The Hebrew prophets, proclaiming the first commandment, railed against idolatry and urged the people to destroy all idols and return to the true, living God. Contemporary culture still worship many idolatrous images of God. Furthermore, there are many false prophets, both religious and non-religious, who preach these idols to the masses. The gods of consumerism, control and spirituality are often even proclaimed from nominally "Christian" pulpits. Unfortunately, these false idols have blurred how the larger culture understands orthodox Christianity and diminished their capacity for understanding it.
Finding value in A.C. Grayling’s recent book, The God Argument, is difficult. Before publication it had already received negative reviews from no small number of critics; most notably from fellow agnostics and atheists. They criticized the obvious biases and fundamentalist rhetoric. Both are valid criticisms of the book. For a Christian though, one possible value arises in seeing it as a sermon that evidences the futility of its idolatry. The thoughtful reader cannot help but finish the book wondering why someone would espouse the perspective it promotes.
This does not mean that the book is good; only that it may possibly serve a purpose. The book regularly mischaracterizes believers, religious arguments and misstates historical fact. It substitutes rhetoric for argument frequently and suffers from a particular Western European hubris in its interpretation of history, philosophy and value. In fact, responding to each of these issues would require a book unto itself, so this review will be restrained to larger issues. As such, I plan to focus on two major criticisms that underlie the work; its ignorance of the traditions that it argues against, including current formulations, and its failure to provide an escape from nihilism.
The book has two parts. “Against Religion,” argues against various aspects of religious belief and theistic arguments. Although you might think this would be quite a task for a mere 250 pages, Grayling attempts to do it in 114, because the latter half is reserved for a treatise titled “For Humanism.” As one might expect, his analysis of religious belief and arguments suffers from a notable lack of depth that will be unsatisfying to skeptic and Christian apologist alike.
A common theme throughout the book is that religionists do not have a set definition for the meaning of “god,” and thus are a moving target. For instance, in the second chapter he argues that the name or title “God” is meaningless and arbitrary. He suggests that substituting words like “Fred” or “supreme egg” show the uselessness of the term. Consider the opening words of the Bible with such a substitute, “In the beginning, [Fred] created the sky and the land.” Obviously, language, context and culture give meaning to words. Everyone, Christian, atheist and Muslim alike are in agreement on this point. Strangely, he seems to suggest this serves as an argument against definitions of God, saying that in response apologists “resort...to invoke ineffability.” Really? That is quite surprising, since the question is deeply religious and has a long theological tradition of which Grayling appears to be willfully ignorant. Augustine famously asked in the early 5th century, “What do I love when I love my God?” He continued to propose answers to the question as have countless philosophers and theologians since. For the Christian, God has been revealed in Scripture and confessed in the creeds as eternally the Father, loving the Son through the Spirit. The nature of God for Christians is extremely specific and has a long history. Yet Grayling avoids any discussion of the long history of specificity in the theological and philosophical traditions.
This seeming ignorance of philosophy and theology on this matter is minimal compared to his surprising ignorance of the most basic of Christian doctrines. Throughout the book, the reader wishes that Grayling would interact with substance instead of stereotype. Instead of responding to the answers that the historical, philosophical and theological traditions have given, Grayling pretends as though such answers do not exist. Interestingly, pretending that things don’t exist when they actually do underlies the entire first half of the book. Conversely, the second half of the book proposes to show that on humanism various things exist which actually don’t. It’s quite ironic, but becomes amusing for the serious reader as the book progresses.
Another repeated argument from Grayling is that religious diversity entails falsity. In response to religious diversity and how religions deny claims made by other religions, he pulls out the old atheist canard of “everybody is an atheist about almost all gods…but Christians or Muslims...still have one more god to go.” The problem with this argument is that it’s false. I’m not an atheist in regard to any religious claim. I’m a Christian theist in regard to every religious claim. The reason I reject Vishnu, Allah, Thor and the rest isn’t because I don’t believe in them, but because God has revealed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ, and thus all counterfeit claims about God are untrue.
