Book review: The God Argument

A.C. Grayling, a British philosopher TV personality, believes we can get along just fine without religion because the philosophy of humanism can take its place — a view, writes Bradley Winterton, that’s debatable

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Tue, Jun 18, 2013 - Page 12

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.

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.