Notes on A.C. Grayling: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism


A.C. Grayling is a British philosopher whose 2013 book The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism, is a clear and concise summary of why religion is best abandoned and why humanism (as he describes it) is a preferable alternative. (I mentioned before that the book’s title is a bit crude…I suspect imposed by his publisher.) His book is thus somewhat in contrast to the famous or infamous titles by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others, that are aggressively anti-religion; Grayling, rather like Sam Harris’ more recent book The Moral Landscape (which I also have read recently, and will blog about), is discussing religion mostly as the basis for a case that an alternative is more reasonable, more realistic, and more humane.

Grayling’s book comprises two tasks:

  • To deal with what religious apologists say in defending religion
  • To show that there is a beautiful and life-enhancing alternative outlook… based on the best, most generous, most sympathetic understanding of human reality.

I quoted his first paragraph a while back.

To put matters at their simplest, the major reason for the continuance of religious faith in a world which might otherwise have long moved beyond it, is indoctrination of children before they reach the age of reason, together with all or some combination of social pressure to confirm, social reinforcement of religious institutions and traditions, emotion, and (it has to be said) ignorance — of science, of psychology, of history in general, and of the history and actual doctrines of religions themselves.

The first half of the book is about religion, and summarizes, in clear and beautiful prose, all the various arguments – many of them obvious to those of us who’ve read these arguments many times before, but perhaps unfamiliar to those faithful who don’t realize why anyone would question their faith – about why religion is a nonstarter. To summarize these arguments:

Faith means beliefs held independently of any testable evidence, or even in the face of counter-evidence—the latter often regarded as a virtue. The central faith of religions is the existence of a supernatural, divine being, and the consequent need for worship and praise, submission and obedience. Also, typically, that this being is the universe’s creator, ruler, and moral law-giver. Beyond that details are vague; religious apologists resort to vagueness about mysteries the human mind cannot comprehend.

Most people assume that the word ‘god’ refers to something that can be believed in, worshiped; that explains the origin of the universe; that lays down rules for behavior. That different religions make different claims about their god or gods is evidence they are man-made… but religious people think this insight applies to other religions, not their own.

Atheists reject the various myths of the Greeks, Babylonians, etc., and then add that they regard Christianity and Islam as similar myths. It’s just one more god to stop believing in.

The first half of Grayling’s book addresses debates about theism, secularism, and morality; basic issues about rationality; about agnosticism, atheism, and proof; and then addresses the classic philosophical arguments for the existence of a god, and discusses how philosophers and scientists over the ages have dismissed them. Arguments by design, by definition. Cosmological arguments. Pascal’s wager.

(He makes a crucial point that I’ve made here on my blog, but is not generally appreciated: even if one of these classical arguments were valid, it would say nothing about which of the many gods humans have imagined corresponds with the presumably-proved creator. Why isn’t the creator by first cause Zeus? A similar argument reveals the narcissism of many Christian apologists (Craig, Plantinga, et al) who think morality or the human sense of awe necessarily implicates the reality of *their* idea of God, i.e. the Christian one. What about the majority of humanity that is not Christian? Are they immoral, or lacking a sense of awe? This does not pass the reality-check test.)

Grayling goes on about creationism and intelligent design, which merely push the idea of origins back one step (who created God? Claiming God is the exception from needing a cause is special pleading).

He concludes Part I (page 127)

The cumulative case against religion shows it to be a hangover from the infancy of modern humanity, persistent and enduring because of the vested interests of religious organizations, proselytisation of children, complicity of temporal powers requiring the social and moral policing that religion offers, and human psychology itself. Yet even a cursory overview of history tells us that it is one of the most destructive forces plaguing humanity.

While the first half of this book treads ground many other books before have covered, the second half focuses on the positive: the case for humanism. Grayling distinguishes between three debates:

  • theism vs atheism, which is about metaphysics, what does or does not exist;
  • secularism, which is about the place of religion in the public square; and
  • the source of morality; from divine command, or human realities?

The secular position is that religions are entitled to exist, but deserve no privileged place in society; there should be no “respect due to faith”, since religions “derive ultimately from the superstitions of illiterate herdsmen living several thousands of years ago” (p135.5) (discussed again p238)

Humanism is the ethical outlook that says each individual is responsible for choosing his or her values and goals, is responsible for living considerately of others.