Furthermore, Grayling clearly struggles emotionally with the problem of natural evil, as do Christians since this is also a deeply religious problem. The struggle can be found throughout the Bible, as can possible solutions. Unfortunately, his analysis of the theological and philosophical responses seems absent or at best insufficient. Even when he does mention personal discussions on the matter, he does not accurately describe those with whom he differs. Once again, one wonders how seriously Grayling takes the issue. The problem of evil in its emotional, natural, logical and evidential forms has a long history of which Grayling offers little reason to think he is aware.
The heart of the matter is the discussion of theistic arguments in chapters 7-10. Grayling gives 37 pages to the issue. He focuses first on the teleological argument and the ontological argument and finally gives brief responses to the cosmological argument, the moral argument and Pascal’s wager.
The brevity of discussion not only displays a lack of depth, but so does the discussion itself. Consider the cosmological argument, which is unquestionably the argument with the longest and most discussed history. There are serious defenders of variations of the argument throughout academia today, publishing in the top philosophical journals regularly. Grayling does not respond to them, but instead states, “Arguments of a cosmological type are found in Plato and Aristotle, but a clear modern statement of the argument’s basic idea is given by Leibniz.” This displays a shocking ignorance of the tradition as the Leibnizian form radically differs from the Aristotelian-Thomistic and Platonic forms. Notable then is how his responses to the argument follow David Hume. He accuses the argument of the fallacy of composition, and questions the principle of causality. Grayling clearly does not deny causality as it underpins his empiricism, so let’s focus instead on his first criticism. First, not every inference from part to whole commits this fallacy, and therefore Grayling’s response needs more specificity to show that Leibniz does. Second, Hume’s critique only applies to efficient causation, but only certain cosmological arguments rely on efficient causation. He rhetorically tries to subsume Aristotle under Leibniz, but the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition avoids Hume’s critique completely. The Thomist replies to Hume that efficient causal explanations are not sufficient explanations of causal relations.
The tendency to ignore the greater tradition continues in the assessment of the design argument. Grayling writes as if there is only one design argument. Anyone remotely familiar with the literature knows that there are various teleological arguments. Furthermore, Grayling never directly formulates the argument that he argues against, but merely states that the, “teleological argument deduce[s] the existence of a deity from the appearance of design in nature.” Later he quotes the Cleanthes from Hume’s Dialogues, leading the reader that he is responding the the argument from simple analogy. This makes sense since his response follows Philo’s response in the Dialogues. Strangely though, he thinks that Philo’s response also answers William Paley’s formulation. Paley’s argument was intentionally formulated to avoid Hume’s response to Cleanthes. Thus, the confusion between arguments and lack of clarity in this section betray either an ignorance on Grayling’s part or an unwillingness to take the arguments seriously. Either way, it doesn’t serve the book well.
Furthermore, the chapter on design arguments was disappointing for its lack of responding to the traditional argument. He ignores the formulation espoused by Aristotle, Averroes and Aquinas completely. This move may be intentional, because Hume’s critique that the argument only proves a designer and not a god, doesn’t work in response to the traditional argument. The traditional argument necessitates the existence of Pure Intelligence itself whom directs things toward their end, even if by secondary causation. Likewise, it would have been more interesting had Grayling argued against a modern proponent of Paley’s formulation such as Richard Taylor, whose argument has been popularized by William Lane Craig.
Thankfully, Grayling does address the argument from fine-tuning. He rejects it because from his perspective an a posteriori analysis of probabilities doesn’t prove agency. He concludes that “this is just how it is with the universe...depending on your point of view, it is just a lucky or unlucky result of how things happen to be.” He continues, "The universes's parameters are not tuned on purpose for us to exist." He offers no evidence or argument for this assertion beyond stating that cosmological constants and improbability don’t necessarily entail divine design. In the end, those unsatisfied with the explanatory power of luck will continue to find that theism makes better sense of the data.
