Book Review: The God Argument

Grayling-God-ArgumentThe God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism
by A.C. Grayling
Bloomsbury, 2013
288 pages (Kindle)
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“In my view,” writes A.C. Grayling in The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism, “the argument against religion is an argument for the liberation of the human mind, and the possibility of at last formulating an ethical outlook that all humankind can share, thus providing a basis for a much more integrated and peaceful world.”

The above encapsulates the purpose and order of The God Argument, where Graying taketh away and giveth. He is aware that the religious person will wonder what meaning there is without God, and so he sets out to explain what that meaning looks like from the position of a secular humanist.

Graying, an outspoken atheist and professor of philosophy (with maximally cool philosopher’s hair, which I believe means it must exist all possible worlds) at Birkbeck College (University of London), recognizes that religion is an important part of history, and that without it one cannot understand history or art. But he also asserts that “religious faith is neither so kind nor attractive,” arguing that history attests to its “tyranny.”

“Whereas the consolations of religion are mainly personal,” writes Grayling, “the burdens are social and political as well as personal.” Secularism, however, “asks religion to keep itself in the private sphere, and not to obtrude into matters of general public concern.” The God Argument then sets out to show why religion isn’t the answer to life’s problems, that it is often the cause of them, and that the arguments for God (mostly in the sense of Western Christianity, though not entirely) fail.

In the first, Grayling ventures into disputing familiar territory, such as the cosmological or ontological arguments, which in their classical forms are often rejected or modified (some might argued patched up) by many Christian philosophers as well. He does engage Alvin Plantinga and his modal ontological argument, but only partly and he never directly tackles presuppositionalism. The latter has moved out of the centers of obscurity among Reformed Christians and—as problematic as it is—is now regularly appealed to on Christian YouTube channels everywhere.

Admittedly, this incompleteness is partly why I sat on this review for a long time. I imagined a bit more from the first section of the book, especially given Grayling’s previous work. It is not that Grayling’s book is devoid of important counter-points to religion that the religious should know about, but that most of them are not new and mostly serve as introductory. For example, take his discussion of the moral argument:

is an act wrong because a god says it is, or is it forbidden by god because it is wrong? If the latter, then there is a reason independently of the will of a god that makes the act wrong. But then there is morality without god and the moral argument for the existence of god fails. If the former, then anything god commands (murder and rape, for example) would be morally good, just because he commands it; and then, as Leibniz puts it, ‘In saying that things are not good by any rule of goodness, but merely by the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realising it, all the love of God and all his glory. For why praise him for what he has done if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing exactly the contrary?’

While this argument is very significant, it is also a problem long-recognized by theologians (e.g. medieval discussions of intellectualism versus voluntarism) to be surrendered to the realm of mystery—a theological place which, as unsatisfactory as it is for reason, is nonetheless un-challengeable by nature.

Perhaps my frustration was really just the result of having written a book that required me to be immersed for over a year in the quibbling of theologians, but there are points in these types of debates where I wonder if anyone ever really wins an argument when it comes to the God debate, in that, one party or the other finally says, “well, you got me there.”

Maybe all one can do with bad or good arguments that go ignored is throw one’s hands in the air and shout, “you win again cognitive dissonance!”

For example, consider Grayling’s point that atheism is not just another religion, but something entirely different, something reminiscent of Bill Maher’s oft-quoted line: “atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sexual position.”

“Atheism is to theism as not collecting stamps is to stamp-collecting,” says Grayling, “Not collecting stamps is not a hobby. It says nothing about the non-stamp-collector’s other hobbies or interests….How could someone be a militant non-stamp-collector?” He’s right. While having something to say about religion, atheism is not a religion and it would cease to loose all definition if it were classified as such.

Seems like a fairly open and shut case, but winning on this point is never so easy.

As clear as Grayling’s point seems to me, Peter Hitchens (the evangelical brother of Christopher Hitchens) was not convinced, countering that “Non-collectors of stamps do not, for instance, write books devoted to mocking stamp-collectors, nor call for stamp-collecting’s status to be diminished.” Fair enough, but does this really counter Grayling? No. Note Jerry Coyne‘s counter to Hitchens’ critique of Grayling:

At first this sounds like a good riposte to Grayling—until you think about it for a minute. If stamp collectors tried to force others to collect stamps, vilified or condemned those who did not see the licking of stamps as a holy rite, told people that collecting stamps requires that you abstain from premarital sex, or sex with someone of your gender, imposed fatwas on noncollectors or threatened them with eternal fire, terrorized children who try to collect coins instead of stamps, tried to kill those who insulted stamps, or generally strove to insert their sticky fingers into the public realm, then we wouldn’t need atheistic books, bus posters or mockery.  There aren’t special “stamp schools” in the UK supported by public money, nor does one see stamp collectors given special deference over, say, those who play tennis or prefer to read books. There is not an organized conspiracy of stamp collectors raping children by using their Great Authority Over Bits of Paper, with the Head Collector having the power to cover it up.

In other words, the only reason Hitchens can write what he does is because the stamp collectors insert themselves into everything, are abusive, and unable to let the non-stamp collectors be. They forced a non-position into a position. And while this is a valid counter point to Hitchens, the follow-up to Coyne from evangelical friends would likely be, “those who do these things aren’t really stamp-collectors (or Christians, as the metaphor intends) to begin with, since true stamp collectors would never act this way.

And so the cycle continues, the goal posts are moved, and nothing really ever seems to come out of these discussions other than everyone feeling affirmed in the very premise with which they started.

Graying appears to have this sense from the start of the book when he writes that “to put the matter graphically, contesting religion is like engaging in a boxing match with jelly: it is a shifting, unclear, amorphous target, which every blow displaces to a new shape.” And in all fairness, I’ve heard theologians say similar things about their own theological opponents.

This is why Grayling’s book contributes more in the second half, which is an explanation of how secular humanists can live a good life without religion. Most often, many of my religious students are perplexed by the idea that the non-religious might try to live a moral life. Grayling helps to provide a window into the reasoning behind it, as for him, it is the secular humanist values that define him, not the atheism.

“Humanism is above all about living thoughtfully and intelligently,” says Grayling, “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.” If one is interested in learning what characteristics undergird a humanist life, Grayling offers a starting point, and this is a good enough reason to read the book.

In The God Argument, Grayling is generally respectful, yet firm and frank in his points—the latter of which may be confused by some with militancy. This volume is a good introduction to common objections persons of faith need to consider and it provides a helpful glance into not only the non-stamp collecting life of the atheist, but also the humanist alternative for the good life.

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