Steven Poole's Review of my VSI Humanism, yesterday's Guardian

It's, er, not entirely flattering!

Humanism: A Very Short Introduction, by Stephen Law (Oxford, £7.99)

Price-allergic? Perhaps you can instead find meaning in a "humanist funeral", as advertised in this guide to being the kind of slightly smug person who congratulates himself on seeing "the world as it is", unlike religious folk. Evidently, no one has a monopoly on epistemological hubris. Much of this book is low-grade anti-theology, arguing against arguments for the existence of God, which rather tests the opening claim that humanism is not primarily an insistent atheism.

A happy, positive story is told about philosophy classes in primary schools, which does sound like an excellent idea. Once so primed, young readers might see something wrong with the author's taking himself to have shown that belief in God is not "reasonable", or his claim that morality is "written into our genes". Law gets testy about the fuzzy gods of modern theologians, though he has himself defined "humanism" so broadly as to encompass just about anyone who is a good egg and doesn't believe in a sky-god. This "humanism", he announces proudly, cannot be "refuted". Of course it can't: it's not the sort of thing that could be. This cup of coffee can't be refuted either. Now excuse me; I have to go to a coffeeist mass.

Source here. I find the final comment particularly odd as I don't announce, proudly or otherwise, that humanism cannot be refuted. Nor do I claim anything so crude as that morality is written in our genes. Weird.


Marc O'Brien said…
So he's saying your definition of the what is a humanist has high analyticity - like Flew's true Scotsman?

Morality, not ethics, is indeed written into our genes. How else could we discern between good morals and bad morals when presented to us and why else do we not have a rule for absolutely every do and don't?

I have the book but I have only read the first chapter so far - am moving house.
Ophelia Benson said…
So he just made stuff up? That's nice. Ethical Reviewing.

I got the same treatment from Sholto Byrnes in The Indpendent. He made stuff up.
Tony Lloyd said…
Not entirely flattering, but not entirely damning either. Which must be a disappointment. If a critic doesn't write "buy this book, it's fabulous" he could at least write "buy this book to see how bad it is".

Still, it's not entirely stillborn: it's the Amazon number 1 in Hindu philosophy!

Richard said…
All publicity is good publicity ... even from a 'reviewer' who clearly has not read your book and, no doubt, if he ever gets round to reading it, has little chance of understanding it.
Giford said…
I believe that the traditional response is to ensure that the 2nd edition features prominently on the jacket:

"Excellent" - Steven Poole


It's my new pocket bible. All it needs is a pre-printed forward: "On [insert date], I accepted Stephen Law as my personal saviour.
Ken said…
Perhaps it was l'esprit d'escalier against somebody else and you just happened to wander by.
Personally I found the book admirably clear and concise. I don't understand why he put scare quotes around humanist funeral.
Mike said…
I enjoyed your responses to Poole. You cut him down to size.
Stephen Law said…
I am now having a bit of banter with Steven Poole on the Guardian webpage on which his very negative review of my book appears, if you are interested.
Tim Stephenson said…
Funny what The Atheist Missionary said because I gave a talk in Leeds a couple of weeks ago using Stephen's book on Humanism as the main source and invited the audience to step forward, place their hand on the book and accept Humanism. Nobody did though. I do think that Stephen's book is one of the best on Humanism (and believe me I have read them all), especially the evil God hypothesis and the list of what Humanism DOESN'T require you to accept. A handy sized invaluable addition to the library and a good companion to Baggini's Introduction to Atheism.
I have to say I really loved your book. I didn't think it was smug; I thought it was humane. Which was rather the point. In my experience book reviewers spend too much time worrying about their own presence and not enough time out in the world acquiring the experience they need to discriminate nonsense from meaning.
Stephen Law said…
Well thanks you all. Perhaps, if I fall on hard times, I should start my own cult.
Robert Williams said…
Well I have just ordered it, and I hope it's as good as everyone here says it is.
Tim Stephenson said…
Asking people to come forward and put their hand on Stephen’s book and accept Humanism was a joke and people recognised it as such but there is the serious point that unless Humanists can shirk off their fears of being perceived as cultish and are prepared to nail their colours to the mast publicly, to recognise in Humanist literature a discernible approach and pattern of belief which gives them an identity, then I think that the Humanist movement will disappear like the fading grin of a Cheshire cat and we will be left with those who publicly espouse bronze-age myths as the guiding narrative of our culture.