Philosopher AC Grayling has made it his mission to show why people have as little reason to believe in a deity as they do in the Tooth Fairy. Justin Brierley meets the atheist professor who believes he has seen the future – and God’s not part of it.
According to AC Grayling, talking about God is the equivalent of talking about fairies or goblins. It’s the reason he doesn’t like to use the word ‘atheist’ to describe himself. ‘Call me an “a-fairyist” or an “a-goblinist”,’ he says, ‘because to
me it’s the same argument.’
With his impressive head of silver hair, round spectacles and well-tailored suit, Grayling looks every inch the public intellectual that the blurb on the back his latest book The God Argument (Bloomsbury) describes. A philosophy professor by background, he recently founded the New College of the Humanities with fellow British atheists Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. It’s a private university delivering a secular-humanist approach to a variety of disciplines. I imagine there isn’t a Christian Union.
Grayling makes no apology for disparaging ‘fundamentalist’ forms of religion, which he describes as ‘mass immaturity’. He explains: ‘It is very easy to slip into disdain for people who don’t see the evidence for biological evolution or who want to impose their views on others in a coercive way, such as in Muslim majority countries.’
IMAGINE THERE’S NO HEAVEN
One of his main concerns is with evangelism, particularly of children. In his book, he calls for freedom from religion, including a demand for freedom from proselytisation. Grayling stops short of calling for an outright ban on evangelism, but he contends that religion often brainwashes the young before they have the opportunity to develop their own critical thinking.
So, would he like to see an end to religion? ‘In the ideal – yes,’ he responds candidly, ‘but one is pragmatic enough to realise that it will, at the very least, take a long time.’
Grayling, who is a vice-president of the British Humanist Association, also volunteers his opinion on the kind of worldview that he would choose to replace religious belief. Channelling the spirit of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, he describes a utopian vision of the future in which the ‘depth and warmth’ of his own secular-humanist philosophy is universally embraced at the expense of God.
‘If – per impossibile – the whole world were able to adopt that outlook, immediately one whole source of conflict and confusion would vanish and we would be premising how we are to live good, flourishing lives on our most generous understanding of human nature.’
If Grayling has faith of any sort it is probably most clearly illustrated in this optimism (which some might call naïve) that the world will, after ditching religion, be inclined to work together in a brotherhood-of-man style humanist enterprise.
Before spelling out his humanist manifesto, Grayling takes aim at the rationality of belief itself. The first half of The God Argument surveys some of the key arguments for belief in God, and purports to dispatch each within a few pages.
Unsurprisingly, not all philosophers of religion (including some atheist ones) think Grayling has done a good job of knocking down two millennia of thought on the nature and necessity of God. Nevertheless, the philosopher himself believes that all arguments for God can be reduced to the logical absurdity of arguing for the existence of the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus.
AND THE WORD BECAME FRED
So what is Grayling’s response to contemporary arguments for God’s existence? For instance, modern science indicates that the universe had a beginning in space and time – an initial singularity commonly called the Big Bang. Theologians point out that the scientific consensus confirms the biblical view of creation ex nihilo, and that such a universe seems to require an explanation beyond itself for its existence.
But where theologians invoke God, Grayling simply invokes ‘Fred’. It’s an intentionally absurd response. ‘You do nothing at all by postulating a necessary being,’ he insists. ‘I use the name Fred to show the explanatory nullity of it. We don’t know how the universe began. To go to the idea of a supreme artificer doesn’t explain anything.’
Similarly, when asked why there is anything at all, Grayling dismisses the question as meaningless. Our ingrained religious instincts are leading us down the wrong path, he explains. ‘It is a question that comes from our psychological yearning for narrative structure. Why can’t the universe be its own creator, its own explanation?’
Grayling responds in a similar fashion to other modern evidences for God – for instance, the current scientific view that the universe is finely tuned to allow for the emergence of life. Most physicists acknowledge that chance and probability cannot account for the knife-edge values of the fundamental constants of the universe that produce order rather than chaos in the cosmos. So are we justified in seeing a designing hand at work?
Grayling offers an analogy for why things may look designed when in fact they are the result of a series of unplanned events. ‘It’s rather like the fact that my grandparents caught that train, went into that particular café and
encountered each other. But I don’t assume that my grandparents were doing that to ensure that some years later I would be born.’
Other philosophers think that Grayling uses the wrong analogy. Fine-tuning, they argue, is more like someone stealing a bank card and punching the right digits into a cash machine at random. We’d be highly sceptical that the
robber in question just got lucky.
THE NEW FUNDAMENTALISM
Grayling casts himself as the patient voice of wisdom, waiting for the immaturity of religious belief to inevitably surrender to the march of secular reason.
I don’t think that will happen – largely because Grayling’s certainty can often look just as faith-filled as the fundamentalism he critiques. His belief that all theological argument is (quite literally) ‘away with the fairies’, and his optimism about a harmonious world where religion has withered away, are the doctrines of new atheism.
3 ARGUMENTS FOR GOD (disputed by Grayling)
#1 THE COSMOLOGICAL ARGUMENT
According to science the universe had a ‘beginning’. Since we have no experience of things popping into existence without a cause, we can conclude the universe had a cause beyond itself.
#2 THE FINE TUNING ARGUMENT
We live in a universe capable of producing life. This depends upon a number of very ‘finely tuned’ values of certain physical laws. It makes more sense that this is the result of purposeful design than random chance.
#3 THE MORAL ARGUMENT
Most humans believe in objective morality. That ‘torturing children is wrong’ is something we all know. Only a transcendent moral lawgiver can ground such a belief in objective morality.
AC Graying founded the New college of the Humanities with Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker