A Very Short Book by A.C. Grayling

A.C. Grayling, AGAINST ALL GODS (2007), subtitled “Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness”

I saw this referenced from Tim Crane’s book that I mentioned a couple posts ago, and ordered it without realizing that it’s very short, almost incidental, especially compared with Grayling’s later, much more substantial, book THE GOD ARGUMENT [terrible title] (reviewed here). But I wrote it up anyway. And it does have one striking idea, about the apparent resurgence of religious activity in the past couple decades, described in chapter 7 below. As usual, my personal comments are [in brackets]; otherwise I’m just summarizing the text.

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These are very short chapters, the entire book comprising just 64 pages. The author alludes to the essays having been published as journalism, presumably columns in a newspaper or magazine, but doesn’t say where; and oddly, there are repetitious passages across several.

1, Intro summarizes the questions to be discussed. Admits discussions are brief, and refers to 2 other books and 5 collections of essays that expand on these ideas.

2, Are Religions Respectable?

Not any more so than any other special interest group. 16.0: “To believe something in the face of evidence and against reason – to believe something by faith – is ignoble, irresponsible and ignorant, and merits the opposite of respect.” He suggests religious beliefs be confined to the private sphere, like sexual proclivities.

3, Can an Atheist be a Fundamentalist?

Well, what would a non-fundamentalist atheist be? Someone who believed that gods exist only part of the time, etc? Christians forget how their religion has changed over time; it constantly reinvents itself, with examples p25, and how far from the teachings of Jesus many modern religions operate. Author charges religions with inculcating children in their ‘intellectual infancy’ in order to survive, and challenges them to wait for children to become adults, before presenting them with the many religious options.

Author doesn’t care for the term atheist (we don’t speak of a-fairyists for people who no longer believe in fairies, as many did in the 19th century, p28); he prefers naturalist, while religious people would be supernaturalists.

Nor is atheism a religion. It is not because it is not premised on belief in supernatural agencies. It is a philosophy or theory, in that “it proportions what it accepts to the evidence for accepting it, knows what would refute it, and stands ready to revise itself in light of new evidence.” P30. There have been no wars over rival theories of astrophysics, as there have between rival religious movements.

4, Re Secularist, Humanist, Atheist

Secular means desiring the separation of Church and State. Religious organizations should welcome the idea, lest one religion take over the state and suppress rival religions.

Humanism means that the best ethical system derives from an understanding of human nature and the human condition in the real world.

And atheism refers to people who do not share the supernatural beliefs of the religious.

Of course, everyone religious is also an atheist about other religions, though it’s not appreciated how arbitrary [or contingent on circumstances] it was for Christians to latch onto the tale of Jesus, rather than any of the many similar tales of that era, p35. Why not a religion around Spartacus? [with gospels written decades later to amplify dicey testimony of miraculous events surrounding his life…]

The issues are not about whether supernatural beliefs are true or false; it’s about whether one is rational or irrational. Example of rain, umbrellas, the world, and whether a deity is benevolent or not.

5, The Corrosion of Reason

About the 30% of people who believe in creationism or intelligent design (in the UK at the time). University standards have fallen as ‘polytechnics’ have been allowed to call themselves universities. [this is a UK thing, I assume]. To some extent ‘political correctness’ plays into this, as any manner of alternate beliefs and superstitions are accorded respect, leading to the detriment of valuing evidence and reason.

Example of, again, why the Jesus story is true and the similar stories of Zeus and his earthly paramours are myths.

Would an invented religion about gnomes be granted political recognition?

Nor do Stalinism and Nazism show that secular arrangements are worse; these are, like religions, ideologies, which are happy to oppress when given the chance. P46: “But give them the levers of power and they are the Taliban, the Inquisitions, the Stasi.”

6, Only Connect

Three items in the news: one about how evolution produces new systems by adapting existing structures to new purposes; one about the discovery of 375m year old fossils; a third about the discovery of an ancient ‘gospel of Judas.’

And how Michael Behe claims ‘irreducible complexity’, which author finds absurd; it explains one [not yet understood] mystery by introducing the existence of a far greater one. As Karl Popper said: a theory which explains everything explains nothing. [that is, God] A theory must specify what counter-evidence would refute it. [because God works in mysterious ways and thus no disaster or evil in the world can discredit the notion]

7, The Death Throes of Religion

Author considers three recent commentaries that claim a resurgence in religion; author differs. (He describes one of these about how the US has become a de facto theocracy: “the home of faith-based politics, faith-based science (creationism), faith-based medicine (‘pro-life’), faith-based foreign policy (conducting jihad for American/Baptist values) and faith-based attacks on civil liberties.”

On the contrary author sees religion waning, and the evidence cited by others as reactions to provocation. It began with the Muslim world becoming aware of the western world, which disdained its values, and then emboldened by the Afghan victory over Soviet Russia, to take up arms against the west; this in turn prompted other religious groups to demand their share of attention. And so they make gains here and there, even as surveys show devotion to traditional religions decreasing and eroding.

–example: p56, “Yes, over half the population claim vaguely to believe in Something, which includes feng shui and crystals, but they are functionally secularist and would be horrified if asked to live according to the letter of (say) Christian morality: giving all one’s possessions to the poor, taking no thought for the morrow, and so impracticably forth.”

8, The Alternative: Humanism

The alternative is humanism, a rich ethical tradition derived from the roots of Western philosophy. Humanists aspire to respect their fellow human beings, to give them the advantage of good light; to understand human nature and human circumstances through art and literature, history and philosophy, science, personal experience and reflection, and so on; but not superstition or ignorance. Humanists are humbler than the religious with their certainties of faith. “All the enquiries that human intelligence conducts into enlarging knowledge make progress always at the expense of generating new questions. Having the intellectual courage to live with this open-endedness and uncertainty, trusting to reason and experiment to gain us increments of understanding, having the absolute integrity to base one’s theories on rigorous and testable foundations, and being committed to changing one’s mind when shown to be wrong, are the marks of honest minds.” (p63)

Words I looked up:
Emetic, 17.1, causing vomiting
Votaries, 17.6, people who’ve made vows of dedication to religious service
Tu quoque, 31.7 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tu_quoque “an informal logical fallacy that intends to discredit the opponent’s argument by asserting the opponent’s failure to act consistently in accordance with its conclusion(s).”
Inspissate 31.7, thicken or congeal
Latitudinarian 32.5, showing no preference among religious creeds or forms of worship

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