Saturday, July 2, 2011
A 'Bible' For Believers and Nonbelievers Alike
What if you took the Bible and edited out all the supernatural references and got to the core of its ethical teachings? That’s not quite what the new release by philosopher A.C. Grayling purports to be, but it’s certainly an equally interesting read. His idea is to take what are more secular, humanist and philosophical texts and draw the ethical principles from them. I haven’t read it yet, but it already promises to be an excellent read just from the idea it presents to any reader, religious or nonreligious. Confucius, Siddhartha Gautama, Lao Tzu, Aristotle, and many other thinkers would probably feature in such a text, and probably Jesus to an extent as well, though certainly taking a backseat to someone like Mencius for another example.
The arrangement of the text itself resembles the Bible, with the two column method commonly seen. Some might jump to the conclusion that this is meant to offend in some way; borrowing the style of the Bible to present a counterpoint. But I don’t see where you’d get that unless you think borrowing a text’s style is anything like plagiarism, which it really isn’t. Formatting for books doesn’t have nearly as strict copyright laws around it as the content of a book itself looking oddly familiar. The very idea of the Bible itself just being edited of all the supernatural stuff may already have been done, but this is another species entirely. When you’re talking about a collection of humanist and secular thinkers of various stripes and their thoughts on ethics and values, it probably will bring more people in with the inclusivity and the subtext only implying that the book is humanist in focusing on the human condition and relationships thereof. There’s no reason to think of this as some literal bible for Secular Humanism or even Religious Humanism of the various types that exist. The main title: The Good Book, is a tongue-in-cheek nod to what many people have historically called the Bible, popularized in the South culturally, from what I understand.
More importantly, when people think of the word ‘bible’, they usually associate it explicitly with a religion and its tenets. But the term can simply mean book in a more archaic sense or a text that is widely read by a group in a sense of being authoritative about that subject (e.g. the fisherman’s bible). But neither of those definitions imply that this is any attempt to formulate an extensive enumeration of atheist beliefs; especially considering that beliefs of any one atheist are as variable as the beliefs of any one theist. Atheist creationists exist, atheist deontologists exist, and other seemingly contradictory beliefs can be held by an atheist as long as they don’t directly contradict the general principle that all atheists can be said to share: skepticism towards God and claims about it. So in this way, the so called “humanist bible” is moreso a humanist “collection” than a “bible” in the common understanding.
Another example of this explicit “parody/satire” of sorts on the ironic notion of an “atheist bible” was published four years ago by Joan Konner, aptly called The Atheist’s Bible. It’s notably shorter, barely a third of the length of A.C. Grayling’s near compendium sized text, but I enjoyed it so much when I first got it, I read it straight through over an hour. It admittedly has flaws that reviewers have aptly pointed out, even though they’re in the minority, since many people enjoy it for simply being a collection of clever quotes. The main flaw is that there are people referenced that are decidedly not atheists, such as Benjamin Franklin and even Paul of Tarsus at a few points. The majority of the book is atheist in nature, criticizing God, decrying the ideas in one form or fashion and otherwise being snarky about believers in God or God itself. Woody Allen features in his own chapter, as well as Bertrand Russell, so clearly the focus is there, though one may wonder why certain atheists aren’t included as much. Part of the intent of the book may have been a sampling or just a particular group of atheists, skeptics and the like. This would not be unlike the collection of essays put in The Portable Atheist, which includes pantheist writers and general critics of religion that might still be believers in a private sense, like Baruch Spinoza or David Hume, who nonetheless merit being considered in the category of skeptics, which is only a slight step apart from disbelief outright.
All in all, the book should be a nice contribution to comparative ethics, and humanist ethics in particular, since the goal was to convey a more natural philosophy in contemplating what the good human life is and how we can live it. The Bible posits ethics from a source that has no real bearing on human life, something that’s superhuman, which reminds me of the graphic novel Supergod, where the ‘gods’ people have created to solve worldwide problems, including Krishna and Dajjal (the Antichrist figure from Islamic eschatology), don’t think like humans, so their solutions to the problems don’t even consider humans as ends in themselves, but means to whatever end they have in mind.
The book’s goal can be said to be in contrast to, not outright opposition and hatred of, ethics based on positing absolute principles of behavior that apply equally to all situations, not unlike say anti abortion advocates that say abortion is always wrong, even in cases where the mother would die or if she was raped. To have an ethics that doesn’t consider the situation could even be said to be un-Christian, even if we assume that there are certain beliefs about morality that are held more commonly by Christians, such as judging that particular sexual behaviors or even sexual orientations are bad things and should be opposed. The example that comes to mind is the term “situational ethics” which most people, including myself for a while, associated with humanist ethics in origin. But it appears that it was first formulated by a Christian in an explicitly God derived context. The idea is that there is one overriding principle that supersedes other laws, and that is love. Not just any love, though, but agape love, the unconditional love that Jesus advocated in the Gospels. The man behind this theory, Joseph Fletcher, eventually became an atheist, but that doesn’t mean that the idea cannot still have a similar humanist application in saying that the highest good is love and that in every situation, with all other laws alongside it, love stands above them as a principle that is not only common, but accessible regardless of beliefs or education. And that kind of ethics is a better start than creating a system that works only for those that refuse to think or don’t have the intellectual capacity to think beyond obedience to the law. Here’s hoping I either splurge on the book or wait until my birthday. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.