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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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details:

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear