This Easter, Try to Avoid the Gospel of Grayling

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Back when I was a child, a God-fearin’, side-parted Catholic, there was only one Bible to dip into at Easter time: the Holy Bible, featuring Job and Esther and Luke and a cast of thousands of Jews and slightly bonkers early Christians.

Today, by contrast, in keeping with the consumerist ethos, there’s a veritable feast of bibles to pick from: you might go for AC Grayling’s newly published secular tome, The Good Book, or Phillip Pullman’s retelling of the New Testament, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, or perhaps fake memoirist James Frey’s latest offering, The Final Testament of the Holy Bible.

Why, given their obtuse and ostentatious hostility towards organised religion and spiritual hoo-ha, are the so-called New Atheists so keen to refashion the Bible? What’s with all these secularist versions of ‘the good book’, minus the original’s miracles and resurrections and instead offering us guides to life firmly rooted in scientific fact and what poses as rationalism? This bible bonanza tells us a lot about the New Atheists. About their arrogance, their ignorance about where moral meaning comes from, and, most fundamentally, their allergy to, their utter estrangement from, the idea of transcendence.

The first question that any remotely inquisitive person will surely ask about these ‘new bibles’ is this: how massive must your head be, how unanchored your ego, to imagine that, in the space of a few months, ensconced in your office, you can rewrite the Bible? AC Grayling admits that his decision to publish a secular version of the Bible, titled The Good Book, might appear ‘tremendously hubristic’ but, he says, he intends it ‘in the spirit of great humility’. I suspect this is the same humility that someone like the Pope deploys when he bends down to kiss the dirt before standing up again to tell people how they should live their lives. That is, a ritualised, carefully practised display of humility that is actually a disguise for self-possession bordering on tyranny.

Grayling, a philosopher and deity basher who is ironically treated by his fans as almost god-like (one journalist describes his hair as a ‘bright celestial mane’), has gathered together snippets of philosophy and thought from the past few thousand years for his Good Book, covering everyone from Aristotle to Hume. He has rewritten them in the archaic lingo of the original Bible, even splitting them into chapters and verses and dividing them into separate ‘books’ with titles such as Genesis, Concord, Songs and Acts. His ultimate hope is that this will become the official ‘secular alternative to the Bible and the Koran’, to be read by morally good but god-free people.

Hmmm. The trouble is that in snippeting some of the most profound moral thought of the past 2,000-odd years, and turning it into a modern-day bible written in olden-day language, Grayling has done a grave disservice both to those great moral thinkers and the idea of a bible. By wrenching a few nuggets of wisdom from Aristotle’s Metaphysics or Mill’s On Liberty, he has reduced these and other thinkers to Deepak Chopra-style providers of happy-clappy advice for how to live a decent, upstanding life. Their intellectual tussling with the headache-inducing question of what it means to be human, to be conscious, to be moral, is elbowed aside in favour of culling a few lines of insight that might help people decide what to do on a particularly troublesome Tuesday morning or when faced with a workplace/relationship dilemma. The end product is more like a Dictionary of Quotations than a bible, or one of those books you see in the self-help section with titles such as ‘Buy a Cup of Coffee for a Stranger And 99 Other Nice Things You Should Do Before You Die’.

Grayling misunderstands what a bible is, too. The Holy Bible was, for many centuries, a living, breathing text, contributed to by scores of writers, both reflecting and codifying various communities’ moral beliefs and their transcendent aspirations. It was not simply a collection of wise or wacky sayings, but a system of meaning that gained its authority through its incorporation of, and adaptation to, people’s experiences, discussions and rule-making.

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