Grayling’s new book: a short but laudatory review

I want to give two thumbs up to Anthony Grayling’s new book, The God Argument: the Case Against Religion and for Humanism, which was released this March but is already available in paperback and Kindle. (Note: I haven’t yet read his previous effort, The Good Book, which is apparently a humanist version of the Bible drawing from secular tradition.)

The Gode Argument comprises two parts: an initial attack on the idea of God and the validity of religious thought, and then a disquisition on humanism and how it can replace religion.

Many of us will be familiar with some of Grayling’s arguments in Part I. He spends time, for example, dispelling the telelological, cosmological, and ontologial arguments for God, as well as Pascal’s Wager. But there’s a lot of other good stuff, including his indictment of the harms of faith.  As a philosopher, his perspective here is refreshing and more erudite than that of many New Atheists, and I  learned a lot.  Grayling’s writing is lively, fluid, and clear, and I doubt that anyone could find it “strident” since it’s quite restrained and civil. Nevertheless, it’s forceful, and impossible to read without agreeing that the elimination of religion, and the public morality it seeks to enforce, is essential.

Part II is a trenchant answer to those who criticize New Atheists for tearing down religion but not offering a substitute. Here he gives the clearest definition of humanism I’ve seen, and shows that, based as it is on nonreligious human thoughts and feelings that most of us share, it could easy replace religion.

He first demolishes the ideas that purpose and morality could come from God, and then outlines the humanist response to questions of “whence our life’s purpose?”, “where do we find morality?”, “how do we deal with love and sex?”, and, the eternal philosophical question—one that’s been largely replaced by academic philosophy—”what is the good life?”.  Even if you’ve read the Stoics, Marcus Aurelius, and other classical philosophers on the last issue, you’ll benefit from Grayling’s clear and compelling exposition. His enumeration of the half-dozen constituents of the life well-lived is inspiring. As Jack Nicholson said in “As Good as It Gets” (albeit while trying to seduce a woman), it “makes me want to be a better man.”

The chapter on death, which strongly promotes euthanasia, is a bit depressing but also thoughtful. It didn’t make me face my fear of mortality with any less trepidation, but did lay out an airtight case for assisted suicide, showing that the only opposition to it comes from misguided religious tenets. Eric MacDonald would approve.

The second part of Grayling’s book is the answer to those who, like Alain de Botton or Rabbi Sacks, insist that New Atheism is a dismal failure because atheists don’t suggest replacements for the essential human needs that drive religion. Grayling, our most eloquent exponent of humanism, has done the work, and although he doesn’t float the untenable idea of atheist churches or sermons, he shows that humanism can easily plug the gaps that remain when we give up God.

Do read it.

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56 Comments

  1. Tien Song Chuan
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    I have finished the entire book. How can a philosopher write so clearly, I wonder. He is very gifted.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      Agreed!

    • Timothy Hughbanks
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      For what it is worth, I seem to recall that college philosophy majors are among the best overall – and probably rank highest in verbal and written communication skills. It seems unlikely that those who go on to become professional philosophers aren’t the cream of that crop or that they somehow lose their abilities along the way. As an undergraduate chemistry major, I took only one upper division philosophy course (ethics) and the instructor was extremely articulate and offered logical, well-supported arguments. As a university faculty member, I’ve only had a few instances where I’ve seen philosophy faculty in action (in governance commitees), but they’ve never failed to impress me. If you want to get me to dump on someone, well, there’s always the fculty from “education” department…

      • Filippo
        Posted June 25, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

        How about the “Biz-ness” department?

  2. Dominic
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Started reading it at the weekend – alongside Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World. Grayling writes with a beautifully clear style. The paper is really nice quality – so much nicer than an ‘e’book – & I got him to sign it!

    • Posted June 24, 2013 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      The Demon-Haunted World, while popular, is still underappreciated. It’s a magnificent book and I recommend it very highly to all the readers here.

      • Dominic
        Posted June 24, 2013 at 9:41 am | Permalink

        It is very good – a much missed man, Sagan.

        • matt
          Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

          that book changed my life. unbelievably profound.

