3 Apr 2011

Bible for atheists – like lager without the alcohol?

Believing that religion has hijacked our innate spirituality, philosopher AC Grayling has written a bible for atheists. But is taking God out of the Bible just like taking alcohol out of lager?

“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and avoid, and darkness was on the face of the deep.”

With those words begins the best-selling book in history, the Holy Bible. Sacred to millions – a basis for faith.

But what if God were removed from it altogether? The Good Book is one philosopher’s attempt to write a secular bible – laid out in the same way but drawing on thousands of years of non-religious writing from the likes of Homer, Aristotle, Baudelaire, and Darwin.

For AC Grayling, humans are innately spiritual, with a yearning for beauty, for nature, for love. But the need for a code to live by was hijacked by religion to create a bible out of tune with human instinct.

A lot of religious moralities cut across the grain of human nature in the demands they make. AC Grayling, philosopher

“One notable thing about a lot of religious moralities is that they do cut across the grain of human nature quite a lot in the demands they make,” he says.

“They, for example, have anxieties about our sexual nature. They ask us to diminish our appetites in case the devil gets hold of us if we express them too much.

“Whereas humanism is rather sympathetic to the fact that we are, you know, frail creatures who have needs and desires and interests – and that we’ve got to try to manage those well so that we can live together well.”

‘There is a value in truth’
I met AC Grayling at the home of free thought. London’s famous Conway Hall has played host to many humanists, civil libertarians and radicals over the years. So why is it important to this one to persuade those of faith they are wrong?

The Good Book is the latest chapter in the humanist battle with religion. For centuries God and our culture have been enmeshed.

“There is a value in truth,” says AC Grayling, “so that if people are living according to sophisticated versions of what were actually the beliefs of illiterate goatherds 3,000 years ago, then there is some advantage in trying to get them to see things clearly.”

Of course, it is not the first time Christianity has been under assault. But it is the latest chapter in the humanist battle with religion. For centuries God and our culture have been enmeshed. Decoupling them is still a tall order.

‘God is big enough to take insults’
Step into any church and you will find several copies of the Holy Bible. It is a source of inspiration and guidance for Christians. Even atheists can probably quote from it.

Centuries ago you could have been burnt at the stake for even suggesting a secular bible. But AC Grayling believes the time is now ripe for a moral code for non-believers.

If Professor Grayling had taken Mohammed out of the Koran, it would have been a provocative act. But the Church of England is taking it in its stride.

Even someone as well-connected as George Pitcher, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s secretary for public affairs, speaking in a personal capacity, said: “We welcome it. God, as I understand God, is big enough to take insults, ridicule, being ignored – anything of that nature. So we must push the limits of our faith.”

Taking God out of the Bible? It’s like alcohol-free lager. You ask yourself: what’s the point? George Pitcher, Secretary of Public Affairs to the Archbishop of Canterbury

But he continued: “Taking God out of the Bible? It’s rather like alcohol-free lager. You ask yourself: what’s the point?”

To which AC Grayling responds: “Who wants to be drunk? Why not have a clear mind? Why not have a great, fresh, true perspective on things? If you inebriate yourself, you just get into trouble. Fall into a ditch!”

A ditch, presumably, is not where Christians think the bible takes them. And as they celebrate 400 years of the King James edition, they’re questioning whether Antony Grayling’s version will be around in four centuries’ time.