In his chapter on the ontological argument, Grayling shows an awareness of the philosophical tradition. At this point, I must admit that I found it odd that he responds to this argument before the cosmological or moral arguments. I have personally listened to hundreds of debates between theists and atheists, and can only name a few where the argument ever arose, and even then it was only one of many arguments presented. It’s simply not a common argument due to its abstract nature and complexity. Thus, you might be surprised that Grayling dismisses it in under 10 pages, and even then spends quite a few of pages in diversion from the argument itself. You might expect therefore, a rigorous discussion so as to maximize the minimal space, but alas it is missing.
His first response to the ontological argument is that there is no “ground for thinking that because it is the ‘most-est’ of its kind, it is a deity - let alone the traditionally conceived God.” The theist simply responds that the existence of a maximally great being with maximal perfections is a good candidate for God. Apparently that isn’t obvious to everyone. His second response is that a good case can be made that perfection is not a matter of degrees, but absolute; you are either perfect or not. He proceeds into a rather silly discussion ending with the claim that saying God is omnipotent, but only “qualifiedly omnipotent” is a contradiction in terms, but he never explains why this should be the case.
Grayling does adequately discuss Alvin Plantinga’s 20th century formulation of the argument, and his description is fair. After explaining a very basic introduction to possible worlds, and presenting the argument, he responds that an equally strong argument says “there is no possible world in which anything is maximally great…[therefore] there is no maximally great thing.” Proponents of the Plantinga’s argument would find such reasoning unacceptable, and Grayling presents no arguments to support that such a world is possible or conceivable.
The final chapter on theistic arguments consists of 12 pages that remind someone of a blindfolded child at a carnival booth throwing darts haphazardly in hopes of popping a balloon. I have already shown the shallow nature of his response to the cosmological argument, but a word should be stated about his other two targets; Pascal’s wager and the moral argument.
Grayling actually does well in responding to Pascal’s wager, but he misrepresents the aim of the argument. To follow Pascal is to “bet on God.” The argument doesn’t seek to prove the existence of God, but to motivate the unbeliever through self-preservation toward inclining oneself to the possibility of God’s existence as the best possible option considering the options on hand. It’s a “low ladder” argument to quote Peter Kreeft. Thus, responding with Voltaire’s comment that “the interest I have in believing in something is not a proof that the something exists,” misses the point. This is likewise true in appealing to W.K. Clifford on the nature of evidence and proof. Since no professional theistic philosopher offers Pascal’s wager as a proof of God’s existence, such responses are darts that miss the balloon entirely.
Grayling’s handling of the moral argument, coming in at just under four pages, might be the most shallow discussion in the first half. He sums it the argument as “there can be no morality unless there is a deity...there can be no moral code unless it is laid down, policed, punished and rewarded by a deity.” Philosophers or theologians making such a crude argument don’t exist. He responds by saying the argument “is refuted by the existence of good atheists.” The ability of people to act morally says nothing about the existence of objective moral values or how they are metaphysically grounded. Although I personally hold that morality can be grounded in human nature, proponents of the moral argument would only have to offer the standard argument to rebut Grayling:
P1. If God does not exist, then objective morals do not exist.
P2. Objective morals exist.
P3. Therefore, God exists (from P1 & P2)
Does the existence of moral atheists and immoral Christians factor into this argument at all? Obviously not.
Fortunately, he attempts two better responses; Kant’s categorical imperative and Euthyphro. In reference to Kant, Grayling states, “reason identifies the categorical (unconditional) imperatives that specify our moral duties.” Whereas this may have been a good response in the social bubble of 18th century Europe, we know too much about differences in rationality, morality and reason frankly to be so naïve. Our worldview and tradition shape our reason, and thus our morality. To quote moral philosopher Alisdair Macintyre, “Whose justice? Which rationality?” Unless we agree upon first principles, we will not agree on categorical imperatives, and the various traditions that shape both our first principles also shape our rationality in holding them. In reference to Euthyphro, he only states Plato’s formulation as though this ends the matter. In response, those holding to the moral argument only have to “split the horns” and argue that morality is grounded in God’s nature. Surely, Grayling knows that this is how philosophers have responded for centuries.
