Making the case for atheism

Philosopher A.C. Grayling was in Dublin last week to give the opening lecture in a series organised by Atheist Ireland. There he argued that non-belief in God is the only rational choice and that we must create a secular society to protect human rights. By Ed O'Hare.

“We no longer have reason to fear the invisible policeman,” declares A.C. Grayling defiantly. One of the world's most revered philosophers and the first Master of London's recently-established New College of the Humanities, the author of more than 30 books, a director of the acclaimed Prospect Magazine and a frequent contributor to many newspapers, Grayling was giving the first in a series of lectures organised by Atheist Ireland. Grayling observed that it was the atrocities of 9-11 that reawakened the world to the dangers of intolerant religious ideologies. Since then the atheist campaign has become a media circus and attracted a glittering collection of eminences, including Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have deployed political and scientific arguments against religion with varying degrees of success.

While most of their arguments have been as notable for their rancour and vitriol as their intellectual rigour, Grayling's approach has been different. Instead he is quiet, concentrated and conscious of the full implications of what he says, and it's because of this that his philosophical case for atheism is more impressive than any other. Grayling seeks to advance the atheist position by providing cast-iron intellectual justification for not believing in a supreme being - rather than by simply depicting his opponents as fools, charlatans and bigots. Grayling also upholds the value of an entirely secular world because he believes that, for a whole range of moral and ethical reasons, it would be a far better place to live.

As complicated as the theism/atheism debate is, Grayling believes that it can be reduced to three central controversies which surround the arguments religious apologists make for theism. These are the arguments that an stheist society can have no moral basis, the argument that 'spiritual' experiences justify a belief in the divine and, finally, the age-old argument that because atheists are unable to prove the non-existence of God this denies them the right to assume that he does not exist. Grayling argues that in reality all of these claims are non-arguments, which can be demolished with little effort.

Considering the view that religion provides the moral absolutes that are the essential foundation of society, Grayling argues that this is disproven by the simple fact that there are millions of Atheists behaving morally in the world right now. He also sees these individuals as not just following subjective and relativistic ethical inclinations but objective moral codes, something many theists describe as impossible. Grayling sides, not for the last time, with the great 18th century philosopher David Hume, who considered moral behaviour to be one of the “features of our human nature” and something that “springs from the moral texture of our make-up”. Grayling adds that “we are essentially social animals” and all our relationships “have a moral content”. The dictates of religion, by contrast, are no more than a form of “social control” which deny “the plurality and diversity of human experience”. Their absolutism means that they have prevented the recognition of morality as a form of “conversation”; a discourse constantly in negotiation and adjusting to meet the needs of an ever-changing “dynamic community of beings”.

As for the argument that we have an innate spirituality given to us by God, Grayling believes that humanity does indeed possess a “sense of the poetry of the universe, a yearning, a nostalgia for connectedness and a desire to do something which gives expression to it.” However, he believes that there is nothing supernatural about this feeling, which, in his understanding, is just another facet of our human nature and can be experienced when we live life to the full, when we enjoy being with our friends or take a walk in the countryside. Grayling sees our 'spiritual' side as a “naturalistic component of our psychology” and he resents the way in which the feelings that result from our deepest contemplations of life have been “hijacked by religion” and used as proof of our divine origins. He believes that this 'spiritual' side is something that we must “reclaim from the monopoly exerted by religion”. It “belongs” not to God but to humankind and we should win it back because it is “one of the best features of us”.

Turning to the last argument, that atheists cannot prove that God does not exist, Grayling claims that this view is based upon “a misapprehension about the nature of proof”. Statements about the existence of God, he argues, are literally meaningless because they don't respect the rules that define the concept of proof. Grayling uses the astronomer Carl Sagan's analogy of the 'dragon in the garage.' Imagine that your neighbour tells you they have a dragon in their garage. Then imagine they tell you that the dragon is invisible and defies every conceivable test to prove that it exists. Nevertheless, they still claim they know it's there. Sagan believed that God fits the description of this dragon because claims about him are in no way verifiable. Therefore, we have no more obligation to believe in God than in the dragon.

As Grayling explains, the impossibility of denying the existence of God, the view that the divine by definition lies beyond the reach of human knowledge, is the main reason many people feel they have no choice but to call themselves agnostics. In Grayling's opinion agnosticism is a viewpoint we have been culturally bullied into taking. He thinks that it is “not a tenable position” since (and this is a fact that he believes deserves “a much wider airing”) it maintains that we must respect the beliefs of those who make claims for which they can provide no evidence. As he explains, in the case of spiritual belief we should “look for what we are entitled to” and not be expected to respect the beliefs of others when they are based upon nothing.

Returning to his case for a secular society, Grayling argues that while he approves of atheism's head-on confrontation with religion (he considers atheists to have “pussyfooted” around the question for too long) he does not believe that the outcome necessarily means the end of religion. What it does mean, in his view, is the end of religion's disproportionate hold over people. He describes religion as having been the “wallpaper” behind our lives, the omnipresent influence silently controlling us without our even noticing. The reason religious authorities are making such a big noise now, in his opinion, is that it they are at last being properly challenged. Religion has come to resemble “an animal which has been backed into a corner”.

Grayling sees atheists as having a responsibility to fight for the introduction of a “secular dispensation to adjust its [religion's] presence in the public square” so that it only has as much of a voice as any other group. He reminds us not to forget the socio-political considerations that accompany the “don't think, obey” policy of religion.

For Grayling a religious society is one in which the rights of one group are always prioritised over those of another, and he reminds us that one only need look at religion's treatment of women, which he describes as “one of the black marks on human history”, to see the truth of this. “If we could hear the weeping of all those who are cloistered away [because of religious discrimination] the sound would be deafening,” he remarks.

Grayling has welcomed the Arab Spring but he admits to an “anxiety that things will go backwards”. He also sees it as “wonderful” and “refreshing” that a country that was once so tightly in the grip of the Catholic Church as Ireland was can elect a Humanist like Michael D. Higgins as President. He perceives much of today's global insecurity as resulting from a “need for community” which is not being met but which religion pretends to be able to satisfy. Although it does promote friendship, religion also endorses what Grayling classes as a “fear of thinking” and of reaching “uncomfortable conclusions”. Religion offers up God as a friend for everyone but only in a secular society do we see that it's most important that we be “friends to one another”.

A.C. Grayling's most recent books on Atheism are To Set Prometheus Free: Essays on Religion, Reason and Humanity and Thinking of Answers: Questions on the Philosophy of Everyday Life.

Atheist Ireland's website is


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