This outline of the humanist philosophy of life by Richard Norman is first class. It covers the history, philosophy, morality, and meaning of humanism with extreme clarity. Richard Norman is a former professor of philosophy, but he writes in a way which is completely comprehensible to the nonspecialist reader.
He opens with the history, beginning with the Renaissance (a greater nod in the direction of the ancient world might have been useful) and Hamlet's speech 'What a piece of work is a man'. Although this has the renaissance glory of the human, it also moves to thoughts of depression and suicide. Norman is keen to present a humanism that allows for the unhappy and destructive side of human nature. He briefly looks at the Enlightenment and the atheism and agnosticism of the nineteenth century. I think he is wrong to emphasise the ethicist groups at the expense of the secular ones, whose excessive belief in progress he dislikes.
His historical survey ends with the Jewish holocaust and he quotes extensively from that brilliant writer and survivor of Auschwitz, Primo Levi. This enables him both to recognise the depths of human behaviour and to show how individuals can survive and even triumph over them he wants to present, therefore, a provisional humanism. Do humanists pay enough attention to stoicism?
Norman covers the arguments for and against the existence of God clearly, giving a view of the theist perspective while recounting the nontheistic arguments expertly. Norman is fair to his opponents; he never mocks them and allows their arguments to be taken seriously. His presentation of Darwinism is compressed with great coherence into a small space, and his discussion of religion and science allows that Christians, for instance, can accept that evolution is part of the process which God set in motion to create the world and that the scientific process can be followed by some Christians. He presents science effectively, taking in its "fertility its capacity to generate a detailed research programme", its "practical applicability" after all, planes do fly and its ability to explain the empirical data in an 'economical' way. I never tire of saying that schools should teach the process of science as well as its results.
I have a good reason to be biased in favour of Richard Norman. After speaking at a meeting which he was chairing, I drove away and over a large nail. He shortly came past and helped me to change my tyre. (But my bias in favour of this book is entirely because of its impressiveness.) He did not help me because of a divine instruction, but because of the shared values of human beings. His discussion of ethics is particularly good indeed, it is 'good' without 'god' which he defends (as humanists consistently do). He is good on relativism, utilitarianism (which has its uses and its weaknesses) and those concepts, emphasised by Hume, of 'sympathy' 'humanity' and 'fellow feeling'.
Norman considers other animal species and the environment rather briefly. He does not really take on the 'speciesist' argument that humanism puts human beings in a lordly, dominant place above the other creatures. And one real gap is the lack of a consideration of the humanist place in the political process that humanism leads to democracy and the open society.
The final section of the book looks at the way people find meaning in their lives even if there is no ultimate meaning in a random universe. He places great emphasis on narratives as a way of finding meaning and gives two novels by Virginia Woolf and Graham Swift as examples. For many, literature is not the centre nature, painting and music can all also give point to our existence. I would go one step further in my consideration of Woolf's To the Lighthouse: it seems to me a sustained demonstration of humanist 'mysticism'. Mysticism has too much baggage, perhaps, to be a good word, but I mean a kind of intense meditation, a charged apprehension of the world, a stillness in which troubles slip away, prepared or unprepared attention to the world. When I spoke of this to a humanist group all but one admitted having such experiences but no one liked the word mysticism and Norman does not go this far. However, he does go very far in creating a book of great lucidity, considerable thought, and grace.