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Feisty entry into contentious field of atheist manifestos

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Has a famous public intellectual been eavesdropping all the way from London, England, on some heated conversations here in Manitoba?

More than a few passages in British philosopher A.C. Grayling's erudite new humanist polemic would certainly give that impression.

Assisted suicide? Yup, Grayling weighs in on that knotty subject. Homosexuality and gay marriage? Yes, definitely.

And the role of human rights in a civilized society? Would Grayling take a position on whether or not Winnipeg should be home to that fancy national museum at The Forks.

No doubt he would. "The claim that the great moral problems in our world are human rights violations, war, injustice and poverty hardly needs justifying," he writes. "With very few exceptions, private individuals are in no position to make a difference to these problems. It is nations and their governments that have to do it."

The God Argument serves as a bracing primer to Grayling's ideas, and perhaps a guide to their development, over the course of some 30 books. For example, in 2007 he released an entire volume on the evolution of human rights in the West, Toward the Light of Liberty, and here he summarizes his views on the topic in a short chapter. In 2011, he published a humanist "bible," titled The Good Book.

But The God Argument is more than another tune in Grayling's greatest hits. It is his feisty entry into the contentious field of atheist manifestos, a field crowded by the works of Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

Unlike some of his fellow infidels, Grayling is not satisfied with merely dismantling the logic of God belief; he aims to persuade us that the principles of secular humanism offer a sturdier ethical framework for the modern age, a better way to think and live than those offered by the precepts of religion.

In some ways, he echoes the late Toronto humanist Robert Buckman in his 2002 book Can We Be Good Without God? But Buckman was a medical doctor, while Grayling -- who teaches at the New College of the Humanities in London -- uses the toolbox of a professional philosopher.

This means that although his prose is generally accessible, bits of academese do creep in, especially in the section refuting the classical proofs of God's existence.

It is worth noting his title's similarity to Dawkins' 2008 bestseller, The God Delusion. But do not think that Grayling's neutral title signals generosity toward "the votaries of religion," as he calls them. "Briefly put," he says, "critical examination of religion's claims places it in the same class as astrology and magic."

He refuses to concede some of the excellent points about the value of religious ritual scored by his fellow Brit Alain de Botton in his provocative 2012 book Religion for Atheists. Read together, these two volumes make fascinating, though often clashing, companion pieces.

Ever the teacher, Grayling spells out the differences between religion, superstition, ideology and philosophy. By definition, he says, religion is "centred on belief in, worship of and obedience to a deity or deities." It has its roots in early man's attempts to explain reality. He calls it a "proto-science."

As humans have progressed scientifically, he notes, our gods have moved further away from us. Once they occupied the streams and forests. Then they decamped to the mountaintops and clouds. Now, for sophisticated 21st-century monotheists, God is "beyond space and time altogether."

There is no objection to atheism that Grayling fails to meet, from the noxious idea that trust in science parallels religious faith -- scientific ideas are testable, religious ones are not -- to the canard that atheism has been responsible for as many deaths as Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The Chinese and Soviet communists may have killed in devotion to their ideology but not in devotion to their godlessness.

Grayling concedes, however, that atheists do themselves no favours by sounding "angry and contemptuous" when berating religion. "This is indeed a tone that surfaces," he notes drily, "but it is a hard one to subdue, because too many inducements to both sentiments offer themselves."

But it is the second part of The God Argument where Grayling's heart lies. He begins by separating the three main debates between religion and its critics.

There is, first, the "metaphysical" debate over what does or does not exist. Second, the "secularist" debate questions the "place and volume of the religious voice in the public square."

Third, the debate over the source of our moral views clashes over whether they are divinely inspired or come from "our own reflection on human realities."

He also draws a distinction between ethics and morality and how the former apply most urgently to the notion "the good life."

For the Greeks, he explains, all philosophy was "applied ethics." But salaried academics in the late 19th century turned philosophy into a pedantic exploration of "the words and concepts used in moral debate."

Humanism, for Grayling, is a return to philosophy's Greek roots. He applies humanist principles to support virtually all liberal positions, including legalized prostitution and drug use, serial monogamy, homosexuality and gay marriage, abortion and euthanasia.

His page on assisted suicide reads as though he were personally acquainted with the plight of the late Winnipegger Susan Griffith, who ended her life in Switzerland earlier this week.

"It is frankly a disgrace that people cannot have the same simple amenity in their own homes in their own homeland, if they have a clear and settled wish to avail themselves of it."

Of course, it's naive to think that Grayling's persuasive rhetoric will alter the course of this or any other of our pressing ethical debates.

But for anyone wanting informed background to articulate their own humanist positions, The God Argument makes for essential reading.

Free Press Books editor Morley Walker enjoys nothing more than seeing his opinions validated by someone who knows what he is talking about.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2013 J10

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