Mafra Palace Library
On this page we share our monthly book review as published in the magazine, and we also list eight selected book titles. These books are not exclusively related to Humanism, and some are viewed as adding to, or even challenging, the overall lexicon of thought and values that are important to the Humanist dialogue.
Book Review by David Warden
David Warden provides our monthly book review, and this month he reviews
‘The Good State: On the Principles of Democracy ’ (2020) by
A. C. Grayling
A. C. Grayling is Master of the New College of the Humanities in London, a Vice President of Humanists UK, a Patron of Dignity in Dying and our foremost philosopher of Humanism.
Humanists often think philosophically about the nature of ‘the good life’. In this book, a sequel to Democracy and Its Crisis (2017), A. C. Grayling thinks incisively about the nature of ‘the good state’.
It’s no secret that Grayling is motivated by deep concern about what he sees as the failings of our ‘Westminster Model’ of democracy. He believes that its weaknesses resulted in Brexit – an outcome he deplores.
One of Grayling’s distinctive arguments, both in this book and in his interview with David Brittain, is that ‘politics is too often the enemy of government – at least of good government’ and he argues that ‘government has to be drained of politics as far as possible’.
Politicians are so reviled nowadays it’s tempting to agree. But it seems evident to me that this is why a majority of voters rejected membership of the European Union. It was precisely because the EU seeks to drain governance of politics and, ipso facto, effectively place it beyond the reach of democracy. Jean-Claude Juncker, when he was President of the European Commission, said ‘There can be no democratic choice against European treaties’. It is this high disdain for politics and democracy which resulted in Brexit. Politics is the lifeblood of democracy.
Grayling is opposed to our ‘first past the post’ system, arguing that ‘a voter supporting a losing candidate is unrepresented in such a system’. Constitutionally, this is untrue. MPs are expected to represent the interests of all their constituents in Parliament whether they voted for him/her or not. Grayling deplores our ‘duopoly’ of parties taking turns at ‘one-party rule’. He believes that we should adopt a system of proportional representation which, by producing coalition government, would ‘reduce the political nature of government’. Our experience of coalition government of 2010-2015 and especially the chaotic hung Parliament of 2017-2019 do not seem to me to have resulted in ‘depoliticised government’.
Grayling is a superb philosopher but it’s difficult to resist the conclusion that this book is an elitist manifesto against what, following Plato, he scornfully calls ‘ochlocracy’ – rule by the ignorant mob. Democracy is fine, he seems to be arguing, as long as it is practised by a wise elite insulated from the messy conflicts of politics. The most famous democratic response to that argument is ‘No, No, No.’
Watch David Brittain's exclusive interview with
Professor A C Grayling here
Some selected books for your consideration
At Humanistically Speaking we feel that book ownership brings two universal truths with it. The first is that each book is personal to the individual, and the second follows on from the first, in that, if someone is daft enough, or worse opinionated enough, to list their 'best books', then it's near certain that there will be some form of response.
Here is our current selection of titles, including two that provide some additional in-depth anlaysis to support the main theme of this month's magazine - democracy.
Democracy for Sale
Democracy under threat? How might our current system fail? What will bring it down?
The answer, it turns out, has been hiding in plain sight for years. It has three components. The first is the massive concentration of corporate power and private wealth that’s been under way since the 1970s, together with a corresponding increase in inequality, social exclusion and polarisation in most western societies; the second is the astonishing penetration of “dark money” into democratic politics; and the third is the revolutionary transformation of the information ecosystem in which democratic politics is conducted – a transformation that has rendered the laws that supposedly regulated elections entirely irrelevant to modern conditions.
These threats to democracy have long been visible to anyone disposed to look for them. For example, Lawrence Lessig’s Republic, Lost and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money explained how a clique of billionaires has shaped and perverted American politics. And in the UK, Martin Moore’s landmark study Democracy Hacked showed how, in the space of just one election cycle, authoritarian governments, wealthy elites and fringe hackers figured out how to game elections, bypass democratic processes and turn social networks into battlefields.
Democracy and It's Crisis
Two recent developments, Professor Grayling asserts, indicate that “something has gone seriously wrong in the state of democracy”: Britain’s Brexit referendum, in which, by the author’s account, a minority partisan group superseded the interests of the entire polity, and the election of Donald Trump, the product of an outmoded Electoral College system that had the same effect.
As the author notes, democracy is not just the notion that the people are the source of consent to govern and the ultimate sovereigns, but the arrangement of constitutional accords and institutions so that everyone’s interest is represented, along with guarantees of civil liberties and a strong commitment to the rule of law and the idea that the law applies equally to everyone. “Each vote should have equal weight,” Grayling ventures, noting that in both the U.S. and Britain, as well as elsewhere, this foundational principle is under attack.
Surveying ancient ideas of democracy and their reformulation in the contending philosophies of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, among others, Grayling examines the benefits and contradictions of popular sovereignty—which, he notes, really means in the U.K. that the Parliament is sovereign, since “there is no power in the land—not the Crown, not the courts—which can overrule it, other than itself.” In this respect, the American system of checks and balances is more than a nicety. Grayling concludes his argument, lucid if at times a touch technical, with specific recommendations for reform, including “complete transparency about the funding involved in an election campaign” and universal suffrage at the age of 16—as well as mandatory voting
The God Delusion
Richard Dawkins is an internationally acclaimed author and a committed Humanist.
