Anthony Clifford Grayling is an academic, philosopher and author, but these days he’s best known as being the friendly face of modern atheism, often being cited as the good cop to the more publicly prickly likes of Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchins.
That warmth and inclusiveness is all through his most recent work, The Good Book: subtitled “a secular Bible” Grayling draws on humankind’s rich store of art, literature and philosophy to create a work of inspiration, comfort and ethical instruction without any reference to a power higher than humankind.
I was very dubious when I first heard of The Good Book until I read the thing: I thought it sounded like an interesting intellectual exercise, yet I found it engaging – and, in the Lamentations section, unexpectedly comforting.
It’s a striking fact about our civilisation, especially Western civilisation, that over the last 1500 or 2000 years we’ve marginalised a great weight of knowledge that our forbears in the human story have gathered. If you think about the sources of which I’ve drawn the text for The Good Book they’re the philosophers and the historians, and what tends to happen is that only people who stay on at school or go on to university might read bits of them – and in reading them find those that there’s a huge amount of insight and wisdom and consolation and inspiration in those texts which have nothing whatever to do with religion.
So have people lost access to these sorts of writings?
Only a few people bother to read them when they first encounter them, and anyway they might be in Latin or Greek or Chinese or something. And all wisdom and insight, or the claim to all great wisdom and insight anyway, has been hijacked by the great religions and so we think that that’s only where to find this kind of resource. What you might call the humanist mindset says we really ought to begin from our earliest human experience and our best, most generous, most sympathetic understanding about what it is to be human and work out from there what we owe one another and the responsibility and concern and how was should try to organize our lives, taking responsibility for doing so ourselves.
And that mindset is a great deal older than Christianity. I mean, it dates right back nearly a thousand years before to the beginning of Greek philosophy and when you look into all those texts you find this really very extraordinary humane attitude. So I thought “right, well, what I’m going to try to do is what I wish had happened anyway”, which is that if people have gone to those resources, the historians and the philosophers, and gathered together the texts and put them together in the same way that the religious Bible is put together by weaving the texts together and editing them and altering them and so on, there might have been a book which might have been a very different guide for people.
There’s a frequent argument that ethics is the exclusive purview of religion, which has always amazed me: there seems to be an implication that if they didn’t think they were being directly supervised by God then they’d immediately start raping and murdering and burning people’s houses down…
[laughs] People are led to believe by the conflicts and disasters and murders and rapes reported in the newspaper everyday that that is the condition of mankind, and of course the reason why it’s in the newspapers is because it is so unusual, relatively speaking.
So people are basically good?
In every city, every town, every village in the world every day, there are millions of acts of cooperation and kindness and ordinary good neighbourliness, so it doesn’t make any kind of news. After all human beings are essentially social animals: we depend upon our relationships with one another, therefore it’s bred in our bones to be social. Of course we disagree and we have our differences of opinion but still we’re not taking our Kalashnikovs to the office and using them every time we disagree with somebody. The majority condition of mankind is cooperation and it’s a minority factor about us that we go in for these conflicts.
And you think people miss this because it’s so obvious?
It seems a strange thing to say because history seems to be all about conflict but actually it isn’t. You look around the Sydney, or anywhere, and you see buildings, roads, streets, electricity supply, water supply, the sewage works, public transport, all the things that we manufacture, the clothes that we wear, the cars that we drive: and all of them are the result of systematic cooperation among human beings and that far, far outweighs the differences between us.
You deliberately don’t credit the individual sources of the ideas in The Good Book. Why not?
I think it’s distracting. We have a kind of celebrity view of the past and some people tend to be thought particularly wise or particularly insightful. But anybody you can think of had to go to the loo, you know, and had quarrels with his wife. Human beings are frail and fallible and to over-dignify some at the expense of others is a mistake. Wisdom belongs to everybody, and it’s also open to everybody to be wise. We’re all of us are at our best when a very good friend comes to us in trouble and says ‘what’s your opinion? What do you think I should do about this?’ then we’re ready keen to help someone, and to do it well. We’re very capable of having good insights. And there are some people in the past that have been systematic about it, they’ve written it down, they’ve discussed it with people, they’ve distilled their ideas and those are the ones that are made use of in this book.
I’m curious about the notion of celebrity you’ve raised, since that seems a risk with “public intellectuals”: people like yourself and Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss and Carl Sagan and so forth, who then become lionized for who they are. It sometimes reminds me of that scene in Life of Brian: “yes, we’ve all got to think for ourselves!”
Yes, exactly [laughs] and that films expresses that with great pithiness. It does come down in the end to being an argument from authority: “if so-and-so said it, it’s gotta be true”. And with all the folks that you’ve mentioned there, I’m sure they would agree that it’s what’s said not who said it that really counts in the end. That’s the liberating fact about science and what philosophy can help us see about ways of thinking: it’s open to everybody to do that and to help themselves as a result of that and consequently to be able to build a sort of structure a view about the world which is really their own.
Except then you run the risk of people insisting that their opinion is as valuable as actual facts…
Of course everybody is entitled to their opinion, but they’re not entitled to hold their opinion arbitrarily – and I think that’s the bit that’s missing. You can say to somebody “yes, okay, you you’re more than entitled to your view, but that view has got to be extremely well grounded, you’ve got to be able to give us the case and you’ve got to be open to having that opinion tested.” And of course that’s the bit that people leave out.