For many years now, I have shared my utter amazement at how human beings living in the 20th and 21st centuries could still believe that the gods of the Bible and the Koran are as real as the computer or mobile devices in their hands, the cars they drive, or the many people, animals, or trees they see and touch. When I ask people if God exists, many say yes. But when I ask them how they got to know Him (God in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is unmistakably male), they quote their holy books as evidence. I have yet to meet someone who had a direct encounter with God; our knowledge of the Almighty relies heavily on our faith that Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed had exclusive access to Him, and that the books that tell us about these privileged encounters are the uncorrupted truth.
Most of us have been indoctrinated into such beliefs since childhood, so that by the time we start defending God against unbelievers, the best we can do is rationalize the faiths we inherited from our parents, families, and social environments. Take away the holy books and the theologians that have spent millennia preaching their dogmas and we are left with only our mere existences, alone with the elements, without any guide to show us how to make sense of our lives. This is, in fact, how the world was in ancient Greece before Christianity took over and condemned philosophy to perdition. And this is the world that the British philosopher A. C. Grayling wants us to rediscover in his newly published book, The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism (2013).
Grayling doesn’t talk about the role of writing and scripture in the making of religions; he is more interested in making a humanist case against the basic assumptions of the three monotheistic religions. (Buddhism, Jainism and Confucianism, for example, are better understood as philosophies, not religions in the sense Westerners understand the term.) Such religions, a “hangover from the infancy of modern humanity,” a collection of “superstitions of illiterate herdsmen living several thousands of years ago,” expressions of the “pre-scientific, rudimentary metaphysics of our ancestors,” and a relic of the distant unlettered past are “essentially a stone-age outlook in the modern world.” It would be as if today’s governments still depended on the power of astrology and magic to govern people and run their affairs. This survival, needless to say, is astonishing in an age when science has made great strides—but, then again, science has yet to make a significant impact on many parts of the world, including the Islamic one.
Defenders of these religions could claim that their faiths have inspired much good in the course of history (noble deeds and great art are two examples that often come to mind), but good actions and works of beauty have been common to all civilizations, regardless of what deities they believed in. If God is omnipotent and all-loving, why would He condemn His creatures to cruel suffering and great evil through natural disasters, social strife, wars, and endless forms of terror? Would loving parents treat their children the same way God does His creatures? And if God is as omnipotent as the scriptures tell us He is, can He really “eat [Himself] for breakfast”? This is obviously an absurd question meant to illuminate the equally absurd notion of a God that is simultaneously all-powerful and utterly helpless before His creation. Moreover, if God were as omnipotent as He claims to be, why would His human armies police beliefs and kill those who blaspheme against Him? Can’t God defend Himself without human support?
Such contradictions are explained away as mysteries beyond our limited understanding. One might be willing to go along with this intellectually unconvincing (not to say banal) proposition were it not for the effects of such beliefs. Because these deities are made to influence our lives by armies of zealot enforcers who lynch, amputate, stone and kill, humanists have no option but to challenge believers (moderate or extreme) to make a better case for themselves. One might find Mark Twain’s description of faith as “believing what you know ain’t so” funny, but when one thinks of the early Christian theologian Tertullian, a champion of orthodoxy, saying that faith has meaning precisely because it is absurd, we know that the consequences of religion are no laughing matter.
Faith flourishes where critical thinking, the essence of a liberal education, is weakest. From the time the Church closed the School of Athens in 529, human thought has been mostly concerned with “the enterprise of interpreting divine commands.” In Europe, the rediscovery of Greek thought in the late Middle Ages led to a slow rebirth of scientific inquiry until it flowered in the Enlightenment. When Charles Darwin embarked on the Beagle led by a biblical literalist Robert Fitzroy in the 19th century, he was a believing Christian; by the time he disembarked he was already a doubting man. More than a century later, the Anglican Church, unable to make sense of biblical tenets any longer, abandoned the notion of hell, redefining it only as “the absence of God.” Obviously, stone-age thinking can’t stand the glare of the scientific method forever.
The foregoing does little justice to Grayling, partly because making a case against God can be, at best, as effective as making one against angels and demons. Theologians have spent many centuries perfecting their responses and polishing their art of casuistry (“interpreting divine commands”). There is no certainty in the world of abstractions. That is why we measure beliefs by their effects. If abstractions enslave minds, impoverish lives, constrain people in stifling morals, lead to suffering, and inflame the world in violence, then such beliefs need to be challenged vigorously. Which Grayling does rather well. But does he have to offer an alternative and name it humanism? Why not just be—as cats and dogs are. The world, after all, is not designed for the benefit of humans, despite our self-flattering attempts to believe otherwise.
In any case, humanism, properly understood, is nothing more than the art of experiencing one’s humanity fully. We are thinking creatures, so, like the ancient Greeks knew, we philosophize. We enrich our lives through endless inquiry and conversation, always seeking a balanced life and never settling for closure. Truths and purity of faith or race are what old religions and modern fascists have in common. Anyone who is not a true Christian or a pure Aryan is less than fully human and needs rehabilitation or annihilation. This is how the religious and the fascist are sworn enemies of the Enlightenment, with its doctrines of human rights and free choice.
We have come a long way in combating the worst aspects of fascism but religion continues to hobble our efforts at achieving a truly humanistic society, Judeo-Christian and Islamic moralities continue to cause untold suffering and widespread devastations by policing sexual activity, punishing drug use, and denying people the right to die as they see fit. Muslims are almost entirely governed by religious dictates and have yet to hear Immanuel Kant’s battle cry for freedom: Sapere Aude! There is more autonomy in the West and other nations, but American values, for instance, still sit heavily on the bedrock of Judeo-Chrsitian morals. To die with dignity, Americans and many other Europeans must go to Switzerland, away from their loved ones at home. If Grayling were to have his way, we would have “thanatologists” dispensing peaceful deaths, not more moralists aggravating pain.
The Enlightenment, the best heir we have to the ancient Greek legacy, is obviously still in its infancy and we must do everything we can to prevent a second takeover of our autonomy by a religious or authoritarian institution. The gods have failed humans but they have age-tested staying powers. They could easily drag us back into a new dark age if we are not careful or educated enough.