The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism
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The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism

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by A. C. Grayling

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Examining all the arguments for and against religion and religious belief--across the range of reasons and motives that people have for being religious and how they stand up to scrutiny--The God Argument is a landmark book in the ongoing debate about the place of religion and secularism in our world.

While A. C. Grayling is a clear critic of religion as a


Examining all the arguments for and against religion and religious belief--across the range of reasons and motives that people have for being religious and how they stand up to scrutiny--The God Argument is a landmark book in the ongoing debate about the place of religion and secularism in our world.

While A. C. Grayling is a clear critic of religion as a guiding force, unlike some of religion's opponents, he carefully considers the various arguments for the existence of God and the many reasons people believe in a deity. More important, he then offers a powerful alternative to religion as a world-view--humanism--an approach to life for those who wish to live with intellectual integrity, based on reason, evidence, and a desire to do and be good, and one which does not interfere with people's rights to their own beliefs and freedom of expression.

Humanism, as Grayling reveals it, is an ethics of sympathy and tolerance based on the best endeavor to make sense of human nature and the human condition. Though humanism recognizes why the various faiths first arose, it nevertheless argues that organized religion should no longer be given a privileged position in society.

Thoughtfully provocative, intellectually expansive, The God Argument makes a powerful case that secular belief, free of religious dogma, allows for a much more compassionate and caring worldview.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In his 31st book, the eminent English philosopher re-examines the arguments for and against God and falls firmly in the camp of the nonbelievers. There is not a lot of new ground covered here—Kant, Descartes, Hume and Locke all fall under the microscope, and Grayling has intelligently tackled religious belief in a long list of other books, including The Good Book (2011). While Grayling makes a thoughtful case in engaging writing for humanism—a belief in the potential of human beings and their rationality—he, like so many others, fails to offer religious readers a reason to rally behind it beyond common sense. Like so many atheist writers, Grayling assumes that all believers are fundamentalists, with little nuanced beliefs, implying that believing in the divinity of Jesus is the equivalent of believing in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. Until Grayling and other atheist writers recognize that religious believers, too, have brains that can be appealed to and must also be reached not only with emotion, his book and others like it are just more preaching to the atheist choir. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

“Debunks the teleological, ontological and cosmological arguments employed throughout Christendom for the literal existence of God…Those looking for a succinct analysis of these centuries old debates will appreciate Grayling's insights.” —The Washington Post, "On Faith"

“London-based academic and philosopher Grayling (To Set Prometheus Free, 2010, etc.) has the sharp analytical mind of fellow naysayer Richard Dawkins, though he is gentler about saying no to God or god or gods...readers looking for fire-and-brimstone contrarianism will want to turn to Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens instead. Mild though the rebuke is, a readable and persuasvie argument - if, of course, an exercise in preaching to the choir.” —Kirkus Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A spirited repudiation of pies and deities in the sky in favor of an ethic that "is about this world." London-based academic and philosopher Grayling (To Set Prometheus Free, 2010, etc.) has the sharp analytical mind of fellow naysayer Richard Dawkins, though he is gentler about saying no to God or god or gods. Grayling first makes the distinction between the consolations of belief and the attendant costs, writing that while some people are indeed likely to feel some sense of enhanced well-being at the thought of a supreme being, "the burdens are social and political as well as personal." One need only look at some of the legislation coming through the more pious American states to see his point. Grayling proposes against religion "as such, in any form," a grown-up philosophy that requires both personal accountability and social awareness, that addresses some of the big-picture items that religion sometimes obscures or evades--sex, for one thing. That "grown-up" qualifier is important, for Grayling considers religious belief to be a species of superstition, "a hangover from the infancy of modern humanity, sticky and enduring because of the vested interests of religious organizations, proselytization of children, complicity of temporal powers requiring the social and moral policing that religion offers, and human psychology itself." That's about as stern as the author gets, so readers looking for fire-and-brimstone contrarianism will want to turn to Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens instead. Mild though the rebuke is, a readable and persuasive argument--if, of course, an exercise in preaching to the choir.

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The Case Against Religion and for Humanism

By A. C. Grayling


Copyright © 2013 A. C. Grayling
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62040-190-3




To put matters at their simplest, the major reason for the continuance of religious belief in a world which might otherwise have long moved beyond it, is indoctrination of children before they reach the age of reason, together with all or some combination of social pressure to conform, social reinforcement of religious institutions and traditions, emotion, and (it has to be said) ignorance – of science, of psychology, of history in general, and of the history and actual doctrines of religions themselves.

