AC Grayling

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God part two

If last week was ‘The Case against Religion” as AC Grayling (or his publisher) subtitled the book I started to review last week, this week is the case for Humanism. As with religion, everybody will have a different explanation for what that means to them, but as we are looking at this topic through Grayling’s eyes, let us use his definition.

In essence, humanism is the ethical outlook that says each individual is responsible for choosing his or her values and goals and working towards the latter in the light of the former, and is equally responsible for living considerately towards others, with a special view to establishing good relationships at the heart of life, because all good lives are premised on such. Humanism recognises the commonalities and, at the same time, wide differences that exist in human nature and capacities, and therefore respects the rights that the former tell us all must have, and the need for space and tolerance that the latter tells us each must have.

Humanism is above all about living thoughtfully and intelligently, about rising to the demand to be informed, alert and responsive, about being able to make a sound case for a choice of values and goals, and about integrity in living according to the former and determination in seeking to achieve the latter.

That’s probably worth reading again.

And once more.

The first thing that struck me about this perspective was the lack of an external authority. For those with a religious faith, this is quite a departure. There is no appeal to a divine being, and no attempt to replace a belief in such a being with another source of moral authority. So, that being the case, the obvious first objection is that humanism lets everybody make up their own moral standard, leading to Nazi ‘morality’ being of equal value and standing as anyone else’s. If that were the view of humanism, I would have to conclude that it falls at the first hurdle, but it is not and it does not.

For me, the answer to the objection lies not in our ability to make our own moral judgements, which we clearly can and do, however inconsistent we might (all) be in living up to the standards we profess to have. The answer is in the parameters within which those values should be set. Grayling (above) puts those parameters as living considerately towards others, respecting what we have in common and the differences which we all know exist between us, as individuals, families and society, which is the amalgam of those smaller units. It is not enough to form one’s own moral values in a vacuum without consideration for others. Of course, we could all attempt to do so – but such an approach would not constitute humanism, nor is it likely to lead to a good conclusion, not least because we would soon run into the basic issue of economics – unlimited demand versus limited supply.

These parameters are the answer to the obvious failures of humanity in the past – Stalinism and Nazism being just two which were on a scale barely imaginable, but smaller ones such as the Tiananmen Square massacre are equally abhorrent. These episodes in human history do not, however, in any way represent what a humanistic outlook could ever lead to and cannot therefore justifiably be put forward as objections to the humanist proposition; they fail the requirement to live considerately towards others (as well as a much longer list of moral failings). What Stalinism and Nazism represented was an attempt to replace the old, religion-based absolute authority which had been reducing in influence for centuries, with new, absolute sources of authority. Humanism would reject all such attempts at calling forth an absolute authority to which we should all submit.

How, then, should we approach the challenge of developing a moral code within these parameters? I think this is encapsulated in the focus on ‘living thoughtfully and intelligently’ and ‘being able to make a sound case for a choice of values and goals.’ Another way of putting this is

The key point about humanism is that it is an attitude to ethics based on observation and the responsible use of reason, both together informing our conversation about human realities, seeking the best and most constructive way of living in accordance with them.

This is not advocating a take what you like approach to morality, but using the experience we have gained as humanity over millennia in trying – and often failing – to find a way of living with each other, and combining this with the intelligence we all have. We should use our own experience as a tool to refine our thinking on what values we should follow, and practice that refining consciously and thoughtfully, not accepting something just because another person has suggested it.

Let me illustrate this with a simple example from my experience of the formation of a particular value. In a previous job, my manager spent time with me on a one to one basis twice a year, the times he was required to in order to assess my performance for the previous six months. This did not strike me as something which sat well with my own view of management as being (co-)responsible for the other person’s experience in the many hours they spend at work. For me, setting aside time for a regular meaningful conversation was a way of caring for that other person, of making the responsibility I felt I had something which resulted in action. Now, I was also quite happy to be left alone on the basis that I knew what I needed to do and with whom I needed to speak to do it, but I took that experience with me when I took on responsibility for the working experience of a larger number of people and have always viewed that time spent in conversation as a key part of my responsibilities. Before entering the work force, this was something which I might have been able to say would be a good thing to do, but I would never have said it was a value I held to be important. Experience – both good and bad – and the application of a modicum of intelligence told me that it was something which was important to me.

