Reviewed: The God Argument by A C Grayling

Apocalypse now.

The God Argument: the Case Against Religion and for Humanism
A C Grayling
Bloomsbury, 288pp, £16.99

Years ago, I asked Richard Dawkins what his next book was about.

“God,” he replied.

“But,” I responded in a state of shock, “why?”

Dawkins’s 2006 book, The God Delusion, sold around the world, so, perhaps, that answered my question. More seriously, in the wake of 9/11 and in the midst of the anti- scientific demands of American fundamentalists, it could be argued that an anti-religious book was a necessary corrective. There were many such books, the most influential being by the group known as the “four horsemen” of the anti-religious apocalypse – Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett.

With this book, the philosopher A C Grayling announces himself as the fifth horseman. He is very conscious of being a member of this club. In the acknowledgements, he writes of other anti-religious writers as “comrades in the task” and “colleagues and fellows in the cause”. The cause seems to be to extend a humanist awakening to the people of the world and thereby free them from religion, which is, Grayling admits, “a pervasive fact of history” but also “a hangover from the infancy of modern humanity”.

The book is not intended as a reprise of the arguments of the other horseman comrades; rather, it aims to extend the battlefront. The book is in two halves – the first is Grayling’s case against religion; the second outlines the humanist alternative, which is “an ethics free from religious or superstitious aspects, an outlook that has its roots in rich philosophical traditions”.

First, to take the book on its own terms, this is a lucid, informative and admirably accessible account of the atheist-secular- humanist position. Grayling writes with pace and purpose and provides powerful – though non-lethal – ammunition for anybody wishing to shoot down intelligent theists such as Alvin Plantinga or to dispatch even the most sophisticated theological arguments, such as the ontological proof of the existence of God. That said, the first half, which is in essence analytical, is much better than the second half, which is rather discursive and feels almost tract-like in its evocation of shiny, happy people having fun in a humanist paradise. Nevertheless, this is rhetorically justifiable to the extent that it is an attempt to answer the question necessarily posed by any attempt to eliminate religion – what would be put in its place? Even the most rabid followers of the horsemen cannot seriously deny that religion does serve some useful purposes: providing a sense of community, consoling the bereaved and the suffering, telling a story to make sense of the world, and so on. Grayling tells a humanist story in the belief that it is perfectly capable of answering all these needs.

There are flaws in all this. For example, Grayling breezily dismisses Stalinism and Maoism as being “counter-Enlightenment” forces. Communism, however, was an Enlightenment project based on a belief in reason to reorder human affairs. You may say Stalin and Mao were communist aberrations but then the Catholic Church could legitimately claim forgiveness for the Spanish Inquisition and the slaughter of the Cathars on the same grounds.

There is also an irritating and highly self-serving argument that appears in various forms throughout the book. This seems to be an attempt to delegitimise all religious discourse. “Atheism,” Grayling writes, “is to theism as not stamp-collecting is to stamp-collecting.” In other words, not to be a stamp collector “denotes only the open-ended and negative state of not collecting stamps”. Equally, not being a theist is not a positive condition; it merely says this person “does not even begin to enter the domain of discourse in which these beliefs have their life and content”. The word “atheist”, therefore, is misleading; the phrase “militant atheist” doubly so.

This is silly. First, “militant atheist” is a phrase that Grayling justifies by his talk of comrades and causes. If he really believes this argument, he shouldn’t have written this book. Second, this is a transparent ruse to get the four (or five) horsemen off the charge that they write about religion while knowing nothing of theology. If religion is treated as a child-like superstition – like the belief in fairies – then there is no need to understand it in detail and, of course, this particular superstition is also dangerous and should therefore be exposed as well as refuted, if not in detail.

You may agree with this but consider the implications of where Grayling’s argument leads. He writes that the “respect agenda” – the tolerance of religious beliefs – is at an end. Is that really where atheists want to go?

At this point, the book needs discussing in a wider context. Western humanism in its present incarnation is a very small sect in the context of global beliefs and world views. The idea, advanced in this book, that it could and should become a world ideology is both wildly improbable and extremely dubious. Like it or not, religions are here to stay. Grayling sort of gets round this by ignoring the primary argument for their continued existence – that religion is a beneficial adaptation. He argues that religion is kept in place by, in essence, political power. This is altogether too weak and too inconsistent to explain the prevalence of religion and most thinkers accept some sort of evolutionary explanation. If you do accept at least some version of the adaptive argument – or, indeed, if you are a believer – then the study of religion becomes an obligation. 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. It will also make it impossible for you to understand the St Matthew Passion, Chartres Cathedral and the films of Andrei Tarkovsky.

The broad point is that Grayling, like the other horsemen, 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. When another atheist, Alain de Botton, gently suggested that non-believers might have something to learn from religion, he was immediately trampled on by the horsemen. But what religion has to offer is a great mountain of insights into the human realm. Belief, in this context, is beside the point. Reading John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, the Fire Sermon or the Sermon on the Mount will teach you more about the human condition than anything written by the horsemen.

