Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Those amazon reviews...

I checked the amazon page of my OUP Very Short Introduction to Humanism book to see how it has been doing (pure vanity, I know) and spotted the review below. Kind of baffled by it, I actually emailed the reviewer, one Bojan Tunguz, to ask him what he meant when he said I was "dishonest". The resulting correspondence between us is pasted it in below the review [ACTUALLY I HAVE DELETED IT AS IT PROBABLY ISN'T ETHICAL TO REPRODUCE IT].

Bojan, it turns out, is a Croatian now based in Canada. That link provides his biog., which provides some clues as to his general views. etc. I note Bojan has a blog.

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
1.0 out of 5 stars Epic, epic fail, 4 April 2011
By
Bojan Tunguz "Dr. Bojan Tunguz" (Greencastle, IN USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)
This review is from: Humanism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (Paperback)
Imagine you are in a bookstore or are browsing Amazon book pages and you come across a book that aims to introduce you to vegetarianism. The book is published by a reputable academic publishing institution with a long list of similar highly regarded books to its name. You are intrigued. Maybe you are a vegetarian who has never really read up on vegetarianism from an academic perspective. Maybe you are interested in becoming a vegetarian and would like to know more about it. Maybe you have a vegetarian friend, colleague or a loved one and would like to know more about vegetarianism so you can better relate to their lifestyle. Or you could simply be a voracious reader who wants to keep himself well informed on all sorts of subjects. So you buy the book and start reading it, and after a few pages you discover that the book is really not about vegetarianism. Over 90% of the content of the book is dedicated to a polemic on why meat is bad for you, how terrible animal husbandry is, why you shouldn't eat meat, all sorts of dangerous diseases that you can acquire from eating meat, why all the supposedly good things about meat consumption are actually childish superstitions, why butchers are some of the most evil people imaginable, etc., etc. In addition, all the concrete examples of meat-eating avoid any mention of particularly unhealthy fatty red meats, and instead talk mostly about white meat and poultry. After a while you start screaming (hopefully only in your head): OK I GET IT, MEAT IS REALLY, REALLY BAD! COULD WE PLEASE NOW MOVE ONTO DISCUSSING VEGETERIANISM!

The above scenario is exactly what I went through while reading "Humanism: A Very Short Introduction." This book hardly provides any real concrete information on Humanism. The Wikipedia article on Humanism is way more informative. Instead, this short introduction uses almost all of its 141 pages on denouncing religion (and Christianity in particular), theism, God, and all the related topics. Furthermore, the arguments presented in that regard tend to be pretty shallow and familiar to almost anyone who has ever gotten any degree of formal education (of the form that many a college student has encountered in a late-night dorm discussion), the opposing viewpoints are presented in the most straw-man fashion imaginable, on many occasions the author is either intellectually or factually dishonest, and at least two instances he engages in a thinly veiled ad-hominem attacks. The book is written as a polemic, and not as an academic survey that is intended for general audience.

I have read over hundred and sixty of these very short introduction books. For the most part they are really impressive, in terms of both the content and the presentation. I have written an Amazon review for about half of the very short introduction books that I have read, and most of them I have given either four or five stars. So far I have only given a one-star rating to one book, and that was because the book was particularly vague and uninformative. However, even that book for the most part stuck to the topic that it was dealing with. "Humanism," on the other hand, missed its purported topic in the most spectacular way imaginable. If a student of mine turned in a paper that was so off the topic I would have given him or her and automatic F. It is incomprehensible that the editors at the Oxford University Press had such a colossal failure of judgment. I intend to read the upcoming volumes in this series, but I certainly hope that I don't come across books like this one again.


Th review makes familiar suggestions:

(i) the arguments are "straw man" and "shallow". Well, the main argument was recently published in Religious Studies, perhaps the world's best peer reviewed Journal of the Philosophy of Religion. I'd like to see Bojan refute it. I also attack some quite sophisticated variants of theism, such as apophaticism, etc.

(ii) There's an implicit version of the "humanism (my kind at least) is wholly negative" criticism. True the book is polemical. I was asked to write it that way by OUP. It is not supposed to be neutral. It is supposed to argue for humanism. Now the analogy with arguing for vegetarianism is perhaps a poor choice from Bojan, as any book arguing for vegetarianism is going to be arguing against eating meat. So, by analogy, arguing for humanism will involve arguing against religious belief. But actually humanism is not just atheism and the book goes on to explain the various positive views associated with humanism. But of course it does spend time refuting various religious arguments against humanist views. It would be odd not to deal with those arguments given that critics will inevitably raise them in response. [ps see comments below for list of various positive views in the book)

(iii) I am accused of dishonesty etc. Without any evidence at all being supplied (and none was forthcoming in the correspondence).

So I don't think it's v fair but I am sure others will take a different view. Comments welcome...

12 comments:

theObserver said...

If I was feeling sadistic, I might create an amazon account calling myself Sye TenB then leave a review saying "Atheist philosopher Stephen Law cannot account for the laws of logic and hence should not be using them. Only the Christain worldview can account for the laws of logic. Cheers Sye"

Ajay Kumar said...

Hi, Stephen.

I am a regular reader of you blog. I find humanism to be an interesting ideology. I did manage to pick up your book and was quite frankly rather excited to be reading it. (I am a practicing Christian by the way).

I cant help but find my self in agreement with Dr.Tunguz who has written the review. Attacking the existing flaws in religion is not a decent way to get a point across. If you want to make Humanism look good you have to tell me why its better than existing religion. (I find the vegetarian example rather good actually). Not why existing religion is bad for me. I think quite frankly your criticism of this reviewer is rather unfair. I suggest you re-read the book you wrote and see where you went wrong.

