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Secular humanism is a markedly nonreligious worldview that "rejects supernatural accounts of reality" (p. 8) and considers that there are "ethical values and principles that nonreligious individuals can live by" (p. 7). Expanding on the solely negative claims of atheism, it "expresses a positive normative concern for developing constructive ethical values" (p. 57). Paul Kurtz's What is Secular Humanism? provides a concise and yet illuminating introduction for beginners to this subject, and helpfully manages to uncover the historical traditions and developments underlying the secular humanist position.
Scientific advancements have contributed much to the humanist cause. As Kurtz remarks "it was the development of the scientific method and its application to nature that brought a decisive intellectual influence to bear on humanist thought" (pp. 13-14). According to secular humanism, the primacy of scientific inquiry goes hand-in-hand with a naturalist or non-supernatural conception of the world. Kurtz highlights the fact that secular humanists are "dubious of any effort to divide nature into two realms: the natural and the supernatural", and he goes on to characterize their religious skepticism by pointing out that "they find the classical definition of an omnipotent, omniscient, and beneficent God to be unintelligible" (pp. 30-31), or, at least, they think there is "insufficient evidence" (p. 34) to support this claim.
The early sections of the book are exclusively devoted to historical background and, while the exposition is brief, they successfully manage to trace the core lineage of the movement and provide the reader with a clear overview of the secular humanist beginnings in Confucian China and ancient Greece, its progression through the Renaissance period and the Enlightenment, and the widespread humanist movement of the nineteenth and twentieth century. As Kurtz explains, the contemporary ascendancy of humanism has encompassed such diverse doctrines as Marxism, existentialism, pragmatism, naturalism, positivism, behaviorism, and libertarianism (p. 17).
Interestingly, Kurtz reveals that during recent years a broad construal of the humanistic outlook has also been hijacked by religious believers, with 'Christian humanism' a notable contemporary movement. In Kurtz's view, we might understand this apparently conflicted adherence to humanism by taking into account the possibility that "the term humanism is considered so ennobling that few thinkers are willing to reject it outright" (p. 17). Yet although the secular humanist view is widely shared amongst contemporary thinkers, there are still prominent dissenting voices. Kurtz cites the cases of both Pope Benedict XVI who "rejected "secularism" and "relativism", which he considered to be purely subjective", and also many Islamic extremists who insist that Sharia law "is rooted in the Qur'an" and have "even threatened jihad against those who espouse the secular outlook" (p. 19).
The later sections of the book are devoted to a more systematic definition of secular humanism and the proposal of what Kurtz terms 'a new paradigm' in the subject. Central to Kurtz's project is a defense of six claims, which collectively aim to characterize secular humanism. Taking each claim in turn, be argues that (1) it is a method of inquiry, (2) it provides a naturalistic cosmic outlook, (3) it is nontheistic, (4) it is committed to humanistic ethics, (5) it offers a perspective that is democratic, and (6) it is planetary in scope.
Understood as a summary of the central tenets of the position, these claims serve as a useful set of coordinates from which to get a foothold in a subject that represents one side in a difficult contemporary debate over the role of religion in ethical, moral and political questions. A thoroughly compelling defense of such fundamental philosophical claims, either those against religious belief, those in favor of "an affirmative set of ethical principles and values" (p. 35), or those occupying the later stages of the book which attempt to outline the relationship between secular humanism and democracy, clearly requires a far more substantial study than this. But Kurtz's aim is really just to present the basic arguments in favor of a naturalistic, scientifically-led understanding of the world and to his credit in such a brief introduction, he manages to achieve this goal in a clear and compelling fashion, and he covers a large amount of ground with both a clarity and a flair that will be welcome to any reader previously unacquainted with these complex and enduring issues.
© 2008 Simon Riches
Dr Simon Riches has recently completed a PhD in philosophy at University College London, with a thesis on a priori knowledge, and has taught in their philosophy department for the last three years. Before that he studied philosophy at the University of Southampton.