05 April 2011

A Bible for secular humanists

Philosopher A C Grayling’s new book purports to be nothing less than a secular humanist Bible. A bold claim indeed. But knowing Grayling’s erudition, ethical acumen and delightful yet thought-provoking prose, if anyone can get away with writing the secular humanist equivalent of a holy book, it would be him.

Accusations of pretentiousness are expected. But in their eagerness to paint Grayling as a self-appointed giver of the Humanist Law, his critics are going to (predictably) misrepresent both his motives and the book’s actual purpose. While Grayling openly admits to modeling The Good Book: A Secular Bible on the King James Bible, right down to the layout of short chapters and aphoristic verses in a formal language, he does not claim that his book should serve as an authoritative source of ethics.

People will be offended, without even having read it. They will see it as a terrible act of arrogance. It absolutely isn't at all. Without being all Uriah Heep about it, it is modestly offered as a contribution to the conversation of mankind.

The Center for Inquiry website has an announcement promoting Grayling’s upcoming lecture in Washington DC, where he will be discussing The Good Book. CFI describes it as a book that draws from “the wealth of secular literature and philosophy in both Western and Eastern traditions, using the same techniques of editing, redaction, and adaptation that produced the holy books of the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic religions.” In place of the Ten Commandments, Grayling has these humanist alternatives:

  • Love well
  • Seek the good in all things
  • Harm no others
  • Help the needy
  • Think for yourself
  • Take responsibility
  • Respect nature
  • Do your utmost
  • Be informed
  • Be courageous

Without reference to a god or gods, Grayling instead presents the ethical ideas of mere humans like Herodotus and Lucretius, Confucius and Mencius, Seneca and Cicero, Montaigne and Bacon. The reader is then invited to reflect on their ideas concerning how to live a good life.

The humanistic view of ethics is that no one is in a position to tell others how to live. You can give advice, and exhort them to think about their moral lives, but not in a goody-two-shoes, Mary Whitehouse way.

I’m an admirer of Grayling. Having read almost all of his books, I will certainly be getting a copy of The Good Book when it debuts at my local bookstore. Detractors may scoff at the seemingly religious nature of it all, when ardent secular humanists flock to own a copy of Prophet Grayling’s Holy Book. They are welcome to their misconceptions. Those of us who will be purchasing The Good Book have no illusions about the infallibility of its words. For all of Grayling’s intelligence, wisdom and literary skills, The Good Book is simply a man-made guide to living the considered life, with all the limitations and subjectivity this entails.

One thing’s for sure – secular humanists and other thoughtful readers of Grayling's book won’t be killing, torturing or persecuting heretics and infidels under its auspices.


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