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Review of: Humanism, What’s That?

Review of Humanism, What’s That? (2006)

Review: Helen Bennett. 2005. Humanism, What’s That? A Book for Curious Kids. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. 77 pp.

When Mrs. Green and her apparently Christian students receive news that their “popular” classmate has been struck by an automobile and hospitalized, Jesse, a young Red-baiting anti-Semite, suggests that the class pray for her swift recovery. Mrs. Green explains to Jesse that the class may not pray as a group because of the Constitution and because dissenting children might feel shunned or bullied.

“But all good people are religious [and] believe in God,” another student protests. At that, Mrs. Green seizes her opportunity and begins to drill! drill! drill! her students on the innumerable, undeniable, and supposedly unmitigated virtues of Humanism, a collection of philosophies that the author seems to believe can transform soiled water into sublime wine.

In Humanism, What’s That?, former teacher and librarian, Helen Bennett, lectures and preaches to her young readers on a variety of subjects from metaphysics to natural rights theory, foreign policy to criminal justice, and evolution to abortion rights. Those searching for philosophical confirmation will undoubtedly approve, but in the end, Bennett’s text is a dissatisfying blend of fiction without the fun, and facts without the footnotes.

As a story, this book was stillborn. The author’s writing style is mechanical and antiseptic. As a result, so are her characters. Aside from Jesse’s evident bigotry, not one of the six children was given a personality with which a reader might identify, and not one line of dialogue betrays the slightest hint of internal confliction. The students’ queries are insipid and robotic, clearly intended only as platforms from which the teacher can launch herself into yet another self-aggrandizing sermon.

Bennett virtually ignores the most fundamental elements of effective storytelling. Although we know that these conversations take place in a schoolroom, the reader is never enlightened as to the finer details of this story’s setting. Nor should the reader expect even a modicum of stimulation from the anemic plot, the vast majority of which consists of rarely intriguing and all too frequently unresponsive dialogue. From an aesthetic perspective, Bennett’s book is pathetically unentertaining, and in the end, a tale of wholly unrealized potential.

As an educational endeavor, the text subsists but never thrives. Rational parents will be pleased that the author encourages children to trust in their classmate’s doctors rather than in prayer. Perhaps most commendable, however, is the author’s repeated insistence that “[k]nowledge is never bad,” despite the Bible’s admonishments to the contrary. At times, Bennett’s alter ego, Mrs. Green, is refreshingly yet appropriately candid with her students, revealing religious dogma’s propensity to cause unnecessary suffering and death.

When Jesse condemns Jews as being “bad people because they killed Christ,” Mrs. Green explains that persons should not be blamed for the actions of their ancestors. She then contrasts that moral truism with the behavior of the God of Abraham, who was often “cruel,” punishing people “who weren’t even there when a crime was committed.” Elsewhere, the teacher draws a contextually effective distinction between some religionists’ claim that God loves humans and the Bible’s judgment that defiant children deserve corporal or even capital punishment.

The author’s brief history lessons are mildly informative, though hardly inspiring. In the beginning, the children are told that humans invented gods in an effort to explain and control nature, and that such gods were often assigned specific human attributes. Later, Bennett opines that the history of Humanism began with the pre-Socratics, namely Protagoras. At that point, she tediously catalogs the names of nearly two dozen famous freethinkers, but one wonders whether young readers would be more interested in the stirring yet tragic story of how Protagoras was indicted for blasphemy but escaped, only to drown while swimming to Sicily.

Slightly more appealing were Bennett’s brief descriptions of organized religion’s less ancient atrocities. Bruno, Servetus, and Joan of Arc were incinerated for their heresies. Spinoza was ostracized and Galileo persecuted. Significantly, the author discloses that the Church has since been forced to confess to at least some of its ruinous blunders.

But from a purely educational perspective, the most promising portion of Bennett’s text is the four-page appendix of “Discussion Questions.” While any one of these exercises might inspire extraordinary thought and conversation, a parent or teacher might decide to begin with the first, which asks children to contrast typically Humanist beliefs with the Christian doctrine of original sin. Such a discussion might prompt a child to question further whether people are innately bad, and whether they really need religious dogma, the threat of eternal damnation in particular, in order to be moral.

Readers are also asked to discuss Humanism’s affirmation of gender equality (although, in the main text, the author exposes her own prejudice in that regard). Do concerned people have a right (might others say a duty?) to interfere with inherently unjust or violent religious beliefs? Should some television programs or video games be avoided for promoting poor values? These are all important questions, of course, but any teacher or parent could easily initiate such discussions without the benefit of Bennett’s direction.

At times, the author’s claims are plainly erroneous. When asked whether boys should be allowed to cry, Bennett overreaches, proclaiming without qualification that everyone should be allowed to “express their emotions freely,” apparently overlooking the potentially destructive nature of anger, jealousy, and hatred. In another context, she tells the children that Jesus was a “great teacher,” ignoring the fact that many respected scholars now question whether Jesus ever existed in the first place.

In other instances, Bennett encourages the same irrationality that many Humanists take pride in rejecting. She advocates a convenient, unsupportable theory of natural rights. Then, without providing any justification for doing so, the author encourages her readers to think of God as a “symbol.” The author claims that God now stands for everything “loving, good, [and] giving,” gainsaying her previous characterization of Yahweh as a “cruel” proponent of child molestation.

Perhaps most indefensible, however, is Bennett’s Pollyannaish and dogmatic exaltation of Humanism’s adherents to near god-like status. The children are told that “all” humanists are “highly ethical,” that they can “solve any problem,” and would “never deliberately bully, tease, or hurt anyone’s feelings.” Humanists “just meditate and try to do good,” and in case readers haven’t heard, compared to all religious people, Humanists are “more tolerant of views not their own.”

Finally, the author confuses her young readers as to one of the book’s central messages. At the end of the text, Bennett avers that “some Humanists do believe in God.” But throughout she has already explained that humans invented God, that Humanists do not believe in the divinity of Jesus, and that, in fact, “they don’t believe that God exists.” By confounding her audience in this way, the author creates a problem that otherwise might not have existed.

One might be tempted to critique this book positively simply because it promotes some better than average sentiments. But philosophy alone is insufficient. Execution, by contrast, is crucial. Bennett obligated herself to the difficult task of entertainment when she decided to write a children’s story. Similarly, she obligated herself to clarity, consistency, and accuracy when she chose to enlighten young people. As an author, then, she failed to discharge her responsibilities.

And one might be inclined to defend Bennett’s text simply because of its status as a children’s book. But implied in such a bequest would be the ridiculous notion that “curious kids” ought to be satisfied with a lesser literary standard. This is precisely the attitude that concerned, rational adults must resist if they intend to fashion a safer and more inclusive future for their children and beyond.

Containing some potentially valuable information and tools, Bennett’s text might be helpful to some parents. But they ought to be aware of its occasional tendency to encourage irrational and otherwise shallow thinking. At times, the author elevates “tolerance” to the extreme level of intellectual and moral paralysis. Elsewhere, she betrays a desperate dogmatism. At other times, she simply gets it wrong.

Copyright ©2006 Kenneth Krause and Internet Infidels, Inc. All rights reserved.

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