AC Grayling’s “Take Down”

Let’s have a look at AC Grayling’s supposed “take down” of Frans de Waal. Now, I must be a fool for trying to respond to something AC Grayling wrote.  For he is a philosopher who founded and became the first Master of New College of the Humanities.  He has authored 30 books and is, according to Wiki, a Trustee of the London Library, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.   And, of course, he is a Gnu atheist.

Put simply, he is part of the Gnu movement’s Intellectual Elite.  As good as it gets.  Nevertheless, I will risk embarrassment and try my best to keep up with his argument.

His response is mostly long-winded fluff.  So let’s get to the few paragraph’s that are most relevant.

Responding to de Waal, he writes:

Why, he asks, are the “new atheists” evangelical about their cause? “Why would atheists turn messianic?” He cannot see why Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and others attack religion and believers, and why they robustly and even aggressively argue the case for atheism.

It’s nice for Grayling to admit that Dawkins et al. attack believers, and not just ideas.  So what’s the answer from the philosopher, author of 30 books, and Master of New College of the Humanities?


Well: here is the answer to de Waal’s question. Some atheists are evangelical because religious claims about the universe are false, because children are brainwashed into the ancient superstitions of their parents and communities, because many religious organisations and movements have been and continue to be anti-science, anti-gays and anti-women, because even if people are no longer burned at the stake they are still stoned to death for adultery, murdered for being “witches” or abortion doctors, blown up in large numbers for being Shias instead of Sunnis”? One could go on at considerable length about the divisions, conflicts, falsehoods, coercions, disruptions, miseries and harm done by religion, though the list should be familiar; except, evidently, to de Waal.

That’s it?  That’s “the answer?”  How pathetic can this be?  The philosopher justifies the aggressive attacks from New Atheists with nothing more that primitive, tribalistic thinking.  All he offers us is a list of stereotypes, clichés, and slogans which amounts to saying, “We are militant because the Other Tribe is Evil.”  Dime-a-dozen confirmation bias propped up by cherry picking.    Seriously people, the “answer” from the Master of New College of the Humanities is exactly the same as we might get from a drunk, 17-year-old furiously attacking people in the comments section of some blog very late at night.  There is not one shred of intellectual sophistication to Grayling’s thinking on this.  Not one.

But hold on.  Grayling has come up with ways to rationalize his primitive approach:

He might respond with the usual points: on one side the charity, art and solace inspired by religion, and on the other side Hitler and Stalin as examples of the crimes of atheism. And the usual replies have wearily to be given: non-believers also engage in charity and make great art, and their love and care for others provides solace too;

Now we are getting into the realm of stupid arguments.  AC, someone would bring up the charity, art and solace inspired by religion in an attempt to jolt you out of your simple-minded, black-and-white, Religion is Pure Eeevil mindset.  Just because you insist on using cherry-picked clichés does not mean your perception of religion is grounded in objective reality.  And as for your claim about the charity and art of non-believers, that is irrelevant to your broad-brushed attempt to smear religion.  What’s the logic here?  He thinks he is rationally justified in painting religious people as evil because non-religious people can do some charity work?

and the totalitarianisms are just alternatives of the great religions at their worst, possessing their own versions of the One Truth to which all must bow down. (Incidentally, Hitler was not an atheist-“Gott mit uns,” (God with us”) said the legend on Wehrmacht belt buckles-and Stalin was educated in a seminary, where evidently he picked up a few tricks.)

Y’know, someone needs to inform Grayling that the Nazi’s did not invent time travel.

Look, New Atheism comes with its own One Truth to which we all must bow down – Religion is Dangerous Nonsense and Something Must be Done About It (!).  It’s Grayling’s One Truth.  It’s the same basic One Truth that inspired Soviet communists to fill their gulags.

What Grayling doesn’t seem to get is that all of the evils that trouble him are not the products of religion.  They are the products of human nature.  Take away religion, and the evils will express themselves in a secular form, whether it be the gulags and death camps of communist societies or the way warring atheists try to hurt and destroy each other on the internet. 

After drawing upon some more stereotypes and clichés, Grayling also writes:

In any case he has the nature of the debate wrong. Atheists, whether new or old (the “new” is a canard), are mostly not interested in pursuing the metaphysical debate about whether the universe contains or has outside it supernatural entities or agencies of some kind-gods and goddesses, fairies and so forth.

Now the thinker contradicts himself.  For he just told us (see above) Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett robustly and even aggressively argue the case for atheism.  When it comes to New Atheist writings, truth has a very short half-life.

