Reviewed: The God Argument by A C Grayling

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Years ago, I asked Richard Dawkins what his next book was about.

“God,” he replied.

“But,” I responded in a state of shock, “why?”


Dawkins’s 2006 book, The God Delusion, sold around the world, so, perhaps, that answered my question. More seriously, in the wake of 9/11 and in the midst of the anti- scientific demands of American fundamentalists, it could be argued that an anti-religious book was a necessary corrective. There were many such books, the most influential being by the group known as the “four horsemen” of the anti-religious apocalypse – Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett.

With this book, the philosopher A C Grayling announces himself as the fifth horseman. He is very conscious of being a member of this club. In the acknowledgements, he writes of other anti-religious writers as “comrades in the task” and “colleagues and fellows in the cause”. The cause seems to be to extend a humanist awakening to the people of the world and thereby free them from religion, which is, Grayling admits, “a pervasive fact of history” but also “a hangover from the infancy of modern humanity”.

The book is not intended as a reprise of the arguments of the other horseman comrades; rather, it aims to extend the battlefront. The book is in two halves – the first is Grayling’s case against religion; the second outlines the humanist alternative, which is “an ethics free from religious or superstitious aspects, an outlook that has its roots in rich philosophical traditions”.

First, to take the book on its own terms, this is a lucid, informative and admirably accessible account of the atheist-secular- humanist position. Grayling writes with pace and purpose and provides powerful – though non-lethal – ammunition for anybody wishing to shoot down intelligent theists such as Alvin Plantinga or to dispatch even the most sophisticated theological arguments, such as the ontological proof of the existence of God. That said, the first half, which is in essence analytical, is much better than the second half, which is rather discursive and feels almost tract-like in its evocation of shiny, happy people having fun in a humanist paradise. Nevertheless, this is rhetorically justifiable to the extent that it is an attempt to answer the question necessarily posed by any attempt to eliminate religion – what would be put in its place? Even the most rabid followers of the horsemen cannot seriously deny that religion does serve some useful purposes: providing a sense of community, consoling the bereaved and the suffering, telling a story to make sense of the world, and so on. Grayling tells a humanist story in the belief that it is perfectly capable of answering all these needs.

Written By: Bryan Appleyard
continue to source article at newstatesman.com

29 COMMENTS

  1. Astonishingly, this article has BA review a book by ACG, only to photograph RD instead. Equally astonishingly, it ends with a plug for BA’s book. I’ve never seen such shoddy book review practices. Now, let’s reduce how much complaining I have to do by skipping his first few paragraphs, before he responds to ACG’s analysis of humanism.

    Grayling breezily dismisses Stalinism and Maoism as being “counter-Enlightenment” forces. Communism, however, was an Enlightenment project based on a belief in reason to reorder human affairs. You may say Stalin and Mao were communist aberrations but then the Catholic Church could legitimately claim forgiveness for the Spanish Inquisition and the slaughter of the Cathars on the same grounds.

    Firstly, advocating reason doesn’t make you pro-reason if your beliefs are unreasonable, and Communism has very unreasonable beliefs, such as historicism. Secondly, while you might be able to show Jesus wouldn’t have approved of the inquisition (though all his Hell/sword talk makes me wonder about that), that doesn’t mean the RCC is off the hook, or that religion shouldn’t be judged by what it actually does in the world. If it has neither the facts nor on balance good work on its side, it’s indefensible.

    First, “militant atheist” is a phrase that Grayling justifies by his talk of comrades and causes. If he really believes this argument, he shouldn’t have written this book. Second, this is a transparent ruse to get the four (or five) horsemen off the charge that they write about religion while knowing nothing of theology. If religion is treated as a child-like superstition – like the belief in fairies – then there is no need to understand it in detail and, of course, this particular superstition is also dangerous and should therefore be exposed as well as refuted, if not in detail.