This statement doubtless sounds polemical, but that is not the intention; rather, it is a setting out of considered facts, each discussed later in these pages. They are important facts, because understanding them is essential to solving one of the world's greatest problems: how to free the mind of humankind from attitudes and practices which are among the biggest impediments to peace and human progress, and to adopt in their place the humane outlook that is seriously concerned to promote both, and has a real chance of doing it.

In the Introduction it was acknowledged that religious belief can serve as a comfort, guide and inspiration when benign, while stating the less comfortable and larger truth that religion is far too often a form of enslavement, mental and even literal, and a source of harm from which the world needs liberation. Whereas there are other sources of individual comfort and inspiration that are far better than religion – they include love and friendship, family life, art, the pursuit of knowledge and, as noted, the outlook and principles of humanism – there are very few sources of conflict and mental enslavement as bad as an ideology which demands self-abnegation by submission to its dogmas and to the self-appointed interpreters of its dogmas. Religion is the paradigm of this.

So the argument cannot be that the world needs to rid itself of 'bad religion' in order to promote 'good religion' in its stead, for alas history and contemporary affairs overwhelmingly teach a different lesson. What tries to be 'good' or moderate religion is invariably a faint version of its official self, existing only when its votaries have rejected most of the doctrines and practices associated with it. To make a moderate version of their religion they cherry-pick the bits they can live with: the moment anything more serious in the way of commitment and belief enters the frame, threats immediately arise to women, gays, human rights, peace itself – and this whether you are in the Christian southern states of the United States, Jewish ultra-Orthodox settlements in the Palestinian territories, or Muslim-majority countries or communities anywhere in the world. 'True' versions of these religions are by their nature fundamentalist, while 'moderate' versions of religions are temporisations; the path from the latter to the former is short for anyone on whom the enthusiasms of faith take a grip.

Accordingly, when we engage with the reasons for the survival of what is essentially a stone-age outlook in the modern world, it is difficult not to sound polemical; but this is chiefly because the first step in properly discussing religion requires plain speaking – and plain speaking naturally enough sounds harsh when it is about something that for very many centuries has protected itself from scrutiny and challenge by demanding uncritical deference and respect, and too often by hiding behind a smokescreen of what are claimed to be sacred mysteries.

The sophisticated apparatuses of worldwide religious organisations, the polysyllabic treatises of theologians, and the huge congregations of megachurches chanting ecstatically and holding their hands aloft, give the impression that there must be something more significant at the basis of religion's continuance in the world – indeed, a god, or more accurately an entire other reality, a non-material universe according to some views filled with divine beings, saints, angels and demons.

For religious apologists, assuming or asserting the existence of a supernatural agency in the universe, and moreover one that is interested in human beings on this planet, is the basis they claim for the phenomenon of religion. On this view religion is a response to a transcendent fact, the existence of that other supposed reality containing at least one supernatural being.

The alternative view, the view of religion's critics, is that religions are man-made affairs, their roots in early human experience, with all the consequences of this for the metaphysics and morality constituting them. On this view it is no surprise that religion is at odds with so much of what has happened in history and the world today. From this tension comes much harm, to individuals and societies both. Given that the case against religion is an overwhelming one, freeing the world from its influence has to be an urgent goal, however difficult it might seem to achieve.

The first step is to introduce some clarity into the concepts we are dealing with, and to put them into perspective.

Given that the word 'religion' is used to denote such a wide range of phenomena, we have to identify firm central examples. Obvious and unequivocal candidates are Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the various aspects of what British colonial authorities in nineteenth-century India chose to call 'Hinduism'.

We have to be similarly firm in distinguishing between outlooks and practices that are properly called 'religions' and those that are in fact not religions but philosophies. This is a very important distinction, and one that is widely overlooked. Thus, Buddhism in its original form, and still in the Theravada (Small Vehicle) form, is a philosophy, not a religion. So is Jainism, so most emphatically is Confucianism. The differentiator is that these philosophies are not centred upon belief in, worship of, and obedience to a deity or deities, from whom or from which come the commands that construct the correct form of life and belief for the devotee.

