In this short book of 50 pages, John Severs brings together a wide range of subversive writers, from ancient times to Richard Dawkins, who dared to question religious (mostly Christian) doctrines and put forward alternative views, in some cases paying for it with their lives. Some of them are little known (to this reviewer at least), and it is good to see them given an airing. The book shows how erratic and painful the path was to today’s scientific/secular humanism, important milestones being the Enlightenment, the Reformation and the invention of printing. Hume is rightly given a fair amount of space, and it is good to see so many women writers featured (p.39-45), with their pointed critique of the monotheistic patriarchal religions. The ending is optimistic, as (in the UK at least) humanist ceremonies increase, polls show a decreasing number of people claiming to be Christian, and the churches’ stranglehold on the schools is beginning to be loosened.
The book should stimulate further reading, raising as it does some intriguing questions which cannot be addressed in detail in such a short book. How did the medieval church manage to reconcile Aristotle’s view of the universe, eternal and uncreated, with Christian doctrine? What was it about Venice which produced the dissenters mentioned by Severs? What is left of Christianity when the supernatural element is discarded? What has happened to the central doctrines of Christianity, and why are they no longer publicly discussed as they once were?
Some cavils: Protagoras (misprinted as “Protagorus”) is introduced before the sophists as if he were not himself a sophist (p.7). Sextus (p.11) is usually cited more fully as Sextus Empiricus, since Sextus is a very common Roman praenomen, and he lived ca.190 CE, not in the “late 200s or early 300s.” More might have been said about Francis Bacon, who pointed the way to experimentbased science, as opposed to armchair speculation.
The Sunday Lecture Society is described as a “forerunner of Conway Hall Ethical Society”, but both were running side by side in the 1870s. (CHES was then called South Place Religious Society.) The minister who in 1888 changed the name of the Society to “South Place Ethical Society”, strangely not named by Severs, was Stanton Coit (1857-1944), who founded the Ethical Union, which is mentioned.
Further misprints, which I hope can be corrected if the book is reprinted, include: (Werner) “Jaegger” (Jaeger), “Humphrey Davey” (Humphry Davy), (Robert) “Hook” (Hooke), “Schoppenhauer” (Schopenhauer), (Richard) “Carlisle” (Carlile), and (Mary) “Wolstonecraft” (Wollstonecraft).
Further reading has to be selective, but I would add Nicolas Walter’s Humanism: What’s In A Word? (London: RPA 1997) which includes a lot of history.
A Short History of Humanism by John Severs
Scarborough: Farthings Publishing, 2014.