A new humanist book by Grayling, and a critique by Appleyard

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):

Picture 2

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.

h/t: Peter


  1. abandonwoo
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    John Loftus’s Outsider Test for Faith speaks eloquently to the “respect for religion” issue. Many if not most religious adherents respect the faith they emotionally commit to, yet simultaneously experience a quite different emotional response towards different religions (and not infrequently some sects within their own) including, for some at the most passionate emotional extreme, vitriolic and homicidal fear and loathing.

    • Posted March 2, 2013 at 8:48 am | Permalink

      I’m reminded of the joke whose punchline is, “He said, “Reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915!” I said, “Die, heretic scum”, and pushed him off the bridge.”



  2. Posted March 2, 2013 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    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.

    The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most vile pieces of hate literature ever penned. It condemns all men who’ve ever silently looked at a woman and thought she was sexy…all men, basically, it condemns to infinite torture unless they immediately gouge out their own eyes and chop off their own hands.

    Sure, there’re a couple pleasing turns of the phrase here and there. But so what? Hitler was quite the inspirational speaker, too. Hitler only murdered several million humans. Jesus, we are told, will, “real soon now,” return, at which point he will infinitely torture every human who ever lived unless they kiss his ass in just the right way. His (equally fictional) father, let us not forget, also personally drowned every kitten on the planet.

    And that, gentle reader, is the danger of automatically granting respect to religion — for, in so doing, you grant respect to the idea that the most horrific text in Western literature is actually something nice and good and pleasing.



    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted March 2, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

      With regard to “If your right eye leads you to sin, then tear it out and throw it away”, Friedrich Nietzsche sardonically commented that “it is not exactly the eye that is meant”.

      However, the ugly stuff is all in the “antitheses” section where the J-man discusses how the new law will replace the old- it’s in Matthew 5:17-48, especially 27-30.

      The stuff that continues to elicit admiration is the bits about not judging others, not doing good works to gain other people’s admiration, praying in private (if this was followed we would not have prayer in public schools) the Beatitudes which open the whole sermon (“Blessed are those who are merciful”), the Golden Rule (“do unto others.” also advocated by Confucius) and the prototype of a philosophy of non-violence (“Love your enemies”)

      I would say that 5:27-30 & 7:21-27 stand out like ugly sores on an otherwise OK, but still wildly impractical piece of writing. “Love your enemy” sounds good but is wildly ambiguous and open-ended. I can think of some healthy but also deeply pernicious interpretations of that phrase. The “lilies of the field” passage is just impractical, and seems a misplaced counsel against greed. Sometimes you !*should*! care about the outcomes of the future!!

      Finally, as D.H. Lawrence observed, the impending spectre of apocalypse ruins much of what is likable in the Christian Bible. And apocalypse closes out the Sermon on the Mount.

      • Posted March 2, 2013 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

        Sorry. Not buying it.

        How much shit does it take to ruin your chocolate sundae?

        And Jesus’s formulation of the Golden Rule is, in isolation as it is given, a recipe for disaster. If it’s secondary to a stricture against doing unto others as they don’t want to be done unto (which is almost, but not quite, how Hillel and Hippocrates phrased it), then it’s a good idea. But in isolation or as a supreme rule…well, that’s how you wind up with sadists like Torquemada.

        And, make no mistrake: Torquemada was acting perfectly in concert with Jesus’s formulation of the Golden Rule. Better to suffer a few weeks on Earth than an eternity in Hell, after all, and wouldn’t you want somebody to save you from infinite torture even if it meant a great deal but a finite amount of agony? But by putting primacy where it belongs, in the rights of individuals to control their own destinies, Torquemada would have been shut down the first time somebody told him, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

        Similar hypocrisy abounds throughout the Sermon. Your other examples, for instance, of doing good deeds in private and not praying in public? The former is immediately followed by the “shining city on a hill” stuff, and the latter is followed immediately by instructing the masses to mindlessly chant the Lord’s Prayer wherever they go.

