The man who would be God: an interview with AC Grayling
Anthony Grayling's latest book is his most daring. He has rewritten the Bible, leaving out God. Matthew Adams meets him
The Good Book, Anthony Grayling tells me as he welcomes me into his office, “is a lifetime’s work”. Dressed in a neat navy suit, his hair is sustained behind him like some bright celestial mane, and delicate round spectacles somehow give the impression of a man wedded to the empirical idea. The couple of hours I spend with him reveal a warm and generous character, capable of being both expansive and associative, while retaining a sense of measure, order and precision. That order, however, is not much in evidence in his office. It is a catastrophe of books and papers, though in common with people who inhabit catastrophes of books and papers, he is keen to point out that he knows where everything is. Perhaps he does. He certainly knows a lot, and he knows how to express it, too.
Anthony starts by telling me how he constructed The Good Book, this grand attempt to bring into the world a Bible that does away with God.
“The way I made it,” he tells me, “was to plunder from the great traditions texts on which I had performed redaction, weaving them together, editing them, interpolating other texts and sometimes my own, just as the Bible makers worked on their texts. It was tremendous fun.”
The book opens with Genesis (“I couldn’t resist starting with the apple falling in Newton’s garden”); contains a set of commandments (which Anthony calls “injunctions”); shares with the English Bible the double-column format, and is structured by chapter and verse. “The Biblical structure works so well. One reason for the potency of scriptural writings is how they are organised, inviting people to sample small bits of text and reflect on them. But the structure also shows what its ambition is: to stand alongside the holy texts, but to do it in a quite different way. I want to show people the distilled wisdom of humanity reflecting on its own humanity, and to show that that is every bit as beautiful and powerful as the religious texts are, and in many ways much better.”
This seems to imply that he thinks the religious texts do have something to recommend them. Anthony is happy to concede that the Bible contains some sound moral lessons and moments of great beauty (his favourite being the Song of Solomon), but for him the whole thing is disfigured by phrases such as “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord”. His disdain for the notion of submission before a deity is put with characteristic force: “Just obey, just submit. The usual rather cowed posture of human beings toward divinity in the hope that it won’t inflict too many earthquakes or tsunamis or plagues in the near future.”
There is a cultural, as well as a moral, dimension to his project, and this is one reason for his wishing to present a secular alternative to the Bible and the Qur’an. “The holy texts occupy an important cultural as well as religious place in the traditions that revolve around them, so merely anthologising texts – just bringing together bits of Aristotle with bits of Seneca, Walter Pater, Hume – wouldn’t really have done it. Because to say, here is another text, made in the same way – to have the hubris, or, more modestly, ambition, to make such a text, and invite people to make the comparison, makes much more of a statement.”
Ah: hubris. I was wondering when this would come up, and faintly dreading the moment. Anthony has, after all, written a bible: it does strike one as an immensely hubristic project, and he is obviously (and understandably) going to attract a lot of criticism for it. How will he respond when I ask who he thinks he is? Nervous, awkward shuffles all round. But when I confront him with the charge he responds with grace and humour: “I acknowledge the fact that it does look tremendously hubristic, but it’s certainly done – and I don’t want to come across as a sort of Uriah Heep here – in a spirit of great humility. After all, most of what’s in it comes from really great writers. Most of it isn’t me.”
Humility, of course, is the characteristic posture of the religious, usually employed when they announce, humbly, that they just happen to be on a mission from God. How would he respond to the charge that by producing such a text he is elevating himself to the status of the divine; that people might claim to be on a mission from him? He laughs, and I suspect for a second he might be taken by the idea. “There’s a card my wife sent me, which had a picture of a rather self-satisfied looking individual on it, and a legend which read: ‘I used to be an atheist until I realised that I am God.’ But, to coin a phrase: God forbid that should ever happen. I certainly hope not, because the message of this is that we are each responsible for ourselves. We’ve got to think for ourselves. And I say, in fact, in the last Book, that we’ve got to go beyond our teachers and beyond our texts.”
