Despite AC Grayling’s exalted status as a philosopher and public intellectual at the University of London, the truths laid out in The Good Book: A Humanist Bible do not claim to be divinely inspired but rather handed down courtesy of earthly thinkers like Seneca, Confucius and Newton. With a book release that was scheduled just before Passover and Holy Week and a month before the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible does this book represent yet another weapon in the atheists’ war against religion?
As expected, this bestselling book finds a welcome home among freethinkers. Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) proclaims, “The Good Book does for religion what the U.S .Constitution did for democracy, discarding the sovereign authority and putting ‘We, the people’ in charge of our own lives.”
Annie Laurie Gaylor, Co-President of FFRF, adds, “Just as the ‘Bible’ originally just meant ‘book,’ there is no reason why there can’t be a ‘humanist bible’ (small case). I would argue there is not and never can be one ‘Bible’ (large case) for freethinkers. Much as we revere Charles Darwin, Bertrand Russell, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, we have no ‘transcendent’ beliefs or teachings.” According to Fred Edwords, National Director for the United Coalition for Reason, “The book further develops a positive trend that has been growing in the community of reason, that of showing where we go from here after we’ve moved beyond traditional faith. I think this will help open our ideas to a broader audience.”
While David Silverman, president of the American Atheists observes that “the big picture here is that morality comes from within, not without,” he’s not all that pleased with the term ‘secular bible.’ “A ‘Bible’ is a term often used to convey a fixed morality. Whether or not the contents of the Bible are claimed to be divine in nature, by its very essence it will be static, even though true morality changes over time.”
In Simply Christian Anglican bishop and New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright responds to those who see the Bible as a how-to manual, “The Bible isn’t there simply to be an accurate reference point for people who want to look things up and be sure they got them right. It is there to equip people to carry forth his purposes of new covenant and new creation.” Brian Cones, managing editor, U.S. Catholic, concurs, “Grayling doesn’t seem to get what the ‘Bible’ actually is: more or less a canonized anthology of stories and reflections about human encounters with God, often self-contradicting, and hardly a collection of systematic ethical teaching.”
Lest anyone, express concern that The Good Book will be mistaken for the beloved Gideon Bible, David Van Biema, Time Magazine’s religion writer for 11 years and author of a forthcoming book on the Psalms (Simon & Schuster), offers this analysis, “The Bible is the great vertical book of our culture—The story of transcendence, of our reaching above ourselves to meet the great God on which it trains its monomaniacal attention. (Or, in the case of the New Testament, when the great God reached down to meet us.) Grayling’s book, regardless of how the columns are laid out, is a horizontal book—the writers’ attention is trained at the eye-level of their fellow humans while they figure out, how do I live with them? There’s unquestionably a great deal to learn of value in a collection of horizontal thought. Can it be as compelling at the Bible’s towering verticality? Well, the ending to one of Grayling’s commandments runs: ‘At least, sincerely try.’ So perhaps not.”
James Martin, SJ, author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything opines, “‘Sincerely try?’ That’s not something for which I’d give my life. Someone rising from the dead? That’s a different story. As much as I appreciate the insights of secular humanists, I’ll stick with the Bible that has God in it.”
When I asked Grayling via email why atheists would need a Bible given the plethora of nonreligious penned by freethinkers, he replied:
Even if those of us with access to libraries don’t need such a thing as The Good Book, it might still be useful as a resource for thinking about humanistic approaches to ethics, as there are wonderful things in the non-religious ethical traditions that we can profit from considering. However, plenty of people don’t have access to libraries and haven’t yet heard of Aristotle, Cicero, Mencius, Chesterfield and the hosts of others who have insightful things to say. Also, this represents another contribution to the conversation about good and worthwhile lives which, if it had not been for the dominating influence of the religions in history, might have made for a different history.
During Holy Week, we were reminded of humanity’s primal search for rituals as a tool for meaning making since the dawn of recorded civilization. Once again, Christians rev up for rites designed to make Cecil B. DeMille green with envy not to mention Good Friday smackdowns that might even give Mel Gibson the willies. Perhaps during this time of remembrance and rejoicing, Christians might want to reflect on how others also connect with the divine. Conversely, those who classify all Christians as the spawn of Terry Jones and Sarah Palin disregard the subtleties inherent in the breath of the Christian traditions, most notably an apophatic faith that knows that humans can never know a God of mystery.
In Jerusalem, James Carroll observes, “Good religion may indeed presuppose a religion of no religion, which implies a capacity to recognize the impulse toward transcendence outside traditionally conceived realms of the sacred.” Perhaps therein lies a spark that we can all embrace in our shared humanity. From that common ground, perhaps we can seek to follow the rule inherent in all religions (including humanism) which is “love of neighbor.”
Now that’s a resurrection story worth living out.