This Easter, try to avoid the Gospel of Grayling

The underlying message of the New Atheists’ ‘secular bibles’ is far more soul-destroying than anything in the original Good Book.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Back when I was a child, a God-fearin’, side-parted Catholic, there was only one Bible to dip into at Easter time: the Holy Bible, featuring Job and Esther and Luke and a cast of thousands of Jews and slightly bonkers early Christians.

Today, by contrast, in keeping with the consumerist ethos, there’s a veritable feast of bibles to pick from: you might go for AC Grayling’s newly published secular tome, The Good Book, or Phillip Pullman’s retelling of the New Testament, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, or perhaps fake memoirist James Frey’s latest offering, The Final Testament of the Holy Bible.

Why, given their obtuse and ostentatious hostility towards organised religion and spiritual hoo-ha, are the so-called New Atheists so keen to refashion the Bible? What’s with all these secularist versions of ‘the good book’, minus the original’s miracles and resurrections and instead offering us guides to life firmly rooted in scientific fact and what poses as rationalism? This bible bonanza tells us a lot about the New Atheists. About their arrogance, their ignorance about where moral meaning comes from, and, most fundamentally, their allergy to, their utter estrangement from, the idea of transcendence.

The first question that any remotely inquisitive person will surely ask about these ‘new bibles’ is this: how massive must your head be, how unanchored your ego, to imagine that, in the space of a few months, ensconced in your office, you can rewrite the Bible? AC Grayling admits that his decision to publish a secular version of the Bible, titled The Good Book, might appear ‘tremendously hubristic’ but, he says, he intends it ‘in the spirit of great humility’. I suspect this is the same humility that someone like the Pope deploys when he bends down to kiss the dirt before standing up again to tell people how they should live their lives. That is, a ritualised, carefully practised display of humility that is actually a disguise for self-possession bordering on tyranny.

Grayling, a philosopher and deity basher who is ironically treated by his fans as almost god-like (one journalist describes his hair as a ‘bright celestial mane’), has gathered together snippets of philosophy and thought from the past few thousand years for his Good Book, covering everyone from Aristotle to Hume. He has rewritten them in the archaic lingo of the original Bible, even splitting them into chapters and verses and dividing them into separate ‘books’ with titles such as Genesis, Concord, Songs and Acts. His ultimate hope is that this will become the official ‘secular alternative to the Bible and the Koran’, to be read by morally good but god-free people.

Hmmm. The trouble is that in snippeting some of the most profound moral thought of the past 2,000-odd years, and turning it into a modern-day bible written in olden-day language, Grayling has done a grave disservice both to those great moral thinkers and the idea of a bible. By wrenching a few nuggets of wisdom from Aristotle’s Metaphysics or Mill’s On Liberty, he has reduced these and other thinkers to Deepak Chopra-style providers of happy-clappy advice for how to live a decent, upstanding life. Their intellectual tussling with the headache-inducing question of what it means to be human, to be conscious, to be moral, is elbowed aside in favour of culling a few lines of insight that might help people decide what to do on a particularly troublesome Tuesday morning or when faced with a workplace/relationship dilemma. The end product is more like a Dictionary of Quotations than a bible, or one of those books you see in the self-help section with titles such as ‘Buy a Cup of Coffee for a Stranger And 99 Other Nice Things You Should Do Before You Die’.

Grayling misunderstands what a bible is, too. The Holy Bible was, for many centuries, a living, breathing text, contributed to by scores of writers, both reflecting and codifying various communities’ moral beliefs and their transcendent aspirations. It was not simply a collection of wise or wacky sayings, but a system of meaning that gained its authority through its incorporation of, and adaptation to, people’s experiences, discussions and rule-making.

Grayling’s belief that he can codify a brand new system of meaning in his own head, magic up a moral structure on his laptop, reveals much about the New Atheists’ view of meaning. It is they, rather than the religious, who seem to believe that meaning can be cobbled together by one person and handed to others. Grayling’s book conforms to the New Atheists’ snobby view of the Bible as a ruthless diktat better than the actual Bible does. The Bible is not really ‘the Word of the Lord’ – it’s far more complicated than that – but Grayling’s book is ‘the Word of the Philosopher’: good thoughts collected together and rewritten by one man. This is self-help rather than meaning – loose and disconnected views about ‘good living’ rather than an overarching, complex, meaningfully underwritten idea about the ‘Good Life’.

