July 13, 2014
A. C. Grayling, author of The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism, has a very impressive resume. He is not only a well-known British philosopher, but also a widely-read columnist, a public intellectual, a prominent educator, and a prolific writer.
He comes recommended to us by Massimo Pigliucci, the scientist, philosopher, and atheist referenced in Books on Science and Religion #6: More on Victor Stenger’s The God Hypothesis. Pigliucci criticizes prominent new Atheist writers – Dawkins, Stenger, and Harris – for scientism, holding them to be philosophically naive as well as anti-intellectual. Atheism needs philosophers, Pigliucci concludes:
What the atheist movement needs, therefore, is not a brute force turn toward science at the expense of everything else, but rather a more nuanced, comprehensive embracing of all the varied ways—intellectual as well as experiential—in which human beings acquire knowledge and develop understanding of their world. … this is precisely the direction toward which some post–New Atheism writers, such as De Botton and Grayling (not at all coincidentally, both philosophers) have been pushing most recently. (Pugliucci, New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement, p.152.)
And this is what Grayling’s book claims to offer. According to the Economist:
Mr. Grayling … claims (somewhat dubiously) to have written the first book “thoroughly and calmly to examine all the arguments offered in support of religious beliefs”, without the ill-temper that so often characterises many of these debates.
The first half of his book attacks both the human institution of religion and the intellectual idea of a God, or of supernatural beings in general. Mr Grayling is precise and incisive. He rattles through the standard arguments against the existence of God, and does a capable job of demolishing those put forward in the hope of proving a deity’s existence. (In Search of the Ungodly. The Economist, April 6, 2013.)
What then, are Grayling’s arguments against the existence of God and religion? Are they better than those advanced by Stenger, Harris, and Dawkins?
Grayling’s Arguments against the Existence of God
Grayling starts his argument against God and religion in time-honored fashion. Religion is “too often a source of harm from which the world needs liberation.” It “demands self-abnegation by submission to its dogmas and to the self-appointed interpreters of its dogmas” and is a “man-made affair.”
[Religion is] a belief in the existence of a god or gods and perhaps other being, that is, non-natural being either in or (if transcendent) outside, yet connected to, the universe, but also that the relation of these beings to the universe is significant – centrally, but least one of them being some or all of the universe’s creator, ruler and moral law giver. (Grayling,The God Argument, p.20)
He follows by describing the difficulties in pinning down an exact definition of God and the wide variety of ways that God is described – or not described – by various thinkers and in various religions. (Being an English philosopher who holds that clear definitions are of the utmost importance, he doesn’t approve of any definition which is inexact and he definitely doesn’t approve of what is sometimes called “God Talk”.) He then brings up the problem of evil, likening God to a parent who willingly allows harm to afflict his children by allowing things like natural disasters to take place. This means, he claims, that God that is more likely to be evil than good.
He then offers an anecdotal story about the origins of religion: “the picture that emerges is that religion stems from the period when stories, myths and supernaturalistic beliefs served as, in effect, mankind’s earliest science and technology.” This turns out, he claims, to have proven useful to politicians, kings, warlords, and the like.
For a man that only has a hammer, every problem is a nail.
Grayling is a professor of philosophy, so philosophy was bound to enter into the picture. Unsurprisingly, his view is that it is the philosopher who is qualified to decide what is true or not true (ignoring the problem that philosophers often disagree and the well-known fact that the modern age started only after scientists began to ignore long-established philosophical certainties).
Grayling’s approach is to claim that we are only entitled to consider ideas deemed appropriate by the authorities:
… the only propositions we are entitled to accept as premises for action and further though are those that it is rational to accept because they have passed the test of reason or observation or both. (Grayling, ibid, p. 49.)
On the strength of this claim, he starts an in-depth discussion of teapots orbiting Jupiter and fairies (I kid you not!) which lead him to the conclusion that “it is rational to believe the deliverance of common sense, practicality and science, and irrational to believe religious claims.” Then, after a discussion of fire-breathing-dragons (again, I kid you not!), he concludes that agnosticism is wishy-washy and that atheism is the only true path because – wait for it – the existence of God can’t be proven scientifically.
Next are the traditional theistic arguments for the existence of God – the argument from design, the ontological argument on the basis of reason, and the cosmological argument. On these, he can be quite good at summarizing old philosophical discussions, but he is overly-academic and doesn’t bring in anything new. Briefly, he dismisses the design argument, saying that the cause of all things cannot itself be something unexplained, and he dismisses the ontological and cosmological arguments on the basis of Kant’s dismissals. Creationism, intelligent design are (rightly, I believe) also dismissed, along with other philosophical arguments as well.
His conclusion seems preordained:
The cumulative case against religion shows it to be a hangover from the infancy of modern humanity, persistent and enduring because of the vested interests of religious organisations, proselytisation of children, complicity of temporal powers requiring the social and moral policing that religion offers, and human psychology itself.
Yet even a cursory overview of history tells us that it is one of the most destructive forces plaguing humanity.(Grayling, ibid, p.127.)
Yet it is impossible to follow any line of logic to these conclusions. Rather they appear to be loosely based on his anecdotes and opinions, perhaps acquired long ago. Probably, he believes that the arguments against various western theological arguments for God are so philosophically compelling that there is no need to delve into a persuasive analysis.
The second half of the book is a defense of humanism of the type popularized during the Enlightenment – his basic idea seems to be happy people unencumbered by religious hangups and ruled by reason and science.
Popular Philosophy – Or Ideology?
As an example of the vague and anecdotal arguments that Grayling makes in The God Argument, consider the following statement:
Religion is exactly the same kind of thing as astrology: it originates in the pre-scientific, rudimentary metaphysics of our ancestors. (Grayling, ibid, p. 43.)
