Humanism: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Law (2011)

humanismReligion did not create morality. Rather, religions merely codify the kind of basic morality to which humans are naturally disposed anyway. 82

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Law defines humanists as those who would largely accept or endorse the following positions: 1) science and reason are useful and should be applied widely to guide our lives, 2) atheism or agnosticism, 3) no afterlife or reincarnation, 4) moral values exist and are important, 5) individuals are responsible for making their own moral judgements, 6) life can be meaningful without God, and 7) secularism—the state takes a generally neutral stance toward religion.

The book touches on each of these points, primarily by contrasting the humanist view with the traditional religious view. Most of the book is an argument that we can retain many important features of religion—ceremony, morality, meaning—even if God does not exist, or we do not believe in God.

Being familiar with the topics covered in this book, nothing struck me as particularly new or interesting. But readers unfamiliar with humanism and “new atheism” may find the book provocative or engaging. Too much of the book is dedicated to arguments for and against God; these seem like they should belong in different book, allowing more space to be dedicated to humanist thinkers, humanist history, and humanist influence on society. The book is primarily negative, in that it focuses on what religion cannot provide, rather than on what humanism is, can do, and has done.

Ideas per Page: 3/101 (low), but this may be due to my familiarity with the topic

Related Books: Straw Dogs, The Soul of the Marionette, The Silence of Animals, by John Gray; Letters to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris; Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett

Recommend to Others: Only if you are completely unfamiliar with the topic. I would look for other books on the topic first

Reread Personally: No


19 “Some Enlightenment thinkers stand accused of utopianism, of naively supposing that the age of reason would inevitably bring in an age of peace, prosperity, and contentment. Enlightenment thought is also accused of being excessively rationalistic, of supposing society and morality can be given a wholly rational foundation.”

88-9 “…four features of a humanist moral outlook stand out:

…a humanist will aim to hold a moral position, not because they have been instructed to, or because someone else to whom they feel an obligation to defer holds it, but because that is the position they have themselves arrived at after careful consideration.

…humanists reject moral justifications based on claims of divinely revealed truth

…to the humanist, morality is essentially tied up with human flourishing

…humanists emphasize the role of reason in making moral judgements

93 “A secular society is simply one in which the state itself takes a neutral view with respect to religion. The state does not align itself with any particular religious, or anti-religious, point of view.”

125 “Each living organism has a purpose, to reproduce and pass on its genetic material to the next generation. We each exist for a purpose, a purpose supplied by nature, whether or not there is a God.”

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.


One thought on “Humanism: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Law (2011)

  1. To codify,
    to organize,
    to rearrange the rules,

    to tell the masses
    they must love,
    is to act as fools.

    To show care,
    to be kind,
    to bath and feed and sweep,

    is to be
    a truer self,
    awake and not asleep.



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