The reason I was baffled by Dawkins’s decision to write a book on God was that all of the above seemed to me self-evident. It still does. We know that there are strong arguments against religious belief and we know that religious belief is a human constant. We also know that it will always be too early – and too dangerous – to say that our science has advanced far enough to justify a fundamental re-engineering of the human realm in the name of humanism. I enjoyed reading Grayling’s book and I still ended up asking, “But why?”

Bryan Appleyard’s most recent book is “The Brain is Wider Than the Sky: Why Simple Solutions Don’t Work in a Complex World” (Phoenix, £9.99). Follow him on Twitter: @bryanappleyard

Richard Dawkins, notable atheist. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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Why do videogames only ever show one kind of apocalypse?

There’s more to post-apocalyptic fictions than desert wastelands and nuclear disaster, but you’d never know it looking at the games we play.

There is bravery inherent to apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic works of fiction. To attempt to portray the future of humankind in the wake of catastrophe, to imagine our species eking out a living in the smashed remnants of our former civilisation, this demands that a creator face up to the painful idea that our world as we know it will end. It requires the skill to create characters and situations that resonate with us, even though they are based in an ended world.

It is a field that has spawned some powerful, moving and thought provoking works. But for some reason, when it comes to videogames, this manifests itself as a lot of stories about men in deserts who look like they’re going to ice hockey practice in dune buggies and hordes of shambling zombies who have overwhelmed the army but can be resisted by isolated pockets of plucky survivors.

In general the post-apocalyptic scenarios tend to fall into these camps. The desert wastelands in the distant wake of a nuclear apocalypse have become a standard setting. The Fallout and Wasteland series set the tone here and both have endured to this day, albeit with something of a hiatus for Wasteland. With new Fallout and a Mad Max games coming this year this setting isn’t going away any time soon.

The alternative apocalypse in games tends to be disease-based, usually with a side-order of zombies or similar monsters so that our heroic survivors have somebody to kill. The Left 4 Dead, Last of Us and Resident Evil games all fit this profile.

There are a lot of appealing elements about setting a game after the fall of society. For example, you get to keep modern frames of reference and have relatable characters having adventures, being the big hero and shooting everybody they see. There’s a clear appeal to having a familiar hero unleashed in a suddenly hostile world and there is a sense that the fall of society is less of a tragedy in such games and more of a release, that the game is letting you know that you’re on your own and free to do what you like.

Something lacking in post-apocalyptic games, however, is the bravery that I spoke of at the start. During the Cold War a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction was based upon the idea that a catastrophic nuclear war had obliterated society. This fear was real, because between the Cuban Missile Crisis, a couple of near-misses and the collapse of the Soviet Union there was ample opportunity for the world to blow up. Looking back at films like Threads or When the Wind Blows, they spoke to a very real fear that world leaders might one day see fit to throw civilisation under the bus for reasons that probably wouldn’t have made a lot of sense to the people being vaporised on the streets of New York, London or Moscow.

Fast forward into the twenty-first century and for games at least the apocalyptic visions are either based in nostalgic worries about nuclear wars that never happened or the pure fantasy of a zombie horde. Where visions of the end of the world were once scary, now they are comfortable silliness. Here we are, as technologically advanced and for the most part as comfortable as our species has ever been, and we laugh at the notion that it might all end. We survived the Cold War and we got the Frankie Says T-shirts, so what is there to be scared of? Nothing, apparently.

Yet in the twenty-first century we face our own apocalypse. If climate change is not dealt with urgently then it will cause incalculable damage to civilisation as we know it, perhaps even destroy it. The science that is telling us that climate change is real and will have terrible consequences is as solid as the science that tells us what happens when a hydrogen bomb is detonated. But we don’t speak of it in fiction and especially not in video games, at least not often.

Herein is the problem endemic to video games with a post-apocalyptic setting. They don’t have the courage to be gloomy. Games have been post-apocalyptic and had downbeat stories, such as The Last of Us or The Walking Dead, but these games are still careful to ensure that the actual apocalypse itself is fantastical. There has been no equivalent to these games dealing with problems that might or are actually occurring.

Even when a game touches upon climate change it is seldom willing to see it as a bad thing. Anno 2077 is set after the seas have risen and the old world order has collapsed, and it ends up being a cutesy city building game where you build thriving super-modern metropolises on islands. Civilisation: Beyond Earth sees the collapse of Earth’s ecosystem as the trigger for a space adventure. The end of the world is seen as a kick in the pants to start a glorious new age. The design fixation of games, to go forward and build bigger is completely at odds with a reality that is screaming at us to dial everything back if we are to avoid catastrophe.

Ironically, one game that has looked at the contemporary consequences of severe climate change is Attila: Total War, a game set in the fifth century. By having the world get colder it demonstrates what can happen when habitable spaces shrink and people are crammed into what remains. It is no small feat of design to set a game in the dark ages and have it resonate with contemporary concerns, from climate change to mass migration and the gradual collapse of established power structures.

In the end, games love dune buggies and deserts and shooting zombies in the face. They love levelling up, unlocking new things, expanding into new lands. They don’t love entropy and they don’t love loss. We have seen great games in post-apocalyptic settings, but we might never see a game that evokes the sort of real world dread that a post-apocalyptic story should.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture