The Secular Bible

April 14, 2011

Recently, CNN’s “Belief Blog” published a story about A.C. Grayling’s newly compiled work “The Good Book: A Humanist Bible,” which collects writing from history’s non-religious voices: philosophers, scientists, poets. Grayling presents this work as a “what-if” alternative guide to history: what if our moral guidance and worldviews had been shaped by scientists, rationalists, and other “voices of reason” rather than prophets and preachers?

Jessica Ravitz, who wrote the piece for CNN, states that Grayling has been called “the acceptable face of atheism,” at least when compared to his rabid contemporaries like Richard Dawkins. Such a product certainly rings of a more balanced and measured approach than the polemical works like “God is Not Good,” by Christopher Hitchens. Any work that compiles Aristotle, Newton, Confucius and Baudelaire is worth the time of any intellectual, seeker, or student. Yet Grayling is building this product off of a false premise and making a lot of questionable and out-dated presuppositions.

The problem with such a work, at least as it is marketed in this manner, is that the author is overlooking a lot of factors–for one, assuming that the world would be drastically different if we revered Aristotle and Confucius, because Western civilization has certainly revered Aristotle and historically so has religion–Aristotle’s ideas center strongly in Christian, Jewish, and Islamic Theology (through the work of Aquinas, Maimonides, and al-Ghazali, respectively). Theology in the Middle Ages was built on the work of Aristotle, and the ideas and concepts crafted from such a philosophical-religious merge are still being worked out, critiqued, and attempted to be dissambled today (prior Christian theology did the same thing with Plato). As for Confucius, his work is the basis for Confucianism, which while Western thinkers who attempt to squeeze religion into a tiny definable box may think otherwise, is a valid religion that underpins much of modern Eastern and Asian society to this day.

The idea for the “Humanist Bible”  is based on the false and outdated premise that we in Western society are constantly in a state of progress, particularly scientific progress, and that ultimately if we all buy into this myth of progress we will fix everything with our human reason and live in a peaceful world. Grayling begins his compilation with his own “Genesis” (even using that title), in which the story begins with Newton and his apple, the birth of modern Western science. The problem with this premise is that it has proven itself wrong–rather than build ourselves towards peace, sustainability, and real progress, the sort o f just, equality-based non-violent progress that can truly liberate society, we’ve instead far too often used science to build bombs, nuclear reactors, factories that pollute the environment to the point of irreperable harm; instead of supplying a center and a grounding to those in pain and in search of truth, we use science to promote new avenues of consumption and advertisement, selling things that people don’t need to them by convinicing them they do need it.  Grayling’s work is heavily layered with out-dated Western myths that see our classical liberalism as the end-all be-all of life, holding up Western philosophy as the pinnacle of spiritual search and science as the ultimate solution to everything. Coincidentally, Grayling continually refers to “mankind” in the CNN interview, causing us to assume that unlike the modern religious arena, the debate for gender-inclusivity is not in the domain of modern secular humanism–“humankind” as a word doesn’t present enough of a point to require consideration, likely, considering that the canon of thought we are supposed to affirm as ultimate truth merely goes to prop up capitalism, nationalism, and patriarchy. For all of its criticism, religion in many of its corners, despite being grounded in scriptures and stories, rituals and practices that are ancient, that were products of their time with all the -isms and difficulties posed by that, religion rather continues to evolve and to truly progress, not in a material but in a spritual manner, searching for ways to imlement these scriptures and holy myths in the modern world, to use them to bring about true spiritual fulfillment and peaceful progress for all, knowing that we likely never will fully accomplish such heady goals yet striving to nonetheless.

Okay. I realize the above contrast paints Grayling too negative and modern religion too positive in broad brush strokes, so I would like to temper both. Grayling presents his secular “ten commandments’ that all conscious modern religious believers should and most likely would affirm as well: kindess, reason, respect for nature, thoughtfulness, etc. Grayling’s attempt to prove that ethical reasoning and moral grounding is possible for the non-religious is worthwhile and totally accurate–one need not be religious to be moral or ethical. Grayson’s book is welcome, and I’d place it on my shelf with my other religious texts if I had a copy (though I have many of the selections he draws from already).  Conversely, not all modern religious adherents are on-board with the “progress” I mentioned above–some might even consider such modern evolutions unacceptable. That is okay, and not everyone who thinks as such is failing in their job to reach particular people and provide life-changing potential for those people. On the extreme end, we all know that there are those who use their religion to justify hate, violence, and prejudice–such people would be better off as peaceful secular humanists (though there are violent humanists who advocate violence for secular and political causes as well).  Also, science is not bad; scientific progress has indeed benefited the world in ways no rational person would want to un-do in areas of medicine, technology, communication, entertainment, culture, transportation, etc. Yet scientism is bad–the idea that all that is can be objectively measured under a microscope is a shallow and materialistic philosophy. Science is and can only be one sphere of knowledge, the scientific world can only be one level of existence. Grayling may not be an “atheist fundamentalist” like Dawkins, but he seems to make the same mistake that Dawkins and many atheists have–that faced with the tension of stereotypical and traditional concepts of “God,” the entire foundation and concept is thrown out; Modern, progressive Religion expands the view of God in light of new knowledge–every time a tension results in a doubt, the view of God can expand to fit that, because there is no such thing as a God “too big.” Each stab at questioning and wrestling with divine truth brings us, as believers, closer to catching true glimpses at the force that is God, the ground of all being that undergirds and gives life to all. We can never get a full view of God, but each glimpse we can catch aids us in living into peace and truth and can inspire us to more selflessly love and work for real justice tempered with overflowing mercy. Perhaps Grayling has found that in Western philosophy and science; perhaps he has assembled a top-notch work that can serve other humanists to find the type of peace that those who are believers also seek, and I have no doubt that issues of justice and service can overlap greatly between these two communties–simply from the Christian field, I once heard a wonderful sermon on “Jesus the Humanist.” Yet this whole polemical battlefield between religious and irreligious seekers is too often missing the point, THE point as well as each other’s point. I take issue with Grayson’s premise and his presuppositons, and I have great doubt that a material and scientific world-view alone can lead great portions of people to truth and justice. Yet I do not take issue with humanism itself; I simply find that it works best when undergirded with a something else, something that sees a “more” whether within or without, written or felt, experienced or inherited that lifts up this material value with deeper hues of truth.

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One Response to “The Secular Bible”

  1. […] of modern atheism on this site before (see a-response-to-ricky-gervais-defense-of-atheism,   the-secular-bible, or concerning-fundamentalist-atheism), yet I understand and respect those who see themselves as […]

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