This message has been delivered (mainly by atheists and secularists) with unusual intensity over the last decade, and I wonder why Anthony feels it important to make the case for free thought at this particular moment. “I think this is an appropriate time for it because, as I see it, things in the modern period – from the Reformation to the present – have gone as follows: In the 16th and 17th centuries, as the church lost control of part of its hegemony with the Reformation – lost its tithes, so much of its political influence, so much of its territory – it fought back very hard, a massive, venomous response, rather like a cornered rat. Look at the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century. Horrendous. One in every three German-speaking people in Europe died as a result either of military action or starvation or disease. And I think we’re seeing something rather similar at the moment, with events like 9/11. These have just dragged the fig leaf off the claims that religion makes to be a positive and peaceful presence in society, so that people now who never had a religious view or were just a bit disdainful of it are now speaking out frankly and bluntly, and being called militant atheists and fundamentalist atheists and so on.”
The philosophically illiterate charge of fundamentalist atheism has been leveled against many of the figures – Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens – with whom Anthony has been aligned (and among whom he is “proud to be counted”). And while each of these figures has written of 11 September as a galvanizing moment for the secular and atheist cause, there is a difference of opinion in such circles about whether the onslaught of religious intimidation is symptomatic of a recrudescence of religious belief, or of a system of belief that is in its death throes. “What we’re seeing isn’t a recrudescence of religion,” Grayling insists. “Everywhere, including in the United States of America, we’re seeing it in decline. But it is putting the volume up tremendously. It’s never going to die out completely, but it’s being faced down by globalising secularism, which says, and will finally find a way of articulating the point: ‘Look. Believe what you like in a free society, but I’m afraid you’ve got to recognise yourself as a civil society institution which doesn’t have any more right to privileges and charitable statuses and exemptions from laws than any other civil society organisation.’ That I think is the terminus of this process, but, alas, it’s going to take several decades.”
Of all of the so-called New Atheists, Hitchens is alone in saying that something in him wouldn’t want religion to disappear. How, I ask, would Anthony feel about its extinction? “I have to say I wouldn’t mind if religion died out. Nor would I mind seeing institutions cease to exist – such as mosques and temples – which have such control over people’s minds and behaviour.” But Hitchens’ point, I say, is that one of the benefits of the continued existence of religion lies in the dialectic possibilities that might be yielded in arguing with it. He really does believe, with Marx, that the criticism of religion is the foundation of all criticism. Won’t we be losing those possibilities if it expires? “If you needed the grist of something to argue against I think there are plenty of other things too: human cupidity, differences of opinion over how we distribute the goods of society, questions about natural and social justice. There are plenty of battles still to be fought, without having to have the great superstitions pressing down on people’s sensibilities, and making teenagers anxious about their sexual feelings.”
The Good Book is especially concerned to fight the battle concerning human sexuality, not least because – especially when it is female sexuality – it is treated with such shame and hysteria in the Bible. Grayling’s Book of Genesis, for example, draws on Denis Diderot’s description of sexuality, because, “I wanted to make sexual love an important part of the whole story.” This enlightened vision of sex and love is combined with an understanding of the world drawn from science. “In that Book I wanted to weave together a range of sources to say that the world is made of atoms, that biological life evolved, and I hope I’ve put it together in such a way as to paint subtly a kind of picture of nature, and of the world, as a natural realm. That’s the idea: that Genesis is something that science understands.”
The inclusion of a scientifically coherent creation story is probably the most markedly irreligious aspect of The Good Book, and might well end up, when the creationists get to hear about it, being the most controversial. But the work as a whole has none of the combativeness that one might expect. “This book is not against religion, it just ignores religion, and by ignoring it shows that there is as much if not more of a resource already in our hands.”
One of the things the Bible has that The Good Book doesn’t, however, is a big climax: the Book of Revelation. No great loss, you might think, but why have the book of the beginning of the world and not the book of the end? Part of Anthony’s answer is that we don’t yet have a clear sense of the way in which the world will end; yet he also tells me that he sees the book with which his bible concludes, The Good, as “a kind of revelation. The idea there is the deeply pluralistic one that we’re all capable of a good and well lived and flourishing life, and that at the centre of that are our best relationships with other people and our care and concern for them. That idea is at the core of our ethics, and if there is any kind of revelation in the book it’s that: that we are free to create ourselves.”
