Review: 'The God Argument - The Case Against Religion and for Humanism' By A.C. Grayling

31/03/2013 10:19 BST | Updated 30/05/2013 10:12 BST

According to Catherine Pepinster, A.C. Grayling's new book The God Argument is a "stern, unrelenting and unforgiving" attack on faith, a "vilification of theists" written in the style of "an angry Old Testament prophet". Grayling, we are told, is guilty of "railing at religionists" such as the theist philosopher Alvin Plantinga, whose version of the ontological argument for the existence of God causes Grayling "to see red".

At this point, those of us familiar with Grayling's work might begin to smell a rat. Typically so measured in his tone and tolerant in his outlook, what could have happened to transform him into this pugnacious, fire-breathing polemicist?

Well, nothing. Because The God Argument is about as far removed in tone from Pepinster's account than it is possible to imagine. It is, in fact, one of the most dispassionate overviews of the atheistic stance yet to appear. Pepinster is of course entitled to her opinion, but readers should be aware that her review is of a book that does not exist outside of her imagination.

This is a common enough phenomenon. Elsewhere I have argued that the notion of atheistic anger is grossly exaggerated by those who take a different view. For instance, in his book The Rage Against God, Peter Hitchens makes the claim that "the difficulties of the anti-theists begin when they try to engage with anyone who does not agree with them, when their reaction is often a frustrated rage that the rest of us are so stupid". I enjoyed Hitchens's book a great deal, but what he describes here as "rage" is nothing more than a plainspoken scepticism when it comes to the question of faith.

That is not to say that Grayling is incapable of expressing frustration. In his excellent book Ideas That Matter, he writes that "the definition of Orthodox Christianity might as well be something like 'Christianity of a more than usually comical kind'". But such barbs are nowhere to be found in The God Argument, which is characterised by an impressive degree of restraint, and is all the more devastating for it. Nobody could honestly describe this book as "sneering", a ploy favoured by those who argue that religion should be ring-fenced from criticism; those, in other words, who insist on patronising the religious.

The God Argument is a book that most intelligent people of faith will welcome. As a concise and erudite articulation of the core rationale behind atheism, it is a valuable contribution to the debate, not least because the humanist alternative to religion is so persuasively expressed. Although other atheist writers have been at pains to point out that individual fulfilment does not depend on a belief in the supernatural, Grayling expands on this idea with insight and poise. His invocation of Plutarch's essay The Dinner of the Seven Wise Men to illustrate the humanist ideal is particularly effective. Moreover, there is a laudable emphasis on what has become known as "applied ethics", as opposed to the "meta-ethical" abstractions of modern academic approaches to the study of philosophy. Grayling's position is consistently life-affirming, a far cry from the rabid, belligerent caricature we find in Pepinster's review.

Many will dislike this book because of ideological differences. Conservatives will be uncomfortable with Grayling's views on abortion, pornography, prostitution and the social benefits of drug legalisation. Left-leaning cultural relativists will balk at his emphasis on universal human rights. But whatever else one might think of Grayling's views, his skills as a writer are incontestable. The sheer clarity of his jargon-free prose makes The God Argument a pleasure to read.

Grayling is particularly adept when it comes to addressing the oft-repeated charge of "fundamentalist atheism", anticipating Jonathan Rée's review in The Guardian which claims that "as a militant atheist, the philosopher AC Grayling has much in common with the literal fundamentalists he derides". But critics would do well to avoid this tactic. The phrase "fundamentalist atheist" is a semantic contradiction, and as such is meaningless. With infinite patience Grayling explains that "atheism is to theism as not collecting stamps is to stamp-collecting... How could someone be a militant non-stamp-collector?" The analogy may not be original - Grayling acknowledges as much - but it does the job.

Other reviewers have also been quick to misrepresent Grayling's book. Martin Cohen tells us that it is loaded with ad hominem arguments, which simply suggests to me that he needs to brush up on his Latin. Whatever else one thinks of Grayling's views, he only ever attacks the basis of any given religious argument itself, not the person making it. Of course, Cohen is unable to quote any actual examples of these supposed ad hominem attacks, which helps him to maintain the illusion that they are present in the text at all.

Cohen goes on to question Grayling's philosophical approach, accusing him of hypocrisy:

[A]lthough Grayling accuses "supporters of religion" of making lots of silly, elementary errors of logic, doesn't he himself commit the fallacy of affirming the consequent?

If religion is an evil influence on people, then people's minds will be addled and lots of bad things will result. (First premise.)

People's minds have been addled and lots of bad things have resulted. (Second premise.)

Religion is an evil influence on people. (Wonky conclusion.)

Of course, having misrepresented the initial premise in this way it's easy for Cohen to reach the "wonky conclusion" that serves his agenda. What Grayling actually argues, quite plainly, is that religion can be an evil influence, that "moderate" faith can lead to fundamentalism, and that humanism is preferable as a guiding principle in life. If Cohen sincerely believes that Grayling's argument runs along the lines of the syllogism outlined above, he can't have read the book very carefully. Or, what's more likely, he had a preconceived notion of what Grayling would say and interpreted his words accordingly.

The God Argument is a book that clearly divides opinion, but that's to be expected given the sensitivity of the subject matter. Critics can mutter their disapproval until the sacred cows come home. For me, this is a superb piece of work; elegant, accessible and profoundly humane.