Buddhism and Jainism involve metaphysical views that prompt some to assimilate them to religion, but this is a bad mistake. It is a similar mistake to the one that makes many people think that typical faith religions such as Christianity and Islam are the same kind of thing as the public cohesion practices of, say, Roman religion, or (an even worse mistake!) the philosophy of Stoicism. In this latter case, Stoic references to a principle of reason and order in the universe (the logos) are interpreted as amounting to a religious commitment of some sort. But what the Stoics meant by logos is a universal principle of reason, identified with the order of nature. It is not a god; Stoics did not pray to it or worship it. Jainism likewise has no god. The tian of Confucianism is in effect the same as the logos of the Stoics, and is not even remotely a god, goddess or divine entity, still less a transcendent one.

Another important distinction is that between superstition and religion. All religious people are superstitious, but not all superstitious people are religious. To generalise mightily but not inaccurately, the Chinese are not a religious people, but they are very superstitious (this accepts that a minor percentage of the Chinese population are religious; some are Christian – the work of missionaries – or members of Falun Gong and the like: but the operative phrase here is 'minor percentage' of a vast population). This fact about the Chinese, the most numerous people on Earth and a large fraction of the Earth's human population, gives the lie to the theory that belief in a god is hard-wired in the human brain.

An important rider to the distinction between religions and philosophies is that all religions properly so called, and some philosophies, including most political philosophies, are members of a single category, the category of ideology. Noticing this has powerful explanatory value. The Christianity of Torquemada's Inquisition and Stalinism in the Soviet Union were both ideologies that asserted that there is one great truth, and therefore one correct way to live and behave; and that therefore everyone must sign up for it, and any deviation from it was heresy (or 'counter-revolution'), punishable even by death.

One of many reasons for pointing this out is that freedom from coercive ideology is both a human right and a fundamental civil liberty, which is why freedom from religion should figure in any codification of human rights alongside the freedom to have a religion. The right to freedom from religion also means freedom from proselytisation or coercive demands to belong to one, or harassment and punishment for not belonging to one, and – very importantly – from the requirement to live according to the tenets or demands of a religion to which one does not subscribe. As it happens, this right is entailed by the right to self-determination, a fact which is insufficiently recognised and acted upon. The juxtaposition of a right to a religion and a right to freedom from religion entails that freedom to have a religion is not the same thing as the freedom to impose it on anyone else. The only major religion that does not habitually attempt to impose itself on others is Judaism, except that of course, like all the others, it indoctrinates very young, intellectually defenceless children, which is mainly how religions survive.

As implied by the foregoing, to attach a workable general definition to the word 'religion' is both necessary in discussions of this kind, and not easy given the indeterminacy of religious apologists' own many understandings of the term.

One way of dealing with the problem is to tackle it by looking at the contrast between what in general non-religious people say about what they believe and why they believe it, as against the kinds of things that religious people say they believe and why they believe them, as follows.

Everyone possesses many non-religious beliefs, but what distinguishes these from religious beliefs is the grounds on which they are held, and what they are about. Someone who does not hold religious beliefs would be likely to say that he or she holds a naturalistic world-view, that is, a view to the effect that what exists is the realm of nature, describable by natural laws. This is accordingly a world-view premised on observation, reason and science, and excludes any kind of faith-involving element, and specifically excludes belief in or invocation of a being or beings of a transcendent, supernatural, divine or mystical nature. By 'faith' is meant belief held independently of whether there is testable evidence in its favour, or indeed even in the face of counter-evidence. This latter is regarded as a virtue in most religions; in Christianity the case of Doubting Thomas is held out as illustrating the point.

What centrally constitutes the standard examples of religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – is faith in the existence of a supernatural, transcendent, divine being (or beings, if one includes angels, saints, demons or other personae of the given deity), and they further involve espousal of values and practices taken to be required in response to the existence of these beings, including worship and praise of it or them, submission and obedience to the commands taken to emanate from it or them, and so on.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam identify historical human figures who enjoyed a special relationship with the beings in question – prophets, Jesus, Mohammed – and who were therefore able to transmit their teachings, requirements, admonishments, promises, warnings, threats, and more, to whomever would listen.

This follows a pattern found in earlier and other religions – Zoroastrianism, for example. Jesus is alone among the Judaic prophets in attaining divine status, or rather in being actually identified with the deity for whom he began as a spokesperson; but even in terms of religion in general he is not unique, for in the mythologies pre-dating Christianity many heroic figures underwent apotheosis and joined their fathers or fellow gods in heaven or on Olympus.

In this focal sense, a religion not only involves a belief in the existence of a god or gods and perhaps other beings, that is, non-natural beings either in or (if transcendent) outside, yet connected to, the universe, but also that the relation of these beings to the universe is significant – centrally, by at least one of them being some or all of the universe's creator, ruler and moral law-giver.

The meaning of most of these remarks is, of necessity, merely notional. People think they understand what is being asserted, but on inspection a considerable degree of vagueness enters. It is hard to make literal sense of much theological and religious discourse, which is the reason that religious apologists, when pressed, resort to claims of ineffability concerning the central religious subject-matters and the inability of human minds to grasp them. Divine reality is, they say, too complex, mysterious and vast for comprehension. Apologists are here implicitly trading on the distinction between a capacity to imagine or fantasise something and the capacity to conceive of it – that is, form a coherent concept of it. One can believe that one in some sense understands the idea of a being or entity existing outside space and time, while yet possessed of miraculous or magical powers that enable it to intervene within space and time, and so forth – but to form a concept of such a thing is quite another matter.

A good illustration of the capacity to imagine or fantasise what cannot properly be conceived is given by science fiction, cartoon films and special effects in cinema productions. It can also be understood by noting that language is infinite (you can generate an infinitely long sentence by repeatedly using connectives such as 'and' and 'but') whereas our intelligence is finite, which means that we cannot understand every grammatically well-formed sentence that can be generated by language's recursive rules. Indeed, since we can utter sentences that express logical impossibilities, it is easy to show this. Consider the sentence, 'I can trisect a Euclidean angle using only ruler and compass.' This is a grammatical and even in one sense intelligible sentence, but it claims something that is logically impossible to do – and therefore to think. So we can say things (and imagine that we sort of understand them) that do not express coherent thoughts.

Despite the fact that religious and theological sentences very often say only apparently meaningful things, the formulation given above – that religion consists focally in belief in non-natural agency or agencies with significant interests in human activity on this planet, or whose existence makes some necessary material difference to human beings – roughly indicates what religious apologists take themselves to believe. (Some people might believe that there are such entities but that they are not interested in human experience or have no relationship to the immanent universe: functionally this is a view that does no work and can be left aside.) It is a separate matter that what is believed remains unclear; the apologist will attribute this to the ineffability of things divine.

In sum and in brief, then, a religion is a set of beliefs and practices focused on a god or gods. This is what I shall understand by 'religion' in all that follows.

Excerpted from THE GOD ARGUMENT by A. C. Grayling. Copyright © 2013 by A. C. Grayling. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

A.C. Grayling is professor of philosophy and master of the New College of the Humanities, London. He is the author of the acclaimed Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan, Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius, Toward the Light of Liberty: The Struggles for Freedom and Rights That Made the Modern Western World, and, most recently, The Good Book: A Humanist Bible. A former fellow of the World Economic Forum at Davos and past chairman of the human rights organization June Fourth, he contributes frequently to the Times, Financial Times, the Economist, New Statesman, and Prospect. Grayling's play Grace, co-written with Mick Gordon, was acclaimed in London and New York. He lives in London.

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The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Argylle has well thought through both the negative arguments against deity and religion and the positive arguments for making meaning from a naturalistic perspective, i.e. humanism. Although well thought out, occasionally his writing gets bogged down under the weight of his ideas. A few such moments aside, his thoughts are refreshing and occasionally paradigm shifting for someone crawling out from under a life crushed by religious pressures.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An atheist myself, I have followed the "new atheism" movement pretty closely, and was excited to read this book. The first half attempts to disprove religion, and I found it rather disappointing. Grayling merely adumbrated the arguments against religion, and failed to fully engage the more sophisticated defenses of religion. The second half of book, however, was fascinating. While much of what atheists say of humanism just seems like white noise, Grayling provides robust support for humanism and sketched out his personal worldview (which, he cautions readers, is not the only perspective a humanist can have). It is in this part that the book reveals its true value. Overall, I did not think the book was particularly well-written. The phrasing often seemed awkward, and the writer sometimes seemed ambiguous or abstruse. That said, it is a very good read for atheists, but theists looking for a good polemic against religion should look elsewhere, as this book endeavors more to develop a humanistic view of reality than it does to combat religion (although it does both). It is not meant as a substantial criticsm of Christian apologetics.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This guy desseves a sparta kick down an endless hole.