The Nothing That Is Not There and the Everything That Is

Brooke Horvath

The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism, by A.C. Grayling (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013, ISBN 978-1-62040-190-3) 269 pp. Cloth, $26.00.


British philosopher A.C. Grayling must certainly be familiar to many readers of Free Inquiry, for he has long been associated with the new atheism movement, and The God Argument might be read as his summa on the dangerous illogic of religion and the ethical/moral/intellectual superiority of humanism. It might also be read as an ex post facto preface to The Good Book: A Humanist Bible, which he published in 2011. The Good Book received its fair share of praise but struck the unconvinced as “nauseating” and “unreadable” (David Sexton in the Evening Standard) and its author someone who “does not dare to know the world as it is” or seriously to ask “if there is, in fact, a God” (R. J. Snell in First Things). Unpacking the thinking that led to The Good Book’s compilation of secular wisdom, The God Argument might well give Snell pause and Sexton another upset stomach.

Insisting that “the argument against religion is an argument for the liberation of the human mind” from indoctrination and exploitation, superstition and fear, Grayling devotes the first half of The God Argument to “deal[ing] with what religious apologists say in defending themselves” from people like himself—apologists who, Grayling will demonstrate, “often do not have clear ideas, or much agreement among themselves, about what is meant by ‘religion,’ ‘god,’ ‘faith’ and associated concepts.” The eleven chapters of Part One provide working definitions for such concepts as propaedeutic to their dismantling, sketch the psychological and intellectual bases of religious belief, defend rationality and cience as preferred means of knowing things, and expose the flaws in various proofs for the existence of a deity, whether Intelligent Design, ontological arguments that posit the necessity of a perfect being, or cosmological arguments that appeal to a first cause or a necessary guarantor of morality.

Grayling is also the author of An Introduction to Philosophical Logic (1982), and his topic-by-topic rebuttal of religious claims exposes the sundry irrationalities and faulty logic at work in the buttressing of belief. Sometimes, the exercise is less rigorous than amusing, as when we are asked to replace “God” with “Fred” in proscriptions such as “God forbids homosexual acts” as a way of noticing “how much explanatory utility lies in an undefined word”; sometimes greater rigor obtains, as when Grayling rejects Bertrand Russell’s contention that theism cannot be logically disproven by faulting Russell for failing to distinguish between demonstrative and scientific proofs. The religious are variously charged with “cherry-picking” (choosing which biblical passages to insist upon and which to ignore, which to take literally and which to read metaphorically), appeals to ineffability (God is a mystery, too great for our finite minds), and recourse to argumentum ad baculum (God will get you if you don’t walk right). Grayling’s arguments are clear and trenchant, although I suspect deeply committed believers will find them less persuasive than I did, in part because the opposition’s convictions are rather glibly sketched with no major religious thinker more recent than Kierkegaard even mentioned.

Grayling concedes that “serious believers” exist “who find solace and inspiration in their faith, and who do good because of it,” and he also credits religion with inspiring any number of great works of art. He contends, however, that religion’s ills far outweigh its benefits, not least when the faithful turn to religion for moral direction, because religious guidance proves “irrelevant to questions of morality” when not “positively immoral.” Thus, religion, Grayling observes, continues to underwrite angry complaints about “nudity on the cinema screen and teenagers buying the morning-after pill” while those same outraged moralists remain silent regarding, say, the exportation of automatic rifles and cluster bombs. In such circumstances, “religion has little to offer moral debate,” and serious individuals need something better than “anchorite nostrums.” That something is, of course, humanism, the case for which is made in The God Argument’s final eleven chapters.

 

Humanism, argues Grayling, “is the ethical outlook that says each individual is responsible for choosing his or her values and goals and working toward the latter in the light of the former, and is equally responsible for living considerately toward others, with a special view to establishing good relationships at the heart of life, because all good lives are premised on such.” Humanism values “the commonalities” that unite us and make morality and laws possible while at the same time respecting the “wide differences that exist in human nature,” which differences demand tolerance, respect for the rights of others, and the eschewal of any one-size-fits-all life plan. Humanism is, further, “above all about living thoughtfully and intelligently, about rising to the demand to be informed, alert and responsive, about being able to make a sound case for a choice of values and goals, and about integrity in living according to the former and determination in seeking to achieve the latter.”

