Any respectable bible begins at the beginning. But in this one, the Garden of Eden is replaced by Isaac Newton’s garden, and the apple that denotes the downfall of man is replaced by the apple that drops on Newton’s head. The Good Book, an ambitious 597-page volume written by philosopher A.C. Grayling, is a bible without God, with humanism taking the place of religion.
“The way I made it,” Grayling says, “was to plunder from the great traditions’ texts . . . weaving them together, editing them, interpolating other texts and sometimes my own, just as the Bible makers worked. It was tremendous fun.”
Here you’ll find snippets from Spinoza; nuggets of Nietzsche; Homeric homilies; dollops of Darwin; kernels from Kant; and gems from Goethe, Godwin, and, of course, Grayling.
Like the English Bible, The Good Book: A Humanist Bible adopts the double-column format and is structured by book, chapter, and verse. “One reason for the potency of scriptural writings is how they are organized, inviting people to sample small bits of text and reflect on them,” Grayling says. In addition, the structure reinforces The Good Book’s aim to stand alongside religious texts, such as the Bible and the Koran, even while it is presenting a secular vision. “I want to show people the distilled wisdom of humanity reflecting on its own humanity, and to show that that is every bit as beautiful and powerful as the religious texts are, and in many ways much better.”
While Grayling concedes that the Bible contains some sound moral lessons and moments of great beauty (his favorite being the Song of Solomon), for him it is disfigured by phrases such as “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.” He disdains the notion of submission to a deity “in the hope that it won’t inflict too many earthquakes or tsunamis or plagues in the near future,” he says.
To rewrite the Bible, though, requires a certain amount of hubris. Ruefully, Grayling remembers a card his wife sent him that “had a picture of a rather self-satisfied-looking individual on it, and a legend that read: ‘I used to be an atheist until I realized that I am God.’ But, to coin a phrase: God forbid that should ever happen. I certainly hope not, because the message of [The Good Book] is that we are each responsible for ourselves. We’ve got to think for ourselves. And . . . we’ve got to go beyond our teachers and beyond our texts.”
According to Grayling, an ongoing history of religious war makes this a particularly appropriate time to provide an alternative to the Bible and the Koran. Conflicts from the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century to 9/11 in the 21st century have, he says, “dragged the fig leaf off the claims that religion makes to be a positive and peaceful presence in society.”
Grayling is also keen to counter the Bible’s repressive view of sex and female sexuality. He draws on Denis Diderot’s description of sexuality in an effort to “make sexual love an important part of the whole story.”
One of the most controversial retellings in The Good Book is Grayling’s version of the creation story. “I wanted to weave together a range of sources to say that the world is made of atoms, that biological life evolved, and I hope I’ve put it together in such a way as to paint . . . the world as a natural realm,” he says. “That’s the idea: that Genesis is something that science understands.”
But the work as a whole has none of the combativeness that one might expect. “This book is not against religion,” Grayling says, “it just ignores religion, and by ignoring it shows that there is as much if not more of a resource already in our hands.”
Unlike the Bible, The Good Book doesn’t culminate in a big climax: There is no book of Revelation. Since we don’t know how the world will end, Grayling prefers to present his final book—called The Good—as “a kind of revelation.” He believes that “we’re all capable of a good, well-lived, flourishing life, and at the center of that are our best relationships with other people and our care and concern for them. That idea is at the core of our ethics, and if there is any kind of revelation in the book, it’s that we are free to create ourselves.”
This isn’t much comfort for those seeking solace from the fear of death, however. Surely, this is where religion scores? The promise of a trip to paradise is far more appealing than The Good Book’s injunction to reflect on the fact that the atoms of which we are assembled will one day be disassembled and reunited with the cosmos, that death is necessary for life.
Grayling admits that you can’t eliminate the fear of mortality, “but the more one can armor oneself against that fear, or the more one can control that fear, the better,” he says. “And once you realize that death in itself has no terror, it frees you to live fully. When I was young I used to be very hypochondriacal, until I realized that it wasn’t because I was afraid of illness or death, but afraid of not achieving something worthwhile. But as people get older and as they manage to do something, they begin to relax.” Grayling recounts aging friends and family members who “feel at the back of their minds that, even though they’re enjoying life now, their creaking knees and weariness will be relieved and there will be an absolute release. And it’s a great joy. Old people are not all gibbering with terror at the thought of their impending death, because they know what death really means, and they accept it. And acceptance comes with time and age and with achievement. And it comes with love. Love for your children, for example. These are immense consolations, they really are.
“And where the demands made by the Koran and the Bible really are demands, made with the promise of divine punishment, The Good Book offers only advice. It makes no threats. It encourages its readers to go beyond the text and think for themselves, suggests only that they make an effort to live wisely, to live well and, as far as is possible, without fear.”
Grayling would like his book to reach as large an audience as possible, in order to make the case that spiritual life can be lived without religion: “What people really mean by the spiritual is the complex of their emotions and intellectual attitudes to the world and to others, our sense of belonging to a world, our response to beauty and nature, our need for love. All those things are the most important things about us.
“The churches have been so successful in monopolizing spirituality. But a walk in the country, a visit to an exhibition, dinner with a friend, or just having a quiet drink in the evening—those are spiritual exercises too. The humanist tradition recognizes this, and is much more generous and sympathetic about human desires. And it recognizes that there are as many ways of leading good and meaningful lives as there are individuals who live them.”
Matthew Adams is a freelance writer who has contributed to The Economist, the Guardian, and the Times Literary Supplement. Excerpted from the London-based New Humanist, a proudly irreverent magazine produced by the Rationalist Association that demands freethinking and encourages robust debate.www.newhumanist.org.uk
Have something to say? Send a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in the September-October 2011 issue of Utne Reader.