The God Argument: The case against religion and for
A. C. Grayling
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code
SINCE any suggestion that this book proceeds by means of
outright deceit would be uncharitable, I am forced to report that
A. C. Grayling's book against religion is often characterised by
ignorance of his subject, and the arguments are frequently
elaborated carelessly. If, for instance, he wishes to mock
Christians for arguing over a single word in the Creed, he ought to
get that word correct.
Grayling is a professional philosopher, which makes the
clumsiness of some of his arguments rather shocking. As an example,
consider his claim that more charitable work is carried out on an
explicitly secular basis than on a religious one. His argument
claims charities as "secular" (on his terms) that are simply not
run on a religious basis (such as Oxfam). It seems to discount the
direct charitable involvement of individual churches, and it
ignores the religiously motivated contribution of religious people
to not explicitly religious charities.
Grayling's philosophical assumptions can also be rather
implausible. For instance, he claims that theological conclusions
are inadmissible because they are elaborated within "the premises
and parameters" of their system. That observation, however, applies
to every conceivable system of thought, and to every conceivable
subject-matter, including mathematics and logic.
The first half of the book is cast as an argument against
religion, but in many places it is more of a dismissal without
argument. Like Dawkins before him, Grayling claims that theology is
such complete nonsense that even its most articulate forms deserve
no careful attention. Christian thought about creation, for
example, is equated with the "creationism" of Appalachian
Grayling falls foul here of the "principle of charity": not an
injunction to kindness, but the philosophical idea that one has
only fully refuted a position when one has refuted it at its most
compelling. The medieval scholastic method sets a good example of
this, despite Grayling's claim that religious thinkers are
habitually afraid to pose themselves difficult questions.
In any case, assigning all of theological thought to the
category of nonsense may be a little hasty for an author who
teaches philosophy, given that this "nonsense" takes in the
majority of philosophers in the Western tradition, at least since
the early centuries AD and, I would argue, even earlier - Grayling
underestimates the extent to which the classic "Greek philosophers"
were involved in a religious project.
Arguments (or "arguments") against religion take up the first
half of the book. In the second half, Grayling outlines his
alternative to religion: a "humanist" ethic. This is appealing on
many fronts: for instance, in his emphasis on responsibility and
thoughtfulness. On other fronts, it is not: for example, in his
neo-liberal emphasis on autonomy, or in the positive account that
he gives of prostitution. Prostitution, he claims, saves marriages;
the enormous ill of trafficking is mentioned only in passing.
Thrusts against religion are not absent in the second half,
except that the villain is not really any particular religious
ethical tradition, but rather some amorphous conservatism. So, for
instance, Grayling claims that the Christian Churches are in favour
of war (as if the only thing better than eight wars would be nine)
and the death penalty. In reality, the largest Christian Church of
all - alongside others - is opposed to both.
Grayling scorns "religious" opposition to the legalisation of
drugs, contrasting it with some supposed enthusiasm for alcohol
consumption, although I know of no Church that is supportive of the
abuse of alcohol, and any line taken on drugs probably arises from
hands-on work with addicts, not from the doctrinaire irrationalism
that Grayling supposes.
Grayling claims that the scientific method is the arbiter of
truth, but he is not greatly interested in empirical studies
himself. That may be because such research would often contradict
his assertions: showing, for instance, that religious participation
is linked to better mental and physical health, happiness, and
This book calls not so much for a review as for a line-by-line
commentary by way of refutation. As one last example of that, he
claims that Christian ethics has not taken bearings from the nature
of human existence, thereby ignoring the enormous influence
exercisedby the natural-law and virtue traditions.
Better still, however, the book calls for the sort of
"empirical" response that Grayling shies from: the concrete witness
of faith put to the test in life, which is a long way from the Aunt
Sally of faith-as-irrational-fideism which Grayling attacks
throughout this book.
The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is Tutor in Doctrine at Westcott
House, Cambridge. He becomes the University of Cambridge's
Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Science in