On Humanism

On Humanism

On Humanism

On Humanism


What is humanism and why does it matter? Is there any doctrine every humanist must hold? If it rejects religion, what does it offer in its place? Have the twentieth century's crimes against humanity spelled the end for humanism?

On Humanism is a timely and powerfully argued philosophical defence of humanism. It is also an impassioned plea that we turn to ourselves, not religion, if we want to answer Socrates' age-old question: what is the best kind of life to lead? Although humanism has much in common with science, Richard Norman shows that it is far from a denial of the more mysterious, fragile side of being human. He deals with big questions such as Darwinism and 'creation science', matter and consciousness, euthanasia and abortion, and then argues that it is ultimately through the human capacity for art, literature and the imagination that humanism is a powerful alternative to religious belief.

This revised second edition includes a new chapter on the debates between 'the New Atheists' such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and their religious critics, asking why the two sides in the debate so often seem to be talking past one another, and suggesting how the conversation could be made more fruitful.

Richard Norman is a committed humanist and the author of many books including The Moral Philosophers and Ethics, Killing and War. He was formerly Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kent, Canterbury


What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in
faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how
like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world!
the paragon of animals!

Is this a statement of something we could call ‘humanism’? It comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and it is often quoted as a celebration of the qualities that make us human, perhaps also with the suggestion that recognising these qualities can inspire us to use them to the full. If we look further, however, we find that things are not so simple. the context of Hamlet’s words is not a declaration of faith in human life, but an expression of despair. Our quoted passage is preceded by these words:

I have heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent
canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament,
this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears
no other thing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of

What looked like an optimistic affirmation of human potentialities was after all, then, part of a classic expression of how human life can come to seem meaningless. Having enumerated the qualities which make a man ‘the paragon of animals’, Hamlet continues:

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