        I, too, once upon a time, took everybody’s word that the Sermon on the Mount, at the very least, was noble and uplifting and worthy of respect and fit for following.

        Then I actually read the bloody thing….



    • Linda Grilli Calhoun
      Posted March 2, 2013 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      When PZ was running the “Why I Am an Atheist” series, I was stunned and pleased by how many of the posters said, “I read the Bible cover to cover and it turned me into an atheist.”

      I think reading the whole Bible should be required of all of them. L

      • hankstar
        Posted March 2, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        That situation always reminds me of this quote from the Master:

        “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”

        – Isaac Asimov

  3. Posted March 2, 2013 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Notice how the “aesthetic narrative” of theology is always limited to tendentious attempts at making sense of the human condition within reality in lieu of understanding the actual conditions of reality.

    • Posted March 2, 2013 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. As if science and secular philosophy are not in the business of making sense of our species and our relationship with the world. Theists think this is religion’s bailiwick. It seems there’s an inversion of logic involved whereby a discipline that provides real, concrete, useful information is dismissed but impossible to parse, metaphor-ridden navel-gazing is embraced as providing deep insight.

  4. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Do the “insights” of religion Grayling touts come from theologians or from creative artists or semi-independent thinkers who happen to work within the framework of religious tradition while remaining accessible to those outside it?

    What is certain is that really great insights virtually never come from established religious institutions, and all good religious art or ideas are accessible to those outside its religious tradition!

    Thousands of fans of the novels of Dostoevsky commend his insights without buying into his Christian theology, including Walter Kaufmann!!! Salon.com’s literature editor Laura Miller wrote a good book on how to enjoy Lewis’ Narnia books as a skeptic, etc. And this is the !*same*! Laura Miller who wrote
    “It’s also worth noting that the more [Ray] Comfort grandstands for creationism, the more essential [Richard] Dawkins’ combative response appears to be.”(!!!)

    So I would argue that the reviewer’s dichotomy between the Donne’s Holy Sonnets, etc, and the writings of the Four Horsemen doesn’t apply to either Kaufmann or Miller (Kaufmann of course predates the four h’s, but would have certainly liked them.)

    A link to Laura Miller’s essay praising the combativeness of Dawkins as necessary in the face of Mr. Comfort

    A link to the one and the same Laura Miller’s website on her book on how to appreciate the Narnia books if you are a skeptic

    • Posted March 2, 2013 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      Minor point JLH – I think that it is Appleyard and not Grayling making the claim of religious insights.

  5. Posted March 2, 2013 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    The point you make about other sources providing religion’s benefits is a good one, and under-recognized.

    Many theistic arguments take this form: (1) X exists. (2) X can exist only if God exists. (3) Therefore, God exists. This argument-form is strictly valid, but I think many theists tacitly replace (2) with

    (2′) If God exists, X exists.

    That might be true (although it’s often difficult to see how), but then the form is invalid.

    In turn, we can usually reject (2) by simply positing a non-God thing that does what God is supposed to do. Moral foundations? Just replace with non-deity objective moral facts. Epistemic foundations? Just replace with a non-deity assumption of accurate belief sources. Motivation or purpose? Once again, we can intuitively replace with a non-theistic source. In practice, this is actually very easy.

  6. godsbelow
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    The charge that the Gnus don’t engage with Sophisticated Theology™ is getting old fast. Hopefully Grayling’s book will reduce the frequency of that particular red herring (though I wouldn’t count on it).

    Jerry, have you considered writing a book in response to the Sophisticated Theology™ you’ve been reading?

    • Kevin
      Posted March 2, 2013 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      I’ll second that motion.

      Co-author with “uncle” Eric MacDonald. I think you can certainly set aside your free will/determinism/compatabilism differences long enough to have a productive and fruitful relationship on a project of such importance.

