Review of "Against all Gods"

Against all Gods, by A C Grayling. ISBN 1-84002-728-2.

Note: this is an excessively long review for so short a book. Sorry.

This is a short book indeed: only 64 pages. Furthermore, the actual content begins on page 7, and there's a blank page between each pair of chapters, so there are only 51 pages of actual polemic.

And polemic it is; the book's subtitle is "Six polemics on religion and an essay on kindness". It's no part of Grayling's purpose to argue that there is no god; he assumes it, and expects the reader to do likewise, or at least to suspend (dis)belief. The questions he's asking are of the form "Given that there is no god, how should we think about X?".

I think Grayling's intended audience consists of people who aren't religious, who have always tended to assume that religion is a Jolly Good Thing even though they happen not to have one, and who (in Grayling's view) need a bit of a kick up the backside. His more likely actual audience consists of people who have already decided that religion is a Jolly Bad Thing; but perhaps the fact that the book is small and not very expensive will mean that some people in his target audience buy it out of curiosity.

In his introduction, Grayling is a bit defensive about the nature of his book: yes, he says, it's short and therefore a bit light on actual arguments, but if you want those then you can read seven other books of mine that give more details. Fair enough, I suppose. I haven't read his other books and shall treat this one as self-contained.

The chapters of this book all began life as journalism (all for the Guardian's "Comment is free" blog , I think). I suspect that Grayling brought them together in book form in the hope of cashing in on the recent popularity of atheist books. So they aren't particularly tightly woven together, and there's some repetition between chapters.


The territory Grayling covers is well worn. Chapter by chapter:

1. (Introduction.)

2. He argues against "the prevailing notion that religious commitment is intrinsically deserving of respect, and that it should be handled with kid gloves and protected by custom and in some cases law against criticism and ridicule".

3. He attacks the popular use of terms like "fundamentalist atheist", and argues that even the term "atheist" is ill-chosen.

4. More on terminology: the words "secularist", "humanist", and "atheist".

5. He argues that religious faith is fundamentally irrational and in extreme cases can produce terrible results.

6. Some brief remarks on science and religion.

7. What's up with the recent resurgence in religion generally and its more exreme forms in particular? Grayling's answer: death throes.

8. Humanist ethics.

As you'll notice, most of this has been said before. Grayling doesn't generally say it notably better than others have done, though he writes lucidly and sometimes elegantly.


Grayling's argument against respecting religion-as-such goes like this: (a) we are all told that we have to respect other people's faith, because faith is intrinsically precious and sensitive; but (b) faith is in fact just irrational belief of a particular kind, so (c) it deserves no more respect than any other irrational beliefs, and its holders deserve no more respect than anyone else. But I don't think it is often claimed that faith as such is precious and therefore justifies special respect. I think there are in fact four reasons why people say that we should treat others' religions with respect. (1) Because a person's religious position is a part of their identity, not really something they've chosen or something they could freely cast off. (2) Because attacking someone else's religion is likely to cause them such grave offence as to make civil discussion very difficult afterwards. (3) Because religions aren't just collections of propositions, but communities of practice, and if you go knocking down people's religions then you may end up with a destabilized society. (4) Because what they believe in is in fact close to the truth (e.g., because "we all worship the same God really" or whatever). Of these: #1 and #2 are based, in effect, on the idea that religious belief is basically irrational; so saying "but religious belief is irrational" can't possibly be an argument against them. It's doubtful whether #3 is actually true, but Grayling doesn't address it here. And anyone who proposes #4 isn't going to be moved by an argument like Grayling's. I happen to agree with his main conclusion here, namely that religious beliefs should be open to discussion and investigation and mockery and whatnot just as any other beliefs are, but I think he makes a pretty poor case.

