Anthony Grayling has a new pro-humanism and anti-religion book available now in the U.S. on Kindle for $15.39 (£9.78 in the UK) and, in the U.S, after Mar. 14 in hardback for a price to be determined (you can order it now in the UK for £10.78):
The Amazon site gives a summary:
There have in recent years been a number of books – notably those by Christopher Hitchens, Richards Dawkins and Sam Harris – that have taken issue with religion and argued against it. Both sides in the debate have expressed themselves acerbically because there is a very great deal at stake. The God Argument thoroughly and calmly examines all the arguments and associated considerations offered in support of religious belief, and does so fully aware of the reasons people have for subscribing to religion, and the needs they seek to satisfy by doing so. And because it takes account of all the issues, its solutions carry great weight. In the first part of the book, Grayling asks: What are the arguments for and against religion and religious belief right across the range of reasons and motives that people have for being religious, and do they stand up to scrutiny? Can there be a clear, full statement of these arguments which once and for all will show what is at stake in this debate? In the second half of the book he asks: What is the alternative to religion as a view of the world and a foundation for morality? Is there a world-view and a code of life for thoughtful people who wish to live with intellectual integrity, based on reason, evidence and a desire to do and be good that does not interfere with people’s right to their own beliefs and freedom of expression? The God Argument is the definitive examination of these questions, and a statement of the humanist outlook that recommends itself as the ethics of the genuinely reflective person.
I’ll be reading this book, for Grayling writes well and I’m interested in learning about the secular/philosophical grounds of morality and “purpose.” The book clearly won’t satisfy those accommodationists like Alain de Boton who argue that we must replace religion with more than secular mores and activities, but I don’t agree with them, for a purely secular replacement has worked well in Europe.
At any rate, there’s a mixed (but mostly negative) review of Grayling’s book in The New Statesman by Bryan Appleyard. (Appleyard is a British journalist who writes widely for the newspapers, has a new book out (The Brain is Wider than the Sky: Why Simple Solutions Don’t Work in a Complex World), and has a website in which he spends some of his time time dissing Dawkins and kissing up to religion. Appleyard would not have been my choice to review a book on the problems with faith.
His review is mixed, and since I haven’t read Grayling’s book I won’t comment on his assessment, but instead want to show how Appleyard uses his review to go after New Atheism.
Appleyard begins with praise (note that Grayling has apparently engaged the arguments of Sophisticated Theologians™):
The book is in two halves – the first is Grayling’s case against religion; the second outlines the humanist alternative, which is “an ethics free from religious or superstitious aspects, an outlook that has its roots in rich philosophical traditions”. First, to take the book on its own terms, this is a lucid, informative and admirably accessible account of the atheist-secular-humanist position. Grayling writes with pace and purpose and provides powerful – though non-lethal – ammunition for anybody wishing to shoot down intelligent theists such as Alvin Plantinga or to dispatch even the most sophisticated theological arguments, such as the ontological proof of the existence of God.
But after the roses, the brickbats:
There is also an irritating and highly self-serving argument that appears in various forms throughout the book. This seems to be an attempt to delegitimise all religious discourse. “Atheism,” Grayling writes, “is to theism as not stamp-collecting is to stamp-collecting.” In other words, not to be a stamp collector “denotes only the open-ended and negative state of not collecting stamps”. Equally, not being a theist is not a positive condition; it merely says this person “does not even begin to enter the domain of discourse in which these beliefs have their life and content”. The word “atheist”, therefore, is misleading; the phrase “militant atheist” doubly so.
This is silly. First, “militant atheist” is a phrase that Grayling justifies by his talk of comrades and causes. If he really believes this argument, he shouldn’t have written this book. Second, this is a transparent ruse to get the four (or five) horsemen off the charge that they write about religion while knowing nothing of theology. If religion is treated as a child-like superstition – like the belief in fairies – then there is no need to understand it in detail and, of course, this particular superstition is also dangerous and should therefore be exposed as well as refuted, if not in detail.
I am not sure what Appleyard is banging on about here. “Militant” has nothing to do with dismissing the truth claims of religion or pointing out its dangers; it’s an adjective used by people like Appleyard to dismiss New Atheism without addressing its claims. (See Grayling’s previous dismissal of that adjective.) The only “militant” atheists I know are ones who try to promote their views with undue hostility or even violence—i.e., almost nobody. How come we never hear the terms “militant Labour party member” or “militant Democrat”? Political views are, after all, often held with as much tenacity as religious ones. “Militant” is reserved for “atheists” because religion is supposed to be treated differently from other views: off limits to criticism. And that’s what Grayling—and many of us—wants to dispel.
Further, in many ways religion is a childlike superstition, except worse. Who can see Catholic penitents flogging their backs, or Orthodox Jews davening in schul, expressing joy that they weren’t born female, or Pentecostals speaking in tongues, or Catholics genuflecting or nomming wafers, without thinking, “My God, what a stupid, childish thing to do!” The only difference between belief in Santa belief in Jesus is that the latter is overlain with tenets morality and behavior, most of them either nonsensical or, when decent, promoted by secular reason as well.
Finally, the New Atheists are not ignorant about theology. After all, Appleyard himself admits that Grayling’s book gives ammunition against the arguments of Plantinga and other sophisticated theologians. I’ve read a lot of Plantinga, and he is certainly considered a Sophisticated Theologian™ even though he’s a deeply miguided sophist. I’m quite sure, from reading Grayling’s earlier works, that he’s sufficiently acquainted with “good” theology (an oxymoron) to criticize it.
