There’s a short section in A. C. Grayling’s The God Argument where I was cheering him on. It was near the start of the book’s second part, after he had finished his argument against religion and was opening up his case for what unfortunately turns out to be Grayling’s hypocritical humanism.
It wasn’t right at the beginning of Part Two, where he offered up nonsense such as, “the major religions influential in today’s world … derive ultimately from the superstitions of illiterate herdsman living several thousand years ago.” Such a silly thought.
A Grand Vision of Humanism
No, it was in the next chapter, where he said,
Humanism is above all about living thoughtfully and intelligently, about rising to the demand to be informed, alert, and responsive, about being able to make a sound case for a choice of values and goals, and about integrity in living according to the former and determination in seeking to achieve the latter.
And again, from Plutarch,
The duty of a guest is to be a good conversationalist — that is, someone well-informed, who can articulate his views, express and explain them, make a case for them, and be prepared to change them if offered better arguments and evidence; but who is also a good listener, who hears what his interlocutors say (not what he thinks they have said), can engage with their views, discuss them, debate them, challenge them if necessary; but along with them seek clarity, understanding and truth.
There was once a tradition of Christian humanism, which may come as rather a shock to readers who have grown up with humanism being attached at the hip with atheism. But if these two descriptions really do “beautifully illustrate the humanist ideal,” as he goes on to say (on page 110 of the Nook version), then there is no reason for Christians not to aspire to the same.
Grayling Against Religion
Grayling’s vision is not always so broad as that, however, for though he requires that our understanding of the good be “in accord with the facts of humanity as these are shaped and constrained by the world” (p. 111), and though most thoughtful Christians would certainly agree with that, nevertheless he concludes that “this entails that humanism rejects religious claims about the source of morality and value.”
Thus he sets “religion” at odds with the good. His problem, however, is that he hasn’t heeded his own advice. He is not a good listener, he has not heard what his Christian interlocutors say, but what he thinks we have said. Thus when he thinks he is engaging with our views he is engaging instead with a straw man. Though he champions clarity, understanding, and truth, he presents a very poor model of those virtues.
Let me illustrate with some examples. The page numbers are all from the Nook version, and my perspective throughout is that of a Christian. If what he says is true about any or all other religions, I neither know nor care; but these things are misrepresentations of Christianity.
Page 8: “Throughout history the religion-inspired suppression of women has robbed humanity of at least half its creativity and genius.”
Rubbish. The suppression of women throughout history has been the result of a completely different universal human flaw: the powerful domineering over the weak. Men’s physical power over women, and throughout most of our labor-intensive history, men’s economic power as well, explains it well enough.
The early Christian church, archaeology shows us, was heavily populated with women. In a time and place where women were hardly more than children or chattel, Jesus Christ gave them dignity far beyond culture. Today sexism is arguably at least as great a problem in the atheist movement as in any Christian circles.
And where have women’s freedom and dignity been most freely championed? Atheist Russia or China? Not a chance. No, it’s been where Christianity has had its deepest influence. As David Marshall argues at length, Christianity is the best thing that ever happened to women.
Page 9: “And indeed, everywhere that science and education have advance, so religion has dwindled in influence”
Page 16: “The major reason for the continuance of religious belief” includes “ignorance — of science, of psychology, of history in general, and of the history and actual doctrines of religions themselves.”
He labels these “considered facts,” but he cannot have considered the centuries of Christian leadership in education, right from the fall of Rome until the Western world was ready, not too many decades ago, to take it over from Christianity. Christianity is anything but a religion of ignorance.
Page 12: “That religion has survived so long is remarkable evidence of how effectively it inculcates a mindset in which criticism or questioning, and the recognition of contradiction or unacceptability, is suppressed.”
Really? I wonder if Grayling were to take a survey of all the high-schoolers studying rigorous logic in America, where he would find the great majority of them? In Christian home-schooling and in Christian schools, I am quite confident.
Not so sure about that? Never mind. I can offer a book-length refutation of atheism’s claim to superior rationality.
Page 21: Jesus “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.”
Supposed parallels between Jesus and other gods and heroes are wildly overblown. And the idea that this could be sufficient to nullify Jesus’ uniqueness is silly in the first place. It would be like suggesting that Barack Obama is not unique, for there have been dozens of other presidents. Sure: but isn’t he the first black president? Some similarity does not negate all uniqueness. And Jesus was indeed one of a kind in many ways, at least one of which even a Grayling could assent to, for it doesn’t require believing the New Testament record.
Page 59: “Having faith — holding beliefs and accepting doctrines either without evidence or even in the face of countervailing evidence — which most religious people actually regard as a virtue …”
Page 86: “Religion took the view that it was right and science was wrong, and anyone who disagreed might be killed (for example, Giordano Bruno) or obliged to recant under threat of death (for example, Galileo).”
The Bruno story is false. He was killed, yes. That was not good. But it wasn’t for his science; it was for pagan mysticism. Galileo, a believer, was not threatened with death, and he was not sentenced with anything worse than house arrest. His troubles had as much to do with his impolitic mockery of the pope as with his science.
But suppose the Galileo story were as bad as Grayling claims, or even worse. Grayling calls it an example. An example of what? Can you name one other person persecuted by Christians for the sake of science? (I thought not.) The scientists of Galileo’s day and for centuries before and after were mostly churchmen. Christianity welcomed and nurtured science (one exception does not deny centuries of truth on that point). Augustine cautioned centuries earlier against the view that religion must always be right and science always wrong.
Page 139: “The claim that the greatest moral problems in our world are human rights violations, war, injustice, and poverty hardly needs justification. What is unjustifiable is the way the problems continue, even indeed grow, because the self-interest of the parties who might be able to resolve them trumps everything.”
If this is an argument against a philosophy founded on self-sacrifice and built on agape love, it misses badly.
Page 156: “It is to the dead hand of oppressive institutions such as religion that one must look for an explanation of why [freely practiced sexual] love can be a problem: which generally speaking, it only is when rationed and starved.”
Grayling crows the virtues of science; I wonder if he knows science has left Freud long behind? There is no evidence that a surfeit of sexual practice does a person any more good than any other indulgence. One of the tragedies of pornography is the way it’s ruining real relationships. Cohabitation degrades marriages. Hooking up denigrates the glory of sex by making it impersonal and common.
Page 186: If Christianity had gone the way of other mythologies of its time, Plato’s and Aristotle’s academies would not have been closed down in 529 ce because of their ‘pagan’ teachings.”
The academy in 529 was neo-Platonist, which was highly amenable to Christian theology at the time, if I understand correctly. I searched for any hint that Grayling’s charge here was true, and found none. I’m open to correction on this if anyone has any.
Page 189: When it was proposed by Copernicus, and empirically demonstrated by Galileo with his telescope, that the Earth is one modest member of a vast swarm of astronomical bodies, occupying an insignificant corner of a huge universe, the affront to human self-importance, and with it to the primacy of theology, was incalculable.”
Prior to Copernicus, most people believed the Earth was at the most unworthy place in the universe, at the center, closest to hell. After Copernicus, God’s glory was magnified: a huge boost to theology! Humans’ place in God’s plan was never determined by our geographical location in his cosmos anyway; it was in Christ’s incarnation.
Conclusion: Publish, Then Duck
I’ve gone on long enough, and I am bracing for the inevitable flurry of outrage from atheists objecting to every one of these points. There’s enough controversial topics here for a month of blog posts. The point is, Grayling is hypocritical with respect to his treatment of religion. He gives it the most uncharitable and (frequently) documentably false presentation possible.
This is humanism? Not according to Grayling’s definition.
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