His attack on the term "fundamentalist atheist" takes the following form: Religions say stupid things and sometimes make people do appalling things; presumably (tee hee, those stupid religious people) a non-fundamentalist atheist would be someone who thinks some of those stupid and evil things aren't stupid and evil, or who doesn't bother to say so; what a silly idea. – As you may gather from my summary, I don't think much of this; but I have some sympathy for Grayling here, because "fundamentalist atheist" is a really stupid term, and no one ever says what they mean by it[1], so the best anyone can do in responding to it is to make a guess at what it might mean and deal with that. But I'd make a different guess, and deal with it differently.

Note 1: I have in fact encountered exactly one person who uses the term "fundamentalist atheist" and says reasonably precisely what he means by it. Unfortunately, I was never able to work out why he thought "fundamentalist" was a good word for the intellectual defect he was describing.

At the end of that chapter, and throughout the next, he discusses terminology. With most of this I have no quarrel. But I find what he says about the word "atheist" itself strange. His objection to it is that using it implicitly accepts that there's something special about god-belief that renders it worth pointing out when someone lacks it, but that the people it describes are equally a-goblinists, a-fairyists, and so on, and we shouldn't concede the importance of the question of God by preferring the term "atheist". I think this is wrongheaded in several ways. Firstly, it's clear that god-belief differs from goblin-belief in a relevant way, namely that there's vastly more of it about. The word "agoblinist" is useless because almost everyone's an agoblinist; we don't need such a word any more than we need a special word for people who have two arms. (The fact that Grayling bothered to publish a book called "Against all gods" and not one called "Against all goblins" is itself a nice illustration of this.) Secondly, the term "naturalist" (which he prefers) doesn't describe the same set of people as "atheist"; you can be an atheist but believe in non-natural entities such as minds, after all; so you can't just replace one term with the other. Grayling clearly thinks that the theist/atheist division isn't the really important one; he's entitled to that view, of course, but that doesn't justify throwing away the word "atheist".

The next chapter, entitled "The corrosion of reason", is a rather unfocused attack on various kinds of bad education; its starting point is that some survey had (at the time of writing) recently shown that 30% of university students in the UK believe in "creationism or intelligent design". So Grayling complains about the dumbing-down of education, and about how religion fosters irrationality, and about how our educational establishment is no longer based on the idea that belief should always be proportionate to evidence (I rather doubt that it ever was), and about how religious schooling is divisive as well as fostering irrationality, etc., etc., etc. He makes a few good points along the way, but it's a bit of a ramble.

The brief chapter about science and religion is easily the weakest. Its idea is to tie together three things that had been in the news when it was written – some recently discovered fossils, some theoretical research in evolutionary biology, and the discovery (note: actually, not the discovery, but that's what Grayling wrote) of the "Gospel of Judas". I'd summarize the argument of the chapter, but there really isn't one. Maybe: "There's some good evidence that the creationists are badly wrong, and incidentally religious people worry about some very trifling matters". Yawn.

The chapter entitled "The death throes of religion" (also very short) is to my mind the most interesting. The idea is that the reason why religious people and groups (especially the more extreme ones) have been more vocal of late is that they know they're under threat. I don't know whether Grayling's right about this, and it's far from clear that there's any way to tell, but it's an interesting idea. But he does rather skate over the two most obvious examples of resurgent religion: Christianity in the (at the time, according to some, increasingly theocratic) USA and fundamentalist Islam in the Middle East.

Finally, Grayling adopts a more positive tone for his final chapter, sketching his notion of humanist ethics. He doesn't make any serious attempt to argue either that humanism is correct or that it's coherent; I think he's saying "here's what it's like; I think it's appealing; take it or leave it". I found the chapter annoyingly smug, but I'm more than averagely sensitive to smugness and others may find it less annoying.


I've been very negative about the book; that's partly because faults are easier to spot than virtues. It's a pleasant enough read; Grayling's mostly not quite as rude as the subtitle might make you think, and when he is rude he's quite stylishly so; more generally, he's a good writer. But from a professional philosopher I'd have hoped for something a bit more rigorous and a bit less like – what this actually is – a bound collection of occasional journalism.