Over the past year and a half I myself have waded through the morass of Sophisticated Theology™, and have found it dire and laden with bad argument. I have read Plantinga, Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, Augustine, Aquinas, and modern “science-friendly” theologians like Barbour, Haught, Polkinghorne, Swinburne, and the like. Take my word for it—there’s nothing there beyond the use of fancy words to justify beliefs arrived at in advance. There are no new or convincing arguments for God or what he’s like, no reasons why we should see scripture as historically true, no convincing ways to distinguish what theologians see as real facts about Jesus or Mohamed from metaphors, no way to parse out the “good” moral dicta from the bad ones. It all conforms to Michael Shermer’s characterization, in Why People Believe Weird Things (p. 299):
Smart people, because they are more intelligent and better educated, are better able to give intellectual reasons justifying their beliefs that they arrived at for non-intellectual reasons. Yet smart people, like everyone else, recognize that emotional needs and being raised to believe something are how most of us most of the time come to our beliefs. The intellectual attribution bias then kicks in, especially in smart people, to justify those beliefs, no matter how weird they may be.
I’ve just saved you years of having to read Sophisticated Theology™. But Appleyard gets worse:
You may agree with this but consider the implications of where Grayling’s argument leads. He writes that the “respect agenda” – the tolerance of religious beliefs – is at an end. Is that really where atheists want to go?
Grayling is right: the “respect agenda”—the misguided notion that religious beliefs deserve “respect” from atheists—is at an end. And yes, I do want to go there. No belief deserves respect simply because it derives from superstition, and religious beliefs aren’t credible in any event. But Appleyard mistakes “respect” for “tolerance.” I tolerate religious beliefs in the sense I don’t want to censor them nor belittle someone solely because he holds them. But I won’t “respect” religious views, just as I won’t automatically respect the political beliefs of Republicans.
Appleyard ends by arguing that religion isn’t really about beliefs, but about stories and morals. (He’s wrong, by the way, as I’ve found by reading many theologians who argue that without epistemic grounding, such as the Resurrection or Mohamed’s status as Allah’s messenger, religion is worthless. And of course many regular believers feel that way, too):
The idea, advanced in this book, that [secular humanism] could and should become a world ideology is both wildly improbable and extremely dubious. Like it or not, religions are here to stay.
Nope; it wasn’t there to stay in much of Europe, and is waning in America as well. But I digress:
Religious faith is not remotely like the belief in fairies; it is a series of stories of immense political, poetic and historical power that are – again, like it or not – deeply embedded in human nature. Seen in that light, to dismiss all religious discourse as immature or meaningless is to embrace ignorance or, more alarmingly, to advocate suppression. It will also make it impossible for you to understand the St Matthew Passion, Chartres Cathedral and the films of Andrei Tarkovsky.
St. Matthew’s Passion and Chartres are not “religious discourse”: they are artistic expressions of religious faith (and power), and I do appreciate their beauty. But it doesn’t enhance their beauty to realize that unfounded superstition motivated their creation. Nor do any of us, including Grayling, want to suppress religious discourse. We want to counter it with our arguments. “Religious discourse” is theology, professional or amateur, and the dangerous morality that flows from such superstitions.
The broad point is that Grayling, like the other horsemen, goes too far. He narrowly defines religion as a system of physical beliefs and then says such a system has nothing to offer the world. When another atheist, Alain de Botton, gently suggested that non-believers might have something to learn from religion, he was immediately trampled on by the horsemen. But what religion has to offer is a great mountain of insights into the human realm. Belief, in this context, is beside the point. Reading John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, the Fire Sermon or the Sermon on the Mount will teach you more about the human condition than anything written by the horsemen.
People like Appleyard, who tout religion’s “great mountain of insights into the human realm,” always fail to tell us what those insights are, nor how you distinguish them from the immoral or dangerous chaff of scripture, like the God-approved genocides of the Old Testament, the New Testament’s urging that we give up our possessions and our family and follow Jesus because the world will soon end, or the Qur’an’s admonition to kill apostates and unbelievers. What kind of insights are those?
More important, Appleyard neglects the fact that every genuine positive insight of religion has been arrived at by secular reason and philosophy as well—often by ancient Greeks and Romans. In other words, by adopting secular reason, we can have the “good parts” of religion without the bad ones, and without the superstition—which I suspect is the major point of Grayling’s book.
Appleyard ends like this:
The reason I was baffled by Dawkins’s decision to write a book on God was that all of the above seemed to me self-evident. It still does. We know that there are strong arguments against religious belief and we know that religious belief is a human constant. We also know that it will always be too early – and too dangerous – to say that our science has advanced far enough to justify a fundamental re-engineering of the human realm in the name of humanism. I enjoyed reading Grayling’s book and I still ended up asking, “But why?”
Self-evident to self-satisfied gits like Appleyard, perhaps, but not to the 95% of Americans who believe in God (many of them seeing the Bible as literal truth), or the 70% who believe in heaven, hell, and angels, much less to the millions of Muslims who see the Qur’an as literal truth and refuse to take it as a metaphor.
“Why?”, Mr. Appleyard? For this reason. As you note, there are indeed strong arguments against religious belief, and people like Dawkins, Grayling, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens are the ones who make them most visibly and most forcefully. If not them, who? And if, thorough secular reason and philosophy, we can get the same mountains of “insight” supposedly derived from religion, but without the belief in untruths and the palpable malfeasance of faith, then shouldn’t we try to bring such a world into being? That’s why.