Does Grayling really believe this? And does he really mean to imply that science and philosophy are also the “same kind of thing” as astrology? They too originated in the “pre-scientific, rudimentary metaphysics of our ancestors.” Or is he just not thinking clearly?
Consider his explanation for the persistence of religion:
To put matters at their simplest, the major reason for the continuance of religious belief in a world which otherwise might have long moved beyond it, is indoctrination of children before the reach the age or reason … (Grayling, ibid p. 13).
He is apparently unaware that the specter of state-indoctrination of children – one of the unfortunate realities of the modern world – looms threateningly behind this point of view.
Or consider his comments on the “weight of suffering that religious tyranny and conflict have generated.” Undoubtedly, religion has contributed to tyranny and conflict. But how can a reasoned and logical investigation – a fact-based, philosophically-sound accounting of causes and effects behind such tyranny and conflict – be carried out without an acknowledgement of the multiple other causes (including ideology, greed, social Darwinism, fascism, racism, communism, nationalism, the desire for plunder, colonialism, and the desire for power) that usually underlying tyranny and conflict
Or consider how he stands up for women, claiming that “religion-inspired suppression of women has robbed humanity of at least half of its potential creativity and genius.” Although suppression of women persists and is undoubtedly helped by contributions from retrograde religion, it is also clear that religion has played a major role in freeing women in the past. This he ignores. (For an fascinating current discussion of one aspect of this, see From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity for discussion of the changes in the status of women and in the Roman Empire after the adaptation of Christianity. For a summary, see Peter Brown‘s Rome: Sex and Freedom.)
And there are multiple other examples in this book, too many to be discussed here, of this type of giddy anecdote-based argument style.
The usual explanation for this lack of exactitude, this short-circuiting of logical argument, this lack of engagement with actual (as opposed to pre-supposed) religious history, or this lack of engagement with the thought of other thinkers is that popularization requires such things.
But, an alternative explanation to such an intellectual muddle is ideological certitude. If you know the answer, you can make vague anecdotal claims or cherry-pick the philosophical assumptions that support the answers you want. Opposing views can be dismissed as philosophically irrelevant.
How have the reviews been? Grayling is a English phenomena, so the mainstream reviews are in British newspapers. Usually, they are less than positive.
- In The Telegraph (AC Grayling’s Latest Attack on Faith Is Smug, Glib and Lamentable), Tom Payne claims that the The God Argument “is an anti-religious polemic enough to make even a hardened sceptic turn to God”. What The God Argument really offers, according to Payne, “are rebuttals of those who have sought to prove that there is a God. Before that, he’s devoted some time to making those who entertain a faith seem as silly as possible. When he comes to quoting a philosopher of faith, Alvin Plantinga, who accuses the New Atheists of ‘inane ridicule and burlesque’, you can see that Plantinga has a point.”
- In The Spectator (AC Grayling vs God), Peter Hitchens (brother of the new Atheist Christopher Hitchins) is equally unappreciative. It is “full of negative pettifogging narrowness, devoid of sympathy for opponents, empty of generosity or modesty, immune to poetry or mystery. … The rudest thing that I can say about it is that it is pretty much the same as all the other anti-God books. Like Scandinavian crime series on TV, these volumes trundle off the production lines every few months, asserting their authors’ enlightenment and emitting a nasty undertone of spite and intolerance”
- In The New Statesman (Reviewed: The God Argument by A C Grayling), Bryan Appleyard is more forgiving. Grayling’s book “is is a lucid, informative and admirably accessible account of the atheist-secular-humanist position. Grayling writes with pace and purpose.” But, he too is critical of Grayling’s approach: “The broad point is that Grayling … 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.” The truth is different, Appleyard thinks. “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”
- In the Guardian (The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and For Humanism by AC Grayling – Review), Jonathan Ree sees Grayling as a “grim absolutist … who think that knowledge must involve perfect communion with literal truth.” He thinks Grayling on the side of the fundamentalists: “Militant atheism makes the strangest bedfellows. Grayling sees himself as a champion of the Enlightenment, but in the old battle over the interpretation of religious texts he is on the side of conservative literalist fundamentalists rather than progressive critical liberals.”
- Also in the Guardian (The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism by AC Grayling – Review.) Julian Baggini writes that “there is much more to faith than a stone-age metaphysics of divine beings and miracles. Grayling, however, dismisses all the rest as the mere residue of an outdated worldview or the obfuscation of confused minds. For him, the matter is simple: all religion is built on supernatural beliefs and ‘when one rejects the premise of a set of views, it is a waste of one’s time to address what is built on those premises'”.
Does Grayling and The God Argument live up to its promise? Does it meet Massimo Pigliucci’s hope that it will be “a more nuanced, comprehensive embracing of all the varied ways—intellectual as well as experiential—in which human beings acquire knowledge and develop understanding of their world”?
My conclusion is that it does not. And it completely fails to deliver on what Grayling calls “the first book ‘thoroughly and calmly to examine all the arguments offered in support of religious beliefs'”. In actuality, it examines very few of those arguments, and the ones it does examine are approached in superficial, opinionated ways. In my opinion, it differs from the new Atheist approach mainly in that it replaces scientism with scientifically inspired “philosophism.”
The next blog switches sides. Maybe those who support both science and religion have a better and more comprehensive picture of things. Towards that end, we next review John Polkinghorne‘s 2011 Science and Religion in Quest of Truth. Polkinghorne, well before Grayling or Dawkins made it to the scene, explored the topic of the interaction of science and religion in detail.
This is the 7th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.