PoW: The Passion of AC Grayling

AC Grayling is having a funny old year. One moment he is Moses descending the mountain, locks flowing, bearing aloft his secular version of the Bible. The next he is Judas, driven out of Foyle's by angry students armed with smoke-bombs, after he announced the launch of the £18k-a-year New College for the Humanities (NCH) this week. No one can accuse English intellectual life of being dull.

The Good Book: A Secular Bible, Made by AC Grayling, as the mighty tome is called, is a surprising addition to ACG's many books, because he has previously pooh-poohed the idea that secular humanism should or could be some sort of religion. We don't need a humanist religion, Grayling previously argued, because the human needs it met - the need for togetherness, care, art and collective worship - can be met today in easier, better ways. And besides, humanism couldn't be a religion, because it has no "body of doctrine, sequence of arguments, adumbration of principles or code of living", other than the obligation to think for oneself, and to accept the two minimal premises of humanism:

1) There are no supernatural entities in the Universe
2) Ethics must be based on facts about human nature and circumstances

And yet, five years later, ACG is back with a "code of living" for his fellow humanists. I only read the first three books of his Bible, because they were free off Amazon, and I didn't want to pay the full £13.99 for his papal dispatch. But merely reading those first three books gave me a feel for what a strange work The Good Book is.

The first book, Genesis, is a re-imagination of the Garden of Good and Evil, but instead of Adam, we meet Newton and his apple, painted in awkward lines in which ACG strives - and fails - to achieve the Vatic grandeur of the King James Bible. The second book, Wisdom, reads much better, but that's because it is almost entirely quotes from the Roman Stoic, Epictetus. I'm a big fan of Epictetus, and it's great if ACG has helped bring his teachings to more people. But it might help if the reader was told they're reading the words of Epictetus, so that, if they wanted to, they could investigate the original source.

Grayling has said he didn't want to compose an anthology of ancient wisdom, but instead wanted to synthesize the various teachings into "a single voice" (ie his own). But that means all the various philosophies he draws on - Stoicism, Epicureanism, Aristotelianism, Taoism, Buddhism - get poured into the same punch-bowl and stirred together. They lose their edges, their arguments with each other, their pluralism.

The Good Book is advertized as 'a secular bible', but several of the philosophers press-ganged into ACG's service believe in God. The Stoics certainly did. They believed nature was guided by the divine Logos - OK, they also believed the Logos was made of fire, so I suppose you could argue the Stoics don't believe in 'supernatural entities' - but they certainly believed in a form of cosmic providence, as do Buddhists, also liberally quoted in The Good Book. Does any secular humanist believe in cosmic providence? It would be useful for his readers if Grayling could at least mention this difference in creed, rather than pretending that all these various ancient traditions share his secular humanist outlook.

It's valuable that a philosopher as prominent as Grayling should have recognized the usefulness of Stoicism to modern life - although why aren't the Stoics on the philosophy syllabus at his new school? Stoicism provides a practical 'code of living' for both atheists and theists (I know Stoics of both persuasion). When Grayling met and debated the Archbishop of Canterbury last month, I hear that they agreed on the "Stoic aim of becoming attuned with life".

I think you can be a Stoic without deciding one way or the other if there's a God. I personally think there is some higher intelligence guiding the cosmos. My reasoning goes like this: Stoicism has persuaded me that the human psyche obeys and is responsive to rational laws. It's possible that human consciousness and rationality is simply a fluke of nature, as the Epicureans believe, but I prefer the Stoic argument that consciousness and rationality is immanent not just in the human psyche, but in all of nature, and is the goal of nature. But I'm open to the possibility that this is codswallop.

Alain De Botton, by contrast, begins his essay, A Religion for Atheists (which is about to be expanded into a new book) with the firm assertion that "There is naturally no Holy Ghost, spirit, Geist, or divine emanation." Seeing as we don't yet understand the nature of consciousness or the cosmos ourselves, can he be certain these words are redundant?

De Botton argues that, even if we don't believe in God, we can still find certain aspects of religion "interesting" and fulfilling of human needs. His 'religion for atheists' would re-cycle these aspects. For example, he says that he would institute "lots of new buildings akin to churches, temples and cathedrals" to give us a sense of "all that is beyond us". But what exactly is beyond us? The Cosmos? Nature? The State? Surely that's precisely what a religion for atheists has to provide - something beyond the self to worship. Something more than a something.

De Botton's atheist religion would also provide "propaganda in kindness and virtue", for example stories of 'secular saints', and 'lessons in pessimism' to "counter-act the optimistic tenor of our age". He'd even institute 'festivals in disappointment' (where Morrissey performs, one hopes). Stoicism seems to play a prominent role in his new religion, as it does in Grayling's.

It seems to me that De Botton and others (Martha Nussbaum, Albert Ellis) have successfully shown that philosophy can heal us of emotional suffering, which is one of the things religion used to do. What contemporary philosophy has yet to prove is whether it can provide the institutions, the strong community attachments, and the role models that religion provided.

Religion, as we all know, comes from the Latin religio, meaning to bind. One of the reasons people become attached to religions is because religions contain obligations and prohibitions. They forbid certain acts. They have a genuine impact on our way of life, our sex life, our clothes, our diet, our career choices. They really mean something as to how we go about our day. We invest ourselves in trying to follow their code, and feel we turn into someone new and better as a result. But I don't see contemporary philosophy demanding any form of renunciation or asceticism from its followers - with the possible exception of Peter Singer's bioethics.

De Botton says that his atheistic religion would provide a deep challenge to liberal ideology, which tends to leave people to run their own lives. His new religion, instead, would be paternalistic - unafraid to tell people how to live. But if you go to his School of Life, the punters turn up, pay £30, drink some wine, listen to an interesting talk, have a browse in the bookstore, and go home. It is all done "with a twinkle in the eye" as De Botton's publisher recently put it. I love the School of Life, and think it fills an important place in our cultural landscape, but it's nothing like a religion. It offers no serious challenge to its customers' way of life, let alone to "liberal ideology". It is fun, unthreatening, a little ironic. It makes no demands of us.

If philosophy is going to be anything like a spirituality, or a way of life, then it is going to have to start demanding more of its followers. It needs to mean something in your life choices, beyond merely sprinkling your conversation with the occasional Zizek quote. It would also need to demand a lot more of its leaders, its role models. It should hold its leaders to account for how they live, how they behave, how they treat other people, how they react to disappointments, how they make their money. It should demand that they live as they teach.

Which brings us to the incredible public outrage which greeted AC Grayling's own School of Life - the New College for the Humanities, based a Molotov cocktail's throw from De Botton's School of Life. Initial public interest in 'Grayling Hall' was followed by suspicion, suspicion by accusation, accusation by a sort of wild celebration that the project would surely crash and burn. All very English: combining a hatred of intellectuals with a delight at the failure of others' commercial enterprises.

And yet, perhaps, Grayling did slightly set himself up for this by recently bringing out his own version of the Bible, full of sombre verses on 'wisdom', 'justice', 'the good life'. Socrates didn't charge £18k a year, did he?

There's a reason we don't have much religion in this country any more. We are Protestants. We love nothing more than tearing our icons down.

In other news:

Must-read interview with Geoff Mulgan, one of the pioneers of the politics of well-being, by Open Democracy.

Jon Ronson on the the made-up epidemic of child bipolar disorder in the US.

The New Statesman this week is guest-edited by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has chosen for his cover a big photo of...himself! It has a piece by Maurice Glasman in it, comparing David Brooks unfavourably to Alasdair MacIntyre. Not on the web yet but worth a read.

See you next week,