A.C. Grayling is a British philosopher, writer and occasional TV personality. He’s the Master of the slightly controversial New College of the Humanities in London, a private university college with high fees that’s independent of government finance. He’s written a huge number of books, but he’s becoming best known for his stand against religion and his promotion of a philosophy of humanism to stand in its place, a pair of concerns that this book essentially seeks to codify.
In this, Grayling is very much in the spirit of the times. Although most UK people resort to a church service to commemorate birth, marriage and death, I know almost nobody there who employs Christian theology in their daily life. I don’t mean that they aren’t kind or don’t contribute to charities. What I mean is that they don’t openly talk about what Jesus might think when they’re buying shares, educating their children, deciding where to go for their holidays, and so on.
In particular — and this probably applies to the far more church-going US just as much as it does to the UK — almost no scientist takes God into consideration when pondering the solution to a problem. Physicists writing about the origins of the universe, or biologists considering evolution, don’t bring God into the argument, even the Sunday-morning proponents of “intelligent design.”
Many of us display a form of schizophrenia on the matter. When on holiday in the country (it rarely happens in cities) we might give some credence to the possibility of an old house being haunted, but this is very much a holiday amusement. When back at work, and investigating what’s gone wrong with our computer, or considering what’s caused a plane crash, no one takes into account the possibility that a spirit has got into the works and is responsible for the problem.
It therefore seems to me that the Christian religious observance that remains does so as a residue of former belief systems. We attend churches, if we do, in order to maintain some sense of community, or to justify our sexual self-repression, but the creeds we are happy to recite there do not, in reality, affect our everyday lives in any significant ways.
What Grayling is calling for is a clearing away of the clutter, and the consistent application of non-religious ethical principles to all aspects of life. In order to do this, he invokes a long tradition, both Western and Eastern, of secular philosophical thought, a tradition of thinking that, he says, is just as old as the religious one, but which has received far less attention. In Europe it began with the Greeks and Romans, was revived in the Renaissance, and received an extra boost in the 18th century Enlightenment.
In past times substantial numbers of men believed what priests and mythmakers told them. The world required some sort of explanation, and there weren’t any others on offer. But then, after centuries of religious wars over such issues as whether or not the bread and wine actually changed into the body and blood of Jesus in the mass, some skeptics decided to test whatever they could, and only believe what could be repeatedly verified by experiment. Thus was born, in late 17th century Europe, the “scientific method.” The moon was there because we could see it, and later bounce phone messages off it, but the Holy Ghost was not susceptible to any such demonstration.