    Firstly, atheist authors have taken on the details of the “good” arguments in theology many, many times, so stop pretending they literally think it’s all a bunch of creationists with the mind set and nontechnical words of children. Secondly, you’re reviewing a half-book on humanism, not atheism, so comrades and causes are appropriate there, aren’t they?

    He writes that the “respect agenda” – the tolerance of religious beliefs – is at an end. Is that really where atheists want to go?

    Properly understood, yes; the idea is that ideas are vulnerable to critique if that critique can be constructed. That’s why it’s the tolerance of religious ideas, not of religious people, that ACG is against. Countless atheist authors have made the distinction clear, so don’t insinuate there’s a discriminatory plan lurking underneath.

    Like it or not, religions are here to stay. Grayling sort of gets round this by ignoring the primary argument for their continued existence – that religion is a beneficial adaptation. He argues that religion is kept in place by, in essence, political power. This is altogether too weak and too inconsistent to explain the prevalence of religion and most thinkers accept some sort of evolutionary explanation. If you do accept at least some version of the adaptive argument – or, indeed, if you are a believer – then the study of religion becomes an obligation. Religious faith is not remotely like the belief in fairies; it is a series of stories of immense political, poetic and historical power that are – again, like it or not – deeply embedded in human nature. Seen in that light, to dismiss all religious discourse as immature or meaningless is to embrace ignorance or, more alarmingly, to advocate suppression. It will also make it impossible for you to understand the St Matthew Passion, Chartres Cathedral and the films of Andrei Tarkovsky.

    Firstly, if religion is a set of politically powerful stories (I think historically as an adverb is synonymous here with politically), what’s so ridiculous about its maintenance being largely a product of politics? Right, right, because of the poetry. Yeah, that’ll help something harmful stick around. Secondly, even if “most thinkers” who accept an evolutionary explanation, that neither makes religion good for us nor ineradicable. Thirdly, BA ignores the rival qualities of humanism in his “but religion’s so useful” argument for its immortality.

    Grayling, like the other horsemen, goes too far. He narrowly defines religion as a system of physical beliefs and then says such a system has nothing to offer the world. When another atheist, Alain de Botton, gently suggested that non-believers might have something to learn from religion, he was immediately trampled on by the horsemen. But what religion has to offer is a great mountain of insights into the human realm. Belief, in this context, is beside the point. Reading John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, the Fire Sermon or the Sermon on the Mount will teach you more about the human condition than anything written by the horsemen.

    Firstly, if you can have these religious benefits without believing a word any of the preachers say, (a) that’s basically ACG’s humanism, (b) shut them up and (c) admit you’re an atheist. A world where everyone admits they’re an atheist can hardly be called religious. Secondly, “gently” and “trampled” are biased weasel terms; de Botton contended something and other authors critiqued him. I won’t go into the full details; if the first sentence of this paragraph doesn’t already undermine him enough for a reader, they can always see what, for example, Jerry Coyne has had to say on this. Thirdly – perhaps most importantly – de Botton doesn’t hold to the same idea any more anyway; he no longer thinks atheists should attend temples. So he can tell you why it’s a bad idea as well.

    The reason I was baffled by Dawkins’s decision to write a book on God was that all of the above seemed to me self-evident. It still does. We know that there are strong arguments against religious belief and we know that religious belief is a human constant. We also know that it will always be too early – and too dangerous – to say that our science has advanced far enough to justify a fundamental re-engineering of the human realm in the name of humanism. I enjoyed reading Grayling’s book and I still ended up asking, “But why?”

    Firstly, “we” who went to Oxford (RD) or Cambridge (ACG) may know these things, but plenty of readers don’t. RD has repeatedly said his book was for fence-sitters, which often include people who haven’t heard all the arguments. Secondly, once science can change our brains so that we no longer harbour malice, fallacies, unreasonable assumptions or cognitive biases, humanism will be easy, provided science does in fact change our brains in those ways. Will this “justify” it doing so? Don’t hide behind Hume’s is-ought gap; the benefits would justify it, even if “science” doesn’t. In practice the justification of a humanist-only world may come long before then, whether or not science is what’s doing the justifying; indeed, ACG’s point is it’s already time to be getting on with it. Maybe he’s wrong, but BA’s case against it boils down to the errors above.

