Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

The Good Book: A Secular BibleThe Good Book: A Secular Bible by A.C. Grayling

A.C. Grayling The Good Book: A Secular Bible, New York: Walker & Company, 2011.

AC Grayling is a British philosopher who forms part of an (un)holy trinity leading the British school of ‘new atheism’ along with Richard Dawkins and the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens. This loose but reasonably coherent movement of thought has quite a few supporters – mainly an assortment of philosophers and science fiction writers: Philip Pullman, Terry Pratchet, Douglas Adams, Dr Who writers Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffatt, all espouse similar ideas. Recently, popular English philosopher Alain de Botton has offered a more balanced intervention into the discussion with his excellent book Religion for atheists, (Hamish Hamilton, 2012).

Leaving aside Alain de Botton, who provides truly enlightening and productive insights into religious practice as a cultural form, I am in general no great supporter of the British atheist movement for a variety of reasons. The fundamentalist belief in science and narrow materialism espoused by its members wears thin after repeated exposure as do their terrorist polemics whose main aim appears to be to reduce their targets/opponents to ridicule and silence. It is also perhaps no accident that many of the proponents of ‘new atheism’ are science fiction writers. The God they (don’t) believe in emerges as a powerful and inaccessible alien with super powers, a morally ambiguous and not particularly benevolent being who displays an inexplicable fixation with humans over and against the rest of His (and this God is irretrievably male) creation. The new millennium Dr Who has been irritatingly rendered as a version of this ambiguous divine figure to be alternately adulated and condemned (with high moral outrage) at every opportunity.

Another problem I have with this school is nicely summed up by Terry Eagleton. Speaking of Dawkins he writes:

There is a very English brand of common sense that believes mostly in what it can touch, weigh and taste, and The God Delusion springs from, among other places, that particular stable. At its most philistine and provincial, it makes Dick Cheney sound like Thomas Mann. The secular Ten Commandments that Dawkins commends to us, one of which advises us to enjoy our sex lives so long as they don’t damage others, are for the most part liberal platitudes. [1]

The bottom line, perhaps, is that there is a severe dearth of non-partisan, non-sectarian intellectual or imaginative language to discuss a particular dimension of human experience in the contemporary era. This experience can be divided into three categories: the religious which provides, moral and psychological instruction, guidance, support and group rituals which aid social bonding, all within the framework of an institutional organization and hierarchy, the ‘spiritual’ which encompasses techniques of self formation and the relation to others, and finally the supernatural.

The best and most convincing attempt I have come across so far to provide a new contemporary language to discuss religion (as distinct from spirituality), framing religion as a cultural and historical practice worthy of serious consideration, is Alain de Botton’s new book. Foucault, of course, has developed useful and convincing frameworks for a rigorous discussion of the ‘spiritual’ (in the sense of an examination of historical techniques of self formation and how the individual relation to others is constructed). His discussions on religion tend to be more fragmentary – even if those fragments are extremely enlightening. On the supernatural front however, there is no language at all. The supernatural has become the domain of literature and fiction as the only viable contemporary language for its expression. A mainstream intellectual and non-partisan language to discuss this dimension of experience simply does not exist, if one discounts history of ideas approaches which simply detail what are usually regarded as odd beliefs and practices.

But to turn to AC Grayling’s book, the ostensible subject of this review essay: Grayling is perhaps less ferociously polemical than Dawkins or Hitchens, but he is still committed to the cause. The Good Book subtitled A Secular Bible is a strange exercise. It reads like a rather dull Penguin Dictionary of Quotations, and the format modelled on the King James Bible and the deliberately slightly antiquated language, to my mind at least, further add to the rather contrived and twee nature of the whole project.

My initial introduction to this book was through an elegantly structured talk delivered by Grayling to the Sydney Writers festival in 2011. I was particularly interested by a number of comments he made about wishing to make available to the contemporary reader a treasure trove of useful tools and ideas produced by people in the past. This echoes Foucault’s comments about the past providing a useful set of tools which people can use in various ways today to help them form themselves and ways of living. [2] Grayling also stated that he wanted to relegate authors to the background and anonymity so as to focus attention on the bare wisdom of their statements free of authorial constraints. Again, this echoes Foucault’s archaeological project in its examination of ‘statements’ and orders of discourse as an alternative to the examination of authors’ intentions and the subjectivities. One could argue perhaps, that Grayling is attempting to reactivate old notions of author attribution (or lack thereof) if we refer to Foucault here:

There was a time when the texts that we today call ‘literary’ (narratives, stories, epics, tragedies, comedies) were accepted, put into circulation, and valorized without any question about the identity of the author; their anonymity causes no difficulties since their ancientness, whether real or imagined, was regarded as a sufficient guarantee of their status. [3]

But this surface appearance of a concordance between the two thinkers is just that – a surface appearance. Their renditions of how they delve into the treasure trove of the past are radically different. If Foucault’s approach is to carefully and meticulously locate ideas and thought in their historical setting and context – which then leads to a practical understanding of how these ideas operate and are transformed in quite different historical contexts, Grayling’s method is to remove the ideas completely from their historical and authorial trappings. And that is perhaps the main problem with this book – its lack of contextualisation of its content. Stripped of their historical trappings, the various extracts tend to come across as a series of rather bland platitudes and irrelevant and sometimes puzzling anecdotes and stories about dislocated historical doings.

If Grayling situates his project within the context of biblical studies and processes of ‘redaction’, he might more usefully and convincingly, in my view, have characterised it as an exercise in hypomnemata as described by Foucault, the Ancient Greek practice of keeping notebooks for administrative, public or personal use. Foucault notes:

Their use as books of life, guides of conduct, seems to have become a current thing among a whole cultivated public. Into them one entered quotations, fragments of works, examples, and actions to which one had been witness or of which one had read the account, reflections or reasonings which one had heard or which had come to mind [4]

Grayling explains that this is precisely the process he had followed for decades – finally culminating in The Good Book. It is surprising that given Grayling’s close familiarity with the Ancient Greeks, he didn’t frame his book in these terms. This kind of framing would have in fact considerably strengthened the claims he was making for the validity of his project and added force to his ambition to provide a real secular alternative to the Bible, as opposed to what emerges as a rather dubious analogue. But then perhaps his project might not have achieved the same succès de scandale.

Other reviewers have also offered the rather cynical observation that providing this compendium of non-attributed statements has saved the publishers a fortune in copyright payments and has also helped bolster Grayling’s reputation as a philosopher, as his own text and organizational strategies are woven into the arrangement of quotations in the book, in a way that makes it hard to draw the boundaries between his own interpretative framework and the citations.

The end result of all this, as I have already mentioned, is actually rather bland, which is not an accusation that even its most stringent critics can level against the Bible. On these grounds alone, it is doubtful that Grayling’s Good Book will have the same longevity or impact as its model for all its secular pretensions to the contrary.

[1] Terry Eagleton, Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching, London Review of Books, vol 28, no 20, 2006.

[2] ‘Among the cultural inventions of mankind there is a treasury of devices, techniques, ideas, procedures, and so on, that cannot exactly be reactivated, but at least constitute, or help to constitute, a certain point of view which can be very useful as a tool for analysing what’s going on now – and to change it’. Michel Foucault, “On the genealogy of ethics: an overview of work in progress,” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (London: Penguin, 1984), 350.

[3] Michel Foucault, ‘What is an author?’, in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (London: Penguin, 1984), 109. See also Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. (London: Tavistock, 1972 [1969]).

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