A C Grayling on the case against religion + new video

A C Grayling
By A C Grayling

Religious faith has many manifestations. There are people of sincere piety for whom the religious life is a source of deep and powerful meaning. For them and for others, a spiritual response to the beauty of the world, the vastness of the universe, and the love that can bind one human heart to another, feels as natural and necessary as breathing. Some of the art and music that has been inspired by faith counts among the loveliest and most moving expressions of human creativity. It is indeed impossible to understand either history or art without an understanding of what people believed, feared and hoped through their religious conceptions of the world and human destiny.

Religion is a pervasive fact of history, and has to be addressed as such. In others of its manifestations, religious faith is neither so kind nor so attractive. History attests to the weight of suffering that religious tyranny and conflict have together generated, from individuals struggling with feelings of sinfulness because of perfectly natural desires, to nations and civilisations engulfed in war and atrocity by interreligious hatreds. Religions have often been cruel in their effects, and remain so today: homosexuals are hanged in Iran, adulterous women are beheaded in Afghanistan and stoned to death in Saudi Arabia, ‘witches’ are murdered in Africa, women and children are subordinated in fundamentalist households in the Bible Belt of the United States and in many parts of the Islamic world. Throughout history the religion-inspired suppression of women has robbed humanity of at least half its potential creativity and genius. Whereas the consolations of religion are mainly personal, the burdens are social and political as well as personal. This is one argument for greater secularism, a main form of which asks religion to keep itself in the private sphere, and not to obtrude into matters of general public concern.

Committed followers of religion oppose this, on the grounds that because they possess the truth about things, and in particular about what their deity wants everyone in the world to think and do, they have a duty to lead everyone in that direction. For the zealous among them this is a matter of urgency, for in their chosen direction – so they believe – lies salvation, truth and eternal life. Those who disagree with them see this as just one more attempt by one group to impose its views and its authority on everyone else. As history shows, the competition that arises between different religious outlooks when any one of them tries to dominate, readily leads to trouble.

But the case against religion goes deeper than an argument for secularism. It is that religion’s claims and beliefs do not stand up to examination. Briefly put, critical examination of religion’s claims places 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. Or should have been superseded: its survival, as with the survival of astrology and other outlooks from the past, is the prompt for critical discussion of its claims and outlook.

With regard to the good things attributed to religion – the consolation and inspiration it provides, which it provides even if it is false – the critics of religion have a view. It is that there are other and better sources of these valuable things, which have the additional merit of being far better grounded in reason and a more accurate understanding of the world – which is in short to say: are far closer to the truth.

 In respect of the atrocities and oppressions too frequently caused by religion, its defenders say that this is the work of sinful man, not the religion itself. Religion’s critics reply that whether the atrocities and oppressions are the work of man or the work of the religion, either way these are the very reasons why it is time to go beyond religion, and to invite people to a truer and healthier view both of the world and of the source of what is good in human life. And indeed, everywhere that science and education have advanced, so religion has dwindled in influence. Where it retains a hold on the personal lives of people in more advanced and educated societies, it almost always does so in a much modified form to make it more consistent with modern life. Increased liberty of thought and expression has allowed those who do not hold religious views to express their criticism openly, and religion’s traditional armor of privilege and respect has accordingly rusted away, increasingly exposing it to challenge.

Religious individuals and institutions feel under pressure because of this, and sometimes accuse their critics of militancy. The critics reply that when religion occupied a dominant position in society, it dealt with its critics much more harshly than today’s critics now deal with religion: for one familiar example, by torturing them and burning them at the stake.

Today’s critics of religion generally restrict themselves to hurling arguments rather than stones at the religious. Although history is moving in the right direction from the point of view of those who wish to see the human mind liberated from religion and superstition, and although this impetus has been powerfully aided by the work of Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Dan Barker, the late and much lamented Christopher Hitchens and others, there are two major tasks outstanding.  One is to deal with what religious apologists say in defending themselves from the arguments of those just listed. The other is to show that there is a beautiful and life-enhancing alternative outlook that offers insight, consolation, inspiration and meaning, which has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with the best, most generous, most sympathetic understanding of human reality.

The first task remains because, to put the matter graphically, contesting religion is like engaging in a boxing match with jelly: it is a shifting, unclear, amorphous target, which every blow displaces to a new shape. This is in large part because the religious themselves often do not have clear ideas, or much agreement among themselves, about what is meant by ‘religion’, ‘god’, ‘faith’ and associated concepts. And this is not surprising given the fact that these concepts are so elastic, multiple and ill-defined as to make it hard to attach a literal meaning to them. But it is also because the justifications offered by religious people for their beliefs very often turn out to be post facto rationalisations for something that in its deepest depths is non-rational – something emotional, traditional, its roots almost always in the experiences of childhood when trusted adults instilled a religion-involving, and often an explicitly religious, way of viewing the world. The combination of these facts explains why religion is such an amorphous target.

