Back in 2009 Oxzen wrote about World Philosphy Day, about teaching philosophy in schools, and quoted from AC Grayling and the Dalai Lama:
Layer 223 . . . World Philosophy Day, Greeks, Stranglers, Floyd and Spiritual Intelligence
I'd also intended to quote from Grayling's book What Is Good? (The Search For The Best Way To Live), but never got round to it.
Grayling has now published a book called The Good Book, A Secular Bible, and spoke about it in a Guardian interview:
AC Grayling: 'How can you be a militant atheist? It's like sleeping furiously'
In his new book, The Good Book: A Secular Bible, the philosopher sets out his manifesto for rational thought. He talks about why religion angers him, the power of philosophy – and his mane of hair
In the unholy trinity of professional atheists, AC Grayling has always tended to be regarded as the good cop. Less coldly clinical in tone than Richard Dawkins, less aggressively combative than Christopher Hitchens, Grayling approaches the God debate with a gently teasing charm that could almost – but should never – be mistaken for conciliation. "Yes, I'm the velvet version," he chuckles.
So he insists that his new book does not belong in the same canon as Dawkins's The God Delusion and Hitchens's God Is Not Great. "No, because it's not against religion. There's not one occurrence of the word God, or afterlife, or anything like that. It doesn't attack religion, it's a positive book, there's nothing negative in it. People may think it's against religion – but it isn't." But then he says, with a mischievous twinkle: "Of course, what would really help the book a lot in America is if somebody tries to shoot me."
With any luck it shouldn't come to that, but Grayling is almost certainly going to upset a lot of Christians, for what he has written is a secular bible. The Good Book mirrors the Bible in both form and language, and is, as its author says, "ambitious and hubristic – a distillation of the best that has been thought and said by people who've really experienced life, and thought about it". Drawing on classical secular texts from east and west, Grayling has "done just what the Bible makers did with the sacred texts", reworking them into a "great treasury of insight and consolation and inspiration and uplift and understanding in the great non-religious traditions of the world". He has been working on his opus for several decades, and the result is an extravagantly erudite manifesto for rational thought.
When I suggest that he sounds less enraged than amused by religion, he says quickly: "Well, it does make me angry, because it causes a great deal of harm and unhappiness."
He is very cross, for example, with the question in the current census that asks: "What is your religion?" The British Humanist Society has just conducted a poll that asked those surveyed if they were religious – to which 65% said no. But when asked, "What is your religion?" 61% of the very same people answered Christian. "You see, they say, 'Oh well, nominally I suppose I'm Christian.' But two-thirds of the population don't regard themselves as religious! So we have to try to persuade society as a whole to recognise that religious groups are self-constituted interest groups; they exist to promote their point of view. Now, in a liberal democracy they have every right to do so. But they have no greater right than anybody else, any political party or Women's Institute or trade union. But for historical reasons they have massively overinflated influence – faith-based schools, religious broadcasting, bishops in the House of Lords, the presence of religion at every public event. We've got to push it back to its right size."
Atheists, according to Grayling, divide into three broad categories. There are those for whom this secular objection to the privileged status of religion in public life is the driving force of their concern. Then there are those, "like my chum Richard Dawkins", who are principally concerned with the metaphysical question of God's existence. "And I would certainly say there is an intrinsic problem about belief in falsehood." In other words, even if a person's faith did no harm to anybody, Grayling still wouldn't like it. "But the third point is about our ethics – how we live, how we treat one another, what the good life is. And that's the question that really concerns me the most."
It's only in the past decade that these three strands of thought have developed into a public campaign against faith – but it wasn't the atheists, according to Grayling, who provoked the confrontation. "The reason why it's become a big issue is that religions have turned the volume up, because they're on the back foot. The hold of religion is weakening, definitely, and diminishing in numbers. The reason why there's such a furore about it is that the cornered animal, the loser, starts making a big noise."
Even if this is true, however, the atheist movement has been accused of shooting itself in the foot by adopting a tone so militant as to alienate potential supporters, and fortify the religious lobby. I ask Grayling if he thinks there is any truth in the charge, and he listens patiently and politely to the question, but then dismisses it with a shake of the head.
"Well, firstly, I think the charges of militancy and fundamentalism of course come from our opponents, the theists. My rejoinder is to say when the boot was on their foot they burned us at the stake. All we're doing is speaking very frankly and bluntly and they don't like it," he laughs. "So we speak frankly and bluntly, and the respect agenda is now gone, they can no longer float behind the diaphanous veil – 'Ooh, I have faith so you mustn't offend me'. So they don't like the blunt talking. But we're not burning them at the stake. They've got to remember that when it was the other way around it was a much more serious matter.
"And besides, really," he adds with a withering little laugh, "how can you be a militant atheist? How can you be militant non-stamp collector? This is really what it comes down to. You just don't collect stamps. So how can you be a fundamentalist non-stamp collector? It's like sleeping furiously. It's just wrong."
If Grayling does have one fundamentalist article of faith, it is that all of us are capable of understanding philosophy.
The author of 30 books, he is a professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College in London, and a supernumerary of St Anne's College, Oxford, as well as a UN human rights activist. But he is probably best described by that phrase that tends to make the British uncomfortable – a public intellectual.
"I spent the first half or more of my career in the ivory tower writing technical philosophy, but I recognised very early that academic philosophy is a very narrow part of the field. This is one of my big things: that philosophy belongs to everybody. Until 100 years ago philosophy did belong to everyone. Today, unfortunately, it's become very jargon-laden and scholastic, so it's become very specialised.
But a lot of the stuff I've written has been trying to show people that this is part of the conversation mankind has with himself, about all the great questions.
Is there a sniffy faction within the world of philosophy that takes a dim view of attempts to make the subject more widely accessible?
"Oh, I'm absolutely sure of it. But I also think that attitude has moderated considerably over time. Ten to 15 years ago, when I started to try to do this, I'm pretty sure there was a lot of sniffing going on."
But, of course, most people's lives and judgments aren't really guided by rigorous reason at all – which must be maddening to him. So I wonder what he makes of humankind's perverse attachment to non-rational impulses.
"I think they are failing in their responsibility to themselves as intelligent beings. By not being sufficiently reasonable. If you really press them, just ask them, aren't you glad that the people who built the aeroplane you fly in used reason? Aren't you glad that the pilots were trained according to reason? Aren't you glad that your doctor or train driver thinks about what they do and uses reason? And they will say yes. Then you say, 'Well, OK, if that's the case then how about applying it to your own life as well?'"
Excellent Idea, AC.