In the chapters devoted to humanism, Grayling corrects unfortunate assumptions about atheists, responds to complaints that humanists treat the religious disrespectfully, acknowledges religion’s right to exist, and urges humanists to work toward making universal human rights more than an empty United Nations resolution. He devotes useful space to distinguishing between ethics (which concerns “the kind of person one is”) and morality (“the obligations and duties, the constraints and parameters that apply in one’s relationships with others”) and describes seven characteristics of the good life: meaning or purpose; intimate relationships of love and friendship; active “doing, making or learning”; authenticity; autonomy, and the consequent acceptance of responsibility for choices made; beauty; harmonious integrity.

However, The God Argument begins to read a bit like a self-help book when Grayling turns to discuss love and sex (including homosexuality and prostitution), drugs, and death (including abortion and euthanasia): “Looking at love from the perspective of time is instructive. Infatuation can grow into love given time and a dose of life’s realities, which romance by definition lacks.” He has little to say about the aesthetic and ecological dimensions of humanism and speaks only in the broadest terms about its politics, noting that humanists can disagree on specific issues and characterizing secularism as “the institutionalisation of liberalism.”

Although Grayling writes that espousing humanism interests him more than debunking religion, the debunking is performed more energetically, and the chapters devoted to it have more bite. Attempting to cover too much, his account of humanism begins to ramble, and Grayling frequently satisfies himself with assertions of the obvious: antiabortionists privilege the rights of the fetus over the rights of the “present person”; the regulation of drugs is preferable to their prohibition. Occasionally, he is vague: “some theologians,” he informs us, “now interpret biblical references to ‘eternal life’ to mean ‘living in eternity,’” but he is silent on which theologians these are or exactly why they think as they do. Often, he is perfunctory; for instance, mentioning near-death experiences, Grayling tells us only that “the evidence is anecdotal” and “does not relate to death but to an extremely stressful episode in life.” (It is not that I disagree; rather, I find his one-paragraph dismissal of a subject so pertinent to his project disappointingly insufficient.) Sometimes, he is simply unconvincing: if religion has led us to judge rape less odious than masturbation, as Grayling asserts, why are rapists the ones behind bars?

Still, I perhaps forget that Grayling sees his audience as “the general public,” and as such it is an audience that may benefit most from an aerial view of humanism, just as it may benefit from being reminded that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam “derive ultimately from the superstitions of illiterate herdsmen living several thousands of years ago,” that “everybody is an atheist about almost all gods” conjured by our ancestors, and that “one mark of intelligence is an ability to live with as yet unanswered questions.” Reasonably and persuasively, Grayling proposes that a rejection of theism needn’t leave us suicidal in a pointless universe or thrashing about in a frenzy of meaningless sex and endless shopping, unable to find a reason for behaving morally or even for caring what happens further away than down the street. It is possible, he argues, for each of us to behave “like the best of civilized, thoughtful, responsible, considerate “real things of this world”—more than “the imaginary” could ever offer. As Wallace Stevens put it in his great poem “Sunday Morning,” we inhabit an “island solitude, unsponsored, free” and “inescapable.” But “deer,” Stevens adds, “walk upon our mountains,” “quail / Whistle about us their spontaneous cries,” and “sweet berries ripen in the wilderness. . . .”

Is this enough? The freedom? The deer? The berries, however sweet? Maybe so, and maybe, for some, not. But to whistle up a god we believe marks each fallen quail is, Stevens and Grayling concur, simply whistling in the dark.

 

Brooke Horvath

Brooke Horvath’s most recent reviews for FI were of Arlindo Oliveira’s The Digital Mind and Daniel De Nicola’s Understanding Ignorance.


The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism, by A.C. Grayling (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013, ISBN 978-1-62040-190-3) 269 pp. Cloth, $26.00. British philosopher A.C. Grayling must certainly be familiar to many readers of Free Inquiry, for he has long been associated with the new atheism movement, and The God Argument might be read …

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