In its marketing campaign, The Good Book: A Humanist Bible was presented as something akin to the emancipation of Daedalus and Icarus in their winged escape from Crete. Just as Daedalus refused to obey the tyrannical King Minos and secured freedom for himself and his son, so our hero, the prominent atheist A. C. Grayling, has refused to obey false authority and freed himself and his readers from the tyranny of religion. Grayling, we were breathlessly informed, spent years choosing and rewriting those venerable texts of humanistic wisdom free of all divine authority. Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Epictetus, Cicero, Plutarch, Bacon, Hobbes, Hume, and Locke, all compiled into the master text of the humanist scripture and all boldly proclaiming Grayling’s motto of enlightenment: “Dare to know.”
The “temerity” of the book is furthered by the editorial choice to mimic the structure and genres of Scripture, including the chapter-and-verse format, and so provide a “secular alternative to the King James Bible.” The text is arranged into fourteen sections claiming to provide everything found in Scripture: Genesis, Wisdom, Parables, Concord, Lamentations, Consolations, Sages, Songs, Histories, Proverbs, The Lawgiver, Acts, Epistles, and The Good. This “book of extraordinary audacity,” the dust jacket claims, was not compiled by Grayling so much as “made” using the very “techniques of editing, redaction, and adaptation that produced the holy books of the Judeo-Christian and Islamic religions.”
The book is better than the cover. While the marketing presents the author as provocateur, one finds instead the reflections of a decent, middle-aged man with a thorough education, now thinking about his loves and aspirations in light of the erosive power of time. Grayling ignores religion more than he attacks it. Rarely, and lamely, he swipes at the ignorant who should “go to the illusionists, then, and leave philosophers in peace.” And while at times he mocks the fear of sex supposedly endemic to the religious, he does not make the heart race with anger or lust: “Why do you blush to hear the praise of pleasure, when you do not blush to indulge its temptations under cover of night?”
Wild stuff, that. All in all, Grayling seems less like a Daedalus and more like an amiable chap who prefers Cicero to St. Paul but who would be good to have over for dinner or a round of golf.
He is quite good in his use of the ancients, particularly the Stoics and their understanding of the deceptions of money, honor, and reputation. In his paraphrase of Cicero’s On Friendship, for instance, he ably discusses the remarkable quality of friendship between those who “want nothing and . . . feel absolutely self-dependent” as opposed to friendship cultivated merely for its material benefits—with harsh conclusions about the possibility of politicians having friends. But such passages were just interesting enough to make me want to read the original. I found myself, quite often, putting down the Good Book to turn instead to the great books Grayling paraphrases.
More striking, however, is how frequently one needs to turn away from the book to find texts Grayling does not reference at all. A collection including Virgil but not Dante, Cicero but not Augustine, Aristotle but not Maimonides, Livy but not Boethius, Kant but not Kierkegaard, and Goethe but not Dostoyevsky is a truncated selection, especially when the standard for exclusion is some supposed taint by religion.
Perhaps, as Grayling believes, Thomas Aquinas and Luther were finally incorrect, but is it plausible that they made no contributions to our reflections on ethics, political order, happiness, virtue, or human freedom? Perhaps the hopes of Isaiah or Micah were inaccurate, but have they added nothing to our understanding of poetry, or political criticism, or the development of civil rights?
But for Grayling there are only a few basic realities—love, fear, time—and any text admitting the possibility of transcendence offers nothing to his enlightened search for knowledge. Such a standard demonstrates a poor understanding of philosophy, for truth arises through conversations with a variety of viewpoints, and is less daring than that of the people he excludes from his exploration. Compare his tendency to banish conversation partners with the expansiveness of the Psalmist’s encounter with God, or the capacity of Thomas Aquinas or John Paul II to draw on sources outside their own tradition.
His refusal to consider the possibility of transcendence, or even to converse with others about it, leaves his reflections flat. He is quite good on the ethics of self-governance—honesty, fairness, nobility, decency all make their appearances—but does not acknowledge, let alone explain, the finest or the worst of things. There is no hell, but no heaven either; no Auschwitz, but no mountain of the Lord. His is a small moralism.
It reduces even death to an anodyne change of state. “What is it to die? It is to return to the elements, to continue as part of the whole but in a different way.” This is not the human experience of death. Death is a tragedy, a sign that things are not as they should be, but Grayling whitewashes death and in the process devalues human life, rendering us nothing more than blips of meaningless consciousness on a horizon of material states.
Grayling rejects out of hand any possibility that the ground and purpose of the cosmos are personal and so loses the moral imagination that allowed generations of thinkers and poets and martyrs to question the best and worst things. This explains, I think, the drabness of the writing. Compare, for example, Grayling’s Genesis with the biblical account. He writes: “In the garden stands a tree. In springtime it bears flowers; in the autumn, fruit. Its fruit is knowledge, teaching the good gardener how to understand the world. From it he learns how the tree grows from seed to sapling, from sapling to maturity, at last ready to offer more life.” This reads like a bad parody; certainly it lacks the gravity and awe of “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
From this first verse in the Bible affirming that Creation is beautiful and good and full of wonder flows a richer conception of humanity than Grayling can grasp. The meaning of human sexuality, for instance, intrinsically refers to “the beginning” when the divine community created persons capable of sacramental unity. This understanding of human sexuality is made even richer by the revelation of Christ. The Christian reads the Song of Songs as both a poem of human love and a revelation of Christ’s love for the Church, the latter interpretation enriching the former. But Grayling’s description of love is as dull as his creation story: “What will the sighs of my heart do, / If like breath on a mirror they cloud your face? / I fear the narcissus: that your black-hearted eyes / Will gaze on no one but yourself, unashamed.”
That is painful poetry inspired by a dreary worldview, namely, that “existence has no value in itself; for what is boredom but the feeling of the emptiness of life?” Having refused transcendence, he has no hint of actual self-giving in the world; there is no God who granted existence to others without any possible benefit to himself, and so there is no love that does not in the end fear narcissism, for that is all that ultimately remains.
Grayling dares his readers to lead the examined life but refuses to converse with many who have examined it deeply, and consequently he overlooks insights allowing us to escape our bonds of dirt and reach for the heavens. He says he dares to know, but he does not dare to know the world as it is. Instead, he settles himself timidly into a world where death is not gruesome and love not divine, and all because he refuses to ask, or be asked by others, if there is, in fact, a God.
R. J. Snell is associate professor of philosophy at Eastern University and codirector of the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good.