What’s more, Grayling, like many of the other New Atheists, is behind the times. He says his aim is to remove any notion of a deity, especially one which demands submission, from moral thought. He characterises the original Bible as: ‘Just obey, just submit. The usual rather cowed posture of human beings towards divinity in the hope that it won’t inflict too many earthquakes or tsunamis or plagues in the near future.’ Yet today, moral thought is most frequently polluted, not by the demand for submission to that deity born in Genesis, but by the demand that we submit to a new deity: Gaia, or Mother Earth, or The Planet. (A bit like Beelzebub, She has many names.)

Today, the sort of people in the West to whom Grayling is preaching don’t beg God to keep tsunamis and plagues at bay; no, they plead with environmentalists to do that. Many people – and we’re talking about well-educated, privileged individuals in the booming business of opinion-formation – literally believe that switching their kettle on or driving their car will have a direct impact on the polar ice caps, and thus on the future of the whole of humanity, and so, like the early Jews, they have created all sorts of bizarre homely rituals that might help to save themselves and mankind: don’t leave the telly on standby; buy a bike; separate plastics from paper. Challenging the idea of a deity, of an external force that determines our morality and destinies, is a decent aspiration, since it would force mankind to confront his moral existence in a far more upfront, unfettered fashion. But the ‘deity’ we should most worry about today, the one whose culturally sanctioned allure ends up presenting mankind as more mechanistic than moral, is not God, but Gaia.

The New Atheists’ lack of critical agitation towards the CO2-obsessing creed of environmentalism (many of them embrace it) speaks to the key problem with their outlook: their estrangement from the idea of transcendence. In his book Transcendence and History: The Search for Ultimacy from Ancient Societies to Postmodernism, Glenn Hughes describes human communities’ longing for some ‘shared human experience [that] transcends biological, psychological and cultural circumstance’; for ‘human participation in a dimension of meaning that is non-particular, non-finite’. That is, the search for something bigger than ourselves and our routine lives, for a sense of purpose that goes beyond our mere biological existences or daily toil.

The New Atheists are implicitly hostile to the idea of transcendence. This can be glimpsed in their embrace of new evolutionary theories which claim that virtually every aspect of human experience, from our political leanings to our sexuality, is genetically predetermined. Or in their support for the utterly non-transcendent, behaviour-myopic ideas of environmentalism and their claim that humankind’s ‘scientific advances in agriculture and medicine’ are ‘deforming the Earth’. Or in Grayling’s focus on the ‘fleeting’ nature of human existence, where ‘we’re around for a couple of hundred thousand years, a couple of million years… and then we’re extinguished by, perhaps, the increasing size of the Sun’. Time and again, the New Atheists communicate disdain for the notion of transcendence, and instead present humanity as effectively a prisoner of its genes, a fundamentally biological entity, little more than ‘the close cousin of chimpanzees’, as New Atheist hero Christopher Hitchens describes us, who should seek to live in ‘symbiotic harmony with our surroundings’, as a leading British atheist puts it.

For millennia, human beings sought to escape their ‘symbiosis’ with nature or culture, to transcend the everyday, whether through embracing profound religious beliefs or something else. Now, the New Atheists tell us that transcendence is impossible: there are only genes, there is only biology, there is only CO2, there is only here, and there is only now. Existence is intranscendable. Thus is the message of their new bibles even more backward than that contained in the original version.

This is not to say that we need religion or God or the Holy Bible in order to pursue transcendence. For an atheistic humanist like me, transcendence is better sought through a human-centred morality, through human solidarity, through the transformation of existence itself. The aim of many of the Old Atheists (as we must now unfortunately refer to them) was to bridge the gap between human beings’ alienated existences and their aspirations to greatness, a gap frequently and problematically filled by religious conviction. ‘Religion is only the illusory sun which revolves round man as long as he does not revolve around himself’, said Marx. For the New Atheists, by contrast, the gap is unbridgeable and we might as well accept our lot as bundles of genes with a duty of care to our surroundings. For them, it is not only religion that is illusory, but the idea of human specialness and profundity itself.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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