But what about the Bible, the religious asked. Simply a collection of old Jewish documents, came the reply. And those who claimed the literal truth for every verse received the response that what they were dealing with anyway were translations, and that even the originals had been selected or rejected for inclusion by early Christian committees. And the same applied, with appropriate variations, to most other religions.
The first half of Grayling’s book is a refutation of the claims that have been made for God’s existence. Some of it is quite technical — you should make sure you understand the meaning of terms like “contingent” before sitting down to read it. The second, more interesting, half is about humanism, the beliefs espoused by such sages as Confucius, Cicero, Voltaire, and many more (though I found the presence of Christopher Hitchens at the tail end of the list rather risible).
From here Grayling proceeds to examine modern social issues from this non-religious perspective, and this is the most interesting section of all. Prostitution should be tolerated, he argues, as should drugs (with the same controls as alcohol and tobacco), abortion, homosexuality and euthanasia.
This is all very well, I thought as I ended this book. The only problem is that the world of science and reason has no institutions — no pagodas, no monasteries, no temple dances. Are most people in the world able to live without such sustenance?
And I remembered an afternoon when I was a boy, when my family and I drove up to a small rural chapel somewhere in the French Massif Central. The only other buildings visible were a couple of distant farms. There was no one inside, but the sunlight shone in through a window, some candles burned silently in one corner, flowers stood on a side-altar and a painted wooden Christ hung on his cross. Despite this last item, the place seemed older than Christianity itself, and probably there had been a temple there in Roman times.
What can rationalism substitute for this, or for Balinese temple dance, or Buddhist contemplation? There was an attempt at a Festival of Reason in Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral during the French Revolution, and Red Guards tore down temples as recently as the 1970s, but somehow atheism has never caught on. Are euthanasia clinics really any substitute for that simple chapel?
I’d be all in favor of a pacifist religion, and of the most permissive social policies. But no religion at all? Professor Grayling made me think, but he also made me wonder.