Monday, July 18, 2011

Grayling's folly

As a teenager I conceived the idea that I was an atheist. This was not much of an accomplishment, as my parents were atheists too. Their atheism was grounded in a far-left political movement, which I came to reject. And so, feeling the need for some independent rationale for my antireligious views, I sent away for a packet of atheist literature (long since lost, I fear). Among the trouvailles that came in the mail was a stirring hymn: “Onward, Atheist Soldiers.” This ditty follows closely the text written by Sabine Baring-Gould in 1865, and the music composed by Sir Arthur Sullivan in 1871.

I laughed out loud.

Like an old-fashioned photographic negative, all too often atheism seemed just a blanket reversal of theism. It was parasitic, without it seemed to me any ability to generate distinctive thought patterns of its own. Then what about, some will say, thinkers of the calibre of Friedrich Nietzsche? Well, Nietzsche was the son of a pastor, and much of what he says about God has this secondary, parasitic character I noted. Besides, Nietzsche clung to remnants of classical paganism, which was scarcely characterized by any uniform rejection of the gods. Atheism should forbid the belief in gods (plural) as well as in God. And Nietzsche strongly identified with Dionysus.

The composer Frederick Delius honored Nietzsche with his “Mass of Life,” a work of some merit. Yet today’s atheist summer camps seem much less elevated in tone. Some of them feature rites of debaptism, as recorded by one visitor to such an event in Westerville, Ohio in 2008. The ceremony began with some words from the Acting President of American Atheists, Frank Zindler: “Do you agree that the magical potency of today’s ceremony is exactly equal to the magical efficacy of ceremonial baptism with dihydrogen monoxide, and do you agree that the power of all magical ceremonies is nonexistent?” Everyone responded with a booming “Amen!” No baptismal pool was need. All that was required was a blow dryer — in this case, the Blow Dryer of Reason. Then the newly dechristened individuals adjourned to a table to partake of atheist communion wafers, some made of peanut butter. Not clear was what one might do to desecrate this host.

Apparently, a good time was had by all. By comparison I fear that I am not a fun person. Elsewhere I have subjected the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to a searching and detailed analysis ( Suffice it to say that I have found them wanting. But this experience has not made me an atheist once more. If anything, atheism is sustained, all too often, by a self-righteous sense of certainty that parallels the dogmatism of the Abrahamic religions themselves. For this reason perhaps it should be regarded as the Fourth Abrahamic Faith.

Far better to adopt agnosticism, as indeed I have. Since we do not know for sure whether god(s) exist or not, why not leave it at that? One can then pass on to other subjects, where there is a better chance of achieving some certainty.

I was reminded of these reflections when I chanced in a book store on a weighty tome by the British philosopher and atheist A. C. Grayling: “The Good Book: A Humanist Bible.” In some respects, atheism is a big tent, and some who so describe themselves have lamented the lack of a definitive statement of belief. Grayling seeks to address that concern. More particularly, the question is this: is atheism simply a negation of theism; or is it, rather, a broader philosophy addressing key matters of ethics, the pursuit of happiness, and world view?

Grayling has adopted the latter course. But he has sought to pursue it in a peculiar manner, producing a kind of scissors-and-paste job juxtaposing “gems” from various traditions, rewritten in a ponderous pseudo-Scriptural style. As one reviewer harshly remarks, the result is “a cheesy imitation of the Bible. . . . The passages feel hollow and trite and are every bit as tedious to read as the Bible.” The items are even numbered in the manner of the King James version. There is no footnoting to indicate the sources of Grayling's purloinings.

As regards content, Grayling assimilates to atheism political views that are personal and in no way required by rejection of belief in God. There is nothing incompatible with atheism in being an anarchist or libertarian. But Grayling will have none of this; he is an outright statist. Note these passages from “The Lawgiver,” Chapter 2:

"3. For people cannot act against the authorities without danger to the state, though their feelings and judgement may be at variance therewith.
6. For instance, supposing a person shows that a law is repugnant to reason, and should be repealed;
7. If he submits his opinion to the judgement of those who, alone, have the right of making and repealing laws,
8. And meanwhile acts in nowise contrary to that law, he has deserved well of the state, and has behaved as a good citizen should;
9. But if he accuses the authorities of injustice, and stirs up the people against them,
10. Or seditiously strives to abrogate the law without their consent, he is merely an agitator and rebel."

A. C. Grayling is the author of a score of books, many of them, apparently, exhibiting the same self-regarding certainty as his “humanist” writings, of which “The Good Book” is one.

