Monday, April 22, 2013

Grayling on the Grill: Inauspicious Beginnings

A. C. Grayling
Since The Truth Behind the New Atheism came  out in 2007, I have sometimes noted that practically the only skeptics who seem able to argue well for the Gnu position all seem to have philosophical training.  Philosophers come in all shapes and sizes, also in temperament and worldview, but generally know how to think critically, make distinctions, follow a logical argument (and recognize when an argument is not logical), and even occasionally separate argument from ego, and admit to errors. 

For this reason, I had some hope for A. C. Grayling's The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism

Now I've read the first 200 words or so, and am feeling my first qualms. 

Well, there was also the acknowledgement page, which gave me even earlier cause for concern:

My thanks go to colleagues and fellows in the cause . . . Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett . . . Sam Harris . . . During the writing of this book the world lost two eloquent and forceful comrades in the task, Paul Kurtz and Christopher Hitchens.

"The cause?"  "The task?"  The Four Horsemen? 

Grayling names several other "colleagues and fellows," but the eye naturally darts to these names.  So it is not careful reasoning that marks one as "colleagues and fellows," but rather agreement in "the cause?"  Also "eloquence" and "forcefulness," which those who do not belong to The Cause might read as "stridency?" 

But we suck it up and read on.  Grayling can pick his friends and causes.  Maybe even his taste for stridency will allow careful thinking to flow down from his pen to the thirsty masses of Gnu warriors, yearning to think cogently. 

Then I turned to the introduction proper, and read these words:

Some of the art and music that has been inspired by faith counts among the loveliest and most moving expressions of human creativity . . . Religion is a pervasive fact of history, and has to be addressed as such.

In other 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 civilizations engulfed in war and atrocity by interreligious hatreds.

Let us focus here on two words that I have put in red, in various forms: "religion" and "natural," and  then say something about the words in italics.   

What is religion?  Obviously this is an important word for Grayling: it also appears on the title of his book, fronting up against "humanism." 

For many skeptics, religion is something other people have, and they have outgrown or thought through and found empty.  It becomes, in practice, a weapon by which to delegitimize beliefs one does not share, in favor of one's own creed -- roughly, "Secular Humanism." 

This game only works if religion can be defined as having "faith" (whatever that means) in "supernatural beings." 

But as Peter Berger and others point out, scholars often define religion in another way as well: an "ultimate concern," in Paul Tillich's words, that which we value most highly, whatever it might be.   

If we define religion this way, then pretty much everyone has one, and the word is not much good as a secularist weapon, anymore.  And it should be no good, since "secular humanism" has justified as many atrocities as any other religion.  In that case, Grayling's book would have to be given a less Manichean title:

"The case for my religion and against everyone elses." 

Either definition can be legitimate, in the right context.  What is worrying, is that Grayling seems to assume one definition of this key word, without criticial thought.  And careful thought  and clear distinctions are what we ask for, from philosophers. 

Or maybe the careful thought is on its way.  We'll see if Grayling justifies all the assumptions behind his very framing of the debate, and in a way that is fair and makes sense.  If he does that, it will be a first from the New Atheists, in my experience. 

The second word we should focus on here is "natural." 

What Grayling is talking about, no doubt, is sex.  He probably means that Christians tell us "perfectly natural" acts like lust, fornication, reading pornography, and rutting randomly with members of one's own or the opposite sex, are "perfectly natural," and Christianity has caused a lot of harm by prohibiting such harmless good fun. 

But what about all those other things Grayling has also mentioned, the words in italics?  What about "tyrrany," "conflict," "war," "atrocity," "suffering" and "hatred?" 

Aren't those "perfectly natural" actions and feelings, too? 

They do seem to occur in the natural world pretty regularly.  In fact, there's even some talk that evolution itself is driven by conflict -- which means hatred, suffering, atrocity, and war.  Species do dominate one another as often as they can get away with it -- even the buttercups in my garden, that I ruthlessly dig out and throw in the sun, try to choke out the dandelions.  Then both gang up on my beets and carrots. 

So what in the world is Grayling talking about?  Is he thinking yet, at all?  Or is that going to come later? 

If we suppress the desire to hate and dominate, why (in principle) must it be wrong to suppress the desire to mate?  And if Christianity is to blame for the latter, isn't it at least possible that it also shares some of the credit for the former? 

Or is this going to be a book full of familiar bumper-sticker slogans, with nary a hard or self-critical thought behind any of Graylings claims? 

Maybe Grayling will do some hard critical thinking later.  But them chicken bones, so far they line up inauspiciously. 

(Note: the chicken bones turned out to be brilliantly prophetic, as I shall explain in subsequent posts, beginning with Graying on the Grill II, an overall critique.)


Ben McFarland said...

Stephen Colbert recently interviewed Grayling and as is typical with his interviews got to the heart of the matter with his fake persona. I recommend it.

David B Marshall said...

Ben: Hilarious.

I'm not sure which zinger you were thinking of, but what I liked was that Colbert didn't let Grayling get away with his two-step on communism. In the book (read a lot of it now), Grayling maintains BOTH of the following: (a) Stalin (it's always Stalin with these guys) was bad because he was a true believer, and (b) the possibility that Grayling is wrong and God exists is "point-millions-of-zeroes-one." So what does that make Grayling, open-minded?