Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Those amazon reviews...

I checked the amazon page of my OUP Very Short Introduction to Humanism book to see how it has been doing (pure vanity, I know) and spotted the review below. Kind of baffled by it, I actually emailed the reviewer, one Bojan Tunguz, to ask him what he meant when he said I was "dishonest". The resulting correspondence between us is pasted it in below the review [ACTUALLY I HAVE DELETED IT AS IT PROBABLY ISN'T ETHICAL TO REPRODUCE IT].

Bojan, it turns out, is a Croatian now based in Canada. That link provides his biog., which provides some clues as to his general views. etc. I note Bojan has a blog.

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
1.0 out of 5 stars Epic, epic fail, 4 April 2011
Bojan Tunguz "Dr. Bojan Tunguz" (Greencastle, IN USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Humanism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (Paperback)
Imagine you are in a bookstore or are browsing Amazon book pages and you come across a book that aims to introduce you to vegetarianism. The book is published by a reputable academic publishing institution with a long list of similar highly regarded books to its name. You are intrigued. Maybe you are a vegetarian who has never really read up on vegetarianism from an academic perspective. Maybe you are interested in becoming a vegetarian and would like to know more about it. Maybe you have a vegetarian friend, colleague or a loved one and would like to know more about vegetarianism so you can better relate to their lifestyle. Or you could simply be a voracious reader who wants to keep himself well informed on all sorts of subjects. So you buy the book and start reading it, and after a few pages you discover that the book is really not about vegetarianism. Over 90% of the content of the book is dedicated to a polemic on why meat is bad for you, how terrible animal husbandry is, why you shouldn't eat meat, all sorts of dangerous diseases that you can acquire from eating meat, why all the supposedly good things about meat consumption are actually childish superstitions, why butchers are some of the most evil people imaginable, etc., etc. In addition, all the concrete examples of meat-eating avoid any mention of particularly unhealthy fatty red meats, and instead talk mostly about white meat and poultry. After a while you start screaming (hopefully only in your head): OK I GET IT, MEAT IS REALLY, REALLY BAD! COULD WE PLEASE NOW MOVE ONTO DISCUSSING VEGETERIANISM!

The above scenario is exactly what I went through while reading "Humanism: A Very Short Introduction." This book hardly provides any real concrete information on Humanism. The Wikipedia article on Humanism is way more informative. Instead, this short introduction uses almost all of its 141 pages on denouncing religion (and Christianity in particular), theism, God, and all the related topics. Furthermore, the arguments presented in that regard tend to be pretty shallow and familiar to almost anyone who has ever gotten any degree of formal education (of the form that many a college student has encountered in a late-night dorm discussion), the opposing viewpoints are presented in the most straw-man fashion imaginable, on many occasions the author is either intellectually or factually dishonest, and at least two instances he engages in a thinly veiled ad-hominem attacks. The book is written as a polemic, and not as an academic survey that is intended for general audience.

I have read over hundred and sixty of these very short introduction books. For the most part they are really impressive, in terms of both the content and the presentation. I have written an Amazon review for about half of the very short introduction books that I have read, and most of them I have given either four or five stars. So far I have only given a one-star rating to one book, and that was because the book was particularly vague and uninformative. However, even that book for the most part stuck to the topic that it was dealing with. "Humanism," on the other hand, missed its purported topic in the most spectacular way imaginable. If a student of mine turned in a paper that was so off the topic I would have given him or her and automatic F. It is incomprehensible that the editors at the Oxford University Press had such a colossal failure of judgment. I intend to read the upcoming volumes in this series, but I certainly hope that I don't come across books like this one again.

Th review makes familiar suggestions:

(i) the arguments are "straw man" and "shallow". Well, the main argument was recently published in Religious Studies, perhaps the world's best peer reviewed Journal of the Philosophy of Religion. I'd like to see Bojan refute it. I also attack some quite sophisticated variants of theism, such as apophaticism, etc.

(ii) There's an implicit version of the "humanism (my kind at least) is wholly negative" criticism. True the book is polemical. I was asked to write it that way by OUP. It is not supposed to be neutral. It is supposed to argue for humanism. Now the analogy with arguing for vegetarianism is perhaps a poor choice from Bojan, as any book arguing for vegetarianism is going to be arguing against eating meat. So, by analogy, arguing for humanism will involve arguing against religious belief. But actually humanism is not just atheism and the book goes on to explain the various positive views associated with humanism. But of course it does spend time refuting various religious arguments against humanist views. It would be odd not to deal with those arguments given that critics will inevitably raise them in response. [ps see comments below for list of various positive views in the book)

(iii) I am accused of dishonesty etc. Without any evidence at all being supplied (and none was forthcoming in the correspondence).

So I don't think it's v fair but I am sure others will take a different view. Comments welcome...

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