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.

p138b. Like being a good guest at a dinner party.

Grayling lists two fundamental premises of humanism:

  • First, there are no supernatural agencies in the universe.
  • Second, our ethics must be drawn from the nature and circumstances of human experience.

A key requirement of Humanism is that individuals should think for themselves… it has no metaphysics. It is not about ‘faith’ in reason or science; science is open to challenge and refutation, faith is not.

Grayling examines the history of Humanism and boils it down to the criteria for living good lives. They are:

  • Life seems meaningful or purposeful
  • They are lived in relationships with others
  • They are lives of activity
  • They are marked by honesty and authenticity
  • They manifest autonomy
  • The experience of living them is rich or satisfying
  • They have integrity
  • Life seems meaningful or purposeful
  • They are lived in relationships with others
  • They are lives of activity
  • They are marked by honesty and authenticity
  • They manifest autonomy
  • The experience of living them is rich or satisfying
  • They have integrity

There is no single ‘meaning of life’. It is what you make it. Loving someone, raising children, succeeding in one’s field are common themes. Conventional values are not always bad, but need to be honestly examined, with those no longer suitable being abandoned.

(An aside mentions an aspect of religious history I had not appreciated: that New Testament ethics were for people who thought they lived in the last weeks or months of history (p156b), thus instructions to give away all your property, turn the other cheek to your enemies, and so on. Of course, 2000 years later, there are still people who think they live in the end times, apparently never having learned the lesson of history and failed prophecies.)

He discusses the difference between ethics and morality, and notes that certain human needs are basic to everyone; thus morality is an objective matter, concerning common themes across societies. (Cue here to Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, which I’ve read, which addresses these issues, and which I’ll blog about soon.) Morality concerns matters such as marriage, divorce, sexual behavior, abortion, euthanasia, drugs.

For the humanist it matters to ask this: if interest in and concern for one’s fellows is a reason for being moral, what relevance does the existence of a deity have? Why cannot we accept that we are prompted to the ethical life by these natural human feelings? The existence of a god adds nothing, other than as an invisible policeman who sees what we do always and everywhere, even when alone in the dark, and who rewards and punishes accordingly. Such an addition to ethical thought is hardly an enrichment, since among the under-pinnings to the moral life they offer are threats – of fear, of exclusion, even of violent sufferings: which are, among other things, exactly what the moral life seeks to liberate us from. These threats characterize the state of mankind under religion for most of history; liberation from them, and therefore from religion, is a desideratum of humanist morality. (p242t)

There is a beautiful, poetic final chapter, from which I will only quote excerpts, beginning p255:

The fact is persistently overlooked that those who are not religious have available to them a rich ethical outlook, all the richer indeed for being the result of reflection as opposed to conditioning or tradition. Its roots lie in rational consideration of what humankind’s cumulative experience teaches; and that is a great harvest of insight.

And, discussing a wide variety of belief systems (astrology, feng shui, religion, etc):

But with the exception of the individuals who promote these systems when they should know better, humanism is not against the majority who subscribe to them, for it recognizes that they were brought up in them as children, or turn to them out of need, or adhere to them hopefully (and some, too often, unthinkingly). These are fellow human beings, and humanists profoundly wish them well; which means too that they wish them to be free, to think for themselves, to see the world through clear eyes. If only, says the humanist, they would have a better knowledge of history! If only they would see what their own leaders think of the simple version of the faiths they adhere to, substituting such sophistry in its place! For whereas the ordinary believer has somewhat misty and incomplete notions of the religions they subscribe to, their theologians deploy such a labyrinthine, sophisticated and complex approach, that some go so far as to claim that a god does not have to exist to be the focus of the faith.

And, echoing Neil deGrasse Tyson:

Having the intellectual courage to live with open-endedness and uncertainty, trusting to reason and experiment to gain us increments of understanding, having the integrity to base one’s views on rigorous and testable foundations, and being committed to changing one’s mind when show to be wrong, are the marks of honest minds.

If I were to recommend one book to believers who have doubts, or to believers who simply want to understand why nonbelievers cannot accept what they feel to be the obvious truth of their faith, it would be this one. (Rather than the books by Hitchens, Dawkins, et al.)

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