  2. For me it was this comment that got to me:

    ” Even the most rabid followers of the horsemen cannot seriously deny that religion does serve some useful purposes: providing a sense of community, consoling the bereaved and the suffering, telling a story to make sense of the world, and so on. Grayling tells a humanist story in the belief that it is perfectly capable of answering all these needs.”

    I had never considered myself rabid before. Just someone who thinks that consoling the bereaved with religious platitudes does more harm than good. ….Yes darling, Mummy’s in heaven because god needs her more than we do….etc etc

    • In reply to #2 by TenderHooligan:

      For me it was this comment that got to me:

      ” Even the most rabid followers of the horsemen cannot seriously deny that religion does serve some useful purposes: providing a sense of community, consoling the bereaved and the suffering, telling a story to make sense of the world, and so on. Grayling tells a humanist story in the belief that it is perfectly capable of answering all these needs.”

      I had never considered myself rabid before. Just someone who thinks that consoling the bereaved with religious platitudes does more harm than good. ….Yes darling, Mummy’s in heaven because god needs her more than we do….etc etc

      There are two completely different questions:

      1) Does/has religion serve some useful purpose in the history of humanity?

      2) Would humanity be better off if people did away with religion and stopped thinking of faith as a legitimate way to knowledge?

      I think the obvious answers are yes and yes. You have to ignore or trivialize a great deal of history and western culture if you want to deny that religion ever accomplished anything good. Look at the Abolition and Civil Rights movements in the US. Or as another example look at mental health and the treatments for substance abuse. There is strong evidence that the “higher power” ideas helps people struggling with addictions.

      When atheists try to deny that religion has and can be useful they are verging toward becoming zealots because they end up doing what all zealots do, ignore the facts and pretend the facts are consistent with what they want to believe.

      • Well, you have denied and trivialized history for your agenda as well.

        Slavery and Civil Rights

        There is no direct correlation between religiosity and supporting universal human rights. There is no direct correlation between religiosity and abolishing slavery. There is no historical evidence to support that religion had any role to play in promoting human rights and progressive ideals.

        There were Christians on either side of slavery argument in the US and Christians who vehemently opposed civil rights movements. In fact, secular states abolished slavery long before religious states. In todays world, there is even clearer contrast between a religious state and a secular state when it comes to human rights. There were some activists in progressive movements who might have had religious affiliations. It is nothing significant and as far as we know, it didn’t have any real impact on their world view.

        In reply to #4 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #2 by TenderHooligan:

        For me it was this comment that got to me:

        ” Even the most rabid followers of the horsemen cannot seriously deny that religion does serve some useful purposes: providing a sense of community, consoling the bereaved and the suffering, telling a story to make sense of the world, and so on. Grayling tells a humanist story in the belief that it is perfectly capable of answering all these needs.”

        I had never considered myself rabid before. Just someone who thinks that consoling the bereaved with religious platitudes does more harm than good. ….Yes darling, Mummy’s in heaven because god needs her more than we do….etc etc

        There are two completely different questions:

        1) Does/has religion serve some useful purpose in the history of humanity?

        2) Would humanity be better off if people did away with religion and stopped thinking of faith as a legitimate way to knowledge?

        I think the obvious answers are yes and yes. You have to ignore or trivialize a great deal of history and western culture if you want to deny that religion ever accomplished anything good. Look at the Abolition and Civil Rights movements in the US. Or as another example look at mental health and the treatments for substance abuse. There is strong evidence that the “higher power” ideas helps people struggling with addictions.

        When atheists try to deny that religion has and can be useful they are verging toward becoming zealots because they end up doing what all zealots do, ignore the facts and pretend the facts are consistent with what they want to believe.

        • In reply to #6 by kbala:

          Well, you have denied and trivialized history for your agenda as well.

