This article is a preview from the Winter 2015 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

Book cover

A Brief Candle in the Dark (Bantam Press) by Richard Dawkins

The Challenge of Things (Bloomsbury) by AC Grayling

The fashionable opinion of Richard Dawkins is: “He’s a great scientist, but…” Media coverage of his pronouncements on Twitter, on everything from an apparent lack of Muslim Nobel Prize laureates to airport restrictions on jars of honey, have somewhat overshadowed his work. Dawkins has had a chance to shift this opinion through his autobiography. The first instalment, An Appetite for Wonder (2013), covered his life up to the 1976 publication of The Selfish Gene. The second, A Brief Candle in the Dark, published in September, details his life as a scientist.

The book leaves many questions unanswered. Dawkins really does focus almost entirely on his scientific life, mentioning his atheism, for which he is arguably most famous, very little. It’s a mixed bag. He begins with awkward Oxford anecdotes. Some stories seem to exist only to show off the (not yet famous but, we are assured, “very distinguished”) people involved in them. But, and I hate to echo the fashionable opinion, he soon gets talking about science itself and it becomes interesting again. Weaving together insights from his various books on evolution, Dawkins paints a compelling, clear and fascinating picture of his overall view of evolution and its intricacies. This is done wonderfully well and left this reader wanting to return to his previous books on the subject.

Dawkins dwells surprisingly little on various controversies around his views of feminism, Islam and free speech, not giving a single mention to Twitter. He does refer to the charge of “stridency”, but dismisses it quickly. And he confirms that he has seen the episode of US cartoon South Park in which he has noisy sex with a schoolteacher. He didn’t find it funny: “it couldn’t be called satire in any sense”.

This summer, another humanist heavyweight offered a new book. AC Grayling published a collection of essays, The Challenge of Things, reflecting on modernity. The collection is varied, from detailed commentary on China and the banking crisis to essays on happiness and the importance of teachers. There are probably few thinkers alive who could pull off such variety and write so compellingly.

The book begins with essays on some of the dilemmas facing the 21st-century west. Grayling’s views refuse to conform to any particular political tribe. He laments that Bin Laden was killed rather than captured and put on trial (a view that got the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn into so much trouble) but sees drones as an ethical improvement in modern warfare. Grayling has an impressively detailed knowledge of many fields beyond philosophy.

While the topics vary, the book’s clear constant is Grayling’s unrelenting belief in human reason and compassion, which radiates from every page. The expansion of science and reason is held as a great project for the advance of humanity, with Grayling even arguing, perhaps optimistically, that we should expect atheists to be better politicians. Although the book is named The Challenge of Things, the reader can’t help but end it enthused with hope. A naive hope, perhaps, in the face of a world often presented as bent on self-destruction, but a hope championed by Grayling, who declares: “What makes life worth living is optimism.” If you’ve ever wondered what an intelligent, humane and well-read person would write if they were interested in absolutely everything, then this is it.