11 April 2011

The Good Book: A knee-jerk reaction

The subject of this post is a new book by the philosopher, AC Grayling.

I’ve called this a knee-jerk reaction because that is what this post is from me; a quick reaction without having read the book. In case you were worried, I am not accusing AC Grayling of a knee-jerk reaction. Indeed, from having read other things he has written and said, this would be quite out of character for him, as he is by far one of the most thoughtful people I have ever come across. He usually gives fair consideration to points put towards him and is rarely overly-quick to jump to conclusions. Although I disagree with him on a fair few points, I quite like the chap; maybe it’s because he does bear something of a resemblance to an old English sheepdog. Of the so-called “new atheists” he is by far the most rational and reasonable, less likely to resort to rhetoric and polemic as a substitute for a well-thought out argument.

It is my intention to find the time to read this sometime over the next few years, but as my reading list is rather long, I’m not sure I’ll get round to reading it (unless you buy it for me!) any time soon. It looks like quite a good read and very interesting. Here are a few reviews I’ve come across in the last week since I first heard about it, from a few different perspectives.

New Humanist Magazine
The Guardian
The Telegraph

What really interests me is what this tells us about the wider perception of what people believe the Bible is. Now I can’t be certain without devouring Grayling’s work whether or not the press have captured the whole picture. Past experience leads to me reason that they have quite possibly missed something out. Working on the basis of what we have, it would seem that the idea of this book is to give a set of rules by which we can live, drawn from a variety of sources but which all have the notable feature is the absence of God. It has been dubbed “the atheists’ Bible” or rather an equivalent text from which atheists may draw inspiration and direction.

So if this is set up to be an equivalent to the Bible, does that mean that christianity's core text it is seen as a set of moral rules by which we should live? While I would certainly not deny that the Bible contains elements along those lines, it would seem to a gross and misleading caricature to imagine that that is all it is. The Bible contains many different forms of literature including history, poetry and poetic narrative. It is also full of characters, most of whom are not particularly nice (including the main subject, if you are taken in by this quote). In this respect I quite agree with Giles Fraser (see the BBC article, linked to above) when he says
“[The Bible] is not a work of morality. It's actually a work of something deeper - the problem is not about just following a few rules, there's something more deeply wrong with the human being.”
I can’t think of a better, or more succinct way of saying that.

It seems little wonder, then, that (in this country at least) church attendances are going down, if there is an ever-widening gap between what people think the Bible says and what it actually does. This is why theology is such an important subject; without it, such misconceptions can be left to fester and multiply like germs on a petri dish.

From what I have read, I do not anticipate reading much that I openly disagree with. It seems more likely that it is simply lacking a substantial basis. As I have argued before, you do not need to be a christian in order to have a sense of morals, and being an atheist does not mean that you are necessarily a “bad person,” whatever that may mean. But if Grayling's work does lack the historic narrative that the Bible has, then we will not get a true glimpse of humanity. Given that Grayling is president elect of the national humanist association, it seems amusingly ironic that the main element likely to have been missed is the humanism found in the Bible. So called “heroes of the Bible” are just like you and me; that's why it is such a relevant book. While we may not all be kings able to order our lover's husband to the front line of battle, the desire for sex (doing whatever it takes to get rid of rival) is a significant driving factor in many decisions – certainly from blokes, anyway.

One of the common claims I read from those who think a glib remark can gloss over for their lack of thought, is that the Bible is a fairy story, full of wishful thinking. In truth, the Bible is anything but this. One of the main themes is the undercurrent of evil that lies within humanity, and the lengths to which God will go to show his love for us, in spite of our personal and collective rejection of him. It would be wishful thinking to ignore this and believe in the fundamental goodness of humanity, which is what I understand Grayling's book does, glossing over the problem of evil. Of course, I may have been misled about Grayling's book, which is why I hope to read it to be sure of what is proposed and what it omitted.

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