          Slavery and Civil Rights

          There is no direct correlation between religiosity and supporting universal human rights. There is no direct correlation between religiosity and abolishing slavery. There is no historical evidence to support that religion had any role to play in promoting human rights and progressive ideals.

          You are either ignorant of history or denying it. The vast majority of the Abolitionist movement in the US was led by religious people, mostly Christians. Just look at the first few paragraphs on the Wikipedia page for the abolitionist movement: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abolitionist_movement

          And the same for the Civil Rights movement in the US in the 1950’s and 60’s. It wasn’t because they were atheists that the KKK used to target black Christian churches for bombings. It was because those churches were the center to organize people for protests on voting rights, desegregation, etc. Martin Luther King was an ordained minister and if you listen to his speeches or read what he wrote its clear that religion was at least in his own eyes the major motivator for him.

          I’m not saying that this means religion is a good thing or we can’t do without it. But if we start denying basic facts about it and simply repeat negative things without looking at the whole picture we are intellectually no better than religious fundamentalists.

          • In reply to #10 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #6 by kbala:

            Well, you have denied and trivialized history for your agenda as well.

            Slavery and Civil Rights

            There is no direct correlation between religiosity and supporting universal human rights. There is no direct correlation between religiosity and abolishing slavery. There is no historical evidence to support that religion had any role to play in promoting human rights and progressive ideals.

            You are either ignorant of history or denying it. The vast majority of the Abolitionist movement in the US was led by religious people, mostly Christians. Just look at the first few paragraphs on the Wikipedia page for the abolitionist movement: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abolitionist_movement

            And the same for the Civil Rights movement in the US in the 1950’s and 60’s. It wasn’t because they were atheists that the KKK used to target black Christian churches for bombings. It was because those churches were the center to organize people for protests on voting rights, desegregation, etc. Martin Luther King was an ordained minister and if you listen to his speeches or read what he wrote its clear that religion was at least in his own eyes the major motivator for him.

            I’m not saying that this means religion is a good thing or we can’t do without it. But if we start denying basic facts about it and simply repeat negative things without looking at the whole picture we are intellectually no better than religious fundamentalists.

            Hi Red Dog,
            I don’t disagree with what you are saying and I am aware I am being somewhat pedantic. But if we acknowledge that there is no god then religion is just people organised by fictitious belief to do good or evil accordingly.

            While I agree that religious people fought against slavery and ultimately needed to support governments which abolished it (after all almost all people back then where religious). They were fighting against their own biblical doctrine to do so, therefore to the extent that they did stand up against slavery, was against the word of god. So I do not deny that religion can take some credit for abolishing slavery and helping in the civil rights movement. However, it only did so by ignoring specific, clear instructions from their god and these doctrines. The verses of the bible they ignored were used by other religious people to fight the anti-slavery religious people. The people who went to Africa and kidnapped and enslaved the Negro’s in the first place would have been all (or the vast majority) god fearing Christians and would have not questioned their right to do so based upon these scriptures.

            So to the extent that Religion can claim credit for this after being largely responsible for its promotion and extended survival doesn’t say much other than religious people sometimes do moral things in-spite of scripture. The whole picture must include religions reasons for supporting slavery and racist policies both biblically supported. However, you are right to encourage acknowledging facts in this situation.

          • If you really think that abolition of slavery and the Civil Rights movement should largely be credited to religious groups, I think you should read Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. She would argue that it is quite the other way around (and has facts to boot).

            In reply to #10 by Red Dog:

            You are either ignorant of history or denying it. The vast majority of the Abolitionist movement in the US was led by religious people, mostly Christians. Just look at the first few paragraphs on the Wikipedia page for the abolitionist movement: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abolitionist_movement

            And the same for the Civil Rights movement in the US in the 1950’s and 60’s. It wasn’t because they were atheists that the KKK used to target black Christian churches for bombings. It was because those churches were the center to organize people for protests on voting rights, desegregation, etc. Martin Luther King was an ordained minister and if you listen to his speeches or read what he wrote its clear that religion was at least in his own eyes the major motivator for him.

