Atheist A.C. Grayling is a meretricious thinker, but a marvelous comedian

Here is the deep, philosophical question of the week: What is more annoying, insufferable, and unintentionally hilarious than the pontifications of atheist, “humanist”, and “free thinker” A. C. Grayling?

Yes, I know, it’s a tough one. I won’t keep you in suspense.

Answer: The fawning, embarrassing adoration of an eighteen-year-old English student who interviews Grayling and acts as if the impressively maned Englishman’s empty pontifications are rhetorical gold nuggets. That the interview is published in The Humanist is cause for the stones to cry out: “Oh, the inhumanity! Stop! Cease!”

But, to be honest, we can at least admit how fun it is to read this sort of nonsense and think, “And atheists think Christians are stupid? Goodness. I weep for them.” No need to waste time with the entire train wreck of an interview, but a few pieces of broken thinking and confused stereotypes are worth kicking about for a moment. First, from the opening:

Philosophy is a rather strange business in the modern world of consumerism and commerce, I suppose. We’re so used to being force-fed ideas these days that we rarely, if ever, stop and think for ourselves.

Uh, speak for yourself, young man, speak for yourself.

And that’s where Grayling bucks the trend.

I think a gallon of coffee just shot out my nose. That is one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time. Mind you, I’ve crossed cyber swords with Dr. Grayling in the past, over the matter of his ridiculous—nay, farcical—take on Christianity and the “Dark Ages”. How shall I put this? Grayling isn’t about bucking trends, but making bucks out of trends—in this case, the whole “new atheists” vehicle, to which he has hitched his modest bag of philosophical agitprop and public relations handles. A few years ago, an acquaintance who earned his doctorate in London and is now an atheist (we attended Bible college together 20 years ago as young Evangelicals), smirked at the mention of Grayling, saying, “He’s all about fame and money.” True enough.

But there is also the fact that Grayling acts as if his thinking is fresh and his perspective is daring, when both are actually decades out of dates. As I wrote six years ago: “He is an heir to the Enlightenment and thrives on the sort of anti-Christian polemics and dubious historical assertions that became the rage among many intellectuals during the Enlightenment era, so much so that he seems to be nearly entombed in a dusty (dare I say ‘old-fashioned’) form of simplistic skepticism that was in style many decades ago.” Carry on.

Author of over twenty books, including The Good Book: A Humanist Bible, as well as countless newspaper and magazine columns, Grayling has been a paradigm of humanism for many years: vice president of the British Humanist Association, patron of the UK organization Dignity in Dying, honorary associate of the National Secular Society… the list goes on.

Because we know that holding titles and being a patron of death are the distinctive signs of truly humane people. Which is why, I suppose, that we shan’t say Mother Teresa was “humane”, despite doing more in a single day to help the poor, the ill, the outcast, and the dying than Dr. Grayling (or myself, for that matter) do in a given year.

And yet, anyone anticipating stuffy Socratic dialogue with a kooky academic or a living, breathing replica of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker (with added mane), would be taken aback by Grayling’s down-to-earth, congenial presence.

This is something that could only be penned by someone who is quite clueless about both the history of philosophy and the current state of philosophy today. Not to mention someone who has apparently never read or studied a Socratic dialogue in his life. But, again, the reporter is not even twenty, so he has something of an excuse. Not so Grayling.

What makes Grayling tick, in his words, is “the fact that the world is so rich in interest and in puzzles, and that the task of finding out as much as we can about it is not an endless task, but certainly one which is going to take us many, many millennia to complete.”

There’s a sort of childlike grin that beams out at me, as he affirms: “That’s exciting—discovery is exciting.” Grayling takes pleasure in doubt and possibility, in invention and innovation: the tasks of the open mind and open inquiry. It’s a mindset, he reveals, that “loves the open-endedness and the continuing character of the conversation that humankind has with itself about all these things that really matter.”

Of course, the one thing that doesn’t matter—or shouldn’t matter—in Grayling’s openminded opinion, is religion. Sure, there are all sorts of puzzles and mysteries and wonders out there, but religion either misunderstands or misrepresents those things. Unlike the pure, unsullied craft of science, which we know can never be misused or abused or coerced for improper ends. No, religion relies on its unrelenting disdain for reason, its hatred of freedom, and its failure to deal with reality as it really is. That is why religion relies on Big, Simple Stories for Small, Simple People:

It’s also a way of thinking that marks a line in the sand between religion and science. The temptation to fall for the former—hook, line, and sinker—is plain to see: “People like narratives, they like to have an explanation, they like to know where they are going.” Weaving another string of thought into his tapestry of human psychology, Grayling laments that his fellow human beings “don’t want to have to think these things out for themselves. They like the nice, pre-packaged answer that’s just handed to them by somebody authoritative with a big beard.” He looks down towards a small flower arrangement on the table, and plays with it contemplatively before continuing in an almost plaintive tone: “And that is a kind of betrayal, in a way, of the fact that we have curiosity but, most of all, we have intelligence and so we should be questioning, challenging, trying to find out.”

