Having started, hated, and never finished A. C. Grayling’s The Good Book, A Humanist Bible, I was well-primed to dislike The God Argument.
It’s not that I disagree with Grayling’s version of humanist morality, even less so with his general anti-metaphysical views. Not in the least. It’s simply that I consider The Good Book one of the most ill-considered wastes of paper — and the reader’s time — in recent memory.
But Grayling redeems himself in The God Argument.
As its full title indicates, The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism is divided into two, roughly-equal sections: the case against the existence of God, and the case for a secular, humanist approach to life.
The God Argument outlines the case against both religious faith and religious institutions with the minimum of necessary disdain; and it makes his counter-case, in favour of a personal ethic based on a public morality that rests on our shared human nature and human experience, with a direct, even humble sincerity.
It’s true enough that Grayling’s philosophical arguments against the three main arguments for the existence of gods or a God (teleological, ontological, and moral) won’t convince many true believers. Nevertheless, his calmness and lack of needless invective may give the more thoughtful theist (the non-fundamentalist) something to think about. Or maybe not. As Grayling concedes, the average believer is motivated by emotion, not reason, so despite the patient clarity of Grayling’s arguments, he may indeed by “preaching to the choir.”
Since I am already one of the choir, and if you’re reading this you probably are, too, I won’t spend any time reviewing Grayling’s specific arguments against belief in supernatural deities, other than to repeat that these arguments are very well-reasoned, and very well expressed.
The second half of the book interested me much more. It’s one thing to point out the patently unsubstantiated mythologies of religions, and of religion in general. It’s another thing altogether to formulate and succinctly express an alternative.
As much as I sympathize with his efforts, I don’t think that Grayling has made his case. His version of humanism is rather too long on platitudes and rather too short on specifics. Consider this passage, from early in the second half of the book:
In a truly secular world, one where religion has withered to the relative insignificance of astrology, tarot card divination, health-promotion based on crystals and magnets, and other marginal superstition-involving outlooks, an ethical outlook which can serve everyone everywhere, and can bring the world together into a single moral community, will at last be possible. That outlook is humanism.
It appears that Grayling believes that all we have to do is get rid of religion and everyone finally will be free to adopt the humanist worldview that the Greeks developed and that the early Catholic Church suppressed. All of these centuries, apparently, our natural longing for Socratic inquiry has been waiting patiently for its chance to emerge.
As desirable a result as the revival of classical Greek ethical philosophy may be, I’m afraid that while Grayling paints a pretty prose picture of an idealized future, he fails to make his case.
For example, he argues that a humanist morality is an inevitable result of an ethical sense. That is, a humanist code of conduct issues naturally from a commitment to thoughtful and responsible living. Even if we concede the process, we remain generally unaware of how to ensure that everyone, everywhere, will live thoughtfully and responsibly. There is more than ample evidence in the history of our affairs to prove that human nature is not inherently benign. This despite the intriguing evidence, presented in books like Franz de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist (reviewed here), that co-operative societies may be a natural feature of primate life.
Is nothing left to us but a cynicism worthy of philosopher John Gray?
I’m truly not sure. I would like to think that we have it in us to rise above the worst parts of our nature — but I need more evidence than Grayling offers that it’s even possible, much less likely.
Still, Grayling is right when he points out that the vast majority of individual people are empathetic co-operators, not just willing but also desiring to live together in peaceful respect and tolerance.
Perhaps we just need to gang up on all of our alphas and run the bastards out of the global village?