A less positive example was a gentleman I knew who systematically undermined a leader in an organisation through months of snide comments, walking out of meetings they were both in, and demonstrating an active opposition not just to what the other person was trying to do, but to who that person was. I learned three things from this. One was that there are situations in which an organisation will simply fail to act on a situation which contradicts that organisation’s professed values (or even claimed divine inspiration) but that does not mean the values are wrong, just that a subset of us has chosen not to act on them. The second was that, when I see behaviours like that, I have a responsibility to do what I can, even if the outcome might not be what I would wish. And the third, closely related, is that while we can point to wars and atrocities which happen a long way away or a long time ago, terrible acts are being perpetuated on a daily basis much closer to home. From this, I realised that I can and must do what I can when I can, and I must also accept that sometimes people will actually get off with what they have done. But I have to start with my own responsibility, because it is all I can act on.

There is also a freedom in humanism:

As a broad ethical outlook, humanism involves no sectarian divisions or strife, no supernaturalism, no taboos, no food and dress codes, no restrictive sexual morality other than what is implicit in the demand to treat others with respect, consideration and kindness.

And with that degree of freedom comes the responsibility to use it wisely. Such freedom is not something we should treat lightly, and indeed many of those we would consider among the greatest thinkers mankind has produced have wrestled with questions of morality from what we might now call a humanist perspective, including (Grayling’s list is a lot longer) Confucius, Cicero, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Spinoza, Voltaire, Hume, Marx, Schopenhauer, Mill, Mark Twain, Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell and Sartre. Do they come from the same culture? No, because this approach transcends individual societies and cultures. Have they come with one answer? No, because there is no one answer. Have I even come close to reading even a fraction of what one of them wrote? Also, no.

What is the common thread through all of this? – that we should use our ability to think.

It remains that every humanist, starting from the shared premises that frame an overall humanistic attitude to life and the world, must work out what that means given his or her own talents for creating a life truly worth living, in both the following respects: that it feels good to live it, and that it is beneficial in its impact on others.

So, that is something of the ‘theory’ of humanism. We will return to what this might look like in practice another week.

Here is my parting thought for now. The principle of applying our reason, experience and ability to think in developing and practicing a moral code, which humanism advocates, is perhaps not that different from where mainstream Christianity has arrived today. Modern-day Christians, it seems to me, are already using their reason and experience to determine which parts of both their church’s and the bible’s teachings (the two are not synonymous) they accept as relevant for the way they choose to live their lives. I don’t know any Christian who believes in putting someone to death for working on a Sunday. Reason and experience tell them that this is not something the god they picture and choose to follow wants them to do. Or take the Catholic church’s teaching on contraception, ignored in practice by so many of its members, who have concluded that this teaching is not relevant or appropriate in their life, or indeed a god-commanded stricture they should follow.

The question I am then left with is this: People of faith must, I think, decide (given the obvious inconsistencies) which parts of the bible or other holy books we should retain as current moral guidance, using our understanding of what we consider god’s will to be, but also our developed sense of what is right and wrong. Are we not also also perfectly capable of determining, from a variety of sources, including – if we choose to – the writings we have designated as scripture, which moral values we hold to be of value? And are non-believers not able to do the same? As long as we do this within a construct which reflects the wider needs of humanity, what we have in common and what value there is in our differences, is there any objection to Grayling’s assertion that humanism

is a strikingly positive outlook, and one that would go far, if universally adopted, to solve the problems of today’s world because it insists on the central importance of good relations between individuals in respect of their humanity, not in respect of what identities might overlay their humanity – the political, ethnic, religious, cultural, gender identities that so often trump the possibility of a straightforward human-to-human friendship that would cross all boundaries.

That is something I can subscribe to.

