A.C. Grayling: A bespectacled familiar face fustigating religion

by dollydelightly

A little while ago while running up and down numerous stairs, I spotted an opening in the daily grind and dashed outside, through the back door, for a quick cigarette. I perched my bottom on an iron balustrade and surveying the passing crowd caught a glimpse of a bespectacled familiar face thus leaped forth, with disconcerting alacrity, as his name erupted from my oesophagus. His sober countenance came over with a smile. A fleeting discussion ensued about Against All Gods and other literary milestones. We chatted very briefly, smiling at one another, shook hands and parted.  It took me a moment to lift my maxilla up off the floor, because sometimes life really does take one by surprise.

I was given A.C. Grayling’s Above All Gods while working for the publisher. I read it then and recently because I think certain books are worth revisiting. Grayling opens his opus with the assertion that religion “deserves no more respect than any other viewpoint, and not as much as most,” because 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.” As inflammatory as it may sound, to those of religious inclination, I have to agree with Grayling and furthermore concede when he points out that, “It is time to refuse to tiptoe around people who claim respect, consideration, special treatment, on the grounds that they have a religious faith, as if having faith were, a privilege endowing virtue, as if it were noble to believe in unsupported claims and ancient superstitions.” Time, indeed. Religion is undoubtedly one of Grayling’s bailiwicks, and the six topical polemics in Against All Gods are well-considered if thersitical.

In a chapter entitled A Rectification of Names: Secularist, Humanist, Atheist, Grayling forewarns the reader that there’s a “need for patient repetition” about the “fundamentals” since even the “Archbishops remain in the dark about such matters”. He defines the three appellations as follows: “Secularism is the view that Church and State (religion and national government) should be kept separate…Humanism in the modern sense of the word is the view that whatever your ethical system, it derives from your best understanding of human nature and the human condition in the real world…’Atheism’ is the word used by religious people to refer to those who do not share their belief in the existence of supernatural entities or agencies.” This draws a set of clear distinctions between each one in the triptych, illuminating Grayling’s own viewpoint, as does his definition of religion which he says is “centred upon belief in the existence of supernatural agencies or entities in the universe; and not merely in their existence, but in their interest in human beings on this planet; and not merely their interest, but their particularly detailed interest in what humans wear, what they eat, when they eat it, what they read or see, what they treat as clean and unclean, who they have sex with and how and when; and so for a multitude of other things.” Later in the book, as in above, Grayling is keen to reiterate that the main principle of religion is based on the belief in the “supernatural” and therefore belongs in “the same bin,” with “notions of deities, fairies and goblins”.

Grayling also argues that “faith is a commitment to belief contrary to evidence and reason.” I tend to agree. What’s worse,  is organised commitment to that belief which, he says, even those on the same side of the argument tend to confuse, by mistakenly “thinking that the dispute about supernaturalistic beliefs is whether they are true or false” when in fact “Epistemology teaches us that the key point is about rationality. If a person gets wet every time he is in the rain without an umbrella, yet persists in hoping that the next time he is umbrella-less in the rain he will stay dry, then he is seriously irrational.” Perhaps Grayling oversimplifies the context here, but that does not detract from the puissance of his point, because to believe in something in spite of reason is perhaps worse than merely “irrational” it is foolish. Grayling also counteracts some of the saponaceous arguments that religious votaries may pose, such as “the moral (the immoral) choices of the general population thrust upon” through various mediums such as television by saying they “need to be reminded that their television sets have an off button.” Grayling’s work, inflected with philosophical and scientific interpretative modes and close inspection of commonplace theological arguments, gives an insightful overview of religion and its self-righteous principals, jangling ambiguity and logic-defying rituals.

One of the most pertinent points Grayling makes, however, is that “with faith anything goes… from superstition to mass murder”. He highlights several modern-day conflicts to illustrate this fact, but also to demonstrate that religious fundamentalism “is the same in its operation and effects as Stalinism and Nazism” because, as Grayling posits, “most wars and conflicts in the world’s history owe themselves directly or indirectly to religion.” Grayling fustigates the very principles of religion with some clout; however, his suggested alternative wavers somewhat in its feasibility. He advocates the stance of a humanist, which he defines as someone “whose ethical outlook in non-religiously based” but rather “premised on humanity’s best efforts to understand its own nature and circumstances”. Grayling says that humanism would be best adept to our needs “for the sake of this life, in this world, where we suffer and find joy, where we can help one another, and where we need one another’s help: the help of the living human hand and heart.” While I, personally, like the notion of an irenic ideology based on “the value of things human,” it does sound rather idealistic and mawkish. Perhaps I’m just too cynical, or maybe just a realist. Either way, I too like Grayling dislike the term “atheist”, he says it concedes the default position of belief in God to theists. I, on the other hand, have come to realise that atheism has acquired a cult-like status, a quiet following of mass proportions, and as a result has developed into a makeshift doctrine of its own that adheres to a particular set of values, much like religion. In other words, it has evolved into a belief system for non-believers, which sounds far too complicated because true genuine non-belief is  the reverse of true genuine belief; it is silent and gives sign of its existence only when challenged.