  7. bric
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    “If religion is treated as a child-like superstition – like the belief in fairies – then there is no need to understand it in detail ” Pretty much my position; after all how many ‘sophisticated theologians” understand at least a large minority of other religions ‘in detail’? . . . Or even many of the other 30,000 sects/divisions/flavours of Christianity.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 2, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      Dawkins and the new atheists are not treating religion as a child-like superstition: they are treating it like a pseudoscience.

      If you are going to attack pseudoscience, then you need to understand only the right details about it. You need not know the various forms of astrology and how they differ. But you would need to know the basic claims, you would need to know the problems with the evidence, and you would need to know WHY the claims and evidence fail to stand up.

      The same with religion. As you say, there are a lot of them. But if what they all have in common isn’t true, then only an anthropologist, historian, psychologist, or artist would be interested in the details.

      • Posted March 3, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

        “Dawkins and the new atheists are not treating religion as a child-like superstition: they are treating it like a pseudoscience.”



        • Posted March 4, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

          I just reread Alan Sokal’s book (_Beyond the Hoax_) where he explicitly does the same approach. I’m sympathetic, but there’s something not quite right about it I cannot quite put my finger on it. I think it might be because religion is more of a *world view* – like (say) Stalinism – which is why I think the totalitarian ideologies “look like” religions, and the extreme pseudosciences (or rather, the extremely involved in them) look religion like, e.g., chiropractic. If this is so, ITSM that the lesson is a familiar one: we cannot simply expect to remove religion; instead we do have to work on various (and I think we have room for various) “alternatives”. Which is not to say all the “alternative big pictures” I’ve seen are at all the right approach (or at least the right approach for everyone).

  8. Posted March 2, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    It is possible however that religion is built into our DNA. Every culture has some religion; the details vary widely. Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, probably goes too far in attributing this to group selection, but a combination of cultural factors and subsequent genetic adjustment could nevertheless lead to selection for genes that favor religious beliefs. And, just as there are variants of sexual orientation that are probably genetically determined, there could be variants of religious orientation that are genetically determined. Leave aside the question whether religious genes are a good thing or a bad thing; if there are such genes then cultural attempts to get rid of religion are going to involve some heavy lifting.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted March 2, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      I would think that genes that instill fear of the unknown (life preserving) and genes for pattern recognition (also life preserving) would be enough to be co-opted into religious belief.

    • Posted March 2, 2013 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      I doubt that religion is “built into our DNA” in the same sense as other adaptive traits. I suspect that the rise of religion was not an adaptative feature but rather it seems more likely that religion piggybacked so to speak on some other adaptive trait. I think Jerry has suggested this in several past postings.

      • Posted March 3, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

        Religion serves to strengthen the bonds among members of a group, and tends to divide the group from other groups. A powerful religious organization can help one tribe overcome its enemies. At a group level, this, like other cultural traits, can lead to some groups succeeding at the expense of others. At the group level then religion can be adaptive. Within the group, religion can also be adaptive for some, i.e., the religious leaders, who can accumulate status and wealth based on religion. These leaders can create conditions that force others to sacrifice themselves – often quite willingly – for the sake of the group, without having to necessarily show the same solidarity.

        • pulseteresa
          Posted March 4, 2013 at 12:19 am | Permalink

          You are talking about group selection here and as Jerry has mentioned in several of his posts, including a very recent one, is that group selection – if it happens at all – plays such a minor role in evolution that it’s either undetectable or has so tiny an effect that it’s certainly not worth considering as a prime mover in how evolution works, particularly when comparing it with natural selection at the gene level, genetic drift, and kin selection.

          Further, the “adaptive” traits you ascribe to religious groups can occur in groups without religion. There is nothing special about religion in and of itself that would make it particularly adaptable for a gene, individual, or group.

          Yours is an interesting hypothesis, similar to one that I had formulated myself before I really knew much about evolution. There’s just no evidence for it.