God part one

So in the final instalment of my trilogy on different perspectives, it’s the turn of religion. So it should perhaps be the third element of the trinity of history, politics and religion. And this one is also a book review (or half of one – I decided I needed two to cover such a big topic).

The other trinity we might associate with religion is that of Dawkins, Hitchens and Grayling. They have each published books on their thoughts on religion, and it would be fair to say none are complimentary. Some of the titles might indicate this. The God Delusion, God is not Great, and The God Argument.

In my experience of religion, there can be a tendency to discourage, often strongly, reading anything which presents a view contrary to that of the religion (or branch of the religion, or the twig to which we belong). I should say at this point that this was not the way I was brought up, but this viewpoint was one which I could sense when I strayed too far from home (literally and figuratively). So for many people who subscribe to strong religious beliefs, and find value and meaning in those beliefs, the suggestion that Richard Dawkins might have some valid points in The God Delusion might not be a welcome one. My argument against an inhibition to explore arguments against religion is that, if it is true, a religion should be able to – and willing to – stand up to scrutiny. If a religion claims divine leadership in some form, that super-human perspective should be capable of dealing with the logical reasoning of humans.


The book I am going to comment on today is, however, not by Dawkins, but by Anthony (A C) Grayling, whose trade is philosophy and can be relied on to provide a good dose of logic to an argument. The reason I would recommend his book in preference to the other two is simply that he provides not only a case against religion, but also for an alternative (humanism) and I prefer the more positive approach behind that, whether or not you or I end up subscribing to any of what Grayling puts forward, both in his ‘against’ and ‘for’ sections.

This week, I will cover some of his ‘against’ religion arguments, then turn next week to the positive worldview he is suggesting could (and, in his view, should) replace it.

Before tackling the question of what/who ‘God’ is, let me give you a few lines from the introduction to the book:

There are people of sincere piety for whom the religious life is a source of deep and powerful meaning. For them and for others, a spiritual response to the beauty of the world, the vastness of the universe, and the love that can bind one human heart to another, feels as natural and necessary as breathing.

I wanted to include those comments for two reasons. The first is personal. I know a lot of people to whom those sentiments could apply, and my comments in this blog are not intended to diminish the value of the form and practice of religion in their lives. The second is because I also know people who subscribe to the same sets of beliefs, and yet whose practices, including those in the name of that same religion, I find utterly repugnant on any moral basis. And it strikes me that this is at the heart of the debate about religion. The same sets of beliefs can, have, and do, inspire acts of immense kindness and generosity, and of unbelievable cruelty and hatred. How can this be when religion is meant to be inspired by a divine being who has our best interests at heart? Well, I suppose that is the question. Is that the case?

The older I get, the more I realise how much I have got wrong. And the only way I have any chance of doing one or two things better the next time is to challenge myself. Most of our actions come from what we believe whether consciously or subconsciously. But that’s a different topic for a different day. For now, my starting point is what I have been thinking about for a long time – the value in being prepared to change our perspective. And for me, that usually involves either reading something different or hearing something different, and being open enough to consider what is being presented to me. After all, I used to believe in the tooth fairy, but at some point, the evidence no longer supported that particular dental perspective.

So, back to the question of ‘God.’ (all quotations from Grayling unless otherwise indicated)

For religious people, the word is typically invoked to denote the all-encompassing and unanswerable source of authority governing what people can think, say, eat and wear, in what circumstances and with whom they can have sexual relations, how they must behave on specified days or weeks of the year, and so comprehensively on. The fact that different religions claim that their god or gods have different requirements in these respects should be evidence that religions are man-made and historically conditioned, but religious people think that this insight only applies to other people’s religions, not their own.

One of the reasons this matters is because this ‘god’ is asserted to have created everything. The logical problem with this is that it explains nothing.

Imagine someone asking, “How did the universe come into existence?” and being answered, “It was created by Fred” or “It was created by the supreme egg.” Obviously, such a response explains nothing because it means nothing. There is no greater explanatory power or meaning if one puts “god”, “God” or “the supreme being” in place of “Fred” or “the supreme egg”.