The God Delusion caused a sensation when it was published in 2006. Within weeks it became the most hotly debated topic, with Dawkins himself branded as either saint or sinner for presenting his hard-hitting, impassioned rebuttal of religion of all types.
His argument could hardly be more topical. While Europe is becoming increasingly secularized, the rise of religious fundamentalism, whether in the Middle East or Middle America, is dramatically and dangerously dividing opinion around the world.
In America, and elsewhere, a vigorous dispute between 'intelligent design' and Darwinism is seriously undermining and restricting the teaching of science. In many countries religious dogma from medieval times still serves to abuse basic human rights such as women's and gay rights. And all from a belief in a God whose existence lacks evidence of any kind.
Is Nothing Sacred
We call many things sacred, from cows, churches and paintings to flags and burial grounds. Is it still meaningful to talk of things being sacred, or is the idea merely a relic of a bygone religious age? Does everything - and every life - have its price?
Is Nothing Sacred? is a stimulating and wide-ranging debate about some of the major moral dilemmas facing us today, such as the value of human life, art, the environment, and personal freedom.
Packed with clearly presented controversial issues, we are asked to decide whether we should revere life when someone chooses to die, preserve the giant California redwoods, cherish Vermeer's originals for their own sake, or curtail personal freedom for the greater good. Ronald Dworkin argues that the concept of the scared is essential to any human ethics, and Simon Blackburn explains why he thinks 'a humanist should not feel guilty at the emotions of awe and reverence that can be inspired by great religious works of art. Throughout, the idea of the sacred in a secular age is hotly debated amongst the authors and put to the test: should it be abandoned altogether, or does it still have something to teach us?
Is Nothing Sacred? brings together outstanding philosophers and thinkers, including Suzanne Uniacke, Michael Clark, Alan Holland, Simon Blackburn, Richard Dawkins, Richard Norman, Alan Howarth, Nigel Warburton, Matthew Kieran and John Harris.
God created Humanism
For those that might be interested in the relationship between Humanism and Christianity, this book attempts an insightful study as to how the two have been painted with a false dichotomy.
In this compelling account of the origins and evolution of our secular worldview, Theo Hobson shows how Christian values continue to underpin our public morality, how faith remains indispensable to Western humanism, and how atheistic humanism represents a dead end.
At the same time, he offers a timely warning against the dangers of a religious-secular culture war, given the radically politicized and destructive forms of religion endemic in the world today. Here is a fresh and provocative argument about religion and politics but one that doesn t fit into the normal boxes. It suggests that although the public creed of the West is best described as secular humanism we can only really understand and affirm secular humanism if we see how firmly it is based on Christian norms and values. If we don't, the West is divided: mired in a stagnant stand-off between fundamentalist atheism and an equally hard-line Christian theism.
This book offers a more nuanced and historically more persuasive way forward, showing just how much our secular morality owes to Christianity, and how it can only find coherence through a new and positive view of its origins.
Atheism for Kids
Atheism For Kids tackles these questions head-on, in a fun and beautifully-illustrated book written for children who are exploring religious ideas in an increasingly secular world.Atheism For Kids asks open-ended and non-judgmental questions about religion, with suggestions for how we might choose to live if we opt for an atheist or humanist lifestyle instead.
An indispensable guide for anybody parenting atheist children or interested in explaining religion to children, this book:
Encourages critical and evidence-based thinking.
Offers the foundations for a moral and spiritual framework outside of religion.
Promotes key humanist values including tolerance and compassion for all, regardless of religious background or experience.
Atheism for Kids was written alongside the British National Curriculum, and is ideal for home educators or those teaching atheism in schools
The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being
This wonderful book could easily be called 'How to Build a Human', as it takes the grand unifying ideas of biology and synthesises them into a manual of development from conception to birth. Each one of us starts our tenure on Earth as a single cell, and ends up as 100 trillion (or so), all specialised for function.
Alice Roberts takes you on the most incredible journey, revealing your path from a single cell to a complex embryo to a living, breathing, thinking person. It's a story that connects us with our distant ancestors and an extraordinary, unlikely chain of events that shaped human development and left a mark on all of us.
The author uses the latest research to uncover the evolutionary history hidden in all of us, from the secrets found only in our embryos and genes - including why as embroyos we have what look like gills - to those visible in your anatomy. This is a tale of discovery, exploring why and how we have developed as we have. This is your story, told as never before.
100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo sapiens.
How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables and consumerism? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?
In Sapiens, Dr Yuval Noah Harari spans the whole of human history, from the very first humans to walk the earth to the radical – and sometimes devastating – breakthroughs of the Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions. Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, paleontology and economics, he explores how the currents of history have shaped our human societies, the animals and plants around us, and even our personalities. Have we become happier as history has unfolded? Can we ever free our behaviour from the heritage of our ancestors? And what, if anything, can we do to influence the course of the centuries to come?