          • Posted March 4, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

            I don’t think that selection at the group level can influence allele frequencies within a group in a direct fashion. However, if you look at my entry below you will see that changes in allele frequencies (evolutionary changes by definition) are almost inevitable once a cultural trait becomes embedded in a population. And there is evidence that such changes have happened in human populations.

            Of course, there is little evidence that religion is genetically encoded. I have no problem conceding that. It is a hypothesis, absolutely.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 2, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      The details of ‘religion’ vary so widely that what’s likely to be “built into our DNA” is likely to consist of a general human propensity for magical thinking, anthropomorphism, teleology, hierarchies, and egocentrism. What you call “heavy lifting” shouldn’t deter us. Cultural attempts to “get rid” of violence are equally difficult.

      Aim at improvement, not perfection.

    • hankstar
      Posted March 2, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      I don’t agree. Religion is a cultural construct as much as a national boundary or system of currency; an external imposition. That being said I think the roots of religion (e.g. humanity’s gift for abstraction & creativity perhaps being coopted into providing “explanations” for the unknown in order to stem our fears of it) do lie deep in our natural history.

      The fact that many religions also functioned or still do function in an authoritarian manner – as pseudo, parallel or actual Law and even government – seems to indicate their artificial and arbitrary nature; their uniquely human provenance.

      I think the ubiquity of religion speaks more to the power religious ideas have grown to have over minds, especially when those ideas are introduced and maintained from birth to death. I don’t think religion is hardcoded into us but ignorance, the desire to know (or think we do) and the crucial desire to please our elders whilst children and fit into our tribes throughout our lives might well be. Social animals need a society and religions excel at providing them. Where they obviously fail and mock humanity is their exclusivity, their tribalism, their enforcement of ignorance, their denial of contradictory information and numerous other flaws we’re all familiar with which are also uniquely human.

      • Posted March 2, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

        “That being said I think the roots of religion (e.g. humanity’s gift for abstraction & creativity perhaps being coopted into providing “explanations” for the unknown in order to stem our fears of it) do lie deep in our natural history.” And to take this one step further, I believe that most religions grew out of origin myths. In addition to the roots you describe, I would add the human capacity to understand our finitude.

      • Posted March 3, 2013 at 7:54 am | Permalink

        If read it right, hankstar, you think that there are some inherited traits, that support religious thinking, that actually preceded religion. My argument is that there could be genetic changes that followed religion. The structure of the human hand has probably been shaped by culture, since H. habilis, as it changed over time resulting in better adaptation for tool manufacture. Surely this was in response to the cultural practice of tool making; advantages accrued to those individuals with better anatomy. The ability to metabolize lactose originated in at least two different cultures that came upon the idea of feeding milk to people. Advantages accrued to those adults who could continue what they did as children, i.e. drink milk, a readily available food in that culture. It is likely that the increase in brain size, which occurred in several lineages independently, was largely driven by culture. No matter what species of hominid, over a certain long interval, a bigger brain was better. Culture influences genetics. It is almost incredible to imagine that allele frequencies would not change in response to a cultural phenomenon as pervasive and variable as religion. Among those changing would be perhaps the very ones you mentioned (abstraction, creativity, etc). I agree of course that religion as we know it is uniquely human; but you yourself suggested that some traits that favor religion are primitive, and I agree – maybe even found in animals like chimps and elephants.

  9. Barry Lyons
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    And now Peter Hitchens has weighed in. Professor Coyne, I look forward to your detailed take down:


  10. DrBrydon
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    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.

    Oh, dear! I hope he’s going to be alright. Being trampled is potentially very–oh, I see, that’s a metaphor. Very vivid. And “horsemen”, too. Who are we supposed to be thinking of here? Notre Dame’s football team, or the harbingers of apocolypse? Neither seems very apt. (Although I’d love to see the famous photo of Crowley, Layden, Miller, and Stuhldreher on horseback ‘shopped to have the faces of Dawkins et al. Maybe that is a good metaphor. Dum-dum-dum-dum dum-dum-duuumm Onward to Victory!)