But can we know either way? Is it not a 50/50 bet as to whether ‘god’ (of any of the variants) exists? It’s either a yes or a no answer, with equal probability, isn’t it?

The initial probability of there being a deity is not 50 per cent, as some try to argue. There is a hidden assumption of agnosticism, which premises the thought that there is insufficient evidence to settle the matter either way. One can see this by asking what initial probability should be attached to the existence of (say) dryads or unicorns, or anything else whose presence in myth, fable, legend and religion derives from what our remote ancestors handed down among their stories about the world. […] The mistake made by many is to think that because a particular tradition has been institutionalised in society, it increases the probability that the things it talks about actually exist.

Of course, the question of religion and science has to be addressed.

The views and practices that emerge from common sense, practicality and science form a general picture of a law-like natural realm in which we know what it is rational to believe and do, and what it is not. For example: we know that it is rational to expect that we can heat and light our houses by installing the right kinds of appliances and connecting them to a power source, and simultaneously we know that it is irrational to believe that we can light and heat our houses by prayer or by sacrificing an ox. […]

The deliverances of science […] are based on evidence gathered and vastly confirmed by experience, whereas the beliefs of the various religions are untestable, inconsistent with each other, internally contradictory, and in conflict with the deliverances of common sense and science.

One last comment in the ‘against’ camp. One argument for religious belief is that it the basis of morality.

Here we have an issue with cherry-picking. We are to take the various (depending on your particular affiliation) books of scripture as a guide to what our personal morality should be. But anyone with anything more than a rudimentary knowledge of the main stories of the dominant religion of their part of the world, knows that those stories have been selected from a much larger number, and they will probably have been given some form of guidance as to the meaning or interpretation of the story.

Take the story of Abraham being told by his God to sacrifice (that means kill in normal vocabulary) his son Isaac. Abraham is praised for his obedience. That’s the lesson we are to learn from this story. I remember discussing this story in a little bible-reading group in Tübingen many years ago. One of the group had a completely different take on it, and I confess it had never even occurred to me before then. He thought that Abraham had failed the test his god had given him. He was supposed to say, ‘No, from everything you have told me, I know this is the wrong thing to do. No matter who tells me to do it, even you, it is wrong.’ I might suggest that this interpretation of the story would be more conducive to us living together as a society than being prepared to kill someone on the basis of what we claim a divine being told us to do.

Grayling cites a number of examples of highly questionable morality ascribed by the writers of various books of the bible to their God. One he does not mention is the one I have not been able to shake from my mind. It is also insanely obscure as Biblical stories go.

The Ark of the Covenant was a huge symbol to the ancient Israelites. It was a reminder that they were God’s chosen people (yes, another issue there, not for now), and that he was in their midst. There was a rule – don’t touch the ark. The penalty was death. Seems a bit extreme. Here’s a little episode in the middle of 2 Samuel (told you it was obscure), just two verses:

‘Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled.’

Let’s just stop for a second. The ark was going to fall off the cart. Uzzah saw the problem and probably acted instinctively to stop it falling. After all, something held to be so sacred probably should not be allowed to fall and be damaged. If he did think about it, his act was surely protective of the ark. God, however, saw this rather differently.

‘The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God.’

Yes, you read that correctly. God was so angry that he killed Uzzah on the spot.

And this is the part of the basis of the morality we should be following? But no, you might say, that was a different time, the people had to learn different lessons, they should have been carrying the ark properly, we shouldn’t take it literally. In which case, which parts am I supposed to take as a guide? King David was angry with God because of what he did to Uzzah. So he is maybe the good guy in this story. Except that he had just come back from murdering thousands of Philistines – on God’s instructions (God was pretty consistent back then – as a rule, kill all the men, women and children of anyone you defeat in battle – but of course, he spared Rahab from the genocide at Jericho, because she helped the spies the Israelites sent to the city, so that was all right, then, and we make little models of Rahab letting the spies out of the city, not of the murder of everyone else – see what I mean about cherry-picking?). So I guess I have to ignore the rape, genocide, xenophobia, and random acts of extreme, disproportionate violence ascribed to God (the Flood, anyone?) which litter the Old Testament. The serious problem here is how anyone is supposed to know which parts to take as relevant to us and which to write-off (conveniently, because they do not correspond to our view of morality, even though they are from the same book as the parts we do adopt for our lives)?