      • mrclaw69
        Posted June 25, 2013 at 3:42 am | Permalink

        Demon-Haunted World is excellent. I think – on balance – I prefer Pale Blue Dot though.

        At its best Demon… is the most passionate of Sagan’s writing, but he spends a little too long on alien abduction/belief in flying saucers for my liking. Maybe this is because I’m English and the cult of alien abduction isn’t quite a prevalent in the UK as it is in the US – hence my preference for Pale Blue…

        That said, the chapter Maxwell and the Nerds is one of the best, clearest and most powerful defences of (funding for) abstract scientific research ever. And The Fine Art of Baloney Detection is one of the most practically useful chapters ever to appear in a book; it should be compulsory reading for all high school students.

      • lulu_footloose
        Posted June 25, 2013 at 7:09 am | Permalink

        That book is one of the top books that made me question and gradually let go of my religious beliefs!

  3. Posted June 24, 2013 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    I have just ordered both books.

  4. merilee
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Is this the same book as his Against All Gods?

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      No. AAG is six short “essays” totalling 64 pages.

  5. Posted June 24, 2013 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    I agree that “The God Argument” is a wonderful book, and would urge people to grab any opportunity they can to attend any of the author’s lectures. I heard him speak for an hour, without notes, on the topic of secularism. It was spell-binding; an amazing mixture of wit and erudition. He was speaking at the Ebor lectures, and was therefore addressing a predominantly Christian audience. He answered questions politely, but blew away any opposition with ease. I’m taking my son to York to hear Professor Grayling in September,and hope that he’ll follow Grayling’s advice that we should think moral and ethical concerns through for ourselves, rather than relying on any religion.

  6. Curt Nelson
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Grayling was an excellent guest on Point of Inquiry, especially after listing to Frans de Waal previously go from interesting to inane with his complaint that “new atheism” doesn’t offer anything to replace religion. EXCEPT THE TRUTH. Truth alone doesn’t cut it, I guess. Sounds like there ARE alternative ways to approach life, anyway.

  7. Posted June 24, 2013 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    just bought the book….

  8. Kevin
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    I read it a couple of weeks ago. I personally think the humanism section was better than the first section that fisked the god arguments. Because I think that the arguments are given too much credence in and of themselves.

    Still, well worth the read. And could serve as a reference of sorts. Also, made me want to read Marcus Aurelius.

    I still think we need a one-sentence refutation of the major arguments.

    Ontological Argument: That’s the ‘god with a pizza’ argument.

    Fine Tuning: It’s the ‘I don’t understand physics’ argument.

    Cosmological Argument: It’s the other ‘I don’t understand physics’ argument.

    And on and on.

    • Dominic
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      “Accept the things to which fate binds you, & love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so withy all your heart.”
      Marcus Aurelius

  9. Gordon Hill
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    There are many alternatives to theistic religion. Within humanism are the religious humanists. There are the UUs who are god-optional. There is also many free thinking and ethical culture. One interesting movement is the Sea of Faith started by Don Cupitt who has detailed his Religion of Ordinary Life at http://www.doncupitt.com/ordinary-life

    The one aspect of religion that must be addressed in leaving a theistic church is that of belonging. In our community the organized religions–Christians, Jews, UUs, and others–provide the majority of pro bono social support.

    Grayling’s book puts a travel spot on the issue. People will have to address it.

    • Posted June 24, 2013 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      I agree.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      For once I will use the argument Jerry uses to bring: it is addressed in Scandinavia. In a good way for S&E too, since lifelong education is one of the replacements along with many other social arenas.

    • Notagod
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

      So how do you address all the people that don’t attend christian social ceremonies and do just fine, even better without it?

      There really aren’t that many people that get their social activities from regularly attending christian ceremonies. People find other activities to get their social fix. From my experience christian society, when they aren’t in their brainwashing sessions, are often filled with gossip and condemnation of anyone who isn’t in attendance.

  10. Brad
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Jerry touched on something that seldom gets discussed. What is more desirable? To believe in God and not fear death or Atheism and a paralyzing fear of annihilation? Keep in mind that nothing can be truly free and afraid. So take your pick — suffering-free delusion or the shackled angst of truth.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

      “Why should I fear death?

      If I am, death is not.

      If death is, I am not.

