Christian – he allows no hint of other types of god – and he includes several pages on Christian Humanism.

When Vernon comes to the present day, he flounders at almost every step. His conceptual framework is impoverished – he may well have got more information from the Daily Mail than from the BHA! His account of the history of faith schools and humanist objections to them is severely inadequate and is muddled with arguments about worship in state schools and about religious upbringing by parents. Certainly there is nothing about the humanist idea of objective, fair and balanced education about beliefs and values. He uses a straw-man Humanism to criticise as humanist crude ideas on the environment; he damns humanist ceremonies with faint praise (why not ask your local priest? he may be “very sensitive” to your needs as a non-believer!); he proffers tentative comfort to critics of the theory of evolution (which may have occurred at all only because of “a divine intelligence”); he confuses the idea that ethics evolved as a human attribute because of its survival value with the idea that ethics today can be derived from the fact of evolution by natural selection.

He attributes views to `humanists’ – never named or quoted – that are unknown to this long-serving trustee of the BHA. Indeed, when he finally gets past his potted history of philosophy his book becomes a tissue of unsubstantiated assertions for which no evidence is quoted and no-one is ever quoted. The humanist idea of the `open society’ goes unmen-tioned.  Human rights merit just three paragraphs and are criticised as “emphasiz[ing] differences” and “leading to social fragmentation”. His brief mention of secularism betrays ignorance of the constitutional arrangements found in many European countries, and the meaning of secularism in a multi-belief society is not explored, and he “advocate[s] profound respect for religious beliefs” without a mention of the highly dangerous world-wide campaign by Islamists – already bearing fruit in the United Nations – for “defamation of religion” to be outlawed. Finally, the book being the narration of an argument going on in Vernon’s own head, he plainly finds it superfluous to give any social context to his work – not even any figures about the decline of religious belief and practice. He ends with a totally inadequate section on meaning and purpose – again confusing the cosmic and the personal.

In short – and the recitation of the book’s failings could continue for pages – no one wanting to learn about Humanism, the non-religious ethical lifestance, should turn to this book, which briefly glimpses its alleged subject only through the distorting lens of Vernon’s lost religious faith.