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Posted May 19, 2013
A Godawful Sloppy Argument. I was hoping that this book would p
A Godawful Sloppy Argument. I was hoping that this book would provide a concise outline of the New Atheism that has been hitting the bestseller lists; but Grayling's New Atheism turns out to be pretty much like the old atheism circa 1900. This book has no organization and few arguments, and fails to achieve shrillness only due to its limp prose, not from any lack of ad hominem arguments against ignorant believers who could not possibly believe such nonsense if they hadn't been indoctrinated into it as children. Rather than systematically address the three standard arguments against religion (rational, moral, and historical), Grayling throws out bits and pieces of each in a stream of consciousness diatribe. He does make a fairly direct rational argument against fundamentalism, but then seeks to extend his conclusion to all religion by asserting that fundamentalism is the genuine article and other more complex religious beliefs are merely watered down versions of it--which is rather like dismissing mathematics on the basis that it is just watered down Pythagorean number worship. He mentions the moral argument here and there, but cannot address it seriously due to his refusal to engage with actual religious belief. (For someone presuming to write a book on this subject, his evident ignorance of Christian theology is downright stunning.) The historical argument appears often, but only in rhetorical jabs where he assumes that the reader shares his evaluation of history--good secular Classical Age, bad religious Dark Ages, good secular Renaissance and Enlightenment--that seems to come straight out of HG Wells' 1920 Outline of History. Virtually every historical statement in this book is highly contestable or simply false. (Most egregious is a footnote stating that "Socrates was put to death when the Thirty Tyrants were in power, because he angered them. This could not have happened in Pericles' Athens." But the Thirty reigned in 404-403 BCE, several years before Socrates' trial and death in 399 under the restored democracy. And if Grayling hadn't been living under a rock for the last century he might have heard that Socrates was likely tried and condemned because, after two bloody oligarchic coups within the space of a decade, Athenian democrats understandably saw him as the ideologist for the oligarchs, who had encouraged young Athenian aristocrats--including Critias, one of the two leaders of the Thirty--to despise democracy and admire the Spartan constitution; and following the generous and successful amnesty accorded by the democrats to the deposed oligarchs, Socrates flouted the implicit terms of this settlement and openly continued to teach contempt for democracy to a new generation of wealthy Athenian youth. See IF Stone, The Trial of Socrates. Whether Pericles would have spared Socrates is at best an open question.) Grayling's parody of Victorian historical prejudices leads to some bizarre arguments: he mentions Hitler, Stalin, and Mao not to counter the point that atheism has its own historical baggage (much less the more serious point that communism was itself an offshoot of the humanist Enlightenment project), but rather to liken extreme political ideologies to religions which in turn explains why they go wrong. In the second half of his book, Grayling moves on from attacking religion to explaining his humanist views on issues such as love, sex, homosexuality, pornography, drug use, euthanasia, abortion, and blasphemy. This is mostly platitudes and there are no prizes for guessing his views on every issue. But he makes two interesting points. First, he asserts (my paraphrase) that each person is responsible for designing their own system of ethics to live by--which is from Nietzsche although Grayling doesn't credit him (maybe because some might associate Nietzsche with the pseudo-religious Nazis?). Second, he distinguishes between ethics (the development of personal character) and morality (obligations and duties regarding relationships with others), with morality being only a part of ethics. This is a useful distinction, but what Grayling does with it is telling: he largely rejects traditional morality as consisting of external, religiously motivated rules that arbitrarily constrain personal autonomy, while embracing a return to the broader ethical standards of classical philosophy which aspire to a good (well-lived) life rather than a moral one. He doesn't realize it, but here he has stumbled backwards over the historical argument FOR religion: that in the ancient Hellenistic world the classical ethical virtues (pragmatism, justice, temperance, courage, etc.) were found to be inadequate and so were supplemented by and subordinated to the Jewish (and earlier Sumerian) moral virtue of altruism (love, charity, etc.) which then became the core of Western morality from the early Christian church down to contemporary secular humanists (whether they realize it or not). If Grayling wants to reverse that historic shift in values then he will need a far better argument than anything hinted at in this book.
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Posted April 5, 2013
Posted April 25, 2013
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