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Philosophy let down

07 February 2014

Andrew Davison sees religion dismissed, not argued against


Scorn: A.C. Grayling

Scorn: A.C. Grayling

The God Argument: The case against religion and for humanism
A. C. Grayling
Bloomsbury £16.99
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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 Tennessee.

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 charitable giving.

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 April.

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