    I love how the uncompromising stance of many public atheists in their writings is so often portrayed as violent; as if Alain de Botton’s eyewash were actually met with with physical assault. “Militant” fits nicely into the idiom to imply that what’s going on isn’t simply debate. Yes, they assaulted the ideas. What are you gonna do? Call the Thought Police, and have them arrested?

    • Kevin
      Posted March 2, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      And, of course, de Botton proposed his atheistic temples after Hitchens had died.

      So unless there’s a resurrection we haven’t heard about, this is a simple lie.

  11. Robert Bray
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    ‘The Brain–is wider than the Sky–’ is the first line of Emily Dickinson’s poem number 598 (Franklin edition). At the very least, Mr. Appleyard should put it in quotation marks, and in any case E.D.’s poem does not cohere with Appleyard’s subtitle, ‘why simple solutions, etc.’ I’ve always found it interesting that E.D. wrote ‘brain’ rather than ‘mind;’ I think she had at least an inkling that Darwin was right and that ‘soul-talk’ could no longer get at the metaphysics of human existence. However this may be, while the poet would have agreed with A-yard that the world is complex and simple solutions won’t do, she was quite uncomfortable with conventional Christian answers to humanistic problems.

  12. Kevin
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    “Religious belief is a human constant”…

    Really? Does that make me not human? I’ve never had what is touted as religious belief. After about age 8, I pretty much had sussed out the non-existence of both Santa Claus and baby Jesus.

    So, does that make me super-human, perhaps? A more highly evolved creature?

    Perhaps Appleyard would like to explain himself.

    • Marella
      Posted March 2, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      I don’t ever remember believing in gods either, I’ll join the ‘super-human’ league as a more highly evolved being too. 😉

  13. Posted March 2, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Great post. Don’t know how you have the patience to read through all that theology – Are you planning a book of your own on the subject? The argument from sophisticated theologians appears to be an attempt to hide in verbal obscurity, not dissimilar to what prompted Sokal’s hoax.

  14. Josiah Gibbs
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Calling someone a “self-satisfied git” because you disagree with a review of a book that you haven’t even read is rather crude, and belies your claim that, “I tolerate religious beliefs in the sense I don’t want to censor them nor dismiss someone solely because he holds them.”

    I’ve read a fair amount of Grayling and find his thinking and writing style appealing. For one thing, he doesn’t resort to gratuitous insults. You should hold yourself to the same standards of civil discourse as you hold your commenters.

    • Posted March 2, 2013 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      Thank you for concern, but you obviously haven’t read a lot of Grayling’s posts, in which he uses language far stronger than mine, as this one, in which he accuses religious people of being members of the asylum:

      John Polkinghorne’s former student Nicholas Beale runs a website on behalf of his mentor, on which questions about religion, and the relation of religion to science, can be posted. This apparently self-published book is a compilation of 51 of these website questions with Beale’s and sometimes Polkinghorne’s answers. The questions range over creation, the existence of evil, evolution, intelligent design and most of the other familiar old debating points, plus “How does the death of Jesus save the world?”, “Why believe Jesus rose from the dead?” and “How much do you need to believe to be a Christian?”

      Since these latter questions premise membership of the asylum already, I shall focus just on the various questions that touch on the relation of science and religion, because the interest attaching to Polkinghorne is that he is a physicist who became a Church of England vicar, which makes people think that he has a special line into the science-religion question. Were he a vicar who gave up the Church of England to become a physicist he would not be regarded as anything more special than sensible; but this is how the world wags.

      Is that not a “gratuitous insult”?

      Your tone trolling is noted but not appreciated.

  15. Posted March 2, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Maybe I have a differet text than y’all – JC was referring to Appleyard as a git [admittedly edgy] and not Grayling as you seem to imply.

  16. pktom64
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    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.