            I’m not saying that this means religion is a good thing or we can’t do without it. But if we start denying basic facts about it and simply repeat negative things without looking at the whole picture we are intellectually no better than religious fundamentalists.

      • When atheists try to deny that religion has and can be useful they are verging toward becoming zealots because they end up doing what all zealots do, ignore the facts and pretend the facts are consistent with what they want to believe.

        Agreed that many addicts have found help through organisations such as AA, whose 12 step plan requires them to look to a higher power. I just feel that BA’s statement perpetuates the myth that humanism is less able to deal with social problems, bereavement etc, and means that people don’t know that there is a viable alternative to religion if you need help. You only have to look at the problems that people have had when trying to set up AA groups with a more secular basis, or trying to find secular bereavement counsellors. I don’t deny that religion has historically had that role; I’m just hoping for a more inclusive future.

        • In reply to #7 by TenderHooligan:

          When atheists try to deny that religion has and can be useful they are verging toward becoming zealots because they end up doing what all zealots do, ignore the facts and pretend the facts are consistent with what they want to believe.

          Agreed that many addicts have found help through organisations such as AA, whose 12 step plan requires them to look to a higher power. I just feel that BA’s statement perpetuates the myth that humanism is less able to deal with social problems, bereavement etc, and means that people don’t know that there is a viable alternative to religion if you need help. You only have to look at the problems that people have had when trying to set up AA groups with a more secular basis, or trying to find secular bereavement counsellors. I don’t deny that religion has historically had that role; I’m just hoping for a more inclusive future.

          I’m not aware of trouble setting up secular AA groups. In my experience AA is pretty welcoming to everyone. However, I have seen a few examples of AA people who really take it to the extreme in therms of religion so I’m sure its very dependent on the individual area and groups. I agree with everything you said though, I think secularism can answer all the questions that religion tries to, I just don’t think as we do so we should copy the bad aspects of religion, the worst being that many religious people have to demonize anyone that doesn’t agree with them, and just ignores or distorts facts that put their point of view in a bad light.

          • In reply to #11 by Red Dog:
            Just follow the strand on this page: My sober conversion to atheism, and check out the problems encountered by an AA group in Toronto when they requested a non-religious set of 12 steps

            In reply to #7 by TenderHooligan:

            When atheists try to deny that religion has and can be useful they are verging toward becoming zealots because they end up doing what all zealots do, ignore the facts and pretend the facts are consistent with what they want to believe.

            Agreed that many addicts have found help through organisations such as AA, whose 12 step plan requires them to look to a higher power. I just feel that BA’s statement perpetuates the myth that humanism is less able to deal with social problems, bereavement etc, and means that people don’t know that there is a viable alternative to religion if you need help. You only have to look at the problems that people have had when trying to set up AA groups with a more secular basis, or trying to find secular bereavement counsellors. I don’t deny that religion has historically had that role; I’m just hoping for a more inclusive future.

            I’m not aware of trouble setting up secular AA groups. In my experience AA is pretty welcoming to everyone. However, I have seen a few examples of AA people who really take it to the extreme in therms of religion so I’m sure its very dependent on the individual area and groups. I agree with everything you said though, I think secularism can answer all the questions that religion tries to, I just don’t think as we do so we should copy the bad aspects of religion, the worst being that many religious people have to demonize anyone that doesn’t agree with them, and just ignores or distorts facts that put their point of view in a bad light.

    • In reply to #2 by TenderHooligan:

      For me it was this comment that got to me:

      ” Even the most rabid followers of the horsemen cannot seriously deny that religion does serve some useful purposes: providing a sense of community, consoling the bereaved and the suffering, telling a story to make sense of the world, and so on. Grayling tells a humanist story in the belief that it is perfectly capable of answering all these needs.”

