I just posted the following critical review of philosopher A. C. Grayling's new book, The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism, on Amazon. Judging by blowback to date for critical comments of Grayling there, despite Grayling's talk about listening carefully and living with magnanimity, I don't expect too much love from this admittedly harsh (but detailed) review. We'll see if anyone addresses my arguments.
I will probably also focus on specific claims Grayling makes (or assumes) in later posts. (See here for my initial impressions, which turned out to be precient. Although Grayling does define "religion," his definition does indeed turn out tendendious.)
If you like or dislike the review, feel free to express your thoughts here, or on Amazon, where voting gives other readers a chance to see a useful review, or you can consign one soundly to the rubbish bin of history.
(For a more sympathetic critical review, read what Keith Ward makes of this "bad argument.")
In the second half of this book, A.C. Grayling sets out to describe his moral
principles, and those he thinks he shares with the humanist community in
general. Among these are "magnanimity," which Grayling takes the trouble to give
in both Latin and Greek (154), and being "informed, reflective, alert,
responsive, eager for understanding . . . a good guest at the dinner table."
This includes means acting towards those one disagrees with, paraphrasing
Plutarch, as "a good listener, who hears what his interlocutors say (not what he
thinks they have said) . . . "
Now let us see how
Dr. Grayling actually deals with Christianity, and those who espouse it (and
other theistic faiths) in the first half of this book. First people, then
In his introduction, Grayling thanks a number of "colleagues
and fellows in the cause" of secular humanism, including the New Atheist
barbershop quartet (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens [DDHH}) along with Paul
Kurtz and others, and naming Victor Stenger as another valued ally. He then
explains that his first task in this book will be "to deal with what religious
apologists say in defending themselves from the arguments of those just
I happen to be the author of one of the first, and I do think
among the best, rebuttals of DDHH. So naturally I turned to the back of the book
to see if Grayling mentioned me, or more likely, on which of the bigger-name
Christian writers he concentrated his fire.
Marshall? No. John Lennox?
Nope. Alister McGrath? Nyety. Dinesh D'Souza? Tim Keller? David Hart? No, no, heck,
So with whom does Grayling argue? Page after page, he keeps
mentioning these "religious apologetics," as if they surrounded him like the ether, and he could read their minds. So
who are these people, and what do they say? Where are the quotes? Which books
has he read? Grayling is a philosopher, so maybe he wants to argue with
philosophers. And indeed, Grayling does promise to deal with two well-known
Christian philosophers, Blaise Pascal and Alvin Plantinga.
pages of painful nonsense (details later), we finally get to arguments from
actual "apologists." But there are few quotes, and one has
to wonder if he has actually read even Plantinga or Pascal!
accurately notes, argues that faith in God is warranted, even without evidence.
(Though I think blowing off the fine shades of Plantinga's argument.) But then
Grayling makes this statement: "It would seem that Alvin Plantinga has abandoned
attempts to show by argument that it is rational to hold theistic beliefs,
because he now argues that there is no need to provide such arguments . . .
I can imagine Plantinga's wry response to that gross non sequitur. This
is like saying, "Marshall argues that peaches are not necessary for human
health, so there must be no peach trees on his property." Well they are not absolutely necessary, but
I do have them anyway. Of course the fact that evidence is not necessary (to Plantinga), in
no way means there is no evidence. Plantinga thinks there is lots of it, and
says so, as his actual readers know. A professional philosopher should not be so sloppy.
Pascal gets treated even worse. "The most celebrated such argument is Pascal's wager. Pascal
said that because the existence of a deity can be neither proved nor disproved .
. . by rational argument . . . " Again, "Pascal says that as long as the
probability of a god's existence is non-zero . . . "
This is rubbish. Has Grayling actually read Pensees? In fact, Pascal offers several
lines of rational argument for Christianity, which he thinks (and I generally agree) is
compelling. The Wager in no way concedes that the evidence for
Christianity is weak. In fact, it is addressed to practical issues: even given
all this positive evidence for Christianity, that Pascal has been discussing,
what if one still suffers doubts? How in practice should one deal with those
doubts? (Note: see further brief discussion in the comments section.)
