Religion has established for itself quite a confident degree of job security. At the mere suggestion of shedding the shackles of religious faith, one is often confronted with a barrage of questions about where our world would be in terms of morality, art, and hope, in the absence of dogmas and deities. Somehow, even in the 21st century, religion is still seen by many as a necessary component of a life well lived. This is not entirely the fault of pro-religious propaganda, however. A frequent criticism of the so-called New Atheists has been that they have not offered a fleshed-out, coherent replacement for religion. This criticism has merit precisely because religion has entrenched itself so deeply that many men and women cannot picture how one could possibly enjoy life in any substantial way without some sort of belief in a higher power.
The God Argument, at first glance, may seem like a late attempt to cash in on the furor initiated by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and the other New Atheists. On the contrary, though, it stands apart from its predecessors in some interesting and important ways, one being that it mounts a defense for humanism as the better alternative to religion. As professor of philosophy at the New College of the Humanities in London, Dr. Grayling is familiar both with the philosophical debate over god’s existence and with the nuances and challenges of subjects like ethics and epistemology. However, at 258 pages, The God Argument is more of an introductory work for laymen than a treatise on any of these subjects.
The book is divided into two sections, the first “Against Religion”, and the second “For Humanism”. Commendably, Grayling begins the first two chapters by defining terms like ‘religion’, ‘god’, ‘superstition’, and ‘ideology’ – something I have unfortunately seen little of in other atheist books. One might complain over the simplistic definition given to religion, which is belief related to deities, but considering the title and purpose of Dr. Grayling’s book, I find it an excusable simplification. What is not so excusable is the totally insufficient coverage of the “Origins of Religion” in a mere five and a half pages, with – I kid you not – no source citations whatsoever. Grayling offers the standard story of how our primitive ancestors invoked supernatural explanations for unknown natural phenomena like lightning, he brings up the frauds and charlatans that saw the usefulness in religion, and he briefly discusses social reinforcement in the example of faith schools in Britain. Yet there is a rich and fascinating history of religion covered by archaeology, sociology, and other disciplines, that he avoids entirely, sadly seeming to prefer speculation to empirical evidence in his third chapter.
Where the author excels, though, in the section on religion, is in his systematic takedown of the justifications for belief in god and some of the commonplace objections to the New Atheists. Grayling starts off strong with a chapter addressing the problems with the god concept, such as its linguistic vacuousness, the clash of attributes like justice and mercy in a perfect being, the poorly understood attribute of omnipotence, and the threat to divine benevolence posed by the problem of evil. Following suit, he covers in other chapters the burden of proof, the distinction between knowledge and belief, the difference between atheism and agnosticism, and explains how internal discussions about theological minutiae are not valid counter-arguments to the more basic critiques of faith leveled by atheists. The first seven chapters lay the ground work for the next four, but are just as integral to the overall case against religion.
First, Grayling goes after the design argument, briefly discussing Paley’s formulation of it, as well as Hume’s three point refutation. Hume argued that analogies between natural things and man-made things are weak and misleading; I would venture to say they commit the question-begging fallacy, because man-made objects, by definition, imply design. Hume also contended that design arguments tend to ignore alternative natural explanations, and can only support the existence of a designer, not a creator (if this seems an odd distinction, think of the different skill sets employed by those who design a building via blueprints, for example, and those who actually create or erect the building). To these points, Grayling adds the problem of attempting to explain something unknown by appealing to something else unknown, as well as the presence of ‘bad design’ evidenced by mass extinctions, the appendix, and wisdom teeth, to name a slim few.
Next, the ontological argument is addressed, and again Grayling seems to hit all the important notes. Immanuel Kant dealt a major blow to the argument by showing that existence is not a property, which Anselm took it to be in proposing that the greatest possible being would have to be one that exists. Existence cannot be a property, Kant explained, because for anything to have properties as we understand them, it must first exist. Additionally, Grayling critiques a similar argument used by Alvin Plantinga, and makes the astute observation that the notion of a ‘most perfect being’ assumes that there are varying degrees of perfection. It may be true to say that some things are closer to perfection than others, but they still would not be perfect, nor is it as comprehensible to speak of something being ‘more perfect’ as it is to speak of something being ‘less imperfect’.
Chapter 10 covers the first cause, or cosmological, argument, Pascal’s Wager, and the moral argument. Citing Hume again, Grayling exposes the first cause argument as guilty of the fallacy of composition. If one explains each individual contingent thing in the universe, she thereby explains the universe, too. To suppose that the universe as a whole still requires an explanation is to reason fallaciously, because a collection or set of things, like the universe, is its individual members. Grayling then offers the standard objections to Pascal, such as miscalculating the odds and consequences of belief, and putting the emphasis on comfort instead of truth, and moves on to the moral argument. Disappointingly, the author claims that “good atheists” refute the moral argument – an overly simplistic view – and offers little more of substance on morality until the second section.
Finally, the case against religion is drawn to a close with a chapter on Intelligent Design and creationism. A brief history of creationism is given, along with a lambasting of the “God did it” explanation (or rather non-explanation), and a point or two of criticism on the notion of evolution and religion being compatible. Along with the chapter on the origins of religion, this is perhaps one of the least satisfying chapters in The God Argument, preferring polemicism and speculative mind-reading to empirical evidence. No attempt is really made to deal with the actual arguments put forward by creationists or design advocates. They have been refuted countless times, to be sure, but it feels all the more irresponsible on Grayling’s part that he neglects to address even a single example.
