A.C.Grayling is Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College. A good selection of his books can be found on the ever-shrinking Philosophy shelves at Waterstones and Borders. Unfortunately, a recent book of his entitled "Against All Gods"(Oberon Books, 2007, £8.99) is a setback for atheism.
Lacking Both Quantity And Quality
The book is only some 10,000 words long; which is only the length of my last nine blogs. Yet it could be a pleasing (if still expensive) short read, if it wasn't equally short on quality.
Apart from its introduction, it consists of six self-proclaimed polemics against religion and a more positive six page essay which he grandly tells us is on "non-religious ethics".
These brief snippets "began life as journalist contributions". We aren't told where they were cut and pasted from and some repeat points taken from Karl Popper and from Grayling's earlier works.
My Polemic Against Polemics
He has two strange arguments for presenting us with these "brief and blunt" polemics. First; if we would like more detailed (and reasoned?) expositions of what he is saying, then he tells us we can consult three of his longer books. It was a pity I did not know that before I purchased the book under review - although I find that I have picked one of these books up recently as publisher's surplus.
Secondly, he feels that a "combative" tone is appropriate as there can be no "temporising" with religion over the matters he covers. This indicates that he is keen to take on the propaganda of religious zealots, rather than to face up to theology at its strongest and then cap it with reasoned arguments.
He is a most unphilosophical philosopher.
I will now respond to three of his polemics. If I tackled more, there would be a danger that my review would end up being longer than Grayling's book. I use his own chapter titles
1. Does Religion Deserve Respect?
He feels that religious people overwhelmingly expect and receive far too much respect for the views they hold. Whilst there are, of course, many cases where this happens, there are two important considerations which Grayling gives no thought to.
First, some religious people are aware that there are strong counter-arguments to their particular religious stance. Some have felt the need to try to overcome such "doubts". If we argue with them without rancour, then they (and any third party involved ) will benefit from the friendly dialectics of such discussions. I had hoped that a Professor involved with Adult Education would have held such a perception.
Secondly, whilst I believe that all religious belief in the existence of God is mistaken, I recognise that some people have come to the viewpoint I reject - yet they link it in with many of the "humanitarian" values which Grayling and I share. In challenging someone's belief in God, we should not do this in ways which will also dent such related value systems.
2. Can An Atheist Be A Fundamentalist?
Grayling finds the use of the term "atheist" to be a strange one, as it attempts to describe a non-belief or a nothing. More than once in his book he repeats his past argument that we don't feel a need to refer to people as "a-fairyists" because they don't believe in fairies. So he sees no scope for an atheist to be described as being a fundamentalist or otherwise. Atheism is just a non-acceptance of other people's claims about God.
But what if a person's non-belief in the existence of God is part of a wider-belief system in, say, historical materialism or evolution? Surely, we can have fundamentalists and extremists in such camps, who wish to ram their views down our throats in ways that refuse to grapple with any counter-claims. The strength of Darwin's position is that it has stood up to rigorous debate.
To me, atheism (along with any other belief and non-belief system it is part of) can be pushed by some in extremist and fundamentalist ways. I hope that it is an approach I normally avoid.
3. The Death Throes Of Religion
Grayling claims that religion is on its way out. The rise of extreme versions of Islam, faith schools and creationism are merely its death throes.
He claims that this is what happened in the Victorian Era and after the Counter Reformation. This is an interesting theory, but where is Grayling's proof that this seems to be happening now?
In fact, the above argument is the exact counter to the one presented by Alister McGrath in his book "The Twilight of Atheism" (Rider, 2005, £7.99). For McGrath, Atheism took off from the time of the French Revolution and has started to move into free fall with the collapse of the Soviet Union. As with Grayling, he offers no evidence for his claim - although it takes him 279 pages to develop his case, compared to 5 pages by Grayling.
I find it worrying that Grayling should adopted a similar non-methodology to that pursued by McGrath as a Christian Crusader.
A further problem with Grayling's book is that whilst his polemics sometimes repeat points, at other times they contradict each other. So that whilst in the above polemic he sees the coming triumph of atheism, in another he worries about a survey which shows that 30% of University Students believe in creationism and intelligent design. He then reads like a Daily Telegraph editorial as he attacks what he sees as the lowering of educational standards by the opening up of University access.
I have now had a go at two atheists who have "God" in the title of their books - Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling. I will, however, correct the balance in the future for there are some fine atheist writings for which I don't need God's protection.