On the side of the Angels: A. C. Grayling

Of all the shady turns of phrase to have lodged themselves in the popular consciousness since the terrorist attacks of 2001, the term ‘Enlightenment fundamentalist’ is surely one of the shadiest. A version of the logical fallacy known as ‘the appeal to hypocrisy’, this ingenious bit of rhetorical jujitsu suggests that the enemies of religious obscurantism are no less intolerant than the religious extremists for whom they reserve their strongest criticisms. True, the fallacy is often bolstered by the ‘evangelical’ atheists themselves: that Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens chose to call themselves The Four Horsemen in a filmed conversation uploaded to YouTube was a gift to their religious opponents. Nevertheless, a fallacy it is. To say that the New Atheists – the self-styled ‘Brights’ – are morally or intellectually equivalent to the proselytisers for ancient religions is simply to make a category mistake.

In his new book, Professor A. C. Grayling gives the lie to this disingenuous equivalence. Though uncompromising in its criticisms of religion, The God Argument is infused with the spirit of tolerance, a spirit that derives from its author’s attachment to, and deep understanding of, philosophical humanism. That this humanism is also pressed into service to attack the now-ubiquitous claim that a world without religion is a world without morality makes Grayling’s book indispensable. As its single-subject subtitle suggests, the case against religion is not merely negative but contains within it the raw material for a far healthier system of morality – one predicated, not on fear, but on freedom.

In the first half of the book, the British philosopher makes the case against religion, which he defines as ‘a set of beliefs and practices focused on a god or gods’. Crucially, he meets head on the distinction between fundamentalist and moderate religion so beloved of the ‘religious apologists’. Faith, he suggests, is necessarily fundamentalist – is fundamentalist by definition – and as such always serves to incubate extremism. Nor does Grayling pull his punches when it comes to philosophical arguments in favour of a deity. Teleological, ontological and cosmological arguments for God all get short, if eloquent, shrift, while a few bold slashes from Occham’s Razor are enough to do for Intelligent Design – the compliment paid to evolutionary science by those who haven’t understood it. Grayling reserves a special animus for those he calls the ‘ineffabilitists’ – people who fall back on the ‘argument’ that since God is beyond our understanding there’s no point trying to disprove His existence. ‘[I]f they are serious about the ineffability claim,’ he writes, ‘they have painted themselves into the corner of not being able to say very much, or indeed anything.’

Rejecting the idea that religious belief is hard-wired into the human brain, and consequently ineradicable, Grayling suggests that the case against religion is also a case for intellectual liberation and that from this flows the possibility of ‘a much more integrated and peaceful world’. This is the essence of his defence of humanism, which he defines as ‘an ethical outlook that says each individual is responsible for choosing his or her values and goals and working towards the latter in light of the former’. For Grayling, a properly humanist ethics should be based on a sympathetic understanding of human nature and the human condition. As such, it is not a moral system, but can serve as the foundation for a humanist morality based on observation and reason and subject to change as our understanding increases. While religious morality is based on the wishes (‘more accurately: commands’) of a supernatural being, for the humanist, the source of moral imperatives lies in human sympathy.

Fundamentalism this most certainly isn’t, though any suspicion that Grayling has gone to the opposite philosophical extreme and licensed a facile moral relativism is laid to rest towards the end of the book, where its author seeks to demonstrate that a humanist morality is superior to religion. Comparing the two on a number of issues, including sex, euthanasia and abortion, he suggests that in the majority of cases the religious position is not only not moral but also deleterious to human health and happiness – indeed, that the religious position is immoral precisely because it is deleterious to human health and happiness. The effect of this is to turn the tables on those who say that a world without God is a world without a moral compass. On the contrary, argues Grayling, the religious worldview is apt to sanction all kinds of wickedness.

Not everything in Grayling’s argument is original and many are the UK critics who have declared themselves bored by its arguments and exasperated by its strident tone; the fifth horseman, they opine, is flogging a dead horse. But as the white smoke lifts from Saint Peter’s Square, the obfuscations of religion persist. There is still a long way to go in this fight and in my view Grayling is on the side of the angels.

A. C. Grayling, The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism
Bloomsbury; $29.99; 269pp

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First published in The Australian.