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Religion or Humanism?
on 13 July 2013
Many individuals have settled their beliefs about religion while many others, including myself, have experienced much doubt throughout life. Those with unsettled views probably have a larger tendency than others to gravitate towards philosophy, which tries to examine and assess broad questions about life and experience. In his new book, "The God Argument: the Case against Religion and for Humanism" (2013), the philosopher A.C. Grayling examines and rejects arguments in favor of religion and religious belief and opts instead for an outlook on life based on humanism. Grayling is professor of philosophy and master of the New College of the Humanities, London. Grayling has written more than 30 books, many of which involve questions about religion and humanism. He is a "public philosopher" in that he writes for lay audiences as well as for technically trained philosophers and addresses questions of immediate philosophical impact as opposed to what are sometimes termed technical questions for specialists. In addition to addressing religion and humanism, Grayling has written studies of Descartes, Berkeley, and Wittgenstein.
The goal of the book is less to change minds than to articulate the reasons which, for Grayling, lead to the rejection of religion and theism. Equally important, Grayling wants to show that the lack of theistic belief does not lead to a meaningless, ethically random life. The case Grayling makes for humanism is as important to his project as the case against religion. Accordingly, the book is in two broad parts, the first of which is titled "Against Religion" while the second is titled, "For Humanism".
Religious belief involves intellectual questions but it also raises questions of emotion, psychology, history and more. Thus, in the first part of the book, Grayling engages in a broad discussion of the origins of religious belief, historically and for the individual, and of the role religion has served for its believers. Speaking broadly, Grayling sees religion as arising in a pre-scientific world view when people tried to explain phenomena on the basis of mind or intentionally-based behavior rather than as the operation of laws of nature, including physics, chemistry, and biology. He sees religion as having great personal uses for people in providing forms of consolation, meaning, and ethical standards; but he also sees religion as wreaking more harm than good in the form of intolerance and hatred, ignorance, superstition, and the undue supression of natural and proper human desires including, in particular, sexuality.
Grayling explores these factors and then turns to an examination of various philosophical arguments that have traditionally been offered for theism, including the argument from design and the ontological argument, and finds them wanting.
The best part of the discussion consists in Grayling's formulation of the question: determining what "religion" and "god" mean. Religion, for Grayling, is a "set of beliefs and practices focused on a god or gods," a definition that excludes Theravada Buddhism and Confucianism, among other possible candidates. In a telling passage, Grayling points to the difficulty of engaging with religion due to to the shifting character of concepts of God. He writes:
"[C]ontesting religion is like engaging in a boxing match with jelly; it is a shifting, unclear, amorphous target, which every blow displaces to a new shape. This is in large part because the religious themselves often do not have clear ideas, or much agreement among themselves, about what is meant by 'religion', 'god' 'faith' and associated concepts. And this is not surprising given the fact that these concepts are so elastic, multiple, and ill-defined as to make it hard to attach a literal meaning to them."
The considerations Grayling identifies make "religion" and "god" elusive targets. Educated religious believers frequently have far different views than the majority of people who attend houses of worship. And those believers who disagree with "fundamentalism" frequently "cherry-pick" among doctrines, disregarding those they find offensive and substituting, sometimes in a dogmatic way of their own, a more "liberal" point of view. I sympathize with Grayling's discussion of this situation. He tries to address it by mounting a broad-based attack on theism, in terms of the existence of god and of the value of god as a means of explanation in morality, physical causation, or anything else.
In the second part of the book, Grayling defines and makes the case for humanism. He says:
"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 rights that the former tells us all must have, and the need for space and tolerance that the latter tells us each must have."
Grayling proceeds to give a broad discussion of how an individual may choose the pattern of his or her life and work towards its meaning under a humanistic outlook. He also offers what he admits are his own points of view on a broad range of social issues, including the distribution of wealth, feminism, gay rights, vegetarianism, euthanasia, regulation of drugs, and more. His views tend to be well on the liberal range of the social spectrum.
The book is provocatively and elegantly written. Grayling writes with a commendable passion and fervor as he seeks to engage the reader in the process of thinking issues through to a conclusion. I share much of his approach. In my view, "humanism" and more generally "philosophy" are terms almost as elusive and shifting as "god" and "religion". Grayling's "humanism" has many attractive features, but its emphasis of individualism and choice of goals speaks primarily to a certain type of educated, modestly well-to-do individual with a degree of leisure in a developed country. And Grayling's arguments for social and political positions do not seem to me in all cases to be required by a humanistically based ethics. Perhaps individuals have other options between the religion that Grayling critiques on the one hand and his humanism on the other hand. The works of the American philosopher John Kekes, for example, show a secular thinker with a social ethics that differs markedly from Grayling's.
I mentioned that Grayling has written about Descartes and Wittgenstein. In the book under discussion, written for a law audience, Grayling perhaps does not fully flesh out philosophical underpinnings and arguments. He offers a short and rather perfunctory chapter titled "knowledge, belief, and rationality" on the difficult host of questions that philosophers describe as epistemological. I am not sure from this work alone, but Grayling appears committed to a strong view of rationality and proof and to a representational outlook with which many philosophers would disagree. The outlook is broadly that words and thoughts somehow "mirror" reality. And so, when the word "God" is used, it refers to an existing being or to nothing at all. Some philosophers would reject this outlook and allow for the possibility of a "God" that is not an existent "thing" or a "being". Also Grayling seems to me to privilege scientific forms of explanation and he adopts what is close to a verificationist theory of meaning. He writes, "[r]eligious claims are, accordingly, irrefutable because untestable; and by this criterion are therefore meaningless." The trouble with this is that verificationism has a long philosophical history. If theological claims do not pass verificationism, many other types of claims that people would now want to give up do not pass it as well.
Grayling could reject these forms of critique or he could restate his position to meet them. I think his discussion, rejecting a representationalist theism is valuable. The book is liberating, challenging, and worth reading by those readers emeshed in religious questions.