Apparently, our favorite Christian apologist, David Marsahll, is at it again, trying to apply his lackluster skills against yet another more superior foe. In this case it is the famed philosopher A.C. Grayling, whose recent book The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism, is one of the latest atheist manifestos to be published. And apparently, Marshall doesn’t like it much. Thus far he’s written two blog posts about the new book (and it appears he may write more in the future), which I will critique. I will place Marshall’s comments and quotations in blockquotes and I will follow with my own remarks.
Marshall starts off with the following:
Since The Truth Behind the New Atheism came out in 2007, [a book to which I have written a scathing response – Ken] 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.
Marshall has started off badly when he reads something into Grayling’s words that he clearly did not intend. Marshall commented, “So it is not careful reasoning that marks one as ‘colleagues and fellows,’ but rather agreement in ‘the cause?’” Where did he get this from? Grayling is merely showing appreciation and gratitude towards a handful of influential atheist writers. And for the record most of the New Atheist authors (and others mentioned) have provided numerous cognizant arguments.
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.
Grayling has used the most common definition of religion, which is “people’s beliefs about and worship of deities.” (Microsoft Encarta Dictionary, 2006) While this is the most commonly used definition, I personally do not agree with it because it is too limited. It doesn’t take into account those religions that have no beliefs about gods, such as Buddhism. Not that this bolsters Marshall’s very bad case because, as the reader will see, while Grayling’s definition wasn’t the most accurate, Marshall’s is even worse.
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.
Yes, it all depends on how you define something, but one cannot just make up definitions out of thin air; they must be based on facts, and describe the activity or thing in question as accurately as possible. Yes, religions teach you to value things (many of them, like Christianity, teach you to value your god more than yourself, which isn’t exactly very good advice to adopt, but that’s another matter altogether) but this definition is entirely too limiting. As Marshall points out, viewed in this manner, everyone has religion, unfortunately this is nothing more than a pathetic shell game.
Religions are a very diverse group of human behaviors. Due to the vast differences it’s not possible to pin down an accurate, one-size-fits-all definition. There are religions that worship no gods, there are religions that focus on the here and now, and there are religions that focus on the afterlife. There are religions that believe in a creator god(s), and others that do not. There are religions that believe in moral gods and there are those that believe in evil ones. Even more than the distinct beliefs, despite this difficulty of defining religion, there are a series of descriptions that more accurately describe religion. They are: 1) a belief in a non-human realm; 2) “links our existence and that of our societies, our norms, and our institutions to something outside of ourselves and greater than ourselves;” 3) “establishes a purportedly super-human reality that transcends the flux of mundane, contingent reality and on which mundane contingent reality depends;” and 4) “it is believed to be true.” (Atheism Advanced: Further Thoughts of a Freethinker, David Eller; 104)
Every one of these features is a distinctly religious one and this definition goes far beyond the horribly vague definition chosen by Marshall. Just as Marshall falsely accused Grayling of cherry-picking his definition in order to avoid including Humanism as a religion, Marshall has done the opposite and has severely broadened his definition so as to include the philosophy of Humanism as a religion, which it is not.
I find it humorous and hypocritical that Marshall would accuse Grayling of assuming “one definition of this key word, without criticial thought.” As I’ve just demonstrated, it is he who has given a definition without critical thought.
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?
*Sigh* Grayling is discussing acts that do no real harm to anybody. The violence perpetuated by religion does cause harm and should be avoided. The point isn’t necessarily that one is more natural than another. This, I think, should be obvious. Of course Grayling is thinking. It’s readily apparent who isn’t, however. More to the point is the fact that sexual urges are perfectly normal, natural, and necessary – for the survival of our species! This is why the urge to mate is so strong. Had natural selection not caused this desire to dominate our species would have likely met a quick ending. However, due to backwards and primitive religious teachings we are told we must suppress these desires because the idea of sex is “sinful.” What does this even mean? It’s nothing more than the combination of Christianity’s perverse anti-female teachings being put to practice and outdated ancient beliefs being forced on modern people (like the belief that it is sinful to have sex outside of marriage).
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.)
Let’s hope the second part of Marshall’s critique is more thought out.
Until next time…