Sunday, March 3, 2013

Fighting God and Religion

A. C. Grayling has joined Richard Dawkins and other militant British atheists by publishing a book, The God Argument.  Bryan Appleyard provides a valuable perspective on it in The New Statesman.

I suppose that theists like me should welcome such books, even though their attack on all religion sounds surprisingly less sophisticated than what one would expect from an intellectual. 

Any debate about the meaning of life is of value, and the history of philosophy is a record of such discussions.  In the case of Grayling, who seems to be replacing the late Christopher Hitchens as a publicity-seeking public atheist, the argument, as Appleyard views it, sounds simplistic.

Grayling does not want to admit the lesson of history: that religion is here to
stay, that the emotional as well as rational needs it fulfills are deep in human nature, attested by evolution. He argues that religion is kept alive by political power and he seems to equate it with superstition or the belief in fairy tales.

To quote Appleyard: "Religious faith is not remotely like the belief in fairies; it is a series of stories of immense political, poetic, and historical power" that are deeply embedded in human nature. This has been attested by scientists in many fields.

To dismiss religion as meaningless or immature is to accept ignorance, and it makes impossible an appreciation of great art, be it the poetry of Donne or Eliot, the novels of Dostoyevsky, the Gothic cathedral, or the music of Bach.  Religion is not only fundamental to our inherited civilization but offers, as Appleyard notes, "a mountain of insights into the human realm."

It is always too early, too dangerous, too simplistic to say that science has moved us so far into secular humanism that the idea of God is both irrelevant and silly.  Books like these by Grayling may sell copies and get their authors on certain TV shows, but their ideas go nowhere, do nothing to advance our self-understanding.

Even non-believers have much to learn from religion and respecting the role of faith in human life is expected of a sophisticated, well-educated person, even if that person chooses to dismiss God and religion.

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