"The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men." attributed to Plato

"Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing." attributed to Edmund Burke

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Thursday, 20 January 2011

What is Good

I wasn’t looking for this book specifically. It caught my attention in a second-hand bookshop and I thought it might have a contribution to make to the debate on religious tolerance and the future of the world; I have not been disappointed.

This is a book for the general reader, we are told, a non- academic survey and an exploration of the Western philosophical basis of morality, ethics and “the Good Life,” from the ancient Greek pagan philosophers through the Renaissance, the Reformation, the scientific revolution and Enlightenment to the present day. It is a fascinating read.

The tension between the fundamentally different ways of viewing the nature and source of our values, the opposing viewpoints of the secular and the transcendental, has been felt throughout history, he tells us, but never more so than since the scientific revolution, and this tension is one of the greatest problems facing the modern world.

It is written from the Humanist’s perspective, so needless to say it has a certain bias in that direction. Unfortunately as with so much humanist and atheistic writing I found the examples he uses against Christianity and religion generally are prone to too much exaggeration, with sweeping generalisations, often not bearing much relation to what is really practised and believed today by those who have a faith in the Western world, where his focus largely lies.

For example, in the opening pages he compares the surely extreme story of a Japanese secular appreciation of aesthetics (the prose he quotes from In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki certainly conveys well the natural beauty of the world and our experiences of it) with the equally extreme story of the Christian Victorian upbringing of one child, telling us that this latter style is still common throughout the world where religion plays a dominant role. Perhaps, but I think Sam Harris makes the point rather more accurately in The End of Faith. “We should not ignore the fact,” he writes, “we must now confront whole societies whose moral and political development- in their treatment of women and children, in their prosecution of war, in their approach to criminal justice, and in their intuitions about what constitutes cruelty- lags behind our own.”

Grayling describes religion as “the technology of man’s impotence” and dismisses the metaphysical – his arguments of logic starting from the premise that there simply is no metaphysical or supernatural presence. The truth is we simply do not know, we simply cannot know, although there is some fascinating recent empirical research on the power of prayer, the presence of the supernatural, and the metaphysical. But it is very likely true, he says, that supernatural phenomena are just the way the brain works, nothing more.

So it follows that many of his arguments do not have a strong base, are not well supported. What values can we attach to a supernatural or metaphysical belief that itself cannot be taken seriously, he asks. So he dismisses anything built around that belief. My life as a Christian, apparently, is totally dictated by self -interest, my good deeds are done not from any motive of altruism or compassion, but to avoid the posthumous punishment of hell and damnation in an afterlife, and in return for posthumous rewards, to achieve “eternal bliss.” Really?

Christian morality is irrelevant, he says, to modern life, and to contemporary attitudes about what is acceptable – on human rights, oppression, war, poverty, the rich/poor divide. Christianity distracts attention from these things that really count, he writes, by concentrating instead on the “trivia” of teenage pregnancies, sex before marriage, abortion etc. The claim of the contemporary churches that they support charity and help the people of Third World countries in their distresses, demonstrating peace, kindness, brotherly love and charitable works, is the “soft face” of the church, displayed to the world when we are on the “backfoot,” a minority interest looking to recruit, primarily amongst the lonely, the desperate, the timid. When we come from a position of strength, he says, things are very different, witness the Inquisition and the Taliban, for example.

These exaggerations and inaccuracies and the language of disdain he too often uses when talking of religion or faith spoil an otherwise good book, because it is a good book, I enjoyed reading it and have learnt much about the history and thoughts of the great philosophers from ancient Greece to the present day. Of course the purpose of the book, as he admits, is to promote humanism and to show why this is the only way forward for the future of the world. Much of what he has to say is carefully reasoned; he has some very sound arguments and good points to make. But biased inaccuracies around faith and religion feed the minds of the unbelievers with ever more ammunition for their intolerance and serve only to dismay those with a faith.

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