      Why should I fear that which cannot exist when I do?”

      - Epicurus.

    • Hamilton Jacobi
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

      “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
      ― Woody Allen

    • ratabago
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

      Another false dichotomy. The fear need not be paralysing. Asserting it is doesn’t make it so; says the ex-cancer sufferer, so I know this from intimate personal experience. Life goes on through the pain, and the fear, and the invasive surgery. And it remains good, and the world continues to be beautiful. And I will not allow mere angst to stop me from appreciating that, or doing what I feel is right.

      There is also the little matter that every religious person I have talked to about this IRL, whether Christian, Moslem, Buddhist,Taoist, Neo-pagan, or Animist has suffered fear, doubt, and angst from time to time.

      But given the choice of being shackled by the truth, or shackled by a lie, I’ll take the truth every time.

      • Brad
        Posted June 25, 2013 at 11:59 am | Permalink

        I posed a question only. I did not claim that Atheism equals fear of death while God-belief equals no fear of death so, respectfully, there is no false dichotomy.

        I will say this though – a science or Atheism that does not allow us to live life and approach death without an acute fear of our own demise is incomplete.

        • Diane G.
          Posted June 25, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

          Why are you capitalizing atheism?

    • Marella
      Posted June 25, 2013 at 2:17 am | Permalink

      I did not exist for 13.7 billion years and suffered no inconvenience from it. I am not worried about not existing again.

  11. Diana MacPherson
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Added to my giant reading list that I think I’ll never finish, then I think by saying that I’ve cursed myself to die early, then I think that’s crazy OCD stuff. :)

    • Posted June 24, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      This sounds just like me!

      I have more than enough books to read one a week* for the rest of my life … and am still buying them at approximately the same rate.

      /@

      * My actual reading rate is currently much slower. I have to earn money to buy those books…

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted June 24, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

        A friend of mine recommended Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree because he obsessively keeps buying books and stresses about his growing list of books. :)

  12. ladyatheist
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    This will be my next kindle read! Thanks for the review.

    I am an advocate of human euthanasia, and it’s very difficult to broach the subject or to admit being for it.

    Having euthanized dogs with cancer that were still wagging their tails and enjoying their life, but whose bodies had ceased to be self-sufficient, I have to wonder why we call it “humane” to euthanize a sick animal but ethical to force a human to “let nature take its course” or worse, live for weeks or years on feeding tubes or ventilators. My mom took out a mortgage to pay my step-father’s final expenses, and then went into foreclosure. He spent his final moments in an ICU in the company of his pastor. Pastors do this kind of thing every day and they never advocate for euthanasia. They must have a sadistic streak to think their approach to death is “moral.”

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      I’ve said this often myself – that we treat our animals more humanely than people when they are suffering and near death.

      On a lighter note, I thought “euthanasia” was “youth in Asia” and about a bunch of kids in China when I was a kid :P

    • ratabago
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

      That’s a rather sad story. The experience in Australia is a little different. We still have anti-euthanasia laws in all of our states. Over 70% of our population supports the idea of voluntary euthanasia in principle. But most of our churches and a small majority of our politicians are against it, so voluntary euthanasia laws keep getting voted down.

      But the Federal Government, in principle at least, bears the cost of palliative care. Mostly in hospitals, as there are not enough specialist hospice beds available. Apparently the waiting list is about 6 months long, so you need to plan well in advance for a fatal decline.:) I think it is only right that the State meet this expense, as they impose the laws that engender that expense.

      I find that voluntary euthanasia rarely comes up in casual conversation. But when it does I have no hesitation in stating my position. Most people are either supportive, or at least polite about their opposition. The “Right to Lifers” are a small, vocal minority. They sometimes get verbally abusive, but are generally not dumb enough to try and get physically abusive.

  13. Diane G.
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    sub

  14. Filippo
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Am finishing up his highly-recommended “Ideas That Matter.” Took a break from it to plunge into the book at hand. Good fortune to get to hear him at an independent bookstore a couple months ago. A sterling example of civility and forthrightness.

    • Posted June 24, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      It is an excellent reference, but I’d never thought of just reading it cover to cover …

      /@

    • dean1
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      @ Filippo

      I own ” Ideas That Matter”, but I also consider it more of a reference book. Would you be so kind as to disclose from which quarter the recommendations are from (not a rhetorical question) ? Perhaps there have been reviews that I’m not aware of. Thanks.

  15. godsbuster
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    These types of pronouncements are part of the problem not the solution:

    “he shows that humanism can easily plug the gaps that remain when we give up God.”

    What gap? Why make concessions to things we don’t believe and don’t exist just to placate console or accommodate the godbotherers.

    If you’re feeling a gap, you’re doing it wrong.

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      I think you have to think like a religious person: How do I know what is moral without the bible? What will happen to me when I die? How should I live my life? etc.

      The faithful look to their religion for the answers and think that without it there is nothing – a gap – and there is for them because they are doing it wrong. Fill the gap with science, and make the pie higher.

      • ladyatheist
        Posted June 24, 2013 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

        Their religion provides the answers to their religion’s questions, which is rather convenient.

        • Posted June 24, 2013 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

          Religion fills a God-shaped hole in your heart … which religion convinced you (some!) was there in the first place.

          /@

  16. PascalsSpaceGhost
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Second paragraph “Gode Argument” typo. No need to let this one out of moderation.

  17. ratabago
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    I picked this up last weekend as one of the June e-book specials on Google. I broke one of my rules, and spent more than $3 on it, the maximum I allow myself for DRM infested books (I feel that if I have to put up with the rubbish that goes with DRM I deserve a massive discount). But I feel less grumpy about breaking that rule now, and am really looking forward to reading it.

    I picked up Hitchens’ Mortality for the same price. I was a bad boy on Sunday, and pray ceiling cat will forgive me.:P

  18. Mel
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Vermont now has a law permitting doctor assisted suicide (passed in May 2013, I believe). It was (for the first time) passed by a state legislature. We should take this opportunity to urge our own state representatives to pass such a law. Mention that the Oregon law (the 1st I believe) is available online and has plenty of protections in it. In any case, just because someone might abuse a right doesn’t mean that it should be denied to the rest of us.

    I’ve already sent emails to may Calif. reps but haven’t received any replies yet. Hopefully, other Californians will do the same thing.

    BTW, the Catholic misery cult has spent plenty of money to stop doctor assisted suicide laws. I used to have the numbers but can’t find them now–sorry.

  19. Posted June 24, 2013 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

    Not that it is relevant to the discussion, but the similarity between Grayling on the back and what I assume is an accurate version of the drawing on the front is uncanny.

  20. Newish Gnu
    Posted June 25, 2013 at 4:51 am | Permalink

    I just quit reading “Mere Christianity” about one-third of the way in. Couldn’t stand the illogic and strawmen anymore. I don’t understand why Christians think anyone would find Lewis’s book persuasive.

    So I need something to clean out the gray matter and Grayling’s book sounds perfect.

    • aljones909
      Posted June 26, 2013 at 12:31 am | Permalink

      I’d recommend Steve Shives on Youtube. He does the brilliant ‘An Atheist Reads…’ series. It’s a chapter by chapter critique of the popular apologist books . ‘Mere Christianity’ is covered. It’s almost like reading the books but minus the seething irritation that would normally be induced.

  21. Tim Harris
    Posted June 25, 2013 at 5:42 am | Permalink

    I shall get this, because there is much of Grayling’s writing that is admirable – but ‘The Good Book’ is, honestly, dreadful… pieces from cultures all over the world translated (or rewritten) into the same quasi=biblical style. He ruins good translations of Chinese poetry, for example – it’s a real intellectual’s book, that of a man who is acutely sensitive to elegance in argument, but has small feel for the physicality of words, for poetry. I should advise everybody to refrain from buying it. You won’t get through it unless you have an an extraordinarily heightened sense of duty. The book was a mistake on Grayling’s part.

  22. Nadir H. Khan
    Posted June 26, 2013 at 3:56 am | Permalink

    I’m reading The God Argument these days and it is EXACTLY as you describe it.

    Kudos on very succinct summation, Jerry !

    • Nadir H. Khan
      Posted June 26, 2013 at 3:57 am | Permalink

      *a very


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