A.C. Grayling’s recent contribution to the burgeoning literature on so-called ‘New Atheism’ is, on first appearance at least, a more promising affair than that offered by (among others) Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Unlike these other writers, Grayling is able to critique the philosophical foundations of religious belief as a professional philosopher. Much more intriguing was Grayling’s implicit promise to desist from unrelenting criticism of religion and instead provide details of what the alternative world guided by New Atheist principles might look like: how a moral framework shaped by atheistic humanism might tackle hugely divisive social issues such as assisted suicide, recreational drug use, divorce and sexual morality.
That is not to say there isn’t a fair sprinkling of familiar railings against the ‘God hypothesis’ but thankfully Grayling gets it out of the way early on in the book. Here we see some standard New Atheist criticisms of theistic ‘proofs’ including Anselm’s ‘ontological argument’ (according to which God’s existence – as the ‘most perfect being conceivable’ is a demonstrable fact of deductive reasoning) and Aquinas’ ‘cosmological argument’ (where the contingency of the universe is such to require a necessary ‘first cause’). Grayling rehearses the standard objections; that the ontological argument’s reliance on the idea of a ‘perfect being’ is fraught with logical difficulties and that lurking within the cosmological argument is the natural human tendency to impose onto the workings of the universe relations of cause and effect.
These arguments (although not new) are in themselves perfectly reasonable debates regarding the philosophical and metaphysical grounds for religious belief. The problem is when Grayling presents them simply as evidence of the ‘irrationalities’ of theologians and philosophers. For example, he contends that the secularisation process of modernity occurred in a more or less linear fashion, beginning with the ignorance and irrationality of the Middle Ages and concluding with the triumph of Enlightenment rationalism and humanism. This idea has been presented before, such as Weber’s attempt to correlate scientific and technological advances with progressive spiritual ‘disenchantment’ and the gradual decline in the social role of religious-ethical value orientations. However, Weber was sensitive to how the rationalisation process was conceived in the womb of religious devotion, whereas Grayling appears to give this little acknowledgement. There is a powerful case to be made that the modern scientific method might actually have reasons to be grateful to the thinking of some of medieval theism’s most prominent figures. When Thomas Aquinas, for example, was condemned by the bishop of Paris in 1277 it was, if anything, because his writings pushed the boundaries of rational thinking to their absolute limit.i But Aquinas formulated his position from a faith perspective; it was where his Catholicism led him.
Thankfully, Grayling’s exploration of what might replace religion was a little more impressive. The chapters ‘Humanism and the Good Life’ and ‘Putting the World to Rights’ were interesting introductions to what is required for a dignified and meaningful life minus theism’s reliance on an external and transcendent source of morality. This includes extolling the Kantian virtues of each individual person acquiring the powers of critical reasoning independently of tradition or orthodoxy (pp.171-2) and defending the idea of universal human rights (p.179). There were also some interesting allusions to the utilitarian liberalism of J.S. Mill in the chapter where humanist approaches to love, sex and drugs are outlined. This is in order to demonstrate how, in particular, institutionalised religious moralism has often threatened individual self-determination. In the chapter ‘Shared Humanity’ he identifies ‘objective facts about human needs and interests that constrain any possible morality’ (p.187) such as the need for a dignified, fulfilled existence free from poverty, fear and pain (as much as possible). This discussion of individual rights is accompanied by an outline of how humanists might harmonise them with the interests of a shared (i.e. social) humanity. For example, in relation to divorce he tells us humanism respects the right of the individual not to be constrained by social (and especially religious) moral codes while remaining sensitive to the social impact of divorce (especially on children).
The point isn’t so much about the nuances of a humanist approach to such issues, but rather how it is, in principle, possible to formulate a workable morality without recourse to a divine moral architect. But once again, Grayling denies that religion could offer anything other than an obstacle to the realisation of such ideas. This is most unfortunate because it misses the opportunity to identify the rich history of subversion and anti-establishment polemic that is to be found in so much of scripture. Ranging from the Adamic rebellion against the repressive and de-humanising authority of the jealous and wrathful Yahweh, to the transformed God of Exodus leading his people out of oppression, to the rebellious and anti-establishment figure of Jesus in the New Testament.ii
Grayling makes the surprising claim that the ‘institutionalisation of religion is a matter of record, and is one of the principal reasons that religion has survived for so long’ (p.37). While the claim that institutionalisation has facilitated theism’s longevity may be partly true, what this argument ignores is the possibility that its greatest appeal has been when it has been subversive, even emancipatory in its intent, appealing to revolutionary movements who have struggled against institutionalised oppression.
I presume Grayling would reject any attempt to present him as a utopian thinker, but in his musing on the post-religious world he has a tendency to evoke images of a secular liberal democratic paradise, now the primary motivation for hatred and division has been dumped on the rubbish heap of history. It is an unfortunate irony that if one wishes to explore the humanist utopia’s core principles, that Grayling highlights as viable (and in his view superior) alternatives to those derived from theistic metaphysics, the first port of call should be precisely the religious tradition he despises. For amongst the swathes of material inimical to modern liberal values to be found in scripture there are also the gold-bearing seams of a liberating undercurrent. It is a shame that Grayling, along with the other horsemen of New Atheism, does not take the time to see it.
Bloch, E. 2009. Atheism in Christianity: The Religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom. London: Verso.
Dawkins, R. 2006. The God Delusion. London: Bantam.
Grayling, A.C. 2013 The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and For Humanism. London: Bloomsbury.
Hannam, J. 2009. God’s Philosopher’s: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science. London: Icon.
Harris, S. 2004. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. London: The Free Press.
Hitchens, Christopher. 2007. God is Not Great: The Case Against Religion. London: Atlantic Books.
Jolyon Agar teaches religion and political thought at Queen’s University Belfast. He is author of Post-Secularism, Realism and Utopia: Transcendence and Immanence from Hegel to Bloch (Routledge 2014) and Rethinking Marxism: From Kant and Hegel to Marx and Engels (Routledge 2006).