The Fifth Horseman of New Atheism? 1 May 2013

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A.C Grayling proudly announces himself as fifth of the ‘Horsemen of New Atheism’ with his latest book, ‘The God Argument’. The allusion to The God Delusion is intentional, as Grayling sees himself furthering the crusade started by Dawkins.

The book is divided into two halves, the first half is a critique against religion and the second is a confident (almost missionary) Graylingargument in favour of Humanism.

A.C Grayling’s attacks against religion and theism are all too familiar, and personally I found myself disappointed in Grayling. A celebrated professor should be able to produce something that doesn’t recycle millennia-old arguments and the aphorisms used by internet armchair atheists.

Ultimately, Grayling, Dawkins, Harris and others have not contributed to the philosophical debate of God. Anything they have said has been said centuries prior. The ontological argument was first articulated by Anselm (died 1109). The cosmological argument stretches as far back as Plato, and was notably developed by Ibn Sina (died 1037). The teleological argument is from Ibn Rushd (died 1198). Countless theologians and philosophers have debated the arguments for and against, well before the advent of New Atheism.

Grayling adds very little (arguably nothing) to Dawkins’ contentions. The philosophical debate of God is stagnant, and has been for centuries.

Ultimately, the debate is futile. If Grayling were to undermine the ontological argument (as he attempts to in his book – the reader can make their own decision about whether he succeeds or not) then it would achieve very little. Why? Well, because I’ve yet to meet a believer who believes in God because of the ontological argument, or the teleological or any other philosophical argument.

Those who first put these arguments forward were not trying to settle the debate. It was an attempt to express their subjective and deeply personal experience in an objective language which allows others who do not share their beliefs to engage with them. Ghazali (died 1111), the erudite Muslim philosopher and theologian, spoke about how, in his attempts to prove something beyond doubt, he failed, but ultimately it was a ‘light from God’ in his heart that gave him confidence. Perhaps many other theists can share in his conclusion, but unless you have experienced what he describes, you have no way of assessing its validity. And so, Christian, Muslim and Jewish scholars sought to put forward an objective, philosophical argument for God. One that showed transcendental experience and belief were not a collective fiction of some sort.

New Atheism has discussed and dissected philosophical arguments for God and more modern iterations to death. There has been little desire however to move the debate beyond this restricted paradigm. Grayling’s arguments will hold very little weight with theists because he is not addressing the source of their faith, the nature of their belief or the quality of their claims. But perhaps that is the point. Grayling is most likely writing for convinced atheists rather than the ponderous theist.

Grayling displays the symptoms of a man who has never truly had his opinions challenged. Claims such as “everywhere that science and education have advanced, so religion has dwindled in influence” show a remarkable lack of awareness and could hardly be spoken to a critical audience without being challenged. The Greek philosophers Grayling reveres, for all their sharpness of intellect, were content with thought as evidence alone. It was Ibn al-Haytham (died 1040), the Muslim theologian and polymath, who first developed the scientific method. Al-Haytham’s contributions advanced both religion and science, with no false dichotomy between the two.

New Atheism would do well to avoid appropriating science as theirs alone. The scientific method was developed, advanced and honed by the deeply reverent believer as well as the sceptical atheist. It is the aggressive and over-confident way in which New Atheists call science, evolution and intellect their own that has polarised debate in the USA – particularly between Evangelical Creationists and New Atheists. Creationists who argue that evolution is tantamount to disbelief need only point to Dawkins to prove their contention.

Other examples of Grayling putting forward arguments that would only work when made to a sympathetic audience is his contention that ‘critics of religion generally restrict themselves to hurling arguments rather than stones at the religious’. The violent and repressive atheism of Stalin is barely given a mention.

The paradigm Grayling sets up means that a religious believer will never please him. If religion is capable of dealing with the challenges of the modern world and provides adequate responses to contemporary ethical dilemmas, then it is simply ‘cherry picking’ religion. If a definition of God is anything but a god-of-gaps (i.e. an explanation for that which humans cannot yet explain) then it is intentionally ‘obfuscating’.

In fact, by eschewing the specifics (unnecessary in Grayling’s eyes), he never truly engages with any religious believer. He addresses an amorphous and generalised body of religion that tries to encapsulate all but in fact applies to none. He quotes from an imaginary apologist for religion, echoing the dialogues of the ancient Greek philosophers, but his apologist says only that which Grayling wants them to say – only presenting the weakest, most inherently contradictory, arguments and responses.

The notion that religion is not superficial, nor easily understood, or that scripture can have numerous hermeneutics, all escape Grayling. Grayling, for all his philosophy, believes in a world that is objective, straight-forward and clearly understood. There is no room for ambiguity, uncertainty or fallibility in Grayling’s world. The possibility that religion takes time to understand, effort, reflection and study – that its meanings and truths are not readily laid out for the casual reader of scripture but placed like gems along an arduous journey, is not contemplated by Grayling.

AC GraylingI found the latter part of Grayling’s work much more satisfying, conveying his vision of a Humanistic society. Not because I particularly agreed with his conclusions, but because it provided something new, something innovative, to the New Atheism debate.

Grayling has a clear dislike for anything but monoculture and homogeneity – Humanism, he argues, should formulate an ‘ethical outlook that all humankind can share’, but it is clear, this ethical outlook is Western, male, and middle-class. For example, he argues that Humanism encourages ‘good relations between individuals in respect to their humanity, not in respect of what identities might overlay their humanity – the political, ethnic, religious, cultural, gender identities’. At first, perhaps this seems noble. However, I found this argument (and others which support the same statement) uncomfortable. It is the ultimate conclusion of Descartes, ‘I think therefore I am’, and leaves little room for others – such as Ubuntu, the South African philosophy that is expressed most succinctly in English as ‘I am because we are’.

His Eurocentric approach is clear in his critique of religion too – he argues that the majority of the world is not religious, and provides a clearly Abrahamic definition of religion – thereby arbitrarily making the distinction that the followers of Hindu traditions or Buddhism are not religious, simply superstitious (Edward Said’s Orientalism never seemed more relevant). Likewise, Grayling’s Humanistic world is equally Eurocentric.

Perhaps most frustrating is the appropriation of universal values (found in religion and elsewhere) as being solely Humanist values. He recounts the moral and ethical propositions of various philosophers, speaking most highly of Stoicism – the development and refinement of indifference and self-control. Indifference to the physical (material) world and self-control would be two ideas more than familiar to more ascetic aspects of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and many other faith traditions. What makes this value uniquely Humanist?

Criticism aside, Grayling is at his best in arguing in favour of the precedence of human rights. He falters somewhat in outlining a Humanist approach to sex and love. His section on human diversity is short, and barely addresses the challenges (understandably, given both their complexity and Grayling’s dislike for difference).

By outlining a vision of what a godless and good society looks like, New Atheism has at least begun a conversation that allows for others to speak back in a meaningful way. It would be better for Grayling to have excused himself from repeating the unoriginal and tedious philosophical arguments for and against God and I would have liked to hear more from Grayling about how Humanism can tackle problems. However, the big picture was given, with Grayling tackling human rights, equality, to a certain extent, poverty. But how does Humanism provide a solution for postcolonial societies struggling to recover? How does Humanism address the problem of inner-city violence? How does Humanism respond to family breakdown? To truly offer Humanism as a valid ethical and moral paradigm that can act as an alternative to religion, these questions and more need to be answered.

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About Joseph Adams

Joseph Adams is a PhD student in religion and theology, with a particular interest in contemporary society, secularisation and religion.