 Their militancy-for such indeed it sometimes is, for the good reasons sketched above-is about secularism, not metaphysics; it is about the place of the religious voice in education and the public square where it is at best an irrelevance and at worst a cancer.

And there you go – Their militancy-for such indeed it sometimes is.  Even AC Grayling has now publicly admitted militancy exists among the New Atheists, at least “sometimes.”  Science continues to demonstrate the New Atheists are militant. 

Given his primitive thinking, it is no surprise that activist Grayling sees religion as pure evil and a cancer in the public square.  But he does get one thing right – it is about the imposition of secularism.  Not just keeping religion out of government.  But trying to drive it out of public sight.

Which reminds me that I need to get back to balancing out Grayling’s approach.


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6 Responses to AC Grayling’s “Take Down”

  1. Mr. X says:

    “Stalin was educated in a seminary, where evidently he picked up a few tricks”

    This little piece of atheist apologia seems to be quite common, but has anybody ever seen any actual evidence that Stalin became a totalitarian because of his experiences in the seminary? (“Stalin was evil, religion is evil, QED” doesn’t really count.)

    “at best an irrelevance and at worst a cancer.”

    “A cancer”, eh? Funny he should say that, as most totalitarian regimes use such dehumanising language about the groups they’re persecuting. Odd that Grayling should slip into this sort of terminology.

  2. Crude says:

    Odd that Grayling should slip into this sort of terminology.

    Someone should ask him if he was trained in a seminary.

  3. Dhay says:

    > AC Grayling … is a philosopher …

    But a lousy philosopher; there’s various comments critical of Grayling’s abilities scattered around the thread starters and responses in S2L; I myself have criticised him for not knowing the basics of what he is attacking, indeed for apparently not knowing what the basics are. But the best take-down of this wannabee Horseman surely comes from that real Horseman, the late Christopher Hitchins; one would expect this prominent New Atheist “Horseman” to give a favourable review of Grayling’s book “The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism”; but instead Hitchins says:

    …This work is full of negative. petti-fogging narrowness, devoid of sympathy for opponents, empty of generosity or modesty… The rudest thing that I can say about it is that it is pretty much the same as all the other anti-God books… , asserting their authors’ enlightenment and emitting a nasty undertone of spite and intolerance… This ungenerous view damages him. As he rightly says: ‘One mark of intelligence is an ability to live with as yet unanswered questions.’ True, but one way of avoiding having to do this is to pretend that questions have been answered, when they have not been. While wholly satisfied with his own supposed proofs that God is not necessary…

    And so on – it’s worth reading the full article, linked from that response.

    > … who founded and became the first Master of New College of the Humanities.

    Which makes Graying an administrator.

    In late-August 2015 issue Private Eye magazine was scathing about the New College of the Humanities. It claims to be a “world-class academic institution that is leading the way in UK higher education”, to be “prestigious and innovative” and to be “at the forefront of a new era, the academic equivalent of space travel”. Yet it did (does?) not meet, or has not sought, the ordinary standards and accreditation required to award degrees to its own students.

    From mid-2015 the (Humanities, remember) degrees were to be awarded by Southampton Solent, which university is apparently ranked 122 out of 126 in the Complete University Guide ranking table, and similarly close to rock bottom by the rankings of both the Guardian and Sunday Times newspapers. Sounds like the New College of the Humanities’ Humanities degrees were to be (are still?) assessed and awarded by a university that dwells in the sludge at the academic bottom.

    Sounds really crappy, that; it can’t get any worse, can it? It does gets worse: how competent is Southampton Solent to oversee and validate degrees in history and philosophy, the New College of the Humanities’ favoured topics? Well, it apparently doesn’t even have a humanities department, it doesn’t even do its own history or philosophy degree courses.

    Go figure the value of a (“world-class”?) philosophy degree earned studying under AC Grayling.

    Which makes Grayling a really lousy administrator, too.

  4. TFBW says:


    But the best take-down of this wannabee Horseman surely comes from that real Horseman, the late Christopher Hitchins …

    That’s not Christopher Hitchens: that’s Peter Hitchens, his ex-Atheist younger brother, also an author.

  5. Dhay says:


    Thanks, and I ruefully realise I made that exact same misattribution and you the same correction on the previous occasion I quoted the passage. Peter Hitchens it is. I should have located my earlier post in context in S2L instead of finding the scratchpad document I originally wrote it in and pasted from.

    My bad.

  6. FZM says:

    It struck me on reading Grayling’s comments above that they are a great example to use if/when the idea that atheism is just a lack of belief in God, gods etc. comes up. In his opinion, at least, the more evangelical atheists seem to be mainly motivated by morality and values issues.

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