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

Illustration by James Albon
Show Hide image

The life and times of the London cycle courier

Bike messengers no longer comprise the militia they resembled when the Tories were turning London into a city of finance. But they still trail a thrillingly reckless air of romance.

It was as if I’d accidentally stumbled into some secret cell from which an insurrection was being planned. The four or five mechanics and cycle couriers loosely clustered around the counter, costumed in black clothes that seemed, impossibly, to be skinny and baggy at the same time, had an arachnid quality to them. Static crackled from the radios clipped to their shoulders on the tarpaulin courier bags that arced over their backs like a carapace. They looked like the conspirators of an anarchist revolution, rebuilding bikes from greasy cogs and oil-stained bits of metal as if they were bombs. I was almost disappointed when the one standing behind the counter proved to be cheerfully friendly. Suddenly, they looked endearingly like twentysomething Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were the heroic phase in the history of the bicycle courier. London’s roads were arteriosclerotic with traffic, so courier firms that had once despatched vans, motorbikes and scooters across the city increasingly resorted to bike messengers, who were as nimble as they were cheap. The internet hadn’t yet made them half redundant, relegating them to the role of delivering documents that ­require a signature from Soho to the City, or  conveying portable corporate gifts from the City to Mayfair.

In these years the messengers visibly became a tribe. They acquired a more uniform appearance, albeit one that accommodated individual eccentricities; they devised a dialect to lubricate radio communication between couriers and controllers; identified an unofficial headquarters, a bar in Shoreditch called the Foundry; and developed their own rituals of belonging, including the Cycle Messenger World Championships. This annual event, inaugurated in Berlin in 1993, was hosted in London in 1994, when approximately 500 couriers from Europe and the US as well as the UK attended. This is roughly the number of couriers who still fling themselves along the streets of London today, in far more embattled conditions.

It was in 1993, at the acme of the profession and its associated subculture, that the then prime minister, John Major, speaking to the Conservative Group for Europe, made an infamous prognostication about the future of Britain, in which he misused George Orwell’s reference to “hiking” from his essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” (1941). “Fifty years on from now,” Major prophesied, “Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and Pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – ‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’ . . .” In contrast to this pastoral fantasy, bike messengers seemed to herald a feral future in which, at evening rush hour, as traffic fumes thicken, the congested lanes and streets of cities are convulsed with semi-vagrant, rodent cyclists, all of them addicted to danger, competing with suicidal energy in so-called “alleycat” races.

Major’s imaginary old maids, ideologically speaking, were the sisters of those honest, industrious Englishmen whom Norman Tebbit invoked in 1981 when, as Margaret Thatcher’s employment secretary, he made his notorious claim that, instead of rioting like the current generation of unemployed, his father had “got on his bike and looked for work”. When a cycle courier got on his bike, he wasn’t looking for work, he was working. In this sense, the bike messengers out-tebbited Tebbit. Yet their untamed appearance and their countercultural attitudes aligned them with the sorts of people who relished a riot – the New Age travellers and class warriors who, in the pages of the tabloid press, threatened to stain Thatcher, Tebbit and Major’s pristine vision for Britain. At a time when cycling, in Britain’s political imagination, seemed in danger of becoming an emblematically Conservative activity, cycle couriers were fifth columnists.

Bike messengers no longer comprise the ragged but glorious militia they resembled when the Tories were assaulting London and reconstructing it as a centre of finance. They no longer look like desperadoes or mercenaries among the armies of conventional commuters that traverse the city. But they still trail a derelict charm and a thrillingly reckless air of romance as they hurtle through the streets. Indeed, in some respects, their piratical appeal has grown.

Cycle couriers have managed to survive in the city’s increasingly competitive ecology, subsisting even though a deadly combination of emails and Uber cabs threatens to render them extinct. Such is the persistent value of the autograph (as opposed to some kind of electronic fingerprint, say) that signed documents still need to be ferried from door to door; such is the capital’s ongoing road congestion (and the congestion charge) that it is still quicker to cross it on two wheels than four. Their heightened appeal, though, can perhaps be explained by the fact that they look so attractively fierce and undomesticated beside more rarefied species of cyclists that have evolved in London over the past couple of decades. Among these, the most prominent are middle-aged men in Lycra shorts on racing bikes; commuters in suits on fold-up bikes; and tourists, foreign and domestic, in chinos on bank-branded public hire bikes. (A recent addition to this list is the newest subspecies of courier, employed by the food delivery service Deliveroo. With the only job requirements being to own a bicycle and a smartphone, they can be seen in increasing numbers, huffing and puffing up mild inclines and wobbling under the weight of their giant backpack-boxes full of chow.)

