Recently, I picked up a copy of A. C. Grayling’s The God Argument. Normally, I wouldn’t have. But for one thing, I think he is a good writer and thinker. And for another thing, I read a review that just savaged the book, so I thought it would be worth reading. It was okay, but nothing especially worth reading. It does bring up an interesting question: why do British people write books about atheism? Really, I don’t get it. England is a secular country. Few people are even nominally religious, and fewer still are fundamentalists.
From my perspective, I wouldn’t think much about the pathetic state of religious observance if it weren’t for the fact that I live in America. Here we have Christians coming out our noses and very very (very very very very…) loud fundamentalists who are not only stupid and ignorant, but also very politically powerful. I think this is why an American like Sam Harris has much stronger anti-Christian polemics (Letter to a Christian Nation) than someone like Grayling. So I didn’t even finish The God Argument.
But it was well written and made some interesting points. I marked two quotes that I thought worth noting from early on in the book:
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.
This gets to perhaps the single thing that ties together most modern religious movements: hubris. The Old Testament is filled with stories of the perils of thinking too highly of oneself. But among fundamentalists, hubris is the way and the light. The very idea that a book is the literal word of God is nonsense. I’ve never met a fundamentalist who wasn’t interpreting the Bible like crazy. It is just that they define anyone who doesn’t believe as they do to be a heretic. What they are really doing is just following the interpretations of those around them. And if that sounds a lot like fascism, it is because it is a lot like fascism.
But later in the book Grayling goes awry in a very typical atheistic misunderstanding:
Omnipotence is a problem for religious apologists for more reasons than this inconsistency with benevolence plus natural evil. Omnipotence strictly implies that anything is possible. But this cannot mean that it could do logically impossible things, like for example both existing and not existing at the same time, or being “greater” or “more perfect” than itself. It is not clear whether omnipotence implies that a possessor of it could do things that not so obviously logically impossible, such as eat itself for breakfast.
The essence of existence is paradoxical. How can it be that matter exists. Or perhaps better, the question that Lawrence Krauss can’t seem to understand: how can it be that nothingness with the property of being able to become something exists? It is a paradox. So why is what we think of as logically impossible really impossible? The universe is logically impossible and yet, here it is. These are the kinds of elementary thinking errors that atheists make in abundance, and it really harms the movement that I feel myself a part of.
Regardless, The God Argument is fairly interesting. But the original reviewer I read was right: we don’t need another such book. It is not provocative enough to thrill atheists and it doesn’t understand theology enough to impress intelligent believers.
Interestingly, William Lane Craig made a similar argument for God, although his was much deeper and showed a lack of mathematical understanding that was embarrassing.