This, I have to concede, is a more inviting idea than the apocalyptic babble to be found in Revelation. Yet the freedom commended in The Good Book might not be without problems. It involves giving up fear in favour of wisdom, and the most pernicious form that fear takes, we are told, is fear of death. Accordingly, the book encourages us to reflect on the fact that the atoms of which we are assembled will one day be disassembled and reunited with the cosmos; that death is necessary for life. And we are reminded of the Lucretian argument that death should hold no terror, because no rational being can fear a thing it will not feel. Much of this is beautifully and movingly (and, yes, consolingly) put, but one might make the criticism that, just as the Bible and the Qur’an make demands of people that are impossible to fulfil, so The Good Book asks too much of people in enjoining them to liberate themselves from fear completely. Is it really possible to live without fear of death?
“No. But the more that one can armour oneself against that fear, or the more one can control that fear, the better. And once you realise that death in itself has no terror, it frees you to live fully. I used when I was young to be very hypochondriacal, until I realised that it wasn’t because I was afraid of illness or death, but afraid of not achieving something worthwhile. But as people get older and as they do manage to do something, they begin to relax. I know old people and I sense the joy that they feel at the back of their minds that, even though they’re enjoying life now, they know that their creaking knees and weariness will be relieved and that there will be an absolute release. And it’s a great joy. Old people are not all gibbering with terror at the thought of their impending death, because they know what death really means, and they accept it. And acceptance comes with time and age and with achievement. And it comes with love. Love for your children, for example. These are immense consolations, they really are.”
And of course, where the demands made by the Qur’an and the Bible really are demands, made with the promise of divine punishment, The Good Book offers only advice. It makes no threats. It encourages its readers to go beyond the text and think for themselves; suggests only that they make an effort to live wisely, live well and, as far as is possible, without fear. “Life is too short,” says Grayling, who has written over thirty books and is known for being an enormous workaholic. “One must do and dare. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. If you’re afraid of failing, if you never publish because you can’t get it absolutely perfect, that’s paralysis. That’s diminishing life, living less than one life in a lifetime. Whereas if you try and try and try, keep being part of the story, keep contributing to the conversation, keep using and developing your gifts, you will know one thing: at least I tried. And whether that’s a flop,” he says, gesturing at his book, “or whether other things I’ve done have flopped, or my books have been used for winter fuel, I know that I’ve made an effort. And that’s a huge consolation.”
With the world as it is, it is not a huge struggle to imagine that Anthony’s book will end up not as somebody's winter fuel, but burning on the pyre of a religious fanatic. Such a review would certainly, as he recently said to an audience in Oxford, help sell more copies. But what other hopes does he have for his secular bible? Unsurprisingly, he would like it to reach as large an audience as possible. But most of all he hopes that it will help to make the case that a spiritual life can be lived without religion: “What people really mean by the spiritual is the complex of their emotions and intellectual attitudes to the world and to others, our sense of belonging to a world, our response to beauty and nature, our need for love. All those things are the most important things about us. The churches have been so successful in monopolising spirituality. But a walk in the country, a visit to an exhibition, dinner with a friend, or just having a quiet drink in the evening – those are spiritual exercises too. The humanist tradition recognises this, and is much more generous and sympathetic about human nature and its needs and desires. And it recognises that there are as many ways of leading good and meaningful lives as there are individuals to live them. That seems to me to be the greatest truth about morality. It’s not the greatest moral truth, but it is the greatest truth about morality that we could grasp.”
The religious, of course, would argue that without divine authority it is meaningless to talk of morality in the first place, but evening is coming on, so I conclude by asking Anthony about the things he decided not to include. He pauses. “I didn’t put this in, but suppose it to be the case that the entire history of the universe is completely and utterly morally neutral, because there is no consciousness in it at all, and no self-consciousness in it, until one moment, on one relatively insignificant planet, around an insignificant star, in one ordinary galaxy, humanity appears. And we’re around for – whatever – a couple of hundred thousand years, a couple of million years. We exist, produce poetry and love and passion and agony and self-doubt and hope, and then we’re extinguished by, perhaps, the increasing size of the sun. If the sum total of positivity, in some way, outweighed the negativity, in that little moment in one corner of the universe, which was otherwise just a bland, neutral state, then the whole history of the universe is made good by it. But if the negativity outweighed the positivity, then the whole history of the universe is tainted by it. And for that reason, we have a universal responsibility to promote the good.”
The Good Book: A Secular Bible by AC Grayling is published by Bloomsbury