      I had never considered myself rabid before. Just someone who thinks that consoling the bereaved with religious platitudes does more harm than good. ….Yes darling, Mummy’s in heaven because god needs her more than we do….etc etc

      I must be beyond rabid

  3. Communism, Fascism, Maoism and the like, attempted to replace religion. Why replace it?

    Move on from it and rely on our native, innate attributes and qualities. Stop beating ourselves up, and get on with enjoying being alive while it lasts; what’s wrong with that?

    Which would of course include enjoying The St Mathew Passion; no religious qualifications are needed for that.

    • In reply to #3 by Stafford Gordon:

      Communism, Fascism, Maoism and the like, attempted to replace religion. Why replace it?

      Move on from it and rely on our native, innate attributes and qualities. Stop beating ourselves up, and get on with enjoying being alive while it lasts; what’s wrong with that?

      Which would of course include enjoying The St Mathew Passion; no religious qualifications are needed for that.

      The question is, is there something about humanity that benefits from having some kind of belief system and rituals? Does society do better when people engage in rituals about shared values such as helping those in need? Perhaps there are different types of people, even down to a genetic level, who need such rituals more than others? We know that animals evolved from highly social animals so its not an unreasonable hypothesis.

      You can answer those questions in the affirmative without denying that the beliefs people have used in such rituals in the past were nonsensical and obviously false.

      I think the honest scientific answer right now is that we just don’t know the answers yet, which is why if we believe in science first and converting people to atheism second we shouldn’t presume the answers based on our ideology.

      • In reply to #5 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #3 by Stafford Gordon:Communism, Fascism, Maoism and the like, attempted to replace religion. Why replace it?Move on from it and rely on our native, innate attributes and qualities. Stop beating ourselves up, and get on with enjoying being alive while it lasts; what’s wrong with that?Which would of course include enjoying The St Mathew Passion; no religious qualifications are needed for that.The question is, is there something about humanity that benefits from having some kind of belief system and rituals? Does society do better when people engage in rituals about shared values such as helping those in need? Perhaps there are different types of people, even down to a genetic level, who need such rituals more than others? We know that animals evolved from highly social animals so its not an unreasonable hypothesis.You can answer those questions in the affirmative without denying that the beliefs people have used in such rituals in the past were nonsensical and obviously false.I think the honest scientific answer right now is that we just don’t know the answers yet, which is why if we believe in science first and converting people to atheism second we shouldn’t presume the answers based on our ideology.

        Music, whether instrumental, solo singing and or choral, dance, painting, drama, eating together, drinking in groups, taking part in or watching sport of all kinds, going to the gym, and countless other social activities, such as simply being with the family, gardening or walking, both wonderful means of relaxation and making contact with the natural world, are good for people and enrich their lives in many ways.

        Other animals participate in ritualistic activities, which as far as can be accertained they enjoy to a greater or lesser degree, and which benefit them in evolutionary terms; what evolutionary benefit derives from religion? Men who choose to become Roman Catholic Priests are rendered completely incapable of fulfilling their fundamental evolutionary function.

        We’ve been conned for far too long into believing that we need religion. Any benefits from it are superficial and on balance it does more harm than good; we need to kick the habit and rely on our natural resources and resourcfulness.

  4. God, I love listening to A.C. Grayling speak on and on about city-states and morals and so on, without him ever resorting to melodramatic rhetoric; it’s like listening to Bach for an hour.

    Mr. Appleyard might not be as patient as all that, it seems. Nor does the New Statesman come across as the most unswayable of magazines by its editors’ decision to present this review with a photo of Richard Dawkins in A.C. Grayling’s stead.

  5. “Like it or not, religions are here to stay”.

    What a RIDICULOUS BROMIDE, very akin to the oftimes trivial blubbering notion that “History Repeats Itself”.
    Something I would expect from a 5th grade History teacher.

    Mr. Appleyard, talk to me in 80-100 years, if we both could live so long.

