Let me start with some general comments first. Grayling’s tome is not what one would call good scholarship. Throughout the book he vaguely refers to “religious apologists” allowing him to address theistic arguments in very broad generality, or simply attack comfortably weak versions of them ( especially with regard to the moral argument). He rarely refers directly to specific religious apologists and fails somewhat to address the versions of arguments put forward by leading apologists. In fact, reading the book, you would swear he were living in another time, when people like William Craig or Richard Swinburne did not exist. He does adress Plantinga’s version of the ontological argument, but he doesn’t address Craig’s version of the cosmological argument. He presents such a provincial version of the moral argument, that I don’t think it has ever been defended by Christian philosophers. The “moral argument” he presents is basically that religion makes people moral. I say this because he thinks the moral argument is refuted by “existence of good atheists”, which shows that he thinks of it wrongly. He does at first present a version of the moral argument which seems correct: “there can be no morality unless there is a deity”. However, his response reveals that he rather thinks the moral argument says that “there can be no morality unless there is belief in a deity”. Which Christian apologists have defended this argument? As a small disclaimer, I don’t want this post to send the message that I think that all of his argumentation is based on straw men, but certainly, a good portion of them are.
The introduction to the book actually serves its purpose well, because it gives you a taste of what to expect- a rehashing of tired, old New Atheist verbiage. To his credit, it seems Grayling does attempt a balanced perspective, but that, unfortunately is all it is: an attempt. We hear once again of all the pain religions have caused, along with the naive assumption that has been pointed out numerous times, that had religion been replaced by atheism, it would all have been sunshine and roses throughout human history. Grayling responds that if religious evil is the product of human nature and not religion, then “these are the very reasons it is time to go beyond religion”. But ,of course, this is a complete misrepresentation of the response. They don’t mean that religion itself is a product of sinful human nature, but that pursuance of a good ideal can often lead to evil as a result of sinful human nature. “individuals struggling with feelings of sinfulness because of perfectly natural desires”. Any worldview that actually takes the demands of morality seriously will have some individuals struggling, perhaps unnecessarily, with feelings of sinfulness over their desires. Sometimes, in fact, quite often, our desires are wrong- such as when we desire to hurt in revenge or when we desire to be unfaithful to our spouses. Once again, “religion” is treated as if it were one monolithic big thing that needs to be shot down. Like the rest of the Dawkinsites, Grayling seems to think that a presentation of Islamic religious violence also serves as a condemnation of Christianity. Perhaps this is uncharitable, but it seems to be the implication of a lot of his rhetoric. Grayling goes on to contend that “the good things attributed to religion” are “the consolation and inspirati0n it provides”. This is obviously false. The good things attributed to religion is not limited to consolation and inspiration, but extends to rise of the European University, the development of the scientific method, the development of international law, countless and magnitudinal efforts of religious organizations at charitable giving and assistance to the destitute. The list goes on. Grayling and his band fail to give credit to religious organizations for how much charity is still provided by them, and has been throughout Western history. Grayling says that religious institutions accuse their critics of militancy and the critics reply that “when religion occupied a dominant position in society, it dealt its critics much more harshly than today’s critics now deal with religion”. So, in other words, because religious people in the past treated dissenters with intolerance, it must be okay to be verbally militant against religious people today.That is tribalistic and immoral thinking. Anyway, I’m getting bogged down in details of the introduction a little bit, but the introduction is truly an interesting bit of writing. A more important point worth mentioning is when he claims that religious believers offer only “post facto” rationalizations of their beliefs. Well obviously what you consider to be “after the fact” depends upon what you consider to be the “fact”. later on it does become clear what Grayling sees as being the “fact”. He derides non-fundamentalist religion as “cherry-picking” and filtering out the bad things of religion and thus also hypocritical. So, Grayling believes that the “fact” that we spoke about is really fundamentalist religion. Fundamentalism is taken by him to be the most accurate appraisal of it seems religion in general. For each major religion, it would require at least a book each of impressive theological argumentation to convince us that fundamentalist forms of religion are really the most accurate appraisals of a given sacred text. As far as Christianity is concerned, it is very hard for someone with a salt’s pinch of theological literacy to not conclude that Grayling has very little knowledge of what he is talking about. Christian fundamentalism is a very new movement, spawned in the early 20th century, and it can quite easily be argued that it is heterodox in terms of earlier Christian tradition. Of course, the fundamentalist would argue that they are most closely orthodox, but why should Grayling be so eager to believe them, particularly when he does not seem to have any theological argument to back it up? His thinking of fundamentalism as the most accurate portrayal of religion again becomes clear in his attack on creationism in the section attacking religion. To a theistic evolutionist like myself, the chapter seems misplaced and random, because to anybody not deliberately attacking a straw man, or the easiest targets available, that chapter would not have appeared. It is irrelevant to an attack on religious thought in general.
One of the most annoying cases of his straw man arguments is when he says, speaking of what he regards as the conflict of science and religion, “Religious apologists have a convenient escape clause, however; they can always quote the scripture that says “God will not be tested”". Since he quotes the Bible, I suppose he is now speaking about Christianity ( it is difficult to say exactly which religion he is speaking about or whether he is speaking about all of them). So, which Christian apologist has ever tried to distract from reasoning about God’s existence with appeal to that scripture? In fact, the entire enterprise of Christian apologetics is so that God can be “tested” in this way. (Am I not then going against Scripture? No, the context of that verse reveals that it is certainly not referring to reasoning about God’s existence). So, a person would, by definition not even be a Christian apologist ( he would disagree with the entire enterprise of Christian apologetics) if he thought this. Again, I find the pernicious straw man that religious faith is supposed to be non-rational by definition. As I debated with the Superstitious Naked Ape the other day, at least when we are speaking about Christianity, its sacred text has provided its own stipulative definition for faith as the famous “evidence of things not seen”. Anyway, as I told John, it becomes irrational to quibble about definition when someone has provided a definition for their own purposes.
This post has stretched on a little longer than I intended and I still haven’t reached all his treatments of theistic arguments ( although I did have a little bit about the moral argument). I’ll address the other ones in a subsequent post.