(Because of my love for books and the profound insights I gain from them, I thought it would be nice to share some of this wisdom with the rest of you. Not your typical book review, this series focuses more on the things I “take away” from a book, and the insights I gained from it.)
My latest read was A.C. Grayling’s The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism. A synopsis is not really needed, as the subtitle pretty much says it all. The book spends the first half arguing against organized religion and the second half discussing why humanism is a better option.
I mainly grabbed this book as I was interested in the second half; what Grayling had to say about humanism as a personal philosophy. I’ve heard of most of Grayling’s arguments against religion before, but he still offered some insights and new ways (for me anyways) of looking at things.
There’s an old saying when it comes to religion – “They can’t all be right.” Grayling expresses that same sentiment towards the beginning of the book when describing the term “God” and what it means to people:
Even more significantly for religious people, the word [God] typically invokes to denote the all-encompassing and unanswerable source of authority governing what people can think, say, eat, and wear… The fact that different religions claim that their god or gods have different requirements in these respects should be evidence that religions are man-made and historically conditioned, but religious people think that this insight only applies to other people’s religion, not their own.
Grayling also devotes a good amount of his book to science and how it differs from religious truths, particularly when it comes to the idea of Intelligent Design:
ID theorists know in advance the answer, and are seeking to arrange the right questions to get to it; they know what they wish to prove, and are suborning evidence which, when applied and understood, leads to very different conclusions. They subscribe for non-rational reasons to one of the many creation myths from the infancy of mankind… and are looking for justification in support of it. This is far from science, rationality and intellectual honesty as one can get, and it is the essence of the Creationism-ID project.
A central plank of the scientific method is the open invitation to others to test, probe and question the work that any scientist or group of scientists does. The generalized version of this is the invitation to submit oneself – one’s ideas and proposals, one’s efforts – to challenge by and disagree with others.
One of my favorite subjects of the book was the idea of probability. In talking with believers about the concept of God and his intervention in this world, the idea of possibility inevitably gets thrown out as a sort of last-ditch effort to get you to consider their position. Statements like, “Isn’t it possible that God made things appear old, but they’re really not?”, “But isn’t it possible that God caused the Big Bang?”, “Isn’t it a good idea to bet on the possibility of hell really existing?” Yes, these are all possible – just like it’s possible that there is a Chinese teapot circling the sun. But, it’s not very probable. Everything humans believe in is (or at least should) be based not on whether it is possible, but to the degree of which it is probable:
One line of thinking in the theory of knowledge has it that belief is not an all-or-nothing affair, but a matter of degree. The degree in question can be represented as a probability value. A virtue of this approach is said to be that it explains how people adjust the weighting they give to their various beliefs as the evidence in support of them changes when more and better information becomes available. People might not talk of probabilities unless challenged to say just how strongly the believe something, but their beliefs are nevertheless measurable in terms of how subjectively probable they appear to their holder. In what is known as Bayesian probability theory this is taken to underlie all acquisition and evaluation of beliefs.
In the beginning of second half of book, Grayling gives a concise description of humanism:
In essence, humanism is the ethical outlook that says each individual is responsible for choosing his or her values and goals and working towards the latter in the light of the former, and is equally responsible for living considerately towards others, with a special view to establishing good relationships at the heart of life, because all good lives are premised on such. Humanism recognizes the commonalities and, at the same time, wide differences that exist in human nature and capacities, and therefore respects the right that the former tells us all must have, and the need for space and tolerance that the latter tells us each must have.
Humanism is above all about living thoughtfully and intelligently, about rising to the demands to the 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 later.
Humanism is the concern to draw the best from, and make the best of, human life in the span of a lifetime, in the real world, and in the sensible accord with the facts of humanity as these are shaped and constrained by the world.
Humanism is an attitude towards ethics based on observation and the responsible use of reason, both together informing our conversation about human realities, seeking the best and most constructive way of living in accordance with them.
Throughout the book, Grayling distinguishes between humanism and religion. As one example:
Religious ethics is based on the putative wishes – more accurately: commands of a supernatural being. For the humanist, the source of moral imperatives lies in human sympathy. If I see two men do good, one because he takes himself to be commanded to it by a supernatural agency, and the other solely because he cares about his fellow man, I honor the latter infinitely more.
Grayling also points out something that I have been saying for years- you can’t claim to live your life according to the Bible and still live in a modern society; the two notions are mutually exclusive. One has to pick and choose what they believe and leave the stuff that is no longer culturally relevant (as much as some would wish it was):
When people submit to systems, they are handing over to them (to those who devised them) the right to do their thinking and choosing for them. Given that almost all the major systems are religious, which moreover originated in a remote past to which most of their teachings apply, they can only be adapted to contemporary conditions by much reinterpretation and temporizing, and alas – by straightforward hypocrisy.
Grayling spends a great deal of time focusing on human interactions on both a small and large scale. I do wish he would have devoted a little more time to how the philosophy of humanism relates to the earth as a whole – how we treat animals, take care our environment, etc.
Overall, The God Argument was a good read. I would recommend it to anybody who is on the fence about religion. For those who have already made up their minds, I would say that you would be safe skipping to the middle of the book. I’ll leave you with one final quote that is in the book, this one from Leibniz:
In saying that things are not good by any rule of goodness, but merely the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realizing it, all the love of God and all his glory. For why praise him for what he has done if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing exactly the contrary?
Thanks for reading.