A review of The God Argument by A C Grayling

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The God Argument
By A.C. Grayling
$29.99, Paperback, April 2013, ISBN: 9781408837412, 288pages

A.C. Grayling is, himself, as good an example for humanism as ever there was. Lucid, charming, and above all, considered, he is exactly as I imagine Socrates – the very model of human enlightenment. I imagine he could argue for almost anything and be convincing. His new book, The God Argument , not only counters the key modern arguments used to “prove” the existence of a single primarily Christian god, but also provides a viable, well-defined alternative in humanism. For those of us who have long been atheist humanists, this may seem almost like a truism. Is there really a need to “disprove” the existence of god to the non-believers who would be reading this book? Is there really a need to provide a viable alternative to the moralists who firmly agree with Grayling (and Socrates) that all people have a responsibility to live ethically and to live well, “joining with our fellows in building just and decent societies”? It strikes me that most of the people who would be reading this book would already be living the kind of lives that Grayling is advocating, and already have carefully rejected, through the same kind of self-reflection and examination that Grayling suggests, the damaging notion of an external agency that tells us how to live, what to think and what morality means. Nevertheless, it is often difficult to clarify our arguments against religion, to take stock of the damage that it has done to the world, and to realize how many of our existing prejudices, divisions and global trauma can be attributed to religious or ideological prejudice, and how much better a world we would live in were we free from those contraints and operating as free-thinking, personally responsible moral, humanistic, entities.

The book begins in part one by developing a case against religion. Though the tone remains jocular, even at its most strident, the book pulls no punches here, marking all religions as negative forces that shackle the human mind. The book looks at the origins of religion, the way in which it continues through, Grayling states, the indoctrination of children, and the nature of belief. Though this is ground that has been well trodden by many of Grayling’s predecessors who he clearly acknowledges: Dawkins, Hitchens, Pinker and Kurtz to name a few, there is a smooth succinctness to Grayling’s arguments, and he raises some very relevant points, such as why religious instruction in schools tend not to explore and discuss why the world’s major religions contradict and blaspheme one another.

The next section examines the three main theistic arguments: the “argument from design”, the “ontological argument”, and the “cosmological argument”. None of these so called arguments are any match for the clarity of Grayling’s prose, and he has no difficulty unravelling them, though at times it feels like he’s kicking a (large, powerful) kitten. The faulty logic inherent in these arguments is so obvious that it hardly seems necessary to even counter it.

The second part of the book provides the alternative, and this is where the book really comes into its own. Humanism is, of course, not novel. Graying acknowledges the early influences on secular humanism, and provides a strong historical context. Pitted against religious dogmatism, superstition, and abnegation of responsibility, it’s impossible to find fault with the humanism option as Grayling presents it: a viable philosophy for living a deep, meaningful life:

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 shown to be wrong, are the marks of honest minds. (257)

The book is lucid, easy-to-read, and illuminating, even for those who already define themselves as secular humanists. However, at times, despite the warmth and underlying sense of humour that pervades the book, there’s a kind of knowing superiority that can be a little hard to give into wholeheartedly. Though Graying claims that you can’t ‘cherry-pick’ bits of religion – you either believe or you don’t, there are plenty of shades of gray – those who might be struggling with their faith or who are comfortable with the metaphors that religion has come to represent. There can be no doubt that Grayling’s humanism is a positive move away from the fear and prejudice of religious dogma and intolerance that is in evident in the news so often these days. But similarly, the many compassionate people who are attempting to find their own truth, however that truth may manifest itself shouldn’t necessarily be dismissed as ‘infants’ who need grow up. Just as Santa Claus may come to represent, for children, a reminder of the spirit of giving without it being a ‘lie’, certain of religion’s rituals – the coming together as a family for example to remember the sufferings or successes of our ancestors such as occurs at Passover or Thanksgiving, can remain valid and vital even without a god.

As an argument against the ‘unexamined life’, The God Argument is superb. It makes a powerful case for living a life rich with self-awareness, intellectual courage and taking rigorous pleasure in the scientific method. As a means for showing that belief in a god – any god, is a form of stupidity and childishness, I feel that the book is a bit strident. As Robin Ince puts it:

If I am an atheist because I see myself as a freethinker, then I should take that freethinking as far as thinking freely about religious people, and the breadths of people and beliefs that entails. An air of superiority solely due to godlessness sits uncomfortably with me. I will attempt to judge people by their actions and thoughts, not a label, which at least in my experience, seems far loser than some presumptions.

The scientific method, and indeed humanism, incorporates doubt and enquiry as part and parcel of our lives, acknowledging that we’re always learning and growing and shifting into new self-perceptions. It’s easy for those who were raised without religion to reject it. It’s a different matter to those for whom a deep-seated need for the structure, community and authority of religion is part of who they are. It’s perfectly possibe for religious people to be open-minded, responsible and more spiritual than dogmatic, rejecting prejudice and hatred in favour of a curious search for meaning. Nor do I think it’s necessarily valid, even if it makes for a more easily supported thesis, to say that you either have a god or you don’t. The variety of metaphorical and symbolic mythologies that surround most people are complex and may contain shades that could well be logically fuzzy without being psychologically invalid. Finding tolerance and understanding for those ranges of belief, without accepting the damaging and dangerous ideologies (religious and otherwise) that have caused so much pain in our history seems to me to be a more humanistic approach than creating another polarity. That said, I’m in complete agreement with Grayling about the value of humanism as a philosophy and a way of life. Despite its patronising attitude to religion, I still feel that The God Argument remains a thoughtful, well-written, well-expressed book that provides a great deal of information about the problems with religious arguments, provides a clear overview of humanism, and very viable philosophy of life that, were it adopted more broadly, could help create a far better, more humane society than the one in which we live in.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, , the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.