Grayling ends the discussion of theistic arguments with an ethical concern. He exclaims, “How much better is a world for being a world of volunteers, not slaves!” On this point, he agrees with the Christian tradition that has always valued freedom over coercion. God does not force morality, but freely allows His people to do His will. Amusingly, in The Telegraph, agnostic Tom Payne makes the point that Grayling agrees completely with puritan, John Milton on this point. Conversely, such volunteerism conflicts with the views on free will espoused by many of his more scientifically inclined atheistic peers.
At this point in the review, it should be stated that Grayling believes strongly that being an atheist has moral implications for the betterment of society. Thus, the second half of his book presents a manifesto for secular humanism.
As we have seen, the first half of the book gives little reason for believers to abandon their beliefs, but even if it did we would need to honestly assess where it leave us. Fellow atheists have accused Grayling for not being honest at this point. Let me briefly sketch the resulting perspective:
There was nothing. For no intentional reason, from nothing sprang everything. The result had “no purpose, no design, no evil and no good.” This unintelligent movement of matter accidentally formed into complex structures that would later be called “life.” This life sought, in an unintentional and unconscious manner, its self-preservation at all cost. After a short period of time in respect to the eternity of nothingness before, these meaningless assortments became conscious and intelligent, but consciousness and intelligence are themselves no more valuable on a cosmic scale than non-consciousness and unintelligence. These conscious beings are run by DNA that “neither cares nor knows...and we dance to its music.” Furthermore, it’s apparent “free will is an illusion...thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control” Thus, any worldview arises not from rationality, because it has no will to choose or change on its own. Even its logic is a byproduct for survival. Human persons are an unintended assortment of matter, with no cosmic value greater above that of mountains, space junk or dog vomit. All are arbitrary, meaningless assortments of matter. On a cosmic scale, there is no moral difference that places a mass murderer above a good Samaritan.
I’m not merely saying this because it makes the Christian worldview look more attractive. It clearly does, as even a simple theological belief, such as Genesis 1:27 naturally leads to human rights, the centrality of relationship, and the uniqueness and equality of the sexes, but that’s beside the point. In a world that began with nothing and will end in nothing ex nihilo nihil fit includes ultimate meaning, morals, purpose. Thus, Grayling has quite a task to rise above such a bleak, nihilistic view of reality; one espoused by his compatriots as shown in the quotes above. How does he do it? Through naïvety.
Grayling describes humanism as “the ethical outlook that says each individual is responsible for choosing his or her values and goals and working towards the latter in the light of the former, and is equally responsible for living considerably towards others, with a special view to establishing good relationships at the heart of life, because all good lives are premised on such.” Grayling will have to forgive my honest skepticism, but, “Why?” If goals and values differ from individual to individual, then what keeps my goal from being to subjugate others through the will to power? He never answers, or even begins to answer, such questions blissfully avoiding them through admitting that there are differences about how we define the good life, but that those are reserved for future peaceful discussions. For Grayling, a sufficient defense of such a worldview is that religions have caused problems and that there have been great humanist thinkers. What reason does this give us to ascent to the basic premises of such a worldview in light of the nothingness that brought us about and to which we are headed. Merely stating, “it’s a positive outlook” provides no reason to accept it beyond pragmatic value.
Grayling’s humanism relies on two basic premises. First, that there is “no supernatural agencies” and second, that “our ethics must be drawn from, and responsive to, the nature and circumstances of human experience.” He admits that discussing what exactly is good requires much debate, but seems naïve to ignore that humans, even apart from religious motivation, have historically resorted to power struggles to define such good. Why should it be different in Grayling’s utopian vision?
In chapter 14, Grayling defines his individual perspective of the good life as a “well-lived, meaningful, fulfilled life.” But what do these words mean? There is no cosmic meaning, and one mans fulfillment may be another mans torture. At best, such a words reduce to individually and socially constructed myths. One culture, at one time, defines wellness as such and such. One culture at another time defines meaning as such and such. Does Grayling believe that his view should be enforced, or that his view of a “fulfilled life” should be valued above that of a rapist or serial killer? Why? Rhetorically making this worldview sound cheery does not provide an argument, and an even remotely critical thinker will not be impressed.
