This is a ‘wham-bam, take it or leave it’ book. Professor Grayling issues terse, often idiosyncratic, definitions without considering the extensive philosophical debates surrounding them.
Religions, for example, he says dismissively, ‘derive ultimately from the superstitions of illiterate herdsmen’. Well, I suppose all human institutions do, but most of them have changed quite a lot since then, and it is hard to see why religions should not have done so as well. Secularism says that ‘any view can exist, providing it is tolerant of other views’. Presumably, then, I can believe that the poor should starve, as long as I do not actually kill them, but tolerate their miserable existences.
Professor Grayling is actually much more morally authoritarian than this. Although he writes that ‘each individual is responsible for choosing his or her values’, he also requires that individuals should be ‘informed, alert and responsive’, aiming at a whole raft of virtues, including sympathetic understanding, rationality, self-development, respect for others, friendship, and integrity. This list of complex virtues sits uneasily with his statement that there is just ‘one humanist obligation: to think’.
Thereby he puts very starkly the central paradox of moral autonomy: you are to think for yourself; but if you do not think sympathetically, rationally, compassionately, and honestly, you are not counted as thinking!
Given the violence, corruption and banality of our world, it seems clear that the more most people think, the worse things get. It is odd to say that my obligation is to think, whatever I conclude. I may conclude that some violent and repressive religion is true. Or I may think that the most rational course of action is to pursue prudent self-interest by any effective means. Is that really what humanism commends?
Of course Grayling is right in one important sense. Humanism says that we should be compassionate, rational and honest. It is a rich and complex ethical system, which cannot be reduced to some simple formula like ‘think for yourself’, or to one simple virtue like tolerance. So why does he say that it can?
The author is confident that people will be naturally sympathetic and honest, despite the fact that our prisons are full and wars and hatreds litter the globe. Any observer of the human scene may suspect that humanism is a nice, kindly morality for a morally committed and incurably optimistic minority. Long may it flourish, though its prospects regrettably seem poor. Professor Grayling does not seem sensitive to the tragedy of this fact.
But his commendation of a sympathetic, tolerant view that respects the free thinking of other persons strangely disappears when he discusses religion and God.
With one bound we find ourselves in a world of caricature and stereotype, where the beliefs of others are ridiculed and lampooned. Where has humanist tolerance and empathy gone?
He writes: ‘Critical examination of religion’s claims places it in the same class as astrology’. Non-fundamentalist religion is ‘hypocrisy’. The reasons he offers for being religious are: indoctrination of children, social pressure to conform, and ignorance of almost everything. That is because belief in God is ‘essentially a stone-age outlook’, which adheres to belief ‘held independently of whether there is testable evidence in its favour’.
He is talking about a belief held by major philosophers such as Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel; by rather good modern philosophers such as Elizabeth Anscombe, Michael Dummett, Peter Geach, Alistair MacIntrye, and Charles Taylor, and by major scientists such as Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, Francis Collins and John Polkinghorne.
It does not show great respect for their powers of thought to say that they have a stone-age mentality, are ignorant of almost everything, are hypocritical, and believe many things without any evidence whatsoever.
The odd thing is that he himself makes many dogmatic statements without even hinting that most good philosophers strongly disagree with him. For instance, he says that the phrases ‘omnipotent being’ and ‘necessary being’ ‘turn out to make no sense’. He may be right, but there are hundreds of articles in peer-reviewed philosophical journals that would not agree. To say that something ‘makes no sense’ is an extremely bold claim.
In a similar way, he writes that ‘Religious claims are… untestable, and by this criterion are therefore meaningless’. Even AJ Ayer accepted that Alonzo Church had refuted the claim that statements were without meaning if they could not be verified. It would need a lot more argument, which does not appear here, to show that Church was wrong after all. If an example is needed, the claim that there are other universes than this is surely meaningful, but we know of no way of testing it.
Another example of the same sort is this: ‘explaining something by something unexplained amounts, obviously, to no explanation at all’. That is not obvious to Stephen Hawking or any quantum cosmologists. We can explain why the universe has the laws it has by appealing to the spontaneous appearance of many universes from the quantum vacuum. But we cannot explain the quantum vacuum. All particle physicists are explaining something by something unexplained, and possibly unexplainable. I think this could have been mentioned, at least.
Two more: ‘omnipotence means “can do anything”’. I do not know of any decent philosopher who says this. Even Descartes, who comes closest, thinks that God cannot commit suicide. And ‘The moral argument for the existence of deity… is that there can be no morality unless there is a deity’. Most philosophers, including Kant, the most famous exponent of the argument, repeatedly emphasise that the moral argument for God does not say that. It is not surprising that Grayling wins all the arguments when he sets up his victims in such a compromised way.
Overall, I cannot see why a humanist, concerned to understand other people and the rich variety of human life and thought, should be so uninterested in what brings highly intelligent and informed people to think for themselves, and decide that the most rational view of the universe is that there is a God. You would not think it possible, on Grayling’s account.
Yet idealism (which says just this, but which is nowhere mentioned in the book) has been a dominant philosophical school in Western and Indian thought. It is this lack of attention to the history of philosophy which makes this such an odd book for a philosopher to have written.
Keith Ward is Professorial Research Fellow, Heythrop College, London
This article was first published by Theos and is used by permission
The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism is published by Bloomsbury (London, 2013)
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