This will cause no stir, Lloyd Geering

Honest to Goodness
Humanist Society of New Zealand, $10

This is a collection of short essays, published to celebrate the twenty‑fifth anniversary of the foundation of the Humanist Society of New Zealand.

Jim Dakin provides a useful sketch of the history of the Society. Wayne Facer sketches the humanist standpoint by offering a talk on the nature of Humanism, originally broadcast on NZBC in 1967.

Other essays deal with topics which have been of particular interest to Humanists, such as euthanasia, moral education, the defence of secular education, and children’s rights. One little essay pays homage to Sir Karl Popper, whom the Humanist Society proudly claims as one of its patrons.

The two which I found the most interesting are the more personal ones in which Jack Shallcrass and Anne Ferguson quite simply describe their own pilgrimage to humanism from an early upbringing in conventional church life. Personal stories often tell us more about humanism than do the more philosophical attempts to describe it.

The title Honest to Goodness echoes Bishop John Robinson’s Honest to God, which caused such a stir in 1963 just prior to the foundation of the Humanist Society of NZ. This book, however, will cause no stir. This is partly because some of the material here disappoints in its lack of both depth and freshness.

But it also reflects a problem being faced by organized humanism. In spite of an increasing number of people in New Zealand becoming humanist in their attitude to life and religion (even though many may never have heard of the word), there is very little inclination shown by the general public to join the Humanist Society or even promote humanist principles in society. Humanists have much the same problem as that faced by the church organizations of which they are justifiably critical.

The battle for freedom of thought, for which the humanists of the past fought so hard, is now largely won. People are no longer indoctrinated by outmoded religious dogma to the degree they were a century ago. Now we face the task of promoting positive human values in a society which is very diverse in its beliefs and often apathetic. This is a much more difficult assignment. It is good to see that a small body such as the Humanists can at least produce a little book of this kind. it is a pity, however, that the humanist concerns have not been expressed with more verbal power, freshness and sense of urgency. It is these qualities which made Honest to God a world’s best‑seller!

 

Lloyd Geering is Emeritus Professor of World Religions at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

 

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