‘Scholars of theological history point out that these are early views of the deity, who by the New Testament has become perfectly good, benign and merciful – except that it is just too, which introduces a second new tension alongside the natural evil dilemma:  between justice and mercy. The victims of the Holocaust might wish to see their god extend justice rather than mercy to those who gassed their children in Auschwitz, however fine a thing forgiveness is. Are there not unforgivable things? Even the New Testament says there is one: namely, blasphemy. Some would think the murder of millions less forgivable than abusing the holy name.’

I would add to this that second issue with the view that the less savoury stories are part of an earlier view of god is whether the stories are true, as in whether they happened as recorded. If they are, it is not a matter of the people’s understanding of their god, it is what that god did. If the stories are just that, rather than actual events, at what point did any of what is recorded actually happen? Where between Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (clearly a myth) and Jesus (we know he existed) did ‘real’ things start to happen?

This brings us squarely to the reliability of the accounts in the various volumes of scripture, even before we get to the question of whether they are all divinely inspired (and saying different things) or whether only ‘our’ scriptures are inspired, the rest being in some way false. I can’t help but think that mankind’s problems started when instead of listening to the creation myths of the people we encountered (there are some beautiful stories out there) and recognising them as an attempt to explain something the people at the time had vastly insufficient knowledge to begin to comprehend, we decided that our story was true and the other person’s was false, and that this mattered, in some cases enough to kill the other person to silence their heresy.

Grayling is more succinct and gives the whole ‘morality based on religion’ question short shrift:

The argument that there can be no morality unless policed by a deity is refuted by the existence of good atheists. Arguably, non-theists count among themselves the most careful moral thinkers, because in the absence of an externally imposed morality they recognise the duty to examine their views, choices and actions, and how they should behave towards them.

These are only a very few extracts from a well-argued and comprehensive analysis of the arguments for religion. Grayling also covers the origins of religion in ancient, pre-science superstition, what the various faiths actually believe versus what they discuss and emphasise, and how that emphasis has shifted significantly over time, including creating some doctrines and practices and discarding others which were once claimed to be necessary for salvation. He also includes the ‘God of the gaps’ problem, for the intellectuals a chapter on very technical definitional arguments for religion (I got a bit lost in the logic) and creationism and ‘intelligent design.’ It’s all in here, and I found this one of the more accessible of Grayling’s books.

So, next week, the positive second half of his book.

But for now, I’m going to give the last word on the approach of avoiding anything which might challenge our beliefs to W K Clifford, because I think it can apply to our current perspective on any matter, whether historical, political or religious. It’s also why I think having religious belief is no reason not to read a book like Grayling’s, however uncomfortable it might be. I did, and I’m still here.

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it – the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.

The wisdom of the ages

I think Solomon had it right. According to the story, when God asked him what he most desired, instead of asking for power or possessions, he asked for wisdom. There is evidence all around that it is entirely possible to accumulate a great deal of power and possessions without necessarily basing this on a commensurate amount of wisdom. In Solomon’s case, as well as returning a baby to its rightful mother, he also managed to do quite well for himself materially.

There is no shortage of places we can look to gain wisdom. Humans have been wrestling for a long time with questions of how to make good decisions in a consistent way, consistent both with other individual decisions, and with something overarching that gives a framework, a set of values or principles that we can use to guide our lives.


I gravitated towards Stephen Covey’s approach for a number of reasons. I happened to hear a talk he gave when I was a student and hadn’t ever heard of the man. It was free, someone said I should go, and someone else drove me there. Life as a student can be as simple as that. I can’t remember anything of note that he said that night. But when I came across him later, I remembered the name, and it turned out he had written the best-selling Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. And when I started reading that, I was sold. I liked that he recognised the difference between substance and style and that, in the long run, that difference matters. And I appreciated the honesty of what he offered – not quick fixes, not techniques, but challenges to how we act and treat ourselves and each other.

