A.C. Grayling on Humanism

Philosopher A.C. Grayling recently gave a talk on Humanism at The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Student Societies 2014 Convention. I noticed the video while perusing the blog of evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and thought it worth passing along. The talk is eloquent and the message both uplifting and enlightening.


Grayling addresses the question – frequently posed by theists – of how humans are to live fulfilling, ethical lives if there is no religion to tell them how to do so. The notion underlying this idea seems to be that religion is the means by which order has been imposed on anarchy. This line of thinking is common among the adherents of the various modern branches of ancient Levantine monotheism – namely fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Broadly summarized, Grayling’s answer is that there is no single way of behaving living a good and ethical life. To the extent that religion has anything to say about moral behavior, it does not have a monopoly on the topic.

Do we need god to be good?

For many people this is a subject that produces considerable consternation. God is the epicentre of most people’s moral philosophy. Priests and bishops are colloquially thought of as paragons o  righteousness. The notion that individuals can, through careful introspection and critical reflection, sculpt personalized systems of value is anathema. This type of thinking is a product of the vicissitudes of history and the nature of institutionalized power. Western society has been under the spell of Christian hegemony for centuries, including stretches during which religious authority dominated political discourse and actively silenced dissent. But the fact of the matter is that humans were living successful lives for thousands of years prior to the advent of modern religion. Of course, pinning down exactly when our hominid ancestors became more or less human is something of a mystery, and pinning down the moment of speciation in the parade of gradual change captured by any organism’s phylogeny is an arbitrary affair. Some argue that art is the harbinger of modern humanity. Under that rather conservative and capricious definition, humans have been around for 30,000 years or so. If that is so, then we have a stretch of at least 27,500 years during which our species not only survived, but actively flourished, in the absence of the moral dictates of Abrahamic scripture. Anatomically modern humans, however, have been around for around 200,000 years, during which time everyone seemed to get along just fine (in a very general sense) without Yahweh telling them what to do.


Image of horse from Lascaux caves in France. Painted around 17,300 years ago.

Now, there is a compelling argument that says religion may have played a role in enforcing large-scale socio-political cooperation1,2. Rooted in the principles of evolutionary game theory, the basic notion is that in larger communities of distantly or entirely unrelated individuals, the costs of defecting from social contracts might have decreased in concert with a decrease in the positive incentives toward cooperation (reputation, inclusive fitness, reciprocal altruisum, indirect altruism etc.), increasing the likelihood of free-riders or cheaters. It is hypothesized that the specter of all-powerful, vengeful, omniscient deities played a role in enforcing cooperation in the absence of effective incentives toward cooperation (or equally effective disincentives toward defection). Widely accepted, the idea that ill-deeds never go unpunished might have played a role in stabilizing large, complex social systems.

This is the sort of thing I could see theists latching onto, arguing that – by virtue of its hypothetical merits with regard to the maintenance of social order – religious beliefs has demonstrated its value and paid its way. Such an argument is not unthinkable (I just thought it), but it is hardly justifiable. Even if religion played a role in facilitating social cohesion, it did so a great cost. If one takes the Old Testament as an example, then morality is vouchsafed by tyrannical, capricious, and petty3 god dispensing harsh punishments for petty infractions. Who, after all, wants to go back a system where people are stoned to death for not properly observing the Sabbath? Not I. Religious enforcement of social forms involves not only the fear of damnation according to the whims of an ever watchful eye, but severe real-world costs to those caught in the act of defecting. This latter item is probably the more important motivation for cooperation when it comes to the Abrahamic religions. Additionally, the success of the modern monotheisms is, to a considerable extent, predicated upon their militancy. The fear of god maintains order within the group while the wrath of god eradicates those outside of it. The primary intrinsic merit that has secured Christianity’s supremacy as a putative moral authority in the West is its apparent willingness to annihilate opposing ideologies. This was true of Christianity before it was known as such. After all, the god of the Old Testament commanded the Israelites to massacre the Canaanites and Amalekites. Once Christianity had earned its modern moniker and Constantine had consecrated Christianity with the blessing and authority of the Roman state, the stage was set for centuries of slaughter. Take Charlemagne’s brutal response to the Saxon’s initial refusal to accept Christianity, for instance, or the Spanish conquest of the Inca and Aztec nations as another.


