Reviewed: The God Argument by A C Grayling

Apocalypse now.

Richard Dawkins, notable atheist. Photograph: Getty Images

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