Written by TLC
If the subtitle of this book sets out Grayling’s objective, the gravamen of the book is found in this passage at page 14: ‘Whereas there are other sources of individual comfort and inspiration that are far better than religion – they include love and friendship, family life, art, the pursuit of knowledge and, as noted, the outlook and principles of humanism – there are very few sources of conflict and mental enslavement as bad as ideology which demands self-abnegation by submission to its dogma and to the self-appointed interpreters of its dogmas. Religion is the paradigm of this.’ Discussions about religion often creates offence because it touches on emotive and deeply felt beliefs on one side and the denial of those beliefs by the other. Grayling may appear blunt (some theists may think him rude and arrogant), but he is merely stating his arguments and politeness and euphemism will sacrifice accuracy and clarity for ambiguity and vagueness. Other atheist writers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are often labelled ‘militant atheists’. In their defence, Grayling argues that there is no such thing as a militant atheist. A theist believes in the existence of God. The atheist does not. We either collect stamps or we don’t – ‘There’s no such thing as a militant non-stamp collector’.
In chapters 8 and 9, Grayling explains the refutation of conventional arguments for the existence of God such as the teleological argument and the ontological argument. These are simplified versions of well-established atheist responses to the theistic arguments, one by design and the other by definition. The former claims that ‘if there is a design, there must be a designer’, and the latter is that of St Anselm that a perfect being which is capable of contemplation must surely be capable of existence because, the argument goes, that which is real must surely be greater than that which is contemplated. Alvin Plantinga (theists’ most renowned modern philosophical champion) attempted a modern explanation after At Anselm’s argument was quickly shown to be absurd in many ways – not least that the same could be said of the devil or the Tooth Fairy. Plantinga’s version is simply that ‘there is a possible world in which something exists that is the greatest thing there can ever be (a thing which has maximal greatness). Therefore there is such a thing.’ Grayling points out the fundamental flaw in Plantinga’s argument in that it rests on the assumption of the existence of a best possible world. By extension of Grayling’s point, even if there were and this world is it, the greatest possible being here will fall far short of perfection. So the idea of an all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing being remains an idea crying out for proof.
Thereafter, Grayling goes to the heart of the book – Humanism and what it means. All discussions about good and bad, right and wrong bear directly on two aspects, namely, how we live our lives and how we treat others. The first is what ethics is about and the second is what morality is about. Before he discusses the distinction, Grayling examines the relevance of God in ‘the Good Life’. Reminding us that humanism is about learning to be good persons and living well, borrowing Greek (meglopsychos) and Latin (magna anima) terms to describe such persons, he explains that the English equivalent might be ‘gentleman’. He meant that ‘not in the social-class meaning, but as descriptive of a person who is considerate, upright, honest, and kind’. One should pause here and contemplate how this simple description is so much more helpful than all the words in the Bible, with its vague and often contradictory precepts. What exactly does the belief in the Christian God (as an example) do more than the humanist precepts? What do death-bed conversions achieve? The humanist believes that living well is the goal and death is the end. When we are at death’s door, there’s not much more we can do (hence the importance of living each day as if it is our last). Moreover, what does a death-bed convert understand by merely saying he believes in God? He might not have read a single word of the Bible. Knowledge of the Bible, it seems, is not essential. Theists have many explanations for all the irrationality and pettiness of their theists – Zeus, Jupiter, Jehovah – none of them make sense; all of them require the believer to suspend his sense of rationality and accept the irrational without question. That is what they call faith.
Death-bed conversions can only have significance if there is something to gain. That would be the Christian promise of eternal life. Sometimes the promise is made in the form of a pass to heaven. Humanists often wonder why anyone would like to live forever (many Christians do not know the difference between forever and eternal – eternity is outside time. Birth and death take place within time), or why would we want to be in heaven. The Christian anxiety of getting their loved ones to convert at the death-bed must mean that the fate to be averted must be most horrible indeed. Should we really be happy in heaven if we see our loved ones burning in hell? Indeed, the humanist will not find heaven a happy place if he were to bask in glory and joy, yet knowing that lots of people are being tormented in hell. The humanist will not find joy even if the ones burning in hell were strangers and not his loved ones. What does a death-bed conversion achieve anyway? What would the conversion of an ignorant illiterate achieve if his understanding of his answer to the question ‘Do you accept Christ as your saviour and Lord?’ differs from that of the person who posed the question? The humanist will find a God who sends some people to heaven and despatches others to eternal damnation in such arbitrary ways, absolutely nasty; and if such a being exists, no humanist will find him worthy of worship.
Grayling is right in saying that there are far more serious moral problems in the world. These include ‘violations of human rights, war and civil war genocide, the arms trade, poverty, inequality and injustice, the continuance of slavery under other disguises, and the bitter religious antipathies that scar the face of humanity with conflict’. Those problems he says, makes ‘the parochial and reactionary concerns over sex and drugs, hostility to gays, misguided campaigns about the teaching of biological evolution in schools, and other matters’ appear trivial in comparison. What is unjustifiable is the way the big moral problems continue and even grow because of the self-interest of the parties who might be able to solve or reduce them. We need to plod on honestly and with altruistic intentions to be the best we can as persons so that the world we leave behind will be better after us. Thus Grayling asks, ‘if interest in and concern for one’s fellows is a reason for being moral, what relevance does the existence of a deity have? Why cannot we accept that we are prompted to the ethical life by these natural human feelings? The existence of a god adds nothing, other than an invisible policeman who sees what we do always and everywhere, even when we are alone in the dark, and who rewards and punishes accordingly.’ He explains that gods add nothing to the study of ethical life since it offers fear and threats and even violent sufferings. Such things are what ‘the moral life seeks to liberate us from’. Liberation from such threats as offered by religion ‘is the desideratum of humanist morality.’