    Of course, Hitchens gave the perfect example of admiring the Parthenon while rejecting the existence of the goddess Athena.

  17. Posted March 2, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Appleyard (paraphrase):
    “Grayling characterizes atheism as ‘not-theism’; theism is the positive position, atheism onlythe condition of not adopting that position. THEREFORE, Grayling shouldn’t be writing these books.”

    Non-sequitur. Big time. And just stupid. Grayling isn’t really in the business of getting people to adopt atheism, rather, he’s trying to get them to let go of their superstitions. Superstitions that often have dire consequences for many. Is Appleyard honestly against this endeavor?

    (Not to start a thing, but I agree with Grayling. Atheism isn’t a positive position. I dearly love just about everything PZ writes, but I think he’s mistakenly attributing to those of us who think of atheism like this an “anti-stance” wrt equality and other humanist issues. I’m for everything he’s for. But I don’t think my atheism is the reason.)

    • Posted March 3, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      (Not to continue a thing, but I agree; PZ is putting the cart before the horse. For a start, not every atheist arrives there rationally.)


  18. Sastra
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    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… 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.

    Appleyard, like it or not, if what you say here about religion is correct … then religions are turning into secular humanism. That’s what we call treating sacred scripture as “a series of stories” which reveals human nature instead of treating it as actual sacred scripture which reveals the divine nature and will of God.

    Once you take the “system of physical beliefs” (system of metaphysical beliefs?)out of religion, all the lovely, meaningful, impressive things which are left are humanism. They have to be. Think about it: if they stand on their merits and impress even atheists with their value, then what the heck do they have to do with religion being true? With religion being unique? With religion having something to offer people which they can’t get any other way?

    Clearly not. It’s a Catch-22: atheism lacks religious values, but if a religious value appeals to an atheist, then it’s not a religious value. So atheism lacks ONLY the ‘religious values’ that atheists don’t want, don’t care for, don’t believe. Those are the values secular humanism can’t provide.

    The ones that aren’t any good from the secular humanist perspective. The pointless, meaningless, vapid ones based precisely and firmly on the supernatural, with nowhere else to go. Atheism can’t deal with those.

    Big deal. We can read Appleyard’s review and his defense of theism and ask “but why?”

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted March 3, 2013 at 10:18 am | Permalink


  19. Posted March 2, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    I think the sense of what religion is, what it consists of, is narrow in Appleyard but in some of this discussion as well. Certainly most religious beliefs are nonsensical from a scientific point of view and many of the customs and the stories barbaric from the view of the modern West. But religion also consists of the religious experience: some consolation in the face of death, a sense of meaningfulness to life itself through feeling part of something larger, and a mood of deeper connection with others through shared beliefs. Should secular humanism ever become a much more widely followed ideology—I think it’s reasonable to be hopeful–it too will acquire some religious features in the various ways, whatever they turn out to be, that it offers comfort, a sense of transcendent shelter, and guidance.

    • Posted March 3, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      Whatever secular humanism is, it isn’t a source of consolation based on wishful thinking and supernatural fables.


  20. Mel
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    Reminds me of the “great insight” (James 5:13-15) many monstrous faith healing sects in the U.S. have found in the Bible and use with a deadly fanaticism that’s shocking. These people let their children die gruesome deaths with no doctor called. I just finished a book titled “When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law” by Shawn Francis Peters. Peters teaches writing and U.S. history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The book is a scholarly work rather than just a journalistic exposé. One of the difficulties for prosecutors has been the religious exemptions to child abuse laws pushed onto the state governments by the federal government during the Nixon years.

    James 5:13-15, quoted from the online “Skeptics Annotated Bible.

    5:13 Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.
    5:14 Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord:
    5:15 And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.

    This is exactly what the do.

  21. Posted March 2, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Once again, a good read from Jerry, and I look forward to a review of the book if you feel like making one. 🙂

    I do have to disagree with this statement though:

    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.