Dawkins made the same mistake about Pascal. One would hope that,
as a professional philosopher espousing the values of listening well, Grayling
would correct his ally and say "No, Pascal does not at all concede that the
evidence against Christianity is either irrelevant or poor." Instead, Grayling
falls into exactly the same trap, with less excuse.
Now let's go back to
Grayling's moral values, again. He praises magnanimity, but he is seldom
magnanimous towards Christians. He almost never praises those he disagrees with
or gives their arguments the benefit of the doubt. He generally doesn't even
bother to read them. In fact, if anything, Grayling appears to have read even
less of those he purports to be disproving than Dawkins -- Dawkins at least
quoted McGrath and Swinburne, and pretended to argue with them.
So how is
Grayling "informed, reflective, alert, responsive, eager for understanding,"
such that even towards those he disagrees with, he proves himself "a good
listener, who hears what his interlocutors say (not what he thinks they have
said) . . . ?"
In fact, Grayling is just the opposite. He gets almost
nothing about Christianity right, because he has not bothered to read or tried
to understand what we really believe about practically anything. He doesn't
quote actual Christian thinkers, he quotes nebulous "religious apologists" who
appear to be little fairies roaming around the inside of his own thick skull.
(Pardon the heat, I am feeling it after wading through this junk.)
more examples? I'll give some, but bare in mind that Grayling is here repeating
common cliches in the skeptical community. If you're a skeptic, you'll probably
nod your head at times, because responsible parties like Dawkins and Grayling
are too intellectually lazy to do their homework, and even let you know what we
say is the other side of the story -- whether we're right or not. So even if you
think these cliches are true, you should recognize that it is Grayling's
self-confessed responsibility to listen, as he promises, and as his own best
moral values commend, to what we actually say, not to what he imagines we say,
and to get our arguments right.
* "By 'faith' is meant believe held
independently of whether there is a testable evidence in its favour, or indeed
even in the face of counter-evidence." (19)
Heavens, no. That is almost
never what Christians have meant by faith. I have given long strings of quotes,
from the 1st Century to the 21st, and am collaborating with other scholars on a
book on this very subject coming out next year, showing that this is NOT at all
what Christians mean by "faith."
* "When the evidence is not merely
insufficient but absent or contrary, how much more wrong to do as Doubting
Thomas was criticized for not doing . . . to believe nonetheless."
Thomas was not criticized for believing without evidence. He was
criticized for, having witnessed Jesus' many miracles, heard Jesus predict his
resurrection, and then heard multiple reports of that resurrection from people
he had known and presumably trusted for years, refusing to believe in the face
of that already excellent evidence.
This understanding of the Thomas
story is assumed throughout John especially, who is attentive to such evidence,
and throughout the narrative parts of the New Testament.
religious people do not, of course, subscribe to their religion because of
arguments in favor of it . . . In the great majority of cases, people belong to
their religion because it is the religion of their parents."
"because" is tricky here. One might be a Christian "because" one was raised a
Christian, but also "because" it makes sense, you have examined and tried to
live it, perhaps listened to its opponents and found their arguments
unpersuasive. Ironically, Grayling speaks of believing without evidence, but
gives no actual evidence to back up his claim about why people believe. A survey
by the skeptic Michael Shermer shows that most believers do seem to cite
rational reasons for their faith. (I did a similiar survey, and found
experienced Christians cite evidence even more often.) So Grayling is asking us
to "just believe," not only without evidence, but in the teeth of the evidence,
on why Christians believe.
* "Explaining something by something
unexplained amounts, obviously, to no explanation at all." (77)
not. "Where did my dolly go?" "The dog took it." "Well where do doggies come
from?" "I don't know!" "But that's no explanation at all!"
Sure it is.
One does not need to understand precisely how God is constituted, for "God did
it" to be a rational explanation. Ultimately, none of our explanations are
complete, and explanations of entities greater than ourselves will naturally be
most tenous of all. As a philosopher, Grayling should be explaining such
distinctions to his readers, not ignoring them.