 Anyone who has studied a little logic knows that any claim, proposition or belief whatever is consistent with a contradiction or a meaningless statement. Religious ideas and commitments are, on examination, so characterised by ambiguity, multiplicity, a Babel of interpretations and significations, and indeed plain contradiction, that they are easily rendered consistent with any attempt to counter them. Thus cancer, disability, tsunamis that kill tens of thousands including babies and old folk – all are, in the eyes of the faithful, regarded as consistent with the existence of a benevolent and omnipotent god. After an earthquake that kills many and destroys what had been built by the careful and long-term efforts of both the victims and the survivors, people go to church to give thanks and to pray for the dead – with no sense of irony or inconsistency. For what do they give thanks? That their gods, or the world designed by their gods, arbitrarily or otherwise destroyed and killed? Perhaps they give thanks that they were not among the crushed. Might not prayer that succeeded in averting the suffering, or in averting the earthquake, be regarded as more to the point? Such thoughts are either dismissed, or answered by acceptance of the claim that some greater purpose has been served. Yet note that if a terrorist had killed that many or destroyed that much, his act would be regarded as an extreme atrocity by an evil agent.

Religious apologists are able to regard the imperfection and harshness of the world, and the presence in it of natural and moral evil, as consistent with the existence of an interested deity, by saying that the deity’s intentions are a mystery, or that we are being tested, or that it is our fault for sinfully employing the free will we have been given. Since very few human parents would inflict on their children what a supposed deity inflicts on the conscious parts of its creation, this sounds like a particularly fine example of special pleading. These considerations only scratch the surface of the problem.

That religion has survived so long is remarkable evidence of how effectively it inculcates a mindset in which criticism or questioning, and the recognition of contradiction or unacceptability, is suppressed. This is not a careless claim. Only consider: all forms of fundamentalism are notable for the infantilising and blinding effect they have on their votaries. Think of the angry crowds of Muslims demonstrating over cartoons they find insulting. Murder is committed because of this, and mayhem along with it. Mass immaturity of this kind requires a pervasive culture of unthinking credulity to foster it. 

But one should not only look at fundamentalists, or fundamentalist types of religion. Non-fundamentalist religion, by definition, depends upon cherry-picking the given religion’s doctrines, discarding the uncongenial teachings and reinterpreting the others to make them more comfortable to live with. Think, for example, of the fact that the majority of Roman Catholics use contraception. The word that accurately and simply describes cherry-picking – choosing manageable commitments and ignoring inconvenient ones – is not a comfortable word; it is ‘hypocrisy’. But it is done with a blitheness, and often with a lack of self-awareness, that religion in some of its forms deliberately seems to promote, preferring half a loaf of adherence to no bread.

But the concern for religion’s critics is that where there are moderates, not far behind there will always be zealots. For these reasons it is necessary to continue the debate until the unclarities and, too often, the evasions and rationalisations of religion have been fully examined, and the last resort – ‘I just choose to believe, despite everything’ – has itself been investigated and challenged.

That is the task of the first part of this book: to set out the case against religion – religion as such, in any form. Because of the shifting and often deliberately obscure nature of religious ideas, I do this by, so to speak, following the ball wherever it rolls, interweaving the considerations that have to be raised as they occur – historical, psychological, scientific, philosophical. It is a game of shadows, made no easier by the fact that many of the apologists and votaries of religion are eager to believe, even to self-deceive, and refuse to examine the considerations that would call their cherished commitments into question. There is a human tragedy in this: the more they suspect that they might be wrong, the more fiercely they adhere. Mark Twain put the point accurately if a little unkindly: ‘faith is believing what you know ain’t so’.

In my view, the argument against religion is an argument for the liberation of the human mind, and the possibility of at last formulating an ethical outlook that all humankind can share, thus providing a basis for a much more integrated and peaceful world. This is a theme that is much more interesting to me personally, and is the substance of the second part of the book: an account of the better alternative to religion, the humane and positive outlook of an ethics free from religious or superstitious aspects, an outlook that has its roots in rich philosophical traditions, yet is far more attuned to our contemporary world, and far more sensitive to the realities of human experience, than religion is.

This is an outlook that the general term ‘humanism’ now denotes. It is an outlook of great beauty and depth, premised on kindness and common sense, drawing its principles from a conversation about the good whose roots lie in the philosophical debates of classical antiquity, continually enriched by the insights and experience of thinkers, poets, historians and scientists ever since. To move from the Babel of religions and their claims, and from the too often appalling effects of religious belief and practice on humankind, to the life-enhancing insights of the humanist tradition which most of the world’s educated and creative minds have embraced, is like escaping from a furnace to cool waters and green groves. I hope the latter is the destination of all humanity, as more people come to understand this ethical outlook as far the better alternative.

From 'The God Argument - The case against religion and for humanism' by A C Grayling

Watch this video where A C Graying discusses this book

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