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Not all that enlightened
on 16 September 2011
This is a readable book and amusing in places. It is not a practical guide to personal behaviour but a comparison of Enlightenment teaching with religious teaching. Grayling is quite certain that Enlightenment sources must always be preferred to religious sources. In his Introduction he says that the two systems have always been in conflict. For him this conflict is the most important division in the history of ideas about goodness.
Chapters cover Classical and Hellenistic teaching (which he calls the First Enlightenment), Monotheism (much criticised), the Renaissance (Second Enlightenment), modern science and philosophy (Third Enlightenment), competition between humanism and religion, and modern ethics.
This is quite a good guide to the history of ideas but nowhere near as good as Bertrand Russell's "History of Western Philosophy". Both books are readable but Russell is more thorough and even-handed. It is much longer but comes in bite-sized chapters. Whereas Grayling is keen to tell you how the church damaged the First Enlightenment, Russell explains how Alexander the Great proscribed all political discussion so that, from then on, Enlightenment teachers could only discuss how an individual might manage under dictators and warlords. For the same reason, Jesus and his successors were frequently tortured and executed for refusing to worship the Emperor until the Fourth Century when a weakened Emperor made them part of the Imperial system and Enlightenment schools were eventually suppressed. Russell, unlike Grayling, points out how the Western church preserved some Enlightenment material through the Dark Ages after Rome lost its power in the West.
Considering that this book attacks religion in general, it is a shame that Grayling does not mention how, during the Middle Ages, Muslim scholars studied and extended Greek science, making it available to Western scholars when the Renaissance made this possible. Perhaps the greatest thing the Muslims gave us was the "Arabic" system of writing numbers (which they got from the Hindus). Without this priceless Muslim science, our science would still be medieval. The work of Descartes, Newton, their many followers and the Industrial Revolution itself, would all have been impossible.
Another thing which he omits to mention is that the Reformation gave ordinary labourers the privilege and duty of reading the Bible in their own language. Previously the Bible was reserved for professional clergy, leading to precisely the kind of elitist control which Grayling attributes indiscriminately to all religion. This democratization of Bible reading drove an expansion of literacy and printing which in turn provided the foundation of the third Enlightenment.
Grayling often misrepresents Christianity to strengthen his case. For example he claims that modern Christian charities are just a "perfumed smokescreen" for a sinister interior. He knows very well that Christ's two founding commandments were to love God and to "love your neighbour as yourself". Christ also said that only those who served their neighbours, for example by visiting the sick, would get into Heaven. "In as much as you did it to the least of my brethren, you did it to me". Charity has always been practised by Christians. Our longest-serving hospitals were all founded with an explicitly Christian ethos. Regardless of theology, Jesus's words make an excellent foundation for anyone's life. They are never fully achievable but they remind us where our target should be. The best of us really do show love through sacrificial action. Christianity and Humanism are very close at this point and it a great shame that Grayling and his friends have chosen to exaggerate the differences. We have enough conflicts as it is.
In another place Grayling tells us that religion must be confined to private places because "religions blaspheme each other" and will injure civil society if allowed public space. Superficially religious people use the B word often, deeply religious people rarely. Religion is often a marker for what in reality is a longstanding, ethnically-based division. The recent histories of Ireland and Yugoslavia show that making religion private is only a sticking plaster for a deep division which is essentially ethnic. For many people, religion is their way of understanding their existence and their ethical principles. Properly understood, their religion will help and encourage them to work with and serve neighbours of all beliefs and races. A person's religion is the foundation of their conscience and the consciences of the people are the foundation of a civil society. If society opposes existing religions then the energy of religious people will be diverted away from the needs of their neighbours into a passionate defence of their beliefs.
Recent Islamic terrorism is led by traditional but unreflective Islamists angered by the modern Western worship of sex as opposed to a deep, whole-life commitment. It is not a clash between religions but a clash between a religion which will not be confined and a modern society whose people worship sex, drugs and status symbols rather than the creator. Christians have learned the lessons of the Reformation Wars and have developed a modern, reflective faith and a dialogue with people of other faiths and none. This, rather than a new war between humanism and religion, is the way forward.
In the 1960s, British teenagers collectively began a new way of living and rejected the principles of established authority. Their new principles included two which Grayling advocates: autonomy and the avoidance of all teaching derived from the God who, according to Grayling, is guilty of many sins including "mass murder" (p 69). This meant that they rejected all of the Ten Commandments including: "Do not commit adultery" and "Honour your father and your mother". The Pill was considered as a justification for a new attitude to sex and, for many people, sex became an end in itself. Although this was fine in principle, in practice the Pill was often not used because of lack of information, lack of motivation or parental control. The result was a growing underclass of fatherless children. Before 1960 most children joined a family headed by two parents who set an example of mutual love. The father provided both an example of civilised manhood and a bridge between the sons and his own network of mature successful men. Both parents provided a bridge to an extended family of men and women able to assist the sons and daughters in the transition to citizenship.
In the new underclass men have evaded their natural role as leaders with a long term commitment to their families. Instead they swap partners and families at will. The children see a succession of stepfathers, neither fully committed to nor naturally connected with them. This is especially damaging to boys. Many boys now neglect their education and try to find manly examples in the temporary stepfathers and in the gangs which are almost compulsory in some neighbourhoods. This leads them to a parasitic, destructive and exploitive adult life rather than a life of true love and public service. This group of people are a major burden for the remainder of society and their existence points to a future of increasing decadence. Now, too many people are filling the empty "God space" with the worship of: sex, shopping, money, drugs and drink.
I am sure that Grayling would agree that this is a horrible mess. It is surely also clear that this mess is a consequence of newly empowered but naive and immature young people following the principles which he nevertheless still commends as "good". His principles may look like enlightenment among his social and intellectual equals but they don't work so well lower down the scale. There, people learn from example and from simple rules but they are not so good at learning and applying theories.
It is worth noting that Grayling says nothing about the right of a child to fair and loving care from his two nearest relatives, working in mutual harmony on a daily basis. This would be too close to endorsing the religious principle of marriage. Humanists believe, and the law specifies, that in any dispute between parents, the rights of the child have priority over the rights of the adults. However Grayling, representing humanists, doesn't suggest that the rights of a child should extend far enough to discourage his parents from conceiving without any prior commitment to his future needs. This seems to be a right that Moses foresaw but humanists have not yet rediscovered. We were here before: in the 18th century, with results that were brilliantly satirised by Hogarth. Now, as then, a revival will become necessary. It could be Christian, Muslim or Marxist but our current progress is downhill and cannot continue.
The key problem is that ideas which sound fine when debated in universities by clever people with a natural stake in society, break down when they are rolled out to young, naive people with below average intelligence and a family tradition of failure in life. It is possible that humanists could truly replace the church as tutor to a whole society with a coherent and challenging programme of ethical teaching but as things stand they are just denouncing the church programme from the sidelines without providing their own programme. Where are the weekly humanist meetings where great humanist texts are read and debated and those present review their week, analysing how well they have loved and served their neighbours? For millennia, in Jewish, Christian and Moslem societies, meetings like this have been the bedrock of everything good in that society. Grayling and his associates are trying to flush away the last signs of this ethos but they have only university level teaching to replace it, nothing for ordinary people. The idea of a good God noting our goodness and our selfishness and supporting us in trouble is a healthy, unifying source of civility which we lose at our peril. In two places Grayling presents an argument which purports to disprove this but I am not persuaded.
This book may well be a good read for atheists as it will reassure them that they are right. Christians may find themselves just listing the fantasies in Grayling's portrait of their religion.