Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2003

Humanism: An Introduction, by Jim Herrick


The Blasphemy Depot: A Hundred Years of the Rationalist Press Association, by Bill Cooke

reviewed by Dan O’Hara

Here are two new, and contrasted, books from the Rationalist Press Association. The first, a short general introduction to humanism; the other, a lengthy and detailed history of the RPA, one of the principal organisations of the humanist movement.

Jim Herrick has, at different times, edited the journals associated with three of those organisations: The Freethinker, New Humanist and International Humanist News. As well as working for the NSS and the RPA, and being a founder-member of GALHA, he has attended numerous humanist conferences all over the world, especially in India. He is thus very well placed to provide an introduction to humanism. His book is both thoughtful and thought-provoking, if somewhat diffident in style.

For a short work, it certainly raises more questions than answers. But this is arguably as it should be: for humanism, in our sense, has always been about asking penetrating questions, and not being satisfied with superficial answers, concerning the great opportunities and problems of existence. At least there is no sense of hubris or misplaced overconfidence, and the informal approach will appeal to many.

An author presumably has a target audience in mind, and here it seems to be the enquiring sixth-former or undergraduate, though doubtless it will have a wider readership. There are 100 pages of text, and, in the middle, eight unnumbered pages of black-and-white plates. I thought the use of shaded boxes for quotations rather detracted from the appearance of the page, but it was the large number of typos and several factual errors that concerned me. Darwin’s year of birth is given as 1789 beneath his portrait (it should be 1809); and Bradlaugh’s year of death is given as 1891 (correctly) on the facing page, but as 1893 on p. 67. Three blank pages at the end might have usefully been employed to suggest works for further reading.

Fifty years ago, when it was still a force to be reckoned with, many of the relevant titles would have been published by the RPA, whose history is now to hand. Bill Cooke, a British academic and committed humanist, who was active in New Zealand for many years and has recently moved to the USA, has done a marvellous job. It is thus a huge relief that the late Nicolas Walter, who was originally charged with the task, never got round to it. For, though Nicolas was good at the brilliant, instant rejoinder, he lacked the necessary skills and discipline to produce anything on this scale. Nicolas retired from the RPA in November 1999, and died of cancer the following March. Shortly after, Bill Cooke was given full access to the files of the RPA in London, and has now produced a work so rich in detail that – as well as being a joy to read – it will become an essential work of reference.

It will be the greatest of pities if the seemingly esoteric subject matter should put off potential readers, for this is really a gripping, pugnacious and very readable work. Not only does it deal with all the main personalities in the RPA’s history, from the admirable founder, Charles Albert Watts, to the deeply flawed Nicolas Walter, it discusses the main ideological fault lines within rationalism, and sets the whole against currents of thought within the wider society. It also has full appendices listing, inter alia, all the publications, honorary associates and office holders.

I particularly relished Bill Cooke’s remorseless exposure of cant and hypocrisy, and almost whooped with delight at the well-aimed kick in the bollocks he delivers to that pompous Christian apologist, Owen Chadwick, possibly the most egregious ever appointment as Regius Professor of History at Cambridge. The supersmug Adrian Desmond, T. H. Huxley’s most recent biographer, also gets a well-deserved rap over the knuckles.

As was to be expected, two of the RPA’s towering intellects, J. M. Robertson and Joseph McCabe, figure prominently in these pages. But as each of them has already received book-length treatment, the former edited by G. A. Wells (RPA, 1987), and the latter from Bill Cooke himself (Prometheus, 2001), this volume is specially valuable for bringing other important, but largely forgotten, personalities back to life.

If the recent history of the RPA has been more embarrassing than glorious, Bill Cooke makes it clear there is plenty over the longer term to evoke our pride and gratitude. I cannot urge readers too strongly to get and devour this splendid book.

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Created : Sunday, 2003-11-23 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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