* Grayling tries to flip
the Ontological Argument on page 88 to disprove the Devil. "There is a being
which is the least perfect of all beings; such a being which does not exist is
-- since existence is a perfection -- less perfect than one that does; therefore
the least perfect being necessarily does not exist."
seem to know he's refuting a heresy, here. The Devil is not God's opposite. He
is not defined as "the least perfect being," but rather as the greatest angel,
gone bad. Lewis says, "The greater something is, the worse it can become." Lewis
is the most-read Christian writer of modern times, but Grayling evidently has
never heard of him, certainly not bothered to read him.
caricature of the Moral Argument (which I do not make) is a farce.
the 5th to the 17th Centuries, "Religion took the view that it was right and
science was wrong, and anyone who disagreed might be killed (for example,
Giordano Bruno) . . . " (107)
This history is rubbish, as many historians
of science have shown. (Most recently, Dr. Allan Chapman of Oxford's Wadham
College.) And "magnanimous" Grayling never bothers even to mention the many
historians who tie the rise of modern science directly to Christian
And always the same example. If there were so many examples of
Christians killing scientists, why always name the same one? This one is
mistaken, though. Bruno was killed, wrongly of course, for heresy, not for
* The "major if not sole endevour" of Discovery
Institute in Seattle "is to promote ID theory."
All Grayling had to do
was check the DI website to find that they have several other major arms,
including (my favorite, since I live in the Seattle area) their useful work on
promoting better transportation options in the Northwest.
conflates Intelligent Design with creationists who argue that "nuclear decay
rates were billions of times greater" in the past, concluding, "Such is the
quality of thought in Creationism-ID 'science.'"
Whether you like ID or
hate it, that is not magnanimous, that is just sleazy. Grayling should quote the
specific person who made that claim, and not try to blame everyone in the ID
movement for a claim some unnamed numbskull outside that movement made.
"The Greek thinkers premised their views on the recognition that Creationist
accounts are projections from the human experience of agency."
Richard Carrier, a radical atheist who happens to be an expert on the origins of
Greco-Roman science, points out that many ancient scientists actually did their
science in honor of the Creator God. He even credits the rise of ancient science
in part to the rise of Greek philosophical theism.
* Grayling tries to
credit the Enlightenment, somehow, for the scientific revolution, as well as for
everything else good in the modern world, even though the scientific revolution
began long before most of the heroes of the Enlightenment were even born. He
also downplays the fantastic early scientific revolution of the 13th Century --
check that, he hasn't mentioned it in the first two thirds of the book, anyway
-- or the rich and important Medieval precidents for modern science, that
historians have so explored. (Recently, James Hannam.) Grayling fails to breath
a word of all this.
I could go on and on. Grayling misunderstands
Confucian theology. (Which I wrote my dissertation on.) He tries to claim the
Stoics for atheism, which they were not. He praises Epictetus, one of my
favorites, too, but has he really read him? See my article last year in
Touchstone Magazine, comparing Epictetus and Zhuang Zi. Epictetus not only
believed in God, but was pious and zealous in his faith -- it permeates his
I am being harsher with Grayling, perhaps, than I would be with
a popular writer, because he ought to know better. He espouses humanistic
values. He ought to live by them. He ought to have read and fairly considered
his opponents' actual arguments, rather than pretend to argue with nebulous
"religious apologists" whom he cannot name or quote because (it seems) he heard
about them second hand, and chooses to believe every disreputable rumor about
those he disagrees with.
This is thus an illiberal and (in the most
literal sense) inhumane book. I know atheists who really do embrace humanity, by
remaining aware of the good in those they disagree with, by appreciating love,
kindness, beauty, and excellence wherever they find it. But the fanatics seem to
have the numbers, unfortunately. So do as Grayling says (sometimes, anyway), but
not as(in this book) he does. And don't believe one part in five of what he says
about "religion." (A word he defines rather tendentiously, by the way -- but
that is the norm.)