‘Atheism is to theism,’ Anthony Grayling declares, ‘as not collecting stamps is to stamp-collecting’. At this point, we are supposed to enjoy a little sneer, in which the religious are bracketed with bald, lonely men in thick glasses, picking over their collections of ancient stamps in attics, while unbelievers are funky people with busy social lives.
But the comparison is flatly untrue. Non-collectors of stamps do not, for instance, write books devoted to mocking stamp-collectors, nor call for stamp-collecting’s status to be diminished, nor suggest — Richard Dawkins-like — that introducing the young to this hobby is comparable to child abuse. They do not place advertisements on buses proclaiming that stamp-collecting is a waste of time, and suggesting that those who abandon it will enjoy their lives more.
Professor Grayling is too pleased with himself to have realised this. Intoxicated with amusement at his own dud metaphor, he asks: ‘How could someone be a militant non-stamp-collector?’ I rather think he has written the manual for anyone who might like to take up this activity.
This work is full of negative. petti-fogging narrowness, devoid of sympathy for opponents, empty of generosity or modesty, immune to poetry or mystery. Seeking enjoyment in its pages is like trying to quench your thirst with dry biscuits. The rudest thing that I can say about it is that it is pretty much the same as all the other anti-God books. Like Scandinavian crime series on TV, these volumes trundle off the production lines every few months, asserting their authors’ enlightenment and emitting a nasty undertone of spite and intolerance.
It is an odd target and an odder market. Modern Britain throbs with questionable faiths, objectively unproven but powerfully influencing personal behaviour and state policy. A brief list would include man-made global warming, the worthiness of liberal intervention in foreign countries, the existence of dyslexia, ADHD and addiction and the serotonin theory of depression. Honest scepticism about any of these is not welcome in mainstream publishing.
I should have thought that philosophers would be interested in questioning these dangerous, dominant beliefs. It would be a rewarding and proper use of their skills and standing. But the philosophers are complacent about such orthodoxies. They prefer to rail against the tottering remnants of Western Christianity, a dying force if ever there was one. The writers who take part in this assault do sometimes make rude remarks about Islam, and often make righteous references to Islam’s role in terrorism. But it is in Christian countries that they publish, and it is Christian advantages which they aim to remove or reduce — Christian state schools, Christian church privileges in law and custom, the primacy of Christianity in culture.
Attempts have been made to answer this attack, the defence usually attracting far less notice than the prosecution. The offensive continues unresponsively, exactly as if no riposte has been offered. As Grayling says: ‘The theists are rushing about the park kicking the ball, but the atheists are not playing. They are not even on the field.’ Like almost all atheists, he tries (and fails) to show that his belief is not a belief, but an obligatory default position.
This ungenerous view damages him. As he rightly says: ‘One mark of intelligence is an ability to live with as yet unanswered questions.’ True, but one way of avoiding having to do this is to pretend that questions have been answered, when they have not been. While wholly satisfied with his own supposed proofs that God is not necessary for an understanding of the cosmos, he seems unaware that these formulae are as unconvincing to believers as ontological proofs of God’s existence are to atheists. Religion, he says, is ‘exactly the same kind of thing as astrology’; religious believers are repeatedly equated with those who believe in fairies, goblins and dragons. This is no more use in serious discussion than jibes about Father Christmas or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
It is a closing of the mind. Why does he close it? We know, from Grayling’s brave and unanswerable attack on the British bombing of German civilians (Among the Dead Cities), that it is a considerable mind when he chooses to open it. I urge him to study the works of his fellow atheist Thomas Nagel, Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, who writes eloquently of what he calls ‘the fear of religion itself’, saying he is strongly subject to such a fear and confessing that he wants atheism to be true and is made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people he knows are religious believers.
It is my suspicion that Christians and atheists share one very strong emotion — the fear that God exists. The difference is that Christians also want Him to exist. The truly interesting question, unexplored in this book, is why each side wants what it wants.