A rather clever, old and supremely cynical academic friend told me recently that as a young man he dreaded Oxford dinner parties in case he was seated next to a Christian. “Such bores,” he explained. “Never happens any more though,” he continued, “because there are so few of them left I suppose. Now it’s atheists. And they’re so dull and judgmental they make the church types appear positively thrilling.”
I’m sure A.C. Grayling isn’t a bore or dull but he’s certainly overrated. There is nothing at all bold about being an atheist in modern literary and educational circles; and of all the causes in the world it’s genuinely difficult to understand what is so noble about bothering Christians. Denying God in Tehran is simply not the same as doing so in Tooting.
The author of The Good Book: A Secular Bible and, most recently, The God Argument (Bloomsbury, £16.99) is, along with Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, one of Britain’s best-known atheists. He’s less witty than Hitchens, less respected than Dawkins, but he does have style — the flowing grey locks, the occasional attempt at the common touch, the leftist professor persona. But sometimes his comments appear so banal as to be part of a mock Twitter account, the product of an ersatz and satirical critic. Not so.
Religion makes him angry, he says, “because it causes a great deal of harm and unhappiness”. Well, of course it does. As do love, sex, the pursuit of happiness, freedom, the written word. Thing is, it’s not love, freedom and the rest that themselves cause harm and unhappiness but humanity’s perversion and exploitation of them. The same applies to religion, or at least to the Christian faith. One would be hard pressed to genuinely argue that the actual words, teaching and example of Jesus are the cause of darkness and suffering. A diamond is in itself beautiful. Smash that diamond into someone’s eye and it causes agony.
He has also said: “Charges of militancy and fundamentalism of course come from our opponents, the theists. My rejoinder is to say when the boot was on their foot they burned us at the stake. All we’re doing is speaking very frankly and bluntly and they don’t like it.” Good Lord — sorry A.C. — where have you been living? Atheist regimes in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Maoist China and Marxist Cambodia, for example, slaughtered believers beyond counting. The atheists in question may not have been English and civilised and awfully posh and all that, but they were still atheists and their visceral as well as intellectual detestation of Christians in particular was atheistic. Even today some of the secular triumphalism on display in Europe and North America is astounding. In Canada recently a Catholic school lost a high court case because it dared to teach one of its pupils religious education. A Catholic school, funded by tax dollars from Catholic parents, was told it could not be Catholic. The boot is certainly on the other foot, and its name is jack.
Then there is Grayling’s 2012 baby, the New College of the Humanities, London, where the wealthy come to be educated. With all of the ethnic and class diversity of a Florida country club, the place charges a colossal £18,000 a year for tuition and has been condemned as a direct attack on the public education system that Grayling, a self-described “man of the Left” is supposed to uphold. Terry Eagleton wrote: “For that kind of money, I would demand a team of live-in, round-the-clock tutors, ready to fill me in about Renaissance art or logical positivism at the snap of a finger. I would also expect them to iron my socks.”
Yet it’s not enough that Grayling condemns religion, mocks those who still believe and has also started his own university — the hirsute haranguer feels obliged to play God and give us an alternative theology in his slice of literary vainglory The Good Book. Even Richard Dawkins, whose hubris is positively ludicrous at times, hasn’t gone that far. It’s a strange work in that in its attempt to dissuade readers from religion it quotes and references so many writers who were inspired by religion. While describing itself as a humanist or secular bible, it is only convincing or even readable when it calls for qualities such as love, charity, empathy, courage and kindness — all the outward manifestations of grace, in fact, that are demanded in the New Testament.
Many of the reviews of the book were extremely damning, and Grayling dismissed them as “hilariously hostile”. What he didn’t admit was that the most critical were not from Christians but agnostics, and that there is nothing funny about intelligent dissection of jejune and self-indulgent writing.
In his own specialist academic field Dawkins has a deserved status, and Hitchens was without doubt one of the most incisive and erudite journalists of his age. Grayling, though, is a mediocrity bathing in the sunlight of fashion; he adds nothing to the moral conversation. There are books that are good, there are books that are great, and then there is The Good Book and its author.