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This Week in Humanism 2018–02–18


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/02/18

“Steven Pinker’s new book is not an easy read, and that is regrettable because he is vastly well informed on subjects that affect us all. The problem is largely one of presentation. He does not have the gift of brevity, and repeats what is essentially the same argument in chapter after chapter, assuring us with dismaying frequency that he will return to the topic under discussion more expansively later on.

In his previous book, The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), he demonstrated that violence and the conditions that promote it have decreased over the course of history. Enlightenment Now catalogues other aspects of life that have improved.”


“Why should anyone wish to learn about religion? Religion is, in the phrase of the sociologist Linda Woodhead, “a toxic brand”. In the public imagination the word summons up images of violence, patriarchy and irrationalism. The facile confidence of the “New Atheist” movement in the early years of this century was pushing at an open door. Religious studies nevertheless remains a surprisingly popular A-level subject, although this may owe something to its reputation as an easy one. A recent YouGov poll found that the British public thinks that RE is a subject scarcely more important than Latin, which the public, wrongly, does not care about at all. The National Association of Teachers of Religious Education has just launched an appeal for more teachers.

The association is quite right: religious education matters a great deal. At the very least it can function as a kind of ethnography, teaching people about the customs and beliefs of different religious cultures — something that is obviously desirable in a multicultural society. To know that Muslims and Jews won’t eat pork, or that Hindus regard cows as sacred, is really just a part of civics. There is nothing specifically religious about such teaching, even if it is by convention part of religious education. It could just as well be taught under geography or history, subjects profoundly influenced by the beliefs and actions of religious people. The real task of RE is much more ambitious.”


Humanists are being denied a voice on the teaching of religious education in schools in Wales, it has been claimed.

Wales Humanists has called for full membership on Standing Advisory Councils on RE (SACREs), which oversee the subject in schools.

The Wales Association of SACREs said the problem lies with a governing document which states only religious denominations can be full members.

The Welsh Government said it was looking into the issue.

Humanists either do not believe in or are sceptical about the existence of gods and aim to make ethical decisions based on reason and empathy.”


“Somewhere in between inventing new machines, techniques and medicines to make us feel better, medical professionals forgot that not only are their patients human beings with human needs, so too are the doctors.

That is the basic contention of members of the Gold Humanism Honor Society, an international organization of individuals and medical school chapters formed in 2002. Its mission is “dedicated to foster, recognize and support the values of humanism and professionalism in medicine.”

One of the ways that health-care professionals have tried to reintroduce compassionate care into healing is through pet therapy. At Erlanger, where the local chapter of the GHHS is based, specially trained dogs make regular visits to not only lift the spirits of the patients but the caregivers as well.”


“Bishop John Keenan of Paisley has agreed to meet a representative of the Humanist Society Scotland (HSS) in a letter criticising the group for its “lazy and gratuitous attacks on Catholics”.

According to the Scottish Catholic Observer, the bishop’s letter urges the society to embrace a “fairer and more positive appraisal of the contribution of faith communities”. He said he was “routinely in the position of having to defend our Church, frankly, from what I would say are lazy and quite gratuitous attacks on Catholics in Scotland and their beliefs from members of the HSS”.

He said that the society seemed to feel “some kind of need to ‘take a pop’ at religion”. Catholics, he added, “conclude that you are as exercised to do away with the place of religion in Scottish civic society as you are to advance the cause of authentic humanism”.”


“Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now builds on his 2011 The Better Angels of Our Nature (Viking) in offering another engaging, compelling set of reasons to be cheerful. In this new combined survey, analysis and manifesto, he convincingly demonstrates that when it comes to health and life expectancy, poverty reduction and income, education, human rights, peace and security, the global data provide solid grounds for optimism. But the book’s premise lies in the past: the Enlightenment, that period in the eighteenth century when, Pinker argues, reason, science, humanism and progress became the centre of intellectual endeavour in Europe and North America. That legacy, he asserts, is ripe for resurrection at a time of political upheaval, the rise of demagoguery, climate scepticism and ‘fake news’.

The Enlightenment undoubtedly saw major advances in constitutional government. The separation of church and state in some nations allowed new models of society to flourish. But using the era as a premise is problematic. Many of the breakthroughs that Pinker attributes to the Enlightenment actually pre-date it. As Chris Kutarna and I showed in Age of Discovery (Bloomsbury, 2017), the Renaissance was a period of even more dramatic progress in science and the humanities, sparked by luminaries such as the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus and the humanist Erasmus (see P. Ball Nature 452, 816–818; 2008). Before that were extraordinarily innovative epochs in Asia and other regions, such as China’s Tang dynasty (ad 618–907) and the Islamic Golden Age (750–1260).”



In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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