Anyone familiar with the writings of Albert Camus will be amused that Grayling argues from Camus’s reflection on suicide to an argument for life’s meaning. Grayling suggests that whatever answer we give for why we do not commit suicide is our meaning in life. For Camus, life is absurd and even our response to such a question is nothing more than rebellion against the inescapable absurdity of life. Camus, unlike Grayling, realized the absurdity of deriving meaning from an answer in light of our cosmic plight after the death of God.
What about that pressing issue of free will? How could anyone respond to Camus’s question without having the freedom to do so? Grayling realizes the importance of this question for moral issues, as he states that “the answer assumed by ethical debate is that free will exists...without that assumption the entire edifice of moral discourse collapses.” He likewise admits that “neuroscience is leading many to conclude that free will is an illusion.” Alas, instead of dealing directly with one of the more pressing and important issues he simply states “that [it] is a debate for another time and place.” He personally thinks there are non-religious reasons for maintaining free will, but doesn’t offer them. Such avoidance of the most pressing issues conveniently represent the shallowness of the latter half of the book.
The remaining sections largely reveal his personal views on matters to present how a one particular humanist thinks about them. He’s honest in this regard, frequently stating, “I think” or “I mean,” and titling one of the chapters “A Humanist on Love, Sex and Drugs” instead of representing humanists in general. From his own definition of humanism, I’m not sure that a respective humanist view could be made since it entails that everyone “[choose] his or her values and goals.”
Grayling ends the book by stating that humanism requires only “clear eyes, reason and kindness; and with them a determination to make the world the best place it can be for the flourishing of creativity, good possibilities and the affections of the human heart.” It sounds nice, doesn’t it? But what if my determination for the world conflicts with yours? Do we enforce one perspective over others? What are “good” possibilities for the world when, as Grayling admits, there is no universal understanding of the good life? And how can we have “reason” without free will? Oh, I forgot, that’s a debate for another time.
The Judaeo-Christian worldview was responsible for bringing an end to the paganism that previously reigned in Europe. Some would claim that this iconoclastic tendency spawned atheism, and Grayling thrives on this vestige of his Protestant culture. In the ancient days, people worshipped gods who were like men, but Grayling proposes a world where men are like gods who determine their own meaning, morals, goals and purposes even if illusory on the cosmic scale. Nietzsche rightly asked that after the death of God, “Must we ourselves not become gods?” Nietzsche realized that when men become such gods, they will fight for power violently as did the ancient gods of Olympus. Thus, Grayling’s iconoclasm doesn’t go far enough since one dangerous idol remains in Grayling’s vision; the idol of self and the hubris that follows from it.
Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer G. Kyle Essary loves studying Scripture, and the Old Testament in particular. He and his family live in Southeast Asia where he strives to live for the One to whom the Old Testament points.
 Characteristic are the reviews in The Guardian by agnostic Jonathan Ree, in The New Statemen by atheist Bryan Appleyard, and in The Week by agnostic Damon Linker.
 Writing in The Telegraph, skeptic Tom Payne said that “his ‘case for humanism’ made me begin to long for faith.”
 Here are but a few of many examples: (1) He refers regularly to the oppression of religion leading to the suppression of women and slaves, yet fails to mention the specifically Christian humanism that led to women’s rights and ended the African slave trade. Christians believing that all people are made in God’s image continue to lead the international fight against global poverty and sexual slavery. (2) He states that the diversity of religious belief and practice around the world is “evidence that religions are man-made,” as though the existence of counterfeits proves the non-existence of actuals. (3) He espouses that Jesus’s death and resurrection come from pre-Christian myths, even calling it “rather obvious borrowing” (p. 30). Readers of this website, both Christian and atheist, know the historical foolishness of such a statement.
 p. 25
 Augustine, Confessions. X.6.8.
 This is but one example of many such errors: On p. 31 he seems confused about the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation because “gods are not generally supposed to have physical blood-containing bodies, except in Mormonism.” He has obviously read the gospels and knows that all Christians believe that God took on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, with real bones, blood and the rest.
