Book review: Atheist calls for abolishing religion

jmurawski@newsobserver.comMay 18, 2013 

"The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism," by British philosopher A.C. Grayling.

  • Philosophy The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism A.C. Grayling

    Bloomsbury USA, 288 pages

If I pressed a claim for the urgent need to eradicate Judaism, Islam, Christianity or Hinduism from the face of the Earth, I would be rightfully denounced as a barbarian, madman – or worse. Yet if I were to assert that the future of the human race depends on abolishing all these religions, what would that make me?

Easy: I would attain the sublime stature of a benevolent Humanist, drawing upon the wellsprings of Reason, in furtherance of Tolerance and Progress and the Highest Good. At least that is the argument laid out in “The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism,” by British philosopher A.C. Grayling.

Grayling denounces religion as “one of the biggest impediments to peace and human progress,” and “one of the most destructive forces plaguing humanity.” He calls religion a “form of enslavement,” representing “a stone-age outlook” and a “mass immaturity,” arguing that it survived into the modern age only through indoctrination, conformity, confusion, ignorance, fear and failure.

Grayling is no intellectual pipsqueak – he is master of the New College of the Humanities in London, and a faculty member at St Anne’s College at the University of Oxford. Still, his one-sided attestations are stunning for their lack of nuance, insight or goodwill.

“Religion is far too often a form of enslavement, mental and even literal, and a source of harm from which the world needs liberation,” he writes. “Given that the case against religion is an overwhelming one, freeing the world from its influence has to be an urgent goal, however difficult it might seem to achieve.”

Grayling’s charges – that religion is invariably “primitive,” “superstitious” and “servile” – foreclose any option of discussing the subject with a semblance of fair-mindedness. What thinking person could possibly be for stupidity?

It would be tempting to dismiss him as a crank if not for the fact that this sort of cynical bluster all too often passes for respectable discourse nowadays. The problem here is not so much with humanism, which has much to teach us, as it is with the author’s contempt, chauvinism and inflammatory rhetoric.

Grayling’s hyperventilations make it painfully evident that he is venturing into a subject area in which he has little knowledge and few original insights. He boasts that he is a stranger to the study of theology, dismissing the discipline as a waste of time.

As a result, he insists that religion and fundamentalism are practically the same thing – as if there were no discernible difference between the teachings of Creationists and Duke Divinity School.

Grayling would have us believe that religious moderation, marked by humanitarianism and humility, is a self-delusion and a copout, not worthy of serious analysis. Thus, without having to name names, he casually glosses over the faith of Martin Luther King Jr., Maximilian Kolbe, Desmond Tutu, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and anyone else who doesn’t fit into his simplistic model of piety.

The prime directive of the humanist enterprise is not to harm others, he tells us, although demeaning them is apparently fair game. So what would a humanist world look like? By eliminating social taboos, humanism would promote enlightened societies, free of hang-ups about abortion, euthanasia and legalized prostitution.

But have no fear. After eviscerating religion’s primitives, Grayling assures us that atheists would never oppress or persecute. As for the godless barbarism of the Nazis and Stalinists, you see, those regimes were atheistic in name only, but in actuality operated as religious ideologies.

Such naive arguments can only be taken with generous helpings of faith.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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