    I think you forgot about the whole “he knows when you are sleeping; he knows when you awake; he knows when you have been bad or good so be good for goodness sake

    Santa is actually very good Sophisticated Theology(tm) (as opposed to the other kind). Belief in Santa, and the benefits that belief bestows (ie: toys) on the proviso that you are good, is tangible. Thus:

    1) You are good because you get your morality from Santa;
    2) Santa is really your parents, therefore:
    3) You get your morality from your parents.


  22. Posted March 2, 2013 at 5:02 pm | Permalink


  23. Barney
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    “How come we never hear the terms “militant Labour party member””

    That’s an unfortunate example to choose, though you’d need to be British to know that. In the 1980s, a far left branch of the Labour party, called the Militant tendency, came to prominence, especially in Liverpool. There was a major fight between it and the party leadership as to how far left Labour should move; Militant lost, in the end. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Militant_tendency .

  24. R.W.
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    I actually wouldn’t mind being pounced upon for saying it, but I still think that the more serious, though by no means insurmountable, challenges to the Gnus are the ones put forward by Edward Feser (who ,in his most recent post,by the way, had the nerve to refer to our esteemed blog host as the, “New Atheist featherweight Jerry Coyne”) rather than Plantinga,Haught, et al.


    • Gary W
      Posted March 2, 2013 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

      I wish people would say clearly what they mean instead of just vaguely alluding to it. What are these “challenges to the Gnus” from Feser that you consider serious?

    • Posted March 3, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      I read the piece to which you linked and did not see any challenges to the Gnus atheists. What I saw was a critique of Krauss’s main thesis in his book. But this hardly constitutes any kind of a take down of the Gnu Atheists in general. Krauss’ “something from nothing” argument is certainly not even a component of the arguments the Gnus atheists have made against religion. The universe could very well have come from something and if this were true not one element of the Gnu Atheists arguments would be affected.

      • Gary W
        Posted March 3, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I don’t see any challenges to the Gnus in Feser’s review of the Krauss book, either. So presumably R.W. was alluding to other writing by Feser. But he doesn’t say what that writing is, or what these supposed “serious challenges” are.

    • pulseteresa
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 1:53 am | Permalink

      Hahaha! Edward Feser? Seriously?

  25. Michael Fugate
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    Is Appleyard really claiming that Dennett knows nothing about religion? When Dennett has written repeatedly on the subject and published a dialogue with Alvin Plantinga on Science and Religion.

  26. matthew
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    Is Appleyard really claiming that he understands the films of Andrei Tarkovsky?

    Sorry, I would have laughed out loud if my kids weren’t asleep.

    Ok Mr. Appleyard, Mirror, please give us your understanding of it.

    Yeah, we’re waiting with baited breath.

  27. kelskye
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    Got this book on preorder, like any AC Grayling work I am greatly anticipating to see what he has to say.

  28. kelskye
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    It something is self-evidently false (or true) to some of the population, that fact only matters insofar as that self-evidence dominates the culture of belief. Many claim it’s self-evident to the opposite effect, and many more act as if it is reasonable. Are we meant to hold our tongues on the basis of our own discovery if people think and act on the contrary? Should they hold their tongues for our sake? What an impoverished view of culture this seems to be!

  29. Mark
    Posted March 3, 2013 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    “But what religion has to offer is a great mountain of insights into the human realm.”

    This is the weakest part of the review. After all, the exact same thing could be said of literature in general. Yet if you are going to treat the Bible or the Koran as literature that is the product of a certain culture, place and time (which they clearly are), that strips them of the privileged position they hold among those who regard them as holy books.

    The decision to read the bible for its “great mountain of insights” into humanity isn’t any different from the decision to read Homer, Lucretius, Shakespeare or anyone else.

    If the bible is mere literature, then it isn’t really holy to the person making that claim. There wouldn’t be any reason to prefer attending a sermon to joining a high-brow book club.

