Light Reading …

So, if you look at my reading list, you’ll see that I just finished a couple of books: Kaufmann’s “Critique of Religion and Philosophy” and Grayling’s “The God Argument”. Here, I’ll give a brief review of each and hopefully over the next few days or weeks will highlight a few specific issues in each.

Jerry Coyne once wanted encomiums for reading Polkinghorne and Beale’s “Questions of Truth, which was about 100 pages of relatively clear prose. “Critique of Religion and Philosophy” is over 400 pages and isn’t anywhere near as clear or interesting in its prose. Kaufmann spends a lot of time not saying things, but when he does get around to saying things he often tends to get things wrong. And I don’t just mean wrong in the sense that he makes arguments that don’t work, but he seems to interpret the people he’s talking about wrong as well. Throughout the entire work, he seems to have specific concerns but it’s hard to see why he has those concerns, or why we should care about them at all. Being generous, I expect that the problems and authors he takes a lot of time to go after were fairly big and popular at the time, but the way it’s written makes it so that today, with different sensibilities, it’s really difficult to see why it matters. And I don’t mean that in the sense that we wonder why anyone ever cared about it since we obviously know the answer now, but in the sense that we wonder why in such a critique so much space is dedicated to that specific question or author. For example, he spends a lot of time talking about the idea of religion being poetry, but why is that worthy of so much more attention than the theological arguments? And he talks a lot about specific authors that today we’ve barely heard of.

Now, again, that different times had different issues and so that older works might focus on authors or issues that aren’t really considered important today is not a problem. But not making it clear why this is important to him is. And this really typifies the problems with the book: there is no underlying focus. Kaufmann, it seems, is merely taking potshots at issues that everyone talked about then, but doesn’t really have any overarching critique. So without being immersed in the debates, you don’t really know why these critiques are being made, or if they are really interesting or devastating at all. When he goes into detail on a view, it’s about specific views of specific people — Tillich, Bultmann, Fromm to be specific — but again those are used less as examples of an overarching view but rather as specific views that he needs to refute … and today, we wonder why those views need to be refuted specifically. This should be a general critique, but it is far too specific when it says things to pull that off.

In my opinion, the only reason to consider that any kind of useful or interesting work is to a) agree with Kaufmann’s general conclusions and b) enjoy someone making snarky comments about the things you disagree with. Kaufmann does make a fair number of snarky comments, but the issue with snarky comments is that you need to be able to pull off the arguments to justify them, and he often doesn’t. For example, he makes a rather big deal about James’ categories for beliefs not being useful … except that he then indicates that he doesn’t actually understand them, which makes his continual comments about how unhelpful they are look merely uninformed. So, this is not a book that I enjoyed reading, which explains why it took me so long to read it, and I don’t recommend it for anyone. Those who understand the issues will find much of the discussion trite or just plain wrong, and those who don’t will be completely lost. In fact, most people will be a little lost unless you happen to hold the views that he attacks in detail … but, then, for all of those views there are much better criticisms, much more focused and, likely, much clearer.

“The God Argument”, on the other hand, is a much easier read, which explains why it took me so much less time to read (I got through it in one evening). I was mostly interested in this book for the section on humanism, since for the most part whenever people have talked about humanism it has always been this rather vague notion with a couple of general principles that sound good but are difficult to shake out in practice followed by a list of the things that that specific humanist accepts, usually aligning to basic Western liberal values. And in this book … well, I was disappointed — since I was hoping for more than that — but wasn’t surprised that this is pretty much more of the same: a couple of vague general principles relating to “the good life”, a list of people who could be humanists who held completely contradictory views about what the “good life” should be — and who held that we could determine one “good life” for everyone — and then a list of what Grayling thinks makes a good life with an attempt at rationalization of those things which ignores that even the basic principles that he argues for can indeed be argued against. For example, he talks about both Seneca and Hume as humanists … except that since Hume thought that morality was nothing more than an emotional assessment and Seneca, as a Stoic, thought that we shouldn’t trust emotions at all when we’re doing morality. And he holds up as a rational principle that we shouldn’t harm others, but Egoists can counter that we should and can if it benefits us, and even Utilitarians like Mill think that harming people can indeed be justified if overall it provides more utility. Mixing all of these views together seems odd … or, actually, rather less than helpful.

To give him credit, Grayling does understand this. One of his general principles is that humanism demands that we make our own values and goals, and be prepared to defend them. There are a couple of problems with this, that he mostly handwaves away, however. The first is one that he definitely explicitly acknowledges, which is that this sort of idea has been used to justify relativism, and all he says essentially is that having to provide reasons for your view — and rational ones, I suppose — stops you from simply having license. The problem is that once you define your values and goals, one can appeal to them to justify your specific views and actions, and of all of the values and goals you could pick “My own self-interest” is the one that’s the easiest to defend. And defining, say, not murdering as being in your own self-interest gives the win to Egoists, and justifies a stance that says that you can hurt people if it benefits you to do so.

The second problem which is not, as far as I can tell, explicitly addressed is that if people have their own goals and values, and so have different specific moral views, how do you come together to make laws and societal rules about them based on that (which is what he calls “morals”, which I disagree with)? Stoics, Humeans, Kantians and Utilitarians will have radically different views about what should happen at a societal level, and Grayling’s distaste for fully-fleshed out systems doesn’t work as an objection here because I’m not referring to a full set of moral rules in such a moral system, but instead just a basic set of principles that define “the good life”. As these guide our personal lives, they should guide our interactions in society as well, and in how we vote on laws and the like, otherwise our personal and social lives would be divorced from “the good life”, which Grayling can’t accept. But if society makes laws that impede my ability to seek what I see as “the good life”, isn’t that simply wrong for Grayling? Sure, you can get around this with having very broad and individualistic sets of rights, but even that may cause problems for people who, say, want to have a more communitarian ideal.

So, the problem with humanism is still there: if we take it as a broad set of principles, it says nothing and solves no problems, but if it ever starts to be prescriptive and outline what “the good life” is it reveals itself to be vague and unsupported.

The section on the refutations of religion is nothing new and just the standard counters, for good or ill.

So, again, I can’t really recommend this book, although I would feel better about recommending it than I would about Kaufmann’s. The book is clearly written even if it takes some liberties with definitions at times, but generates enough wall-banging moments for those who know the issues to make it frustrating for people who are already aware of these details, and the split between the refutation of religion on the one hand and the advocacy of humanism on the other leave little room to deal with either in the detail that either really deserve. At the end of the day, it really doesn’t say anything new, but doesn’t say what it says with enough clarity and detail to be particularly useful for people who are new to the issues. So, effectively, it’s “been there, done that” for those who want to see this new humanism that is proposed to replace religious morality, and for those who haven’t it’s too focused on making a case rather than introducing the issues to make a good introductory text. But it is, at least, a reasonably easy read, but the works by Dawkins and even Harris probably work better for those who would want an easy read instead of something with real meat to the arguments.

I do intend to look at a few chapters and issues in these books, as already stated, so look ahead to that.

2 Responses to “Light Reading …”

  1. Review of “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] Coyne cites, this book is, in actual fact, really, really bad. Now, I didn’t say that about Grayling’s book. Or Coyne’s book. Or pretty much any other atheist book that I’ve read. The harshest […]

  2. Secular Humanism and Morality | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] humanism”, but didn’t have anything beyond those shared basic principles and ideas.  As I noted when reading A.C. Grayling’s book on the topic, secular humanism in general simply gave a list of principles but without any real philosophical […]

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