Charlemagne (742–814) receiving the submission of Widukind at Paderborn in 785, by Ary Scheffer (1795–1858).

These, I think, are real problem with notion of religion as a source of moral authority. I don’t think they invalidate the hypothesis that religion played a role in ensuring cooperation in incipient nation-states (as I said, I find the idea compelling) but they do illustrate that religions role in said regard was not a moral one. However, I think the best reason to disregard religion as the wellspring of moral of enlightenment is the simple fact that there is no reason to believe religions are true. This is a realization the Abrahamic monotheisms steadfastly guard against in their insistent on blind faith and submission in and to the will of god. I won’t waste any space pointing out why I find the truth claims of religion so dubious. Fundamentalist believers never change their minds, regardless of the reasoning and evidence with which they are presented. This sort of intransigence is made manifest in Creation Museum, a subject Grayling touches on4.More malleable minds can consider the matter for themselves and come to their own conclusions.

And that, as Grayling so eloquently describes, is at the very heart of humanism. It is a philosophy that celebrates individuality and critical thought. To summarize Grayling, it says the best possible kind of life is that life carefully considered and freely chosen. It takes love, freedom, creativity, and respect for the dignity of all humans as its core values and allows individuals to elaborate from there. It is not a rigid code of dos and don’ts, but a general outlook that requires both courage and hard work.

Courage, in that many people stumble when they realize that there is no concrete, universally applicable, monolithic meaning to life. There are many. There is, in fact, one for every single person. Put plainly, that sounds like some crass hippy bullshit, but it happens to be true. Having been reared in a religious home, I personally had a difficult time transitioning out of theism. Letting go of that bastion of purported truth was difficult because, for me, it entailing giving in to a period of listlessness. There was no new foundation to jump on when I stepped away from the old because that foundation hadn’t been built yet.

In a way, it still isn’t.

That’s where the hard work comes in. Thinking for one’s self and coming to a personal understanding of what one finds valuable can be difficult. As Bertrand Russell put it:

“Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. It sees man, a feeble speck, surrounded by unfathomable depths of silence; yet it bears itself proudly, as unmoved as if it were lord of the universe. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.”

From Why Men Fight, 1916

It demands engagement with unfamiliar and challenging ideas. It is also a task without a firm end point. People build the meaning of their lives until they die. It is, for most, a work that is never truly finished. The trick is to revel in the work itself.

  1. Norenzayan, Ara. 2013. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton University Press
  2. Johnson, Dominic & Jesse Bering. 2006. Hand of god, mind of man: punishment and cognition in the evolution of cooperation. Evolutionary Psychology 4:219-233
  3. Other than petty and capricious, what would you call someone so concerned with his personal image that he commands people in four different ways to show him respect? Then, for good measure, he says we probably shouldn’t kill each other either.
  4. Grayling calls the Creation Museum a “human rights crime”. As Jerry Coyne commented in his blog, the museum is certainly abominable, but I think calling it a human rights crime is a bit extreme. That said, I do think Ken Ham, the museum’s creator, is  not a particularly good person. One might counter that he is trying to do good – he is, with the best of intentions, trying to do what he thinks is right. Fair enough, but the same could be said for Adolf Hitler. Before someone carries that analogy to far, let me be absolutely clear: I am not saying Ken Ham is anywhere near as terrible a person as Hitler. Hitler was a real human rights criminal. If one could quantify evil, Hitler would be orders of magnitude worse than Ham. The point is that a person’s intentions do not necessarily redeem their actions. Ham’s work may be perfectly well intended, but its fruits have been unequivocally rotten.

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