  6. “Even the most rabid followers of the horsemen cannot seriously deny that religion does serve some useful purposes: providing a sense of community, consoling the bereaved and the suffering, telling a story to make sense of the world, and so on.”

    But how is consoling the bereaved by lying serving a useful purpose?

    How is telling an untrue story to make (non)sense of the world serving a useful purpose?

    How does it provide a sense of community? Believing a common falsehood to separate you from those who believe different falsehoods is tribalism, not community.

  7. As a ‘rabid follower’ of the 4 horsemen I must take issue with Bryan Appleyard’s lines” Even the most rabid followers of the horsemen cannot seriously deny that religion does serve some useful purposes: providing a sense of community, consoling the bereaved and the suffering, telling a story to make sense of the world, and so on.” Since the New Statesman has closed comments for that article, I’ll vent in here.

    1. Providing a Sense of Community – well if you call vicious sectarianism a ‘sense of community’, but how has that ever contributed to mankind? Billions have been murdered in religiously inspired atrocities over millenia – I fail to see the up-side.

    2. Consoling the bereaved – Ohh…like comforting parents and siblings of deceased newborns not baptised will spend eternity in purgatory lest indulgences, works of penance prayers and almsgiving are screwed out of them. Not to mention all the loved-ones who were not religious will be tortured in the fires of hell forever (wouldn’t 5 minutes have been enough?) Yep!…really comforting! BTW, How does the writer know they were MORE comforted by religion than they would have been just accepting that death is natural and comes to us all?

    3. Telling bullshit in a half-arsed attempt to make sense of the world has in no way been of comfort to anyone. Only understanding whats real and the way the world actually works, how to thrive in it have ever been of help to individuals.

    Ahhh…..thanks, I feel better now.

  8. I’m assuming that those of you who are just mocking the idea of giving comfort to the sick and dying have never actually watched a loved one die or suffer. It can seem as hard for those watching as for those who experience it and unless you have absolutely no empathy you would do anything to ease their suffering and that certainly includes letting them believe lies about the afterlife.

    • In reply to #17 by Red Dog:
      Actually, Red Dog, I am a child bereavement counsellor. During training, and at conferences, we are told not to bring any religious ideas in to our work, as it is thought counterproductive to the healing process to give the child an impression that their loved one is somehow living elsewhere, or that god wanted to take that person from us. A child then thinks that they were somehow not good enough. This has been backed up for me by discussions with bereaved teenagers who have talked about how hurtful it was to hear ideas such as this. I myself was bereaved aged eight, and the words spoken to me by a priest to explain why my sister had gone to live with god explain my early atheism. I live and work in the UK, which might bring a different perspective, I’m not sure, but believe me, I speak from compassion, not just from a negative standpoint.

      • @RedDog,

        If TenderHooligan’s response does not convince you, I don’t know what will.

        In reply to #19 by TenderHooligan:

        In reply to #17 by Red Dog:
        Actually, Red Dog, I am a child bereavement counsellor. During training, and at conferences, we are told not to bring any religious ideas in to our work, as it is thought counterproductive to the healing process to give the child an impression that their loved one is somehow living elsewhere, or that god wanted to take that person from us. A child then thinks that they were somehow not good enough. This has been backed up for me by discussions with bereaved teenagers who have talked about how hurtful it was to hear ideas such as this. I myself was bereaved aged eight, and the words spoken to me by a priest to explain why my sister had gone to live with god explain my early atheism. I live and work in the UK, which might bring a different perspective, I’m not sure, but believe me, I speak from compassion, not just from a negative standpoint.

      • In reply to #19 by TenderHooligan:

        In reply to #17 by Red Dog:
        Actually, Red Dog, I am a child bereavement counsellor. During training, and at conferences, we are told not to bring any religious ideas in to our work, as it is thought counterproductive to the healing process to give the child an impression that their loved one is somehow living elsewhere, or that god wanted to take that person from us. A child then thinks that they were somehow not good enough. This has been backed up for me by discussions with bereaved teenagers who have talked about how hurtful it was to hear ideas such as this. I myself was bereaved aged eight, and the words spoken to me by a priest to explain why my sister had gone to live with god explain my early atheism. I live and work in the UK, which might bring a different perspective, I’m not sure, but believe me, I speak from compassion, not just from a negative standpoint.

