Thursday, May 26, 2011

Book: Against All Gods by A.C. Grayling

One of the things I'll be doing on this blog from time to time is writing about some of the books I read.  I recently  checked out a copy of Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness by the British Philosopher A.C. Grayling.  I've become very interested in A.C. Grayling recently after hearing him on some podcasts and hearing about his new book (which I want) called The Humanist Bible.

Against All Gods is a really fast read.  It's only 64 pages.  I read it in about two or three hours the other night while a big storm was terrorizing the area.  It's very well written and pretty easy to read.  But it is not for religious people who get offended very easily.  Grayling pulls no punches in this book.  As the subtitles suggest, there are seven essays altogether, and six of them are very critical of religion in general.  And that's putting it lightly.

Grayling tackles issues such as the respectability of religion, "fundamental atheism," definitions of terms, and humanism.  I think he does a fine job addressing all of these issues.  I don't know if I necessarily agree with all his arguments, but I think he presents them fairly well.  I do want to note that this book isn't meant to be an in-depth critique of religion.  He explicitly mentions in the introduction he has other books where he has done that.  This book is meant to be "brief and blunt."  And it accomplishes that task quite nicely.  I don't think this book will convince anyone who isn't already inclined to disbelief or skepticism, but I think it contains some nice decent arguments however brief.

One of my favorite things about this book is that talks about faith in basically the same way I have been thinking about it recently.  He talks about why, for Christians,
a deity impregnating a mortal woman who then gives birth to a heroic figure whose deeds earn him a place in heaven, is false when applied to Zeus and his many paramours,... but true as applied to God, Mary, and Jesus. (pp. 43-44)
He goes on to talk about how this kind of story has been around longer than the Greeks.  So why should we accept the account of the New Testament as true instead of the other mythologies?  His answer is:
Do not expect a rational reply; an appeal to faith will be enough, because with faith anything goes.
And this is exactly how I've been thinking about faith lately (which I will probably make a post about in the near future).  You can justify any idea with faith simply because it is immune to reason.  He thinks that this is a terrible way of thinking, and I'm inclined to agree.

One thing he mentions that I'm not sure that I entirely agree with (though for not explicitly rational reasons) is that atheists should stop calling themselves "atheists" and start calling themselves "naturalists."  He wishes this to happen because he thinks using the term "atheist" means that you meeting the theist on his terms.  He thinks that by using the term "atheist" you are giving the theist's belief in God a privileged position that hasn't been earned.  He gives the example that we don't call people who don't believe in fairies "a-fairyists," so why should we call people who don't believe in God atheists.  He presents the case much better in the book, and I think he has a point.  But I have a certain aesthetic affinity for the word atheist.  I actually like the way the word looks and have been using it for so long that I'd rather not switch.

Grayling ends the book with a wonderful and positive essay on Humanism and how to find a rich ethical outlook based on being human.  It's about being good not because there is a God waiting to punish you for your crimes but because they are humans and we should wish them well.  And I wish you well in your endeavors.

1 comment:

  1. One of my friends used to use the word "nontheist" to describe his beliefs that were such: "I don't know if God exists and I don't think it matters," which I think lies somewhere between atheism and noncognitivism. This has become, essentially, my own belief about the whole ordeal.

    Atheism, in my mind, has taken on militant connotations. "Strong atheists" are as offensive to me as the "extremely devout Christians." Why? Because I don't want to hear either talk about how the world is against them. Personally, looking for and finding an affront to one's beliefs (that oftentimes has no actual impact on the lives of the actual affronted) is not only highly annoying, but detrimental to one's overall well-being.

    Maybe it's the whole "a-" prefix that is responsible for this mindset as well as the militant demeanor of some atheists. To call yourself an "atheist," you must be "a-" or "against" or "without." Neither of those words have a positive connotation.

    For the above reasons and the associated uncomfortable feeling that I have as, essentially, an atheist who doesn't want to associate with the word "atheism," I would welcome a switch to "Naturalism." For purely semantic reasons, the idea of a "militant naturalist" just seems counterintuitive.