 See Job, Lamentations and the Psalms. A fine essay on biblical responses to evil by Dr. Andy Naselli can be found here.
 For instance, he incorrectly says that Keith Ward, in their written debate, claimed God “could not stop natural evil [from] occurring.” The debate is available online. In actuality, Ward argues that given the conditions in which God created this universe, he has chosen not to intervene continually (although he could), to allow for greater ends, such as freedom. In fact, when accused of this very thing in the debate, Ward specifically responds that “I do not say that the processes of nature are outside of God’s control.” Misrepresentations such as this are common in the book.
 For instance, the third chapter, “The Origins of Religion” amounts to an extended genetic fallacy, and that’s even if his claims about the origins, for which he cites no research, were true. The final chapter of the first part discuss creationism and intelligent design. As no expert on either topic, I will leave that section for others to critique.
 One can easily find prominent defenders of the argument in its Thomistic, Leibnizian and Kalam forms today.
 p. 96
 Edward Feser, a defender of the Thomistic forms, gives a brief summary of the differences here in the 17th paragraph.
 p. 73
 It should be noted that quite a few modern philosophers do not find Hume’s responses to the design argument persuading. In fact, although Grayling mischaracterizes it, Hume’s Cleanthes argues from simple analogy whereas Paley’s formulation has been written intentionally to avoid Hume’s critique.
 This argument can be found online here.
 p. 80.
 For instance, William Lane Craig has occasionally presented a form of Plantinga’s ontological argument as one of five or six arguments in favor of theism.
 For instance, theologian Karl Barth said that it wasn’t an argument for atheists to believe in God, but more of a devotional philosophical exercise. Reformed philosopher John Frame says that it’s similar to a philosophical “party game.” It’s not that they find it incorrect, but extremely abstract. Bertrand Russell famously refused to accept it but struggled to figure out what is wrong with it.
 Grayling needs to show that omnipotence entails the possibility of doing the metaphysically impossible. Theists have historically grounded logic in God’s nature, and thus see the law of non-contradiction as resulting from God’s nature. Metaphysical impossibilities are not even conceivable, and thus God’s inability to perform non-conceivable actions is not a limit on His omnipotence.
 I suspect Grayling actually has two ulterior reasons for mentioning Plantinga, and he spends as much time discussing these as he does discussing his argument. First, Plantinga admits that the argument does not prove the existence of God, but only shows belief to be rational. For Plantinga, such a statement arises from his greater theological understanding of natural theology. Grayling does not present it in such a context, but misrepresents Plantinga to suggest that even the ontological argument’s defenders do not hold that it proves God’s existence. Second, Grayling uses Plantinga’s epistemology as an argument against theism. He states, “it would seem that Alvin Plantinga has abandoned attempts to show by argument that it is rational to hold theistic beliefs, because he now argues that there is no need to provide such arguments.” Actually Plantinga’s entire project proceeds from his theologically Reformed beliefs and epistemology from his upbringing, studies under Harry Jellemma, etc. Thus, it’s a misrepresentation to suggest that Plantinga tried to present arguments for awhile and then gave up. In fact, as readers of this website know, he holds that there are quite a few sound theistic arguments, as seen in this paper, but ultimately that they are unnecessary.
 Peter Kreeft - http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/pascals-wager.htm
 p. 100
 Ibid., 103.
 According to Macintyre, and those that follow, such as Charles Taylor, rationality is shaped by tradition. A more standard critique of Kant in this regard can be found in Nicholas Wolterstorff’s “Justice: Rights and Wrongs.”
 See here.
 See Damon Linker, “A Honest Atheist” in The Week.
 To quote Richard Dawkins.
 Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden, 133.
 Sam Harris, Free Will, 5.
 p. 139.
 Ibid., 146. Even then, Grayling has already criticized those who promote religious belief for pragmatic reasons.
 Ibid., 151.
 Ibid., 163.
 Ibid., 170.
 Ibid., 199, 139.
 Damon Linker in The Week sums up a more appropriate atheist response to the book when he states, “That godlessness might be both true and terrible is something that the new atheists refuse to entertain.”