        Good for you but I’m not talking about children. I’m talking about old people. People who have been raised since birth to believe in religion. People whose friends and loved ones are mostly dead. People who have diseases that are slowly eating away at their bodies and minds and in their honest and lucid moments will confess to you that they would welcome death.

        For those kinds of people religion can be one of the few things they have left. I have first hand experience with such people and the idea that I would try to argue with them about religion is just ludicrous. Its an example of “atheist fundamentalism”, a term I used to think was just religious propaganda until I came to this site and saw so many examples of it.

        • In reply to #25 by Red Dog:

          I’m talking about old people. People who have been raised since birth to believe in religion. People whose friends and loved ones are mostly dead. People who have diseases that are slowly eating away at their bodies and minds and in their honest and lucid moments will confess to you that they would welcome death.

          I say give it to them. Who lacks empathy now?

    • In reply to #17 by Red Dog:

      I’m assuming that those of you who are just mocking the idea of giving comfort to the sick and dying have never actually watched a loved one die or suffer. It can seem as hard for those watching as for those who experience it and unless you have absolutely no empathy you would do anything to ease their suffering and that certainly includes letting them believe lies about the afterlife.

      In my experience they usually beg you to kill them, regardless of their beliefs.

    • In reply to #17 by Red Dog:

      I’m assuming that those of you who are just mocking the idea of giving comfort to the sick and dying have never actually watched a loved one die or suffer. It can seem as hard for those watching as for those who experience it and unless you have absolutely no empathy you would do anything to ease their suffering and that certainly includes letting them believe lies about the afterlife.

      In fairness, I don’t think anyone here is mocking the idea of giving comfort and I think the assumption that death and suffering doesn’t happen in the atheist community is absurd. The point is that while religion does do these things, so does everyone else. Surely the need to find comfort in the afterlife is a sign that a person has not accepted the idea of death and surely, this should be treated as an illness, not encouraged?

      I accept that religion up to now has filled this role, but I question whether it has actually done any good. Within the last year I attended two funerals, one religious and one humanist, and I cannot say the humanists handled their grief any worse than the religious.

      The commenters above were not mocking giving comfort, but giving comfort through encouraging false belief.

  9. My brother’s a Catholic priest and I once asked him what he’d do if he ever left the priesthood. Without hesitation he offered that he thought he could get a job at a funeral parlor.

  10. Religious faith is not remotely like the belief in fairies; it is a series of stories of immense political, poetic and historical power that are – again, like it or not – deeply embedded in human nature.

    Not in my human nature, Mr Appleyard.

    Please don’t make unsubstantiated claims.

  11. You may say Stalin and Mao were communist aberrations but then the Catholic Church could legitimately claim forgiveness for the Spanish Inquisition and the slaughter of the Cathars on the same grounds.

    I’m no advocate of communism but surely this only stands if they (Catholics) could demonstrate that the inquisition and the slaughter of the Cathars (and the Aryans and the germanic pagans and the muslims) were aberrations rather than manifestations of mainstream Catholic ideology.

  12. Bryan Appleyard used to write for The Independent and that is where I learned to ignore him.

    For instance, he bought up the old saw about Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot; but where in these regimes was the process of dialectic Marx insisted was necessary to communism? These regimes weren’t communist is any real sense, they were merely tyrannical.

    Appleyard also fails to recognise that advocating position x is not the same as saying position x should be imposed. No new atheist has ever advocated that religious belief should be suppressed, so that position is a straw man argument. People are abandoning their religion by themselves and the process only needs to be supported. Remember, the cost of leaving your religion starts at ostracism and goes up to death, so don’t Mr Appleyard, accuse atheists of not respecting people’s freedom.

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