14 October 2013

A.C. Grayling's wonderful new book on humanism

I recently had the pleasure of reading A.C. Grayling's latest book, The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism.  Grayling is a wonderful writer, creating prose that is rich with content while also being very easy to read.

His thesis is that religion is an unnecessary evil in modern society because all its good features and none of its bad features are readily available in humanism.  He argues his case by dividing his book into two major sections: the first - the "case against religion" - is a summary of all the major problems suffered by theism; the second - the "case for humanism" - is a detailed philosophical exposition of how elements of humanism can be swapped in to one's personal philosophy as each unjustifiable element of religion is swapped out.

Some have suggested that there is nothing particularly new in the book - that the arguments have pretty much all been around for a fairly long time (millennia in some cases).  I think such opinions are only superficially correct in that Grayling stitches the arguments together into a sensible whole far better than anyone else has to date.  And the whole, in this case, is certainly more than just the collection of parts. Indeed, I think it's the best such synthesis I've ever read.

Others have suggested that this book is more a political argument for social liberalism than a philosophical argument for post-religious spirituality, whatever that means (sounds like post-modernist crap to me).  Considering that the political right seems to lean more towards conventional/traditional religious views, remarks like that aren't surprising.  But I also think any connection to political arguments are derivative of the philosophy and not the other way round.  There is no question of Grayling's intent: he is keenly interested in finding ways of promoting general well-being, happiness, fulfilment, and meaning in everyone's own lives.  Whether than makes him a "social liberal" or not is irrelevant, quite frankly, as it strikes me that a world full of happy, healthy, fulfilled individuals is clearly more important than having one where social liberalism (or whatever other political stance) is seen as superior.

All this notwithstanding, I remained slightly frustrated by The God Argument because Grayling seemed to steer clear of even proposing some arguments that I think don't get enough "air play."  Many of these arguments are scientific in nature.  Grayling can of course be excused for not covering these because he is not a scientist, and he was clearly writing from his own expertise.  I certainly appreciate his obvious desire to keep his writing grounded in that of which he is himself a world-class expert, but it doesn't allay my frustrations.  I mention it only to provide some warning to other science wonks who may choose to read The God Argument that they too may feel as I do.

There are two arguments, however, that support humanism and undermine religion, that I would have thought Grayling might have tried to address.  One is an inductive argument based on history.  Religion came first, then philosophy, then science.  Fundamentally, all three are attempts to understand the universe.  The boundaries between the three disciplines are not especially crisp, particularly if one considers their historical development.  It seems to me, then, that it's more a matter of evolution - of continual refinement of thinking and reasoning - that has led us to where we are today.  There is no question that Grayling's philosophical arguments assume some truth to science - that the earth orbits the sun, for instance; or more generally that evidence-based reasoning is superior to other forms of reasoning.  In this view, religion is just an old idea whose time has passed.

The other argument is based on evidence that exists in the world today, that religion is negatively correlated with most (if not all) reasonable measures of "successful societies."  While not strictly philosophical in nature, it does fall under the rubric of the kind of applied philosophy that Grayling argues is important for human progress.

In any case, I would advise anyone with an interest in humanity's continued progress to read Grayling's book.  It's bound to make you think.

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