The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and For Humanism by A. C. Grayling

Martin Cohen asks what is the point of using logic to dismantle religious belief?

The promise that A.C. Grayling makes to us is to thoroughly examine “all the arguments offered in support of religious belief” and to do so not “acerbically” but calmly. Strange, then, that he starts by thanking various “fellows in the cause”, such as (guess who) Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and cheeky Peter Cave. The word “cause” is revealing of the mindset, even if the next line strikes an unconvincing note of inclusivity, offering, like a poorly structured sermon, “that every generation must travel its own road, but with the hope of arriving at a destination further along than its predecessors”. Perhaps a wiser thought and a better metaphor would have been: every publisher must produce its own book explaining the same points about religion, but with the hope that each sells more than its predecessors.

This book, however, is supposed to be different - a philosophical examination of the arguments. That is perhaps why it is called The God Argument. Or perhaps the publisher came up with the name after Grayling submitted it. Although it is full of arguments in one sense: what philosophers call ad hominem ones directed at “religious apologists”. Thomas Aquinas, Leibniz and no doubt the local vicar would all fit into this group - but not, it seems, Buddhists or followers of Confucius, as these “are philosophies”. Which means that they are all right.

Religion is like jelly - constantly shifting, so that just as you land a good blow, it wobbles to another place

Religion, as presented here, has negligible philosophical content. Rather it seems to consist of hanging homosexuals, beheading or stoning to death adulterous women and subordinating “women and children” in Bible Belt America. “Throughout history, the religion-inspired suppression of women has robbed humanity of at least half of its potential creativity and genius.” We’re only on page two, by the way, of this exemplification of “calm rationality”, as a review from the Church Times promises on the back cover.

But it doesn’t seem very philosophical to me. Indeed, although Grayling accuses “supporters of religion” of making lots of silly, elementary errors of logic, doesn’t he himself commit the fallacy of affirming the consequent?

If religion is an evil influence on people, then people’s minds will be addled and lots of bad things will result. (First premise.)

People’s minds have been addled and lots of bad things have resulted. (Second premise.)

Religion is an evil influence on people. (Wonky conclusion.)

The problem with this reasoning is that there could be another explanation for the bad things - like maybe inbred sexism, or aggressive pursuit of economic self-interest. But that, I suppose, is sociology. Here we only do logic. Mind you, some claims do look rather sociological, such as: “Whereas the consolations of religion are mainly personal, the burdens are social and political as well as personal.” It is likely that Grayling has no time for the Protestant work ethic that made being rich virtuous and justified the entire capitalist system - generally seen as an important factor in social development - or perhaps he would rather we returned to a kind of philosophical Year Zero, “before religion”. What would that be like? Ah, read part two.

“Briefly put, critical examination of religion’s claims puts it in the same class as astrology and magic. Like these systems of thought, religion dates from mankind’s less educated and knowledgeable early history and like them it has been superseded by advances in our understanding of the world and ourselves.” Everywhere that science and education have advanced, so religion has dwindled in influence, Grayling says, neglecting the contrary example of the US (or indeed the long history of religion in nurturing learning). A list of people hoping “to see the human liberated from religion and superstition” is offered, starting, of course, with Dawkins and Dennett (but not Cave) and ending with that great humanitarian, Christopher Hitchens. Parmenides, Plato, Confucius, ignorant folk like that, must yield to those who have seen further.

The task of communicating the new knowledge, however, is complicated by the fact that religion is like jelly - constantly shifting position, so that just as you land a good blow on it, it wobbles to another place. (Take that, Church Times reviewer!) “This is in large part because the religious themselves often do not have clear ideas…about what is meant by ‘religion’, ‘god’, ‘faith’ and associated concepts.”

In fact, religious belief at root is either self-contradictory or meaningless. From such a starting point, anything at all follows “logically”, Grayling explains. Quite so, but what then is the relevance of logical arguments to dismantle the religious edifice? It would seem, on the author’s own account, a fool’s enterprise.

The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and For Humanism

By A.C. Grayling
Bloomsbury, 288pp, £16.99
ISBN 9781408837405 and 9781408837429 (e-book)
Published 14 March 2013

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Readers' comments (6)

  • The standfirst has the words in the wrong order (writing this at 12.45pm Thu, as it might be changed later as a result of this comment). The "is" should come after "the point" and not before it.

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  • Seems a fair review of an utterly pointless book.

    Who reads this stuff, anyway? It seems to be the kind of preposterous intellectual navel gazing so beloved of the modern humanities professor who is paid a large salary, lives a life of comfort and so finds him or herself in a position for futile and lengthy comment on aspects of the human condition. The result is all too often just the self-congratulatory, pompous ramblings of a smug, leather-chair bound, over-privileged numpty who has the leisure to contemplate the pointlessness of existence. Do we really need any more of this stuff? I know I don't - I shall spend my time on something more enjoyable and/or more illuminating and keep my £16.99.

    Live long and prosper A.C. Grayling, you self-satisfied purveyor of useless crap to the over-privileged . . . . . . . and good luck

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  • I was hoping the book may have dealt with epistemological and ontological arguments about the existence of God. Dawkins et al set out from such a fixed view point of what is and is not possible, their conclusions are predetermined because of their ontological position.

    But if you define God as an abstract concept, like love or hate, he existence of God can be argued logically and reasonably, detectable through the impact of God upon the actions of people, both as individuals and as communities.

    Essentially, Dawkins, Grayling etc may not be religious, but they are ignorant. How can they understand a world in which a great deal of people are committed to religious beliefs. Its like denying the existence of the Higgs Boson (prior to its discovery) and then forming an argument on the basis it cannot exist because they cannot see it. fools.

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  • Martin Cohen

    "if you define God as an abstract concept, like love or hate"...

    Yes, this is the way to do it, I think. And indeed philosophy is full of efforts to decide what qualities can be 'ascribed' to such things. We can make the adjective 'good' into a noun, and say 'God is good' - and to say there is no evidence for God is a little bit like demanding the evidence for the existence of 'goodness'. Similarly, plenty of 'bad things' are done by people trying or claiming to be dong good, and the distinction between the two still has to be retained - it is too fundamental to our ways of reasoning to be swept away with a flourish.

    But, thedaxue , the Higgs Bosun is not supposed to abstract in the same sort of way at all, so why the comparison? It is supposed to be a physical entity subject to physical laws. That said, as a matter of fact, I don't believe in it! But disputing scientific facts does not make one into a fool, or we would have to count us all as fools and then what would the term mean?

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  • Trying to convince fools that they are foolish is indeed a fool's endeavor. Luckily, there are plenty of people with perfectly functional minds whose chief misfortune, at least in matters of religious practice and belief, is to have been born into the company of a good many vociferously foolish people (many of whom, for good measure, also happen to be dogmatic authoritarians). I should think that the primary function of authors like Grayling is in offering them some shelter from the storm.

    Thedaxue, if you define "God" as an abstract concept, then God becomes a mental property of the sort of beings who have concepts. That may be all good and well, but it's at least a radical shift from any religion that recognizes God as distinct from, and usually ontologically prior to, abstract concepts. Cohen's reply simply muddies the waters, though, since philosophically serious ethical thought--that is, thought about the notion of "good" and it's normative cousins, has been going on at least since Hume with precious little mention of God.

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  • Easy test. Which side of the discussion would a religious fundamentalist support. A.C.Grayling or Martin Cohen? To ask the question is to answer it.

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