Secular Humanism’s Poet Laureate

Rob Boston

Karma, Dharma, Pudding & Pie, by Philip Appleman, illustrated by Arnold Roth (New York: Quantuck Lane Press, 2009, ISBN 978-1-593720360) 96 pp. Cloth $24.95.


Like any good secular humanist, I enjoy reading the latest jeremiads by Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and others. Tomes about the ongoing depredations of the Religious Right are also welcome, and I’m always up for another historical work about the time religious extremists did x, y, and z.

But there are times when something else is called for—something that speaks to our more artistic side, something a bit more subtle, something satirical, something poetical. That’s where Philip Appleman comes in.

If there had been any doubt about Appleman’s ascension as the poet of secular humanism, it is erased by his latest volume, Karma, Dharma, Pudding & Pie. This new collection of fewer than one hundred pages of satirical verse finds Appleman in top form. Now eighty-three, Appleman continues to skewer those who take their faith a bit too seriously, much to the delight of his readers.

For added enjoyment, the volume is illustrated by Arnold Roth, whose work has graced the pages of The New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy, and other publications. You may not recognize the name, but I can almost guarantee you that once you see the drawings, you’ll say to yourself, “Oh, yeah—that guy!” Appleman could not have been paired with a more appropriate illustrator.

While much of the work is satirical and humorous, Appleman is always careful to make a larger point. Consider the poem “Reading the Headlines” from the section of the book titled “Bible 101.” The first stanza reads:

Lusty priests paw kids in dusty Texas.
In floral Florida, where love goes oral,
Preachers grope the organs of their organists:
Oh, why can’t pious people just be moral?

The book is divided into four sections. In the fourth part, Appleman explores a topic he knows a good bit about—evolution. Appleman, who edited a Norton critical edition of Darwin’s works in 2001, has written several poems about the conflict between religion and science. Six more gems are found in the “Darwin 101” section of Karma, Dharma. One of my favorites is the book’s concluding work, “Intelligent? Design?” Set to the tune of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, the poem’s theme will be familiar to anyone sliding into middle age (or being dragged in kicking and screaming) who notices that things just don’t work as well as they used to:

Your eyes have seen a blurry scene
That’s only known to man:
Your optic nerves are backward and
Have been since time began.
That’s what the preachers tell you is
God’s very special plan:
Intelligent Design!

Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!
Making-do will have to do ya.
Beware the swindlers who voodoo ya
With Intelligent Design!

If an Intelligent Designer exists, I want to chat with him about a possible warranty.

A few of these poems have graced the pages of Free Inquiry in the past, and you may have encountered Appleman’s works in other humanist journals. Don’t miss this chance to obtain some of his best work in one volume. The poems are brilliant, and the artwork is a gas. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll think.

One more thought about Karma, Dharma: Quantuck Lane Press, a division of W.W. Norton & Co., saw fit to publish the book as a tall, narrow hardback. It was a smart move because more space is allowed for the drawings. At a time when publishers are shedding staff and desperately looking for ways to cut corners in the face of an unrelenting economic downturn, it’s nice to be reminded that quality still counts to some.

Rob Boston

Rob Boston is senior policy analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C.


Karma, Dharma, Pudding & Pie, by Philip Appleman, illustrated by Arnold Roth (New York: Quantuck Lane Press, 2009, ISBN 978-1-593720360) 96 pp. Cloth $24.95. Like any good secular humanist, I enjoy reading the latest jeremiads by Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and others. Tomes about the ongoing depredations of the Religious Right are also welcome, and …

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