So, you see, one of the (many! countless!) flaws of religion—because, hey, we know that all religions are essentially the same, despite some superficial differences—is the reliance on pre-packaged answers and narratives. Our intrepid young reporter is lapping it all up, so much so that his irony radar completely misses how Grayling then proceeds to hand him pre-packaged answers and narrative supposedly dismissing religion to the outer regions of enlightened thought:

But the pessimism doesn’t persist for too long. Grayling’s biting wit is never too far from the surface of his arguments, especially when he’s waxing lyrical about theology. By tracing what he calls “a kind of Nietzschean genealogy of religion,” he adopts a storyteller’s tone: “You see a geography—and it’s an interesting one—in that the dryads and the nymphs used to be in the trees and in the streams.” After that they evaporated into the wind and the sun, he says, noting that the more humankind has discovered about the world, the more remote our gods have become. “They went from the surface of the earth to the mountaintops, then into the sky, and finally beyond space and time altogether,” Grayling observes. Not only have gods and goddesses retreated into their extraterrestrial hiding places, but they’ve also dwindled in number (generally) to only one or three, depending on your divine arithmetic: “So they’re being chased away bit by bit,” Grayling chuckles.

I suppose I’d chuckle as well if I had just explained how religion uses simplistic narratives and unsophisticated thinking to fool the unwashed masses, then I turned around and used a combination of simplistic narrative and unsophisticated thinking to explain why religion is so regrettable and skepticism (and scientism) is so wonderful. It’s like stealing candy from a baby or selling garbage to a teenager. And the narrative continues, with the aid of Grayling’s gift of prophecy:

Will we ever really outgrow religion, though? Grayling leans against the wall casually, stretching out his legs before responding with an assured brand of optimism: “It seems to me that in five or ten thousand years’ time, when people look back (if there are any people) at this period of history, the two or three thousand years when Judeo-Christian influence in the world was considerable, they will collapse it down to a sentence.” Just as we view the advent of Cro-Magnon humans in Europe in 40,000 BCE and the disappearance of Neanderthals around ten thousand years later as historical events and nothing more, so future historians will consider religion as a mere artifact. Indeed, according to Grayling, they will astutely recognize religious history as “a bad time for human beings, because they were getting cleverer with their technologies, but they were no wiser.”

That’s a strange remark, as Grayling argued the following a few years ago:

From that point [the “Dark Ages”] to this day every millimetre of progress in liberty and learning has been bitterly opposed by the organised institutions of Christianity, which at the outset burned to death anyone who disagreed with its antique absurdities–none of its officers ever being arraigned for these vast numbers of murders, or the literally millions of deaths caused by the wars of religion that plagued Europe, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries. But bit by bit religion was forced back into its own shadows by the new learning and the larger freedoms of mind and action that increasing secularisation brought, liberating individuals and societies to the extent enjoyed today.

But now that toleration and secularity has allowed the cancers of organised superstition to regrow, we see the old story repeating itself: the church battling to stop progress, to return us to the dark of prejudice and irrationality.

He once stated, in other words, that Christianity fought technology tooth and nail, which was evidence of the Church’s stupidity and narrow-mindedness, but he is now arguing that while religion (and I think he is focused primarily on Christianity) was becoming more clever in terms of technological advances, it was still stupid and narrow-minded when it came to real wisdom and knowledge. Stupid if you do, stupid if you don’t! Yep, Christians were too dull and reactionary to allow the advent of modern technology, but once those same Christians figured out how to develop modern technology, they still remain morons. The logic dazzles, except for being all smoke and no light.

Finally, one last bit of nonsense, which sums up the sort of cognitive dissonance one finds in the shallow skepticism of Grayling, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and company (and, yes, I do think there does exist a deep and thoughtful skepticism, and it is far more engaging and serious in nature):

Still, it’s crucial to Grayling’s philosophical outlook that when we lose faith, we don’t lose hope. “Almost any religion can be explained to another person in about half an hour,” he claims, adjusting his imperious-looking gold-rimmed spectacles. “But to know anything about astrophysics or biology or anything that really gives us an insight into the real beauty of the universe? That takes some years of study at least.”

That surely ranks as one of the most arrogant, stupid—and, yes, funny—remarks I’ve read or heard in all of 2012. Which brings us to the final, philosophical question of this post: if a tree fell in a forest and hit A. C. Grayling on the head, would it knock any sense into him?

(Note: A big tip of the proverbial hat to Charles Flynn for alerting me to the interview above, as well as sending so many links and articles over the past year.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1190 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.