  30. Peter Beattie
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    I knew you’d like that article. 😉

    One thing, apart from what you said about the piffling pablum that Appleyard has to offer, that struck me as worth remarking on is his somewhat smug insistence that what Grayling (or anyone) can give us is “powerful – though non-lethal – ammunition for anybody wishing to shoot down intelligent theists”. What I think is remarkable is that it doesn’t seem to be common knowledge that there can be no lethal ammunition anywhere. Whatever you argue, you base your argument on certain premises that someone who was to agree with you would have to share. But nowhere can there be a logical necessity of sharing any particular premises. In other words, there simply is no such thing as a conclusion you just have to accept.

    Case in point: Brian Cox, on ep. 3 of Wonders of Life, says that the standard account of evolution is how things “must have happened”. Which is an unfortunate way of putting things for two reasons. First, in choosing between rival theories, we do not separate the correct one from the incorrect one, but the process of scientific examination merely tells us (if we’re lucky) which theory it is rational to prefer. Second, nobody is obliged to accept that rationality is the only way of looking at a certain problem. What we are obliged to accept, however, is that if we are interested in objective knowledge then we have to adhere to the rules of rationality lest we become unable to even communicate about our problems.

    In yet other words, you can decide to talk about a certain phenomenon in fictional terms, for the sake of inspiration, comfort, humour, etc. And that is important stuff, which nobody is trying to take away from anybody. But once you decide to accept the premise of talking about a certain phenomenon in non-fiction terms, i.e. in terms of objective knowledge, then not adhering to certain rules (such as the law of non-contradiction) inevitably results in communicative chaos, which by definition is detrimental to the stated goal of the exercise. So, we’re not trying to impose certain (scientific) standards on anyone where they are inapplicable (the scientism canard), and we also cannot force anyone to talk in those terms (the “you must believe this” misunderstanding). But we can expect everybody to appreciate certain logical consequences once they agree to certain premises. I think making this clearer could help put many a conversation on a more fruitful path.

    • abandonwoo
      Posted March 4, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      Your observations are pretty accurate in my opinion, Peter Beattie, but I must take exception to the following:

      ‘First, in choosing between rival theories, we do not separate the correct one from the incorrect one, but the process of scientific examination merely tells us (if we’re lucky) which theory it is rational to prefer.’

      There are not two theories in consideration.

      Theists want to contrast the assertion of supernatural creationism with the Theory of Evolution. Their very lame claim, which is not even worthy of the status of hypothesis let alone theory, receives a huge boost every time the word ‘theory’ is incorrectly used in writing and speech to identify it.

      • Peter Beattie
        Posted March 4, 2013 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

        I get what you’re saying. In the modern sense, creationism is not a scientific theory because it is not an explanatory idea. It’s like saying the planets are moved by angels, which is just relabelling the problem instead of actually giving an explanation that can be tested.

        And yet. First, if you read Darwin, he was very much concerned with dispelling the idea of separate creation as an “explanation” of why species looked the way they did. And second, I didn’t actually mention creationism. For my argument to work, you could just as well take Lamarck’s theory as the second theory to choose from. And still, there would be no point at which we could (or rather should) say that natural selection is “how it must have happened”. It is still only the more rational choice given certain evidence.

        • abandonwoo
          Posted March 4, 2013 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

          Points accepted, Peter. I read your initial post again just now, and see that I jumped to the erroneous conclusion you contrasted evolution theory with creation explanation.

          I am much OTR lately concerning misuse of terms like theory, hypothesis, claim, and design(ed) [implying a designer]. If use of these terms by secularists is cleaned up, Dominionist momentum is braked.

  31. Joel Pelissier
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Two billion years ago,man used to fly(Homo Alatum).Unfortunately,the early winged man got devoured by the aggressive cruelosaurus and disappeared with few traces.The fossil records are currently being kept at a museum in North Korea.

%d bloggers like this: