So AC Grayling has put together a compendium of thought, purportedly without religious influence, to demonstrate that secular humanist ethics need no God to do their thing. Oh those secular humanists, always hurling that chip on their shoulders at religions that work. As far as I can tell, secular humanists tend to be comprised of well-read or educated, middle-to-upper-middle class Westerners who believe that humans are naturally good and moral (as they clearly are) with no need of threats or comfort from an authoritarian God.

That their own good, cooperative morality is a byproduct of circumstances never to occur to them. In all of this good-naturedness, the irony is, of course, their failure to note the cruelty inherent to men and women of the elite–themselves living lives of comfort and plenty–lecturing the majority of humankind–the uneducated and hungry–about how easy it is to be a good person without any higher moral order, nor any greater impetus for justice, forgiveness, understanding, morality than the fact that they feel like it. Indeed, why don’t these peons merely take solace in a meal out at a nice restaurant with friends? Or a good book? Perhaps a nice bottle of cabernet? Why not indeed.

Even ignoring this dimension of patronizing humanism, this particular Bible enterprise strikes me as intellectually shifty for a couple of reasons:

First, Buddhism–um, it is a religion, one complete with other dimensions, demons and a more or less neverending afterlife (reincarnation), if not the same conception of God.

Second, the Greeks and the Romans did believe in multiple gods and based their not-exactly-humanist ethics on divine moral fables, if ones dissimilar from those of the Hebrews. So Eagleton has trouble believing knowledge could ever be bad, ala Adam and Eve–well how about turning into a swan and raping a virgin? What does that even mean? If anything these civilizations were far less ‘humanist’ than the Christian ideal, given that they believed in a brutally strict, classist system extending all the way up to the Pantheon and back down again to slavery–for sex, labor, amusement–not to mention infanticide. Here there was no universal morality; no inherent worth imputed to man; moral norms and justice were doled out according to socioeconomic station. Killing or raping or torturing humans were only grave matters where said humans enjoyed a reasonably high status. Perhaps it is the high status of the author that makes this hard to bear in mind. As for me, I find myself identifying with the slave class–absent the right birth, the right gender, the right ethnicity. The fact is, Christ in particular appealed to the disenfranchised, ie the people who got screwed in these hierarchies–the poor, the disabled, and the ethnically undesirable. That was more or less his point–rather than believing we are superior to the slaves and various ‘others’ we should understand that we are all equal in our createdness and the highest mode of living is one of service to the weakest, rather than lordship over them.

We cannot shed context and historical realities when these don’t suit our ends–or at least I am sure Grayling would not be eager to do that favor for the actual Bible.

To remove divine references from quotations, or to quote only those individuals who made none, and thus conclude that human thought doesn’t need a holy reference point for its morality seems a bit of hocus pocus to me. Merely ’taking gods out’ does not relieve this cabal of the religious milieu that informed their ideological evolution. Neither does stringing together a bunch of quotations a revolutionary philosophy make. Putting together this humanist bible is a worthy effort on one hand; however, to imply that it makes some greater statement about the necessity of religion for the formation of our moral norms is to make a supernatural claim. The fervent, no doubt, will believe. Those of us with a rudimentary understanding of history will remain skeptical.