Agreed some of the correspondence was not flattering of both. I still think publishing private correspondence online must violate some code of ethics somewhere down the line eh? I mean do Humanist's believe in ethics?

Just some thoughts. Cheerio!

Regards

Ajay Kumar

Stephen Law said...

Maybe you are right - I deleted the emails...

Stephen Law said...

Hi Ajay, you said:

"If you want to make Humanism look good you have to tell me why its better than existing religion."

One of the main reasons it is better is that it is actually true, unlike existing religions. That's what I try to show.

I also explain that humanists typically are humanists in large part because they reject a series of religious claims, such as that there is a god, that religion should have a privileged place in our society, that there cannot be good without god, that we will not be good without god, and so on. But of course they are also for various things, such as secularism, applying reason as far as and as best we can on the Big Questions, on focusing morally speaking on flourishing in this life (rather than a life to come), etc.

Ajay Kumar said...

Hi, Stephen
You do try to do this. But what your running is a negative case. I am talking about making a positive case for humanism. That is something that I am yet to see from Humanists. I mean they point out the net negatives but there is no positive case stemming from that side.

For Example Smoking is bad for you because it affects your health. That is an example of a negative case. But if I was selling exercise to smokers I would go with Exercise is good for you because it gives you the same rush as smoking while improving your lungs. You get what I am saying?

Regards

Ajay Kumar

Ajay Kumar said...

Oddly enough. If you do read the Bible most of it is actually about flourishing in this life while securing your life to come.

Just point out.

Regards

Ajay Kumar

Ajay Kumar said...

Oh by the way if you do feel like continuing this discussion further. Do drop me a like at ajay.kumar_@live.com Would love a chat. :-).

Stephen Law said...

Yes I do get it Ajay. So check out for example:

1. The introduction, which lists several positive views, including promotion of freedom of thought and expression, promotion of forms of moral education that stress moral autonomy and the importance of thinking critically and independently, and the importance of being guided by reason as far as possible (without assuming reason can solve every problem).

2. chpt 1, which says that what brings humanism into conflict with SOME religious people is its positive promotion of equal rights for women, homosexuals, etc. (p27) and which shows the valuable intellectual heritage, including insights into what constitutes living a good life, that as been produced by humanists and proto-humanist down through the centuries.

Chpt 4 which explains why humanists are not committed to relativism and nihilism but to moral truth, place great emphasis on human flourishing, value moral autonomy, etc.

Chpt. 5 which argues positively for a secular society in which the freedom of the religious and non-religious is respected equally, and suggests this may be our best defence against moral catastrophe.

Chpt 6 which argues positively for a certain approach to moral education in and out of the classroom that emphasises the role of reason and moral autonomy, and provides empirical evidence to back up the claim that such an approach has significant benefits.

chpt 7.which argues positively that a humanist approach may actually give greater scope for leading a meaningful life.

chpt 8 which argues positively for the importance of ceremony and ritual and explains why humanists ceremonies offer various advantages, particularly e.g. funerals.

Of course at every step I have to deal pre-emptively with a huge range of arguments brought by the religious against what I am promoting. Accusing me of being "negative" in this regard is paradoxical, as I am merely responding defensively to the negative attacks of the religious!

To me you sound like an atheist who, whenever a theist tries to explain why theism is a good thing, says "You are saying theism is better, but in reality you are just attacking atheism, explaining why it is worse. Please give your positive case for theism!" This would be a nice script an atheist could follow in order to constantly frustrate the theist. It would be pure intellectual sleight of hand, of course.

Rather than sticking to the same script, why don't you actually explain what is wrong with the arguments in the book, outlined above, which are indeed arguments for humanism?

Stephen Law said...

"If you do read the Bible most of it is actually about flourishing in this life while securing your life to come."

Debatable. Also irrelevant, surely?

Unless your point is: but then this focus does not distinguish humanism from theism?

To which I say: but I never said it does. In fact I explicitly acknowledge that humanists and some religious people will be in agreement on a very great deal.

Stephen Law said...

One last comment! Of course critics often say humanists are committed to utilitarianism, utopianism, naturalism, etc. But as I point out, they are not (certainly, I am not).

This is understandably frustrating for the theist, whose life is made much easier if they have some specific theory about morality or the nature of reality to attack. So they say "But what's your positive view?"

Well, sorry, but there ain't a single "humanist" theory of reality or morality. If you insist there must be, you have just not understood what humanism is (certainly not as I and many others understand the term).

Benet said...

The criticism doesnt seem fair to me largely because the points made dont appear to be supported by any evidence. All very well alleging "straw man" but you surely have to highlight at least one example?

But it does raise an interesting point - is there a tendency among humanists/atheists to start by explaining why they are not theists? If so, why should they do so. Why begin by assuming there is a super-natural being who prescribes or identifies moral rules? If you dont start from that assumption do you need to spend as much time explaining why you are not a theist? Isnt it the theist who bears the burden of proof?

Of course, I havent read your book - so maybe you dont (make that assumption or spend that much time on it). But I do notice that, perhaps because historically the assumption has been theism is true, a lot of time and effort is spent by humanists/theists explaining why they have rejected that assumption.

I suspect that is fundamentally a waste of time because if you are a believer then you are not likely to be persuaded by rational argument. And if you are already an atheist then the ridiculousness of belief in a super-natural being that provides moral laws is already apparent.

Anyhow, I begin to ramble and a comment on a website is no place to try and engage in serious discussion - which is also why I suspect there is no point getting too wound up by an Amazon review.

Anonymous said...

Odd that a philosopher must fend off such a nasty review that can be viewed around the globe. The exchange becomes instructive, and I admire your restraint and civility. Enjoy your blog and books greatly, so necessary is world disappearing into pixels. Erick