Grayling’s cornerstone principle is something he calls “human flourishing.” On several occasions I had the opportunity of discussing h.f. with my lately deceased friend “Gay Species” (Stephen Heersinck) of San Francisco, who was an advocate. In vain did I point out that “human flourishing” simply repackages Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia. While he was not a conventional devotee of the Twelve Olympians, there is no doubt that Aristotle was a theist (of the unitarian variety). The very term “eudaimonia” contains within it the noun “daimon,” a supernatural being. Thus the origins of this virtue are not merely the outcome of human reflection, however sustained, but represent a gift bestowed by some external power, one greater than ourselves. It is not a product of unaided reason tout court.

I miss Stephen almost every day. What a pity he is not here to argue with me. Fortunately his website,, is still up and running. There you will find further discussion of the criterion of human flourishing.

PS. Why do I put the term “humanist” in quotation marks? Properly, this designation should be reserved for the learned Italian movement of the Renaissance, where such figures as Ficino and Pompanazzi were not atheists, but clung to a kind of religious syncretism, much influenced by the legendary Hermes Trismegistus.

Genuine atheism did not come along until ca. 1700 with the precursors of Baron d’Holbach in France.

UPDATE (July 24): Courtesy of Andrew Sullivan's Dish site, I reproduce the following astute comments from Joseph T. Lapp:

" Even most religious people will agree that the Bible is not literally true in all its detail. The general atheist position appears to be an assertion about the fundamentalist God. So what? Everyone thinks fundamentalists are off their rocker. It's my experience that most Americans these days believe in more amorphous, less tangible forms [of] God - forms that I find hard to argue with because little is claimed with certainty, or because the fuzzy beliefs are compatible with the world I perceive, even if they wouldn't survive Occam's Razor (which only selects pragmatic theories, not truth).

" In my opinion, many of these modern amorphous, if contradictory, visions of God are potentially compatible with the universe I see. I don't find them useful, but I have no basis for concluding their falsehood, and who knows, one of these visions might possibly have some element of truth in it. It's for this reason that I prefer to call myself an agnostic. I find that most atheist can't allow themselves to acknowledge that any notion that anyone calls "God" could have any chance of harboring truth."


Despite its awkwardness, the following term has gained some (limited) currency. Ignosticism or igtheism [ugh-theism?] posits that every other theological position (including agnosticism) assumes too much about the concept of God and many other theological assertions. The word "ignosticism" was coined by Sherwin Wine, a rabbi and a founding figure of Humanistic Judaism.

Ostensibly, it encompassing two related views about the existence of God:

1. Ideally, a coherent definition of God must be presented before the question of the existence of god can be meaningfully discussed. Yet if that definition is unfalsifiable, the ignostic takes the theological noncognitivist position that the question of the existence of God (per that definition) is meaningless. (This view was anticipated many years ago by the British logical positivist A. J. Ayer.) It may be, according to igtheists, that the concept of God itself is not meaningless, yet the term "God" is considered meaningless.

2. The second view is synonymous with theological noncognitivism, and skips the step of first, asking "What is meant by 'God'?" before proclaiming the original question "Does God exist?" as meaningless.

The fact that these distinctions are somewhat hard to grasp accounts for the relative obscurity of the ignostic trend.

At all events, an ignostic maintains that one cannot even say whether he or she is a theist or an atheist until a sufficient definition of theism is put forth.

Ignosticism is not to be confused with apatheism, a position of indifference toward the existence of God. Apatheists may regard the statement "God exists" as trivial or insignificant; yet they may also see it as meaningful, and perhaps even true.



Blogger Burk said...

"Far better to adopt agnosticism, as indeed I have. Since we do not know for sure whether god(s) exist or not, why not leave it at that?"

You draw a false equivalence, as though the certainties of religion are no better and no worse than those of atheism. At core, atheism is the same as agnosticism.. it recognizes that the existence of god(s) is highly improbable, not certainly wrong. But it additionally recognizes the extreme assymetry of the positions- that religions have been incredible fountains of bilge and potent forms of social control without any rational merit. So agnosticism is not sufficient to right the ship of cultural hypnotism. We have to positively make the case that the evidence of religion is infinitely more defective than than of atheism, even though reason ends up in a formal position of uncertainty. You might enjoy Robert Burton's "on being certain".

As for Eudaimonia, it sounds fine to me. We can't expunge philological origins from our words and thoughts, which all originated as some metaphor or other. The point is to transcend them with reason and charity. I think "Jesus Christ!" remains a perfectly functional expression of surprise and disappointment, even for atheists!

All that said, Grayling's effort does sound truly dreadful.

10:47 AM  

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