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Against All Gods by A.C. Grayling

Chad Trainer ponders A.C. Grayling’s assertion that religion is in its death throes.

In the long succession of books by the New Atheists, one small book that has passed by largely unnoticed is A.C. Grayling’s Against All Gods (2007). This is a shame, because although it covers familiar ground, it could be an ideal read for someone making their initial foray into skeptical critiques of religion, since the book’s topics are very general in nature (apart from a chapter lamenting the failure of Michael Behe’s ‘science’ to conform to Popper’s canons of what science is).

From 1991 to 2011, Grayling was Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. In 2011 he founded and became the first Master of the New College of the Humanities, a private undergraduate college in London. Fans of Russell are most likely to be familiar with Grayling either from his book on Russell for Oxford’s ‘Very Short Introductions’ series, or from his essay on Russell’s philosophy of science for the Cambridge Companion to Russell.

In Against All Gods, Grayling argues that far from religion enjoying a resurgence, we are witnessing religion in its death throes (p.54). As Grayling would have it, civilized societies ought seriously to heed the connection between the evils produced and prevailing throughout the world and a “failure to uphold intellectual rigour in education.” And one important symptom of this absence of intellectual rigor is people’s failure to demand that “religious belief be a private and personal matter for indulgence only in the home, accepting it in the public sphere only on an equal footing with other interest groups such as trade unions and voluntary organizations such as the Rotary Club” (p.45). Like Russell, Grayling’s unabashed position is that religion “deserves no more respect than any other viewpoint, and not as much as most” (p.7), and that “It is time to reverse the prevailing notion that religious commitment is intrinsically deserving of respect, and that it should be handled with kid gloves and protected by custom and in some cases law, against criticism and ridicule” (p.15). Grayling makes a further point of asserting that “no atheist should call himself or herself one. The term already sells a pass to theists, because it invites debate on their ground. A more appropriate term is ‘naturalist’” (p.28, See also p.35).

G.K. Chesterton claimed “there are only two kinds of people: those who accept dogmas and know it, and those who accept dogmas and don’t know it.” Grayling contends, “He [Chesterton] is wrong: there are three kinds of people; these two, and those who know a dogma when it barks, when it bites, and when it should be put down” (p.37). But Grayling doesn’t think the death of religion will necessarily leave life empty of meaning: “Those who are not religious have available to them a rich ethical outlook – all the richer indeed for being the result of reflection as opposed to convention – whose roots lie in classical antiquity, when the great tradition of ethical thought in Western philosophy began” (p.59).

It is refreshing to have a first-rate philosophic mind such as Grayling’s treating issues important to the general public. The importance of the issues this book discusses, and the lucidity of its exposition, are beyond doubt. This book is a good, easy read; but probably expendable for those already familiar with the writings of the ‘four horsemen’ of New Atheism, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. Indeed, Grayling describes his remarks in the book as “brief and blunt” (p.12), in contrast to his more substantial books to which the Introduction refers the reader should they relish more detail. In general, Grayling deserves to be read as widely as the ‘four horsemen’.

© Chad Trainer 2012

Chad Trainer is an independent scholar engaged in a study of ideas and arguments from the history of philosophy.

Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness, A. C. Grayling, Oberon Masters, 2007, 64 pages, £8.99 pb, ISBN 978-1840027280.

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