Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 2000

Humanism: Beliefs and Practices, by Jeaneane Fowler

reviewed by Dan Bye

The preface reveals that Jeaneane Fowler, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Wales College Newport, is interested in Humanism only in so far as it sheds light on what it means to be religious, which may explain the book’s frustrating lack of engagement with Humanists and their writings. Fowler takes a high-handed approach to controversial or contested issues and concepts, preferring to dispense personal opinion rather than evaluate what Humanists have actually said.

Fowler is aware that many Humanists will find her book out of kilter with their own priorities, arguing that self-indulgence is excusable: “Humanism ... is such a fierce defender of individual potential ... I do not feel I have indulged too much in subjective statement without academic justification.” I find this self-serving and disrespectful.

The first 60 pages discuss humanist history and ideas, adding nothing to, and attempting no substantial analysis of, existing material. Fowler devotes barely a page to what is described as “typical of the lively debate that so characterises Humanist thought” (p3). She sides with Harry Stopes-Roe against Nicolas Walter on whether Humanism is a ‘life stance’, but her discussion is superficial and lacks any sense of “lively debate”.

In six pages of discussion of whether ‘spirituality’ has any Humanist meaning, the only Humanist cited is Robert Ashby, an employee of the British Humanist Association. “I think Humanists need something in [spirituality’s] place, or need to redefine it in a secular sense” (p50), says Fowler. But what do Humanists think?

The short (about a page long) account of the early freethought movement underestimates the continuing relevance and influence of this heritage, and is riddled with errors. Yet Fowler’s bibliography includes works by accurate freethought historians such as Jim Herrick, David Tribe and Nicolas Walter.

For example, Fowler says: “The Secular Society was founded in 1852 by George Jacob Holyoake ... In 1866, the Secular Society became the National Secular Society ... Charles Bradlaugh became its President. It produced a journal called The National Reformer, later, in 1881, to become The Freethinker.” (p26)

This is wrong in almost every respect. Firstly, there never was a “Secular Society”. In the mid 19th century several secular societies were formed, many organised by Holyoake. In 1852, he founded the ‘Central Secular Society’, which didn’t survive. Bradlaugh did not merely ‘become’ National Secular Society President, he founded the Society in 1866 and was its first President. The Holyoake-oriented Secular Societies (e.g. Leicester) and the Bradlaugh-led National Secular Society’s branches did not always enjoy good relations.

The National Reformer was first published in 1860. Bradlaugh was editor or co-editor at different times but it predates, and was never issued by, the NSS. In 1893, according to Jim Herrick, it became a ‘short-lived review’.

Founded in 1881, The Freethinker has outlived The National Reformer, but the two co-existed for a dozen years. Finally, The Freethinker was not and is not produced by the NSS, although there have long been close links.

Discussing the Humanist rejection of gods and faith, Fowler seems happier discussing religious positions rather than Humanist responses, so much of the material seems irrelevant.

Fowler’s treatment of “atheism” is contradictory and misleading. On the one hand, she says that “an atheist ... does not have belief in any kind of deity”. On the other hand, “the term atheist is normally used to express belief that God does not exist” (which is not true).

Fowler attempts to clarify the differences between atheistic Humanists and atheistic Buddhists but succeeds only in being confusing. She argues: “atheism and non-theism ... are distinct terms [in common usage they are synonymous], the former suggesting no belief in God of any kind”. If this means that ‘non-theists’ believe in a god of a some kind, surely that makes them a species of theist, not a species of atheist?

Less than a page of half-hearted discussion is inadequate for a longstanding bone of contention like agnosticism (p68). Huxley, who coined the word, is described as “a man who was uncertain in which direction his religious beliefs lay”, which isn’t true, as his essays on religion testify.

Admittedly, Huxley defined agnosticism inconsistently, but Fowler neither recognises nor attempts to resolve this difficulty.

After these derisory few pages on the meaning of atheism and agnosticism, Fowler takes twice as much space to explore various religious conceptions of god. Humanism isn’t mentioned in this section.

Chapters on Society, Morality, Rationalism, and “Life and Death Issues” (rehearsing the standard debates around genetics, abortion and euthanasia) are worthwhile, but lack evidence of sufficient grounding in humanist belief and practice.

Fowler’s treatment of sex and sexuality is slightly better. She robustly states that, for humanists, “it is up to individuals to decide what is right and valuable as sexual experience – and that may be heterosexual or homosexual” (p165), and, “physical, sexual love is regarded by most Humanists as a human joy ... but most Humanists favour stable relationships in which two people enter into a partnership with love, care and responsibility.” (pp295-296)

This is a good summary of the broad humanist consensus, and Fowler’s implicit recognition (“most Humanists”) that Humanists may differ on specifics is welcome. But there isn’t enough analysis or discussion of the development of this consensus.

Fowler says little about homosexuality, beyond noting that Humanists support gay and lesbian rights. Her discussion of equality makes no explicit reference to sexuality, and GALHA is not mentioned – a serious omission of one of the most active organisations in the movement.

Chapter 9 denounces opposition to the use of religious material in secular ceremonies as “pedantic”. Isn’t it truly pedantic (i.e. ‘missing the big picture’) to insist that religious texts can take on an unproblematically Humanist meaning if read by a Humanist as part of a Humanist ceremony?

There is no attempt to discover what practising Humanist officiants think.

An academically serious book on humanism has long been needed: this one contains some useful material, but is ultimately a failure.

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Created : Sunday, 2000-09-03 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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