While there is much quality material in the first section of The God Argument, I feel Grayling really stands out both as a philosopher and writer in the second half of the book. Kicking things off for part two, he begins by outlining three debates he will juggle throughout his defense of humanism: the theism-atheism debate, the secularism debate, and the debate over the source of morality.
Professor Grayling traces the roots of humanism to classical Greece, but also locates its influence in Eastern teachings like those in Confucianism and the non-theistic ethical schools of India. He credits Cicero and the Renaissance with renewing interest in humanist principles, which continued on to the Enlightenment, and, in a somewhat diluted form, has come down to the modern world. Grayling compiles a masterful list of inspirational humanist thinkers, including such figures as Epicurus, Voltaire, Averroes, Spinoza, Ingersoll, Twain, Nietzsche, Russell, and Ayer, (interestingly) culminating with the New Atheists.
The two main premises of humanism, according to Grayling, are:
2. Morality must be drawn from the nature and circumstances of human experience.
Historically, humanism has not always entailed the first premise. In fact, many of the influential figures cited by Grayling, as well as the majority of persons living in the time periods and regions he identifies as humanistic, were believers in the supernatural. The understanding of humanism as specifically non-theistic or atheistic seems to have gradually developed from ideas like August Comte’s Religion of Humanity and the first Humanist Manifesto published in 1933. Despite the relative recency of this particular view of the humanist philosophy, neither of Grayling’s premises should seem all that troubling, considering that his intent is not to propose a framework even religious believers can live by, but to offer something that can supplant the positive aspects of religion for those who are non-believers. However, humanism is unlike faith in that it doesn’t oppose facts and reason, Grayling says, and it is unlike religion in that it entails no obligations but to think for yourself.
The primary area of focus in the defense of humanism is one of ethics and morality. This is fairly unsurprising, since even those who do not profess a belief in the supernatural may still often regard religion as a necessity, because they think that it motivates moral behavior in some sense, or keeps the barbarians at bay, so to speak. For humanists, though, Grayling reminds us that “our duty is not to submit to the teachings of a system, but to learn from the best such teachings for our own individual use.” Rather than subscribing to one pre-ordained worldview, the autonomous and rational thinker will seek out and esteem whatever stands up to scrutiny, no matter the source. “[O]ne of the goods of the quest to understand what the good life should be,” he states, “is the quest itself.”
Of course, religious critics may say this is all looks nice on paper, but without an objective basis, such ‘picking and choosing’ and exaltation of the quest for the good will lead nowhere meaningful or reliable. What about those who would pick the wrong things, or who would lazily drift along the stream of life without much care for others? Though he doesn’t go into tremendous detail, Grayling assures us, “there are objective facts about human needs and interests that constrain any possible morality.” What sane, rational person wishes to be deprived of the things that make this life worth living? What sane, rational person does not consider the consequences in association with their own interests?
…if we know others lack the necessary conditions for human flourishing, we have an obligation to play our part in remedying that situation… such problems might and probably will become a problem for [us] too – in the way of crime, revolution, conflict, or the breakdown of the social order.
…when we understand that there is great variety among human needs and interests, we must accept and tolerate it, and be open-minded… our freedom to choose and act must not result in harm to others, or prevent them from pursuing their aims under the same constraints.2
Dr. Grayling identifies seven characteristics he believes are important in leading a good life. Among them are such time-tested fruits of the human experience as having intimacy and love with others, finding meaning and purpose from life, living honestly and authentically, manifesting autonomy and responsibility, and possessing integrity. There are different versions of the good life too, he agrees – different ways of achieving these characteristics. What would one gain to add a deity to these sorts of considerations? Moving on to the topics of love, sex, drugs, and death, Grayling also reveals the ways in which religion may interfere with a life well lived.
We have religion to thank for promoting shame and guilt over things like sexuality, love, death, abortion, and the use of certain natural substances. Even the disregard for other species, or for the environment, can be traced to religious reasoning in plenty of instances. This is not to pretend that such problems would not exist apart from religion, but to illustrate that throwing doctrines, dogmas, and deities into the mix can be seen as an impediment to living a productive, enjoyable life. In humanism there is the freedom not just to live more openly, but to live more responsibly, knowing that we make our own choices, unguided by any divinity, always susceptible to error, but also to reason.
I had the great fortune to meet Dr. Grayling in person at a convention when I purchased this book and got him to autograph it. Prior to picking up my copy, my familiarity with him and his work consisted mostly of some debates and radio interviews I had listened to. Not knowing what I was going into, I began reading The God Argument honestly expecting a rehashing of much of what has already been covered by the New Atheists. Having finished it, though, I actually lament that this was not the book to lead the charge back in 2006, instead of Dawkins’ The God Delusion. While both are good reads in their own right, Grayling excels in all of the areas where Dawkins was weakest: defining terms, going straight for the jugular of the theistic arguments, and offering a well-formulated and well-argued alternative to religion.
Of course, as I’ve pointed out, there are flaws with Grayling’s book, and the biggest one is that it tries to tackle so many complex issues in such short chapters. I feel like some of these flaws could have been severely lessened, or eliminated even, if Grayling had simply made more use of sources. For what it is, though, The God Argument is a great, hard-hitting critique of the common religious arguments, and a worthy introduction to the humanist philosophy. Those who are searching for a more respectful and informed alternative to the works of the New Atheists will be quite pleased with Grayling’s book, I believe, and those who are curious if it really has anything different to offer will find that it does.
1. A.C. Grayling, The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism (Bloomsbury: New York, 2013), p. 143.
2. Ibid, p. 193-194.
3. Ibid, p. 201.