Do atheists need a bible? That is an obvious question to put to one who has just brought many ethical and literary texts together, to make a book distilling some of the world’s best and wisest thought about the human condition; and who has subtitled it ‘A Humanist Bible.’
(WATCH VIDEO: Grayling explains why atheists, agnostics and freethinkers need a bible.)
In making the ‘Good Book’ I followed the practice of the Bible-makers of long ago, who wove together and rewrote their source texts to make the book which has been central to Christianity for centuries. I also followed the Bible’s English-language translators in structuring the ‘Good Book’ in chapter and verse, because this format is highly accessible and encourages browsing and meditation.
(WATCH: Video below -Grayling discusses why life is worth living even without a God.)
This structure invites a comparison too: religious texts offer themselves as guide-books for life, and by bringing together the insight, solace, inspiration and consolation of the world’s wisest non-religious literature, the ‘Good Book’ offers itself as the same.
But to repeat the question I am asked: do non-religious people need such a book? The answer is that whereas they could indeed find the wisdom of the great traditions for themselves in their quest to build good and flourishing lives, it can do no harm, and may help, to have much of that wisdom brought together and organized to serve as a resource for their reflections. That is what the ‘Good Book’ does.
(VIDEO: Grayling explains why he doesn’t call himself an atheist, and defines humanism and freethinking.)
It does not tell people what to think, it offers materials for thinking; it does not issue commands, instead it invites and challenges. And in doing so it offers many rich perspectives on the sometimes difficult, sometimes joyous experience of being human.
It would be odd to suppose that because a person is an atheist, he or she needs no books addressed to the big questions of life. For nearly a thousand years before Christianity became dominant in Europe, the classical tradition devoted great attention to ethical questions, almost all of it humanist rather than religious in nature. What some people think is Christian ethics is in fact a direct import from classical humanism. The ‘Good Book’ begins from that classical resource, and includes much from its legacy over the centuries, and from the Eastern traditions also.
Philosophy was either suborned or marginalized by Christianity for many centuries. The increasing secularization of the modern developed world has brought the philosophical traditions back into view, and they offer people a significant opportunity to take back responsibility for thinking about their moral lives in ways that are knowledgeable, generous and honest.
‘Thinking for oneself’ is the key. Bertrand Russell said, ‘Most people would rather die than think, and most people do.’ He meant that instead of thinking about the values they live by, most people accept the outlook of the society they happen to have been born into, and do not question it.
One reason for this is tradition and community influence; another is that thinking for oneself about fundamental questions is hard. It requires information, discussion, listening to others’ views and evaluating them; it requires reading and reflection.
When a tradition has a central text, like the Bible for Christians or the Koran for Muslims, it serves as the premise for belief and practice. Over time such texts acquire so great a status for the faithful that they become unquestionable; they even become fetishes, so that mishandling a copy of a sacred text can inflame devotees to violence.
People who do not have a religious commitment but who think about ethical questions are much freer to question the texts they read, because they are in the business of taking ethical responsibility for themselves. For obvious historical reasons, debates about morality have been so annexed to sacred literature that it was once hard to think about such things without reference to the Bible. For most of history it was the only book available, and literacy levels were low. But now there can be alternatives; why not one which presents itself as a different resource for thinking about the good in life, drawn from the treasury of the philosophical traditions?
The ‘Good Book’ makes no mention of gods or goddesses, souls or afterlives. It is about human experience in the here and now. But it does not attack religion; it is not anti-Christian; there is no reason why a religious person might not find much that is deep and beautiful in the writings of fellow human beings who have other ways of thinking.
It is in this positive and constructive sense that it is a humanist ‘bible,’ and all are welcome to its pages.
AC Grayling is a Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and most recently author of The Good Book: A Humanist Bible .