The Sceptic: Why God is a fairy tale

by Justin Brierley

Philosopher AC Grayling has made it his mission to show why people have as little reason to believe in a deity as they do in the Tooth Fairy. Justin Brierley meets the atheist professor who believes he has seen the future – and God’s not part of it.

According to AC Grayling, talking about God is the equivalent of talking about fairies or goblins. It’s the reason he doesn’t like to use the word ‘atheist’ to describe himself. ‘Call me an “a-fairyist” or an “a-goblinist”,’ he says, ‘because to

me it’s the same argument.’

With his impressive head of silver hair, round spectacles and well-tailored suit, Grayling looks every inch the public intellectual that the blurb on the back his latest book The God Argument (Bloomsbury) describes. A philosophy professor by background, he recently founded the New College of the Humanities with fellow British atheists Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. It’s a private university delivering a secular-humanist approach to a variety of disciplines. I imagine there isn’t a Christian Union.

Grayling makes no apology for disparaging ‘fundamentalist’ forms of religion, which he describes as ‘mass immaturity’. He explains: ‘It is very easy to slip into disdain for people who don’t see the evidence for biological evolution or who want to impose their views on others in a coercive way, such as in Muslim majority countries.’

IMAGINE THERE’S NO HEAVEN

One of his main concerns is with evangelism, particularly of children. In his book, he calls for freedom from religion, including a demand for freedom from proselytisation. Grayling stops short of calling for an outright ban on evangelism, but he contends that religion often brainwashes the young before they have the opportunity to develop their own critical thinking.

So, would he like to see an end to religion? ‘In the ideal – yes,’ he responds candidly, ‘but one is pragmatic enough to realise that it will, at the very least, take a long time.’

Grayling, who is a vice-president of the British Humanist Association, also volunteers his opinion on the kind of worldview that he would choose to replace religious belief. Channelling the spirit of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, he describes a utopian vision of the future in which the ‘depth and warmth’ of his own secular-humanist philosophy is universally embraced at the expense of God.

‘If – per impossibile – the whole world were able to adopt that outlook, immediately one whole source of conflict and confusion would vanish and we would be premising how we are to live good, flourishing lives on our most generous understanding of human nature.’

If Grayling has faith of any sort it is probably most clearly illustrated in this optimism (which some might call naïve) that the world will, after ditching religion, be inclined to work together in a brotherhood-of-man style humanist enterprise.

Before spelling out his humanist manifesto, Grayling takes aim at the rationality of belief itself. The first half of The God Argument surveys some of the key arguments for belief in God, and purports to dispatch each within a few pages.

Unsurprisingly, not all philosophers of religion (including some atheist ones) think Grayling has done a good job of knocking down two millennia of thought on the nature and necessity of God. Nevertheless, the philosopher himself believes that all arguments for God can be reduced to the logical absurdity of arguing for the existence of the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus…

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The Sceptic: Why God is a fairy tale