A few years ago I came across the phrase “to have or to be.” It struck a chord in me. And I think that fact in itself says something. It’s that moment when we hear an echo of something we already knew but couldn’t bring out into the open, or find words to express. It turns out that this phrase (and I have no idea if the person it came from was even aware of this) is the title of a book by Erich Fromm. Bearing in mind that this was written in 1976, just listen to the opening sentence and then some extracts from the next page:

The Great Promise of Unlimited Progress – the promise of domination of nature, of material abundance, of the greatest happiness for the greatest number and of unimpeded personal freedom – has sustained the hopes and faith of the generations since the beginning of the industrial age. […]

The grandeur of the Great Promise, the marvellous material and intellectual achievements of the industrial age, must be visualised in order to understand the trauma that realisation of its failure is producing:

Unrestricted satisfaction of all desires is not conducive to well-being.

The dream of being independent masters of our lives ended when we began awakening to the fact that we have all become cogs in the bureaucratic machine, with our thoughts, feelings and tastes manipulated by government and industry and the mass communications that they control.

The gap  between rich and poor nations has ever widened.

Technical progress itself has created ecological dangers which may put an end to all civilisation and possibly to all life.

And that’s just from the first couple of pages. He doesn’t mess around. The back cover gives a good summary of the book – “two modes of existence struggle for the spirit of humankind: the having mode, which concentrates on material possessions, power, and aggression, and is the basis of the universal evils of greed, envy, and violence; and the being mode, which is based on love, the pleasure of sharing, and in productive activity.”

He raises questions that I find worthwhile engaging with, wrestling with, comparing with alternative perspectives, and ultimately asking “what does this mean for me?”

And of course there are many other writers and thinkers, different slants on the same questions and challenges, going back centuries. Marcus Aurelius doesn’t become any less relevant over time. And I’m currently listening to some letters Seneca wrote centuries ago that are as useful a challenge today as they were when he wrote them:

There are more things likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.

AC Grayling tried to compile some of these traditions of wisdom literature in The Good Book. I find it hard to engage with that particular book, but I admired the attempt (not to mention the amount of work involved!). And there are some great parables and proverbs in there that you can dip in and out of – a quick source of something to reflect on for a while. My favourite memory of his book was when he was at the Edinburgh Book Festival several years ago at an event chaired by Richard Holloway, who marched in holding the book out in front of him in the way he (apparently) used to when an Episcopalian minister.

It’s not just in overtly “wisdom literature” that we can find inspiration. Fiction can in some cases be just as effective. And some writers have done very well from writing fiction which is based around a message or a perspective the writer wants us to engage with.

Just to start with, there’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Little Prince, pretty much anything by Paulo Coelho. They seem to have the ability to help us to stop for long enough to think and reflect. Sometimes we might even take action as a result. But there are countless other works of fiction that can teach us something, allow us to experience something through the perspective of a fictional character that we will never experience in real life. Just because they don’t set out to teach us something doesn’t mean they do not do so.

One thing all these books have in common is the ability to surprise me each time I read them, or just dip back into them. It’s the “that wasn’t there the last time I read it” feeling that comes from seeing something for the first time that is particularly relevant to a question I’m thinking about or a problem I’m struggling with. Often I find I did know the answer all along, it was just something I couldn’t quite get a proper hold of, or something I was trying to avoid accepting. Wisdom is valuable, but it is not as often easy or convenient, particularly when it requires me to do something I would rather not. I suspect Solomon felt a bit nervous when his solution to identifying the baby’s mother was to suggest cutting the baby in half, with the real mother the only one of the two not to find this a pragmatic solution. But we all benefit from the thoughts, experiences and challenges of others that help to form a body of wisdom that is handed down over generations. Maybe we will even contribute to that in some little way in how we treat other people with our words and actions.