To be a humanist in the early 21st century might seem to require as least as much faith as to be religious. Belief in either a benevolent deity or the fundamental goodness of humankind does not sit well with knowledge of what we have done over history to ourselves and the planet. The horrors of colonialism, Nazism, Stalinism and the Cultural Revolution, the mass abuse of animals in factory farms, the destruction of the natural environment, indifference to the coming catastrophes of climate change – all these and more could be cited as evidence against the idea of humanity’s progress.
This dim view of humanity has become the new common sense, at least among those who fancy themselves to be intellectuals. As Sarah Bakewell says, ‘The idea that humans somehow oozed evil took up residence in the cultural atmosphere. Any seemingly civilised or cultured behaviour … now looked like a mendacious veneer.’ Yet in Humanly Possible, Bakewell sets out to show that this fashionable pessimism is deeply misguided. She argues that for seven centuries, the humanist values of freethinking, enquiry and hope have inspired the best that European culture has had to offer.
Humanism is such an amorphous idea that Bakewell’s project risks a lack of focus. But she embraces the concept’s heterogeneity, arguing that humanism’s diverse forms are ‘linked by multicoloured but meaningful threads’. For her, the key criterion for being a humanist is that you focus on human well-being,