A Book Review by David Warden
This book could have benefited from much better professional editing. Epstein sometimes has difficulty putting across his ideas in a succinct and compelling fashion. Some of his sentences weigh in at 85 or even 100 words and barely make sense. He even includes a lengthy section about how he struggled to continue with the book and nearly gave up.
Despite these technical criticisms I’m sympathetic to what Epstein has to say about Humanism. He writes very much in the American tradition of Humanism and has no problem referring to Humanism as a ‘faith’, as long as that means ‘faith in our ability to live well, based on convictions reached by free, unfettered rational enquiry’.
His mentor was the late Rabbi Sherwin Wine, founder of Humanistic Judaism – a kind of secular religion similar in spirit to the Ethical Societies – which belongs to the broad and tolerant family of different Humanisms in America. He is also broadminded and generous in his appraisal of liberal and progressive forms of religion such as Unitarian Universalists, reconstructionist Jews and liberal Muslims whom he calls ‘allies of Humanism’. He is familiar with the positive psychology of Martin Seligman and includes many nuggets of wisdom from one of the greatest twentieth century humanistic psychologists, Erich Fromm. He is proud of the fact that ‘in our Humanist community at Harvard we try to spend less time staging debates between fundamentalists and atheist philosophers and more time on how to empower ourselves to respond to all the problems of life – stress, pain, ageing and death – which make people turn to religion in the first place’.
The character of British Humanism has been shaped to a large extent by our vigorous traditions of rationalism and secularism. We’ve always been suspicious of some American versions of Humanism which cast it as a secular, non-theistic religion with secular ceremonies and Sunday schools for children. We are right to be suspicious of any attempt to turn Humanism into another dogmatic, moralistic ideology. But we should not be too hard on our American cousins. There is much to learn from them in how to make Humanism a fully constructive alternative to religion which might prove attractive to many people who are seeking for something more in life than just individualistic materialism.
- Greg Epstein, Humanist rabbi and Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, spoke at the Eighteenth World Humanist Congress in Oslo, August 12-14. Swami Manavatavadi,who leads our twinned Humanist organisation in India, also attended.
- Dr Aubrey Weinberg spoke to us about Humanistic Judaism in February 2003.
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