The cycle courier also looks far tougher, far better adapted to the remorseless daily demands of urban life, than another, rather more populous metropolitan species: the hipster. The hipster may or may not be a cyclist: if he rides, it will most likely be a showy, courier-aping, customised “fixie” (fixed-gear) bike. But whether on wheels or on foot, with his spindly legs rigid in drainpipes instead of agile in tights and cut-off combat pants, his beard absurdly sculpted instead of attractively disordered by the force of the elements, the hipster is an ossified, etiolated, even decadent descendant of the cycle courier. In the contemporary capital’s mythological bestiary, bike messengers, their lower bodies inseparable from the sleek metal frames of the machines on which they balance, are the city’s centaurs; hipsters, its plodding satyrs. Messengers, as Emily Chappell explains in the glossary that concludes her new book about being a courier, have a portmanteau term of contempt for “urban cyclists who adopt the supposed style and attitude of cycle couriers without ever having worked as one”: “fakengers”.

Chappell’s book, What Goes Around: a London Cycle Courier’s Story (Guardian Faber), which is fascinating for offering a ­female courier’s memoir of a predominantly male culture, is one of no fewer than three to have been published by couriers or former couriers about the city’s cycle-life in the space of six months. The others are Jon Day’s Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier (Notting Hill Editions), a learned handbook on cycling that dignifies cyclists as psychogeographers; and Julian Sayarer’s Messengers: City Tales from a London Bicycle Courier (Arcadia), the most combatively political of the three.

Sayarer’s memoir drily characterises couriering as “the best of all the worst jobs in the world”. In his prologue, he describes a phone conversation in which his agent tries to persuade him to produce a manuscript “about bicycles, and the city”. When Sayarer expresses his reluctance to write another book about “punctures and brakepads” at a publisher’s insistence, the agent admonishes: “If you don’t, mark my words, they will find a name instead of yours to put on that spine!” It transpires that they could have put the names of at least three authors on the spine, all of them highly accomplished prose stylists and compelling narrators.

All three books read a little like threnodies; and it is tempting to see them as symptoms of a subculture that is becoming increasingly conscious of the need to memorialise itself precisely because it is under threat. Chappell, Day and Sayarer feel like anthropologists scrambling to record the language of a threatened tribe; they are compiling a semiotics of urban cycling in the face of its fatal transformation. As the appearance of boutique bike shops, cycle superhighways and bank-sponsored hire bikes implies, if bicycling in 21st-century London is being promoted by politicians, it is also being sanitised, rationalised and privatised.

Revealingly, in his “mayoral foreword” to a document published by Transport for London (TfL) in 2010, Boris Johnson underlined his determination to turn London into what, in a clumsy and faintly sinister portmanteau term, he called “a cyclised city” – “a civilised city where people can ride their bikes safely and easily in a pleasant environment”. Everyone wants to be able to ride their bike safely, and the vast majority of cyclists want Johnson to stop orating and instead introduce stringent legislation to prevent HGVs from killing them at traffic junctions. But not everyone who wants to cycle safely wants London to become a “pleasant environment”. I don’t; and it certainly wouldn’t still be London if it did.

***

In the civilised city of TfL’s “Cycling Revolution”, the commuters, fakengers and sightseers pedalling along the superhighways are inadvertently erasing the record of cycle couriers who pioneered them. The books by Chappell, Day and Sayarer restore the record. Each contains detailed, often vivid descriptions of, for example, the punitive physical discipline that the job demands, which quickly becomes an addiction; the jerry-rigging of equipment fatigued by the road; the encounters with blank-faced representatives of corporate offices; gatherings of the tribe at the likes of the Foundry; the run-ins with black-cab drivers; and, most gripping of all, the alleycat races.

Day recounts one particular race, designed by his brother, also a courier, to be “an urban steeplechase with a fox-hunt theme”. Attaching a fox’s tail to his belt loop and strapping a plastic container filled with liquid to his back, his brother set off through the traffic on his bike, sputtering a trail of white paint through his rear wheel. After a short time, Day himself signalled the beginning of the race with the blast of a horn. “We followed the paint that lay in a splattered line on the tarmac, competing with the other street markings and tracing a ghostly outline of my brother’s journey,” he writes with characteristic flourish.

Sayarer provides a second-hand account of the same alleycat race in his own book. Day’s brother makes an appearance under the identity used by controllers on the couriers’ radio system: “Two-Four brings me up to speed with his life and tells me about his last alleycat: the fox hunt.” Day also plays a cameo role in Chappell’s book, in the guise of the courier “who was now waiting for his DPhil viva to roll around before finally moving on to lecture in modernist fiction at King’s College”. At times it really is as if the names of all three of them appear on the spine of the same book.

Reading these absorbing accounts of bike messengers’ struggle to subsist on the roads of London, the only thing I felt was missing was a sense of the angry inner monologue that, surely, shapes their consciousness as they cycle through the relentlessly hostile traffic. For the most part, admirably, and aside from a few vituperative references to cabbies or cops, Chappell, Day and Sayarer seem “to float above the chaos and ­friction of the city with an unfailing smile” (as Chappell puts it, describing another female courier). When I cycle, I maintain a constant, resentful running commentary, at times all too audible, on the confrontational or careless drivers who threaten to knock me on to the road. It seems hard to believe that professional couriers don’t suffer from the same psychosis: cyclosis.

Matthew Beaumont is the author of “Nightwalking: a Nocturnal History of London” (Verso)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle