See BHA website for details about this book and how to purchase it.
In this review, words in double quotes "..." are taken directly from the book.
Peter Cave, chairman of the Humanist Philosophers Group of the British Humanist Society who teaches philosophy for the Open University and City University London, has written this guide for "readers interested in humanism, its underlying philosophy, and criticisms of its position". After a brief historical introduction, the remaining chapters cover: why people believe in gods; the nature of religious belief; morality without god; politics and the secular state; and living a satisfying and meaningful life.
Those of us who have lived most of their lives as atheists don't really need the rehearsal of the reasons people believe in god, but the book is aimed at a wider readership. I find one of the most telling arguments against the traditional belief in a personal god is that even if you did believe in a creator of the universe, there is no reason to suppose that such a creator would be in any way like the personal god who supposedly takes an ongoing interest in us earthlings and provides the traditional trappings of heaven, hell, angels etc..
An accusation frequently made is that without god we can have no basis for morality. But "are you, dear religious believers, really saying that if you lacked belief in God, then you'd feel free to rape, torture and murder whenever you wanted? Is it solely God's commandments that make such actions immoral?" If the reply is "no" this suggests "that religion is unnecessary", if "yes" "these believers are pretty immoral and nasty characters". We seem to have some basic common ideas about what is good, but still may "seek a theory that offers some unified account of what morality is and demands" (e.g. utilitarianism). However if the theory appears to contradict our intuitive ideas, we may "reinterpret or modify [our] favoured big theory to cohere with [our] existing basic moral beliefs". There may be a similarity with "conscientious religious believers [who] seek to reinterpret texts to salve their conscience" "Our moral judgement in particular cases has the first word, and ... if a last word is needed, it is usually our judgement in a particular case". Where do these basic moral beliefs come from? Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, describes how our moral sense, particularly altruism, could have evolved, but also says that we have the power to override our basic instincts - we can go beyond immediate gratification of our desires. Maybe, as Mark Rowlands says in The Philosopher at the End of the Universe, 'The choice to let one's life be guided by moral reasons or reasons of self-interest is, I think, ultimately an arational choice. The choice is ultimately one of self-definition: it is a choice guided not by by reasons but by your image of the sort of person you want to be.'
Peter Cave does not try to oversimplify; he uses the phrase "muddling through" more than once to describe how we cope with moral and political dilemmas. In both cases, there is rarely a single right answer, we just have to do the best we can in the circumstances.
Cave briefly mentions the humanist attitude of a few religious believers that "religious claims are are expressions of moral intentions, combined with a mixture of exemplary stories, poetry and some empirical claims promoting ways of living" and mentions the empiricist philosopher and priest Richard Braithwaite. I believe that such an attitude is more widespread, but often not stated openly by religious leaders for fear of alienating their followers. Richard Holloway, formerly Bishop of Edinburgh, takes an essentially humanist position with a recent statement: 'So we can spend our lives not in living, but in trying to interpret our lives, according to some system of belief that points us away from the life we are actually having to an entirely hypothetical life about which we can know nothing. A better way to approach the business is to begin by accepting that this life is it; that this actual being that we have and the universe in which we have it, no matter how it arose, is IT, so that this is what we must get on with.' There is a strain of humanist thought in theology typified by the twentieth century writings by such as Paul Tillich, John Robinson and Don Cupitt.
A useful commented bibliography and detailed references for each chapter are included in appendices.
As Bernard Crick says on the back cover, This is "an admirable guide for all those non-religious (surely the true 'silent majority'?) who may wake up to the fact that they are all humanists ... What we have in common is, indeed, not faith but our humanity."