Bloomsbury, £16.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

The God Argument, By AC Grayling

Virtuous atheists may live well and do good – but can they give hope to the hopeless cases?

Some years ago AC Grayling gave me a Christmas card that he had drawn himself. It was a simple nativity scene, complete with stable, baby, mother, ox and ass; there was a speech bubble above saying: "It's a girl!" That kind of wit is sadly lacking from The God Argument. In person, Anthony Grayling is charming, engaging and kind. But post 9/11, with religion high on the social agenda, he has become in print stern, unrelenting and unforgiving when it comes to faith.

Get money off this book at the Independent bookshop

The God Argument is a book of two parts, the first a tearing-apart of the arguments for religious belief, including the standard philosophical proofs for the existence of God, and the second a manifesto for humanism. Grayling writes in the first like an angry Old Testament prophet, railing at religionists for their foolishness and hypocrisy, and in the second like a born-again preacher. Humanism is for him the way, the truth and the life.

These arguments have been rehearsed on many occasions, particularly by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, saluted in the introduction for their advancing of "the task" and "the cause". Religion is no better than astrology or magic; it is about the indoctrination of children; believers often cherry-pick and are dreadful hypocrites; and "many of the apologists of religion are eager to believe, even self-deceive". While Grayling concedes that religion has been responsible for fine art and music, he lambasts it for its causing wars and misery.

Even the atheistic psychopaths such as Hitler and Stalin are deemed akin to practitioners of religions in their totalitarianism and their enmity to Enlightenment values. This is not only a simplistic jibe but an insult to the millions who died at their hands because of their faiths. It's like claiming a mugger derived his criminal strategy from the approach his victims take to walking down the road.

For anyone wanting an account of standard philosophical arguments, Grayling proves useful, explaining the metaphysical debates about God's existence being necessary, the originator of creation and the first cause. By this stage the reader is warming up for his undergraduate work-out in the philosophy gym, when wow! All thought of the next press-up is abandoned as you are floored by a full-scale row.

Alvin Plantinga is the philosopher who gets both of Grayling's barrels, as a leading proponent of the ontological argument (using reason to establish the existence of a deity). Plantinga has gone on to claim this argument proves not that God exists but that it is rational to think he exists, and entirely reasonable to say that there is a maximally great entity. His claim that this is a rational argument causes Grayling to see red. But Plantinga's description of Dawkins as "dancing on the lunatic fringe" undoubtedly adds to the fire. The forthright riposte from Grayling is to accuse Plantinga of "complete intellectual irresponsibility".

I would have preferred to see what Grayling had to say about Antony Flew, one of the most influential atheistic philosophers of our time and author of The Presumption of Atheism. He declared in 2004 that he had become a theist, on the grounds that the origins of life indicate a creative intelligence. But Flew doesn't get a mention.

Grayling's earnest manifesto for humanism had much the same effect on me as eating too much lettuce did on Peter Rabbit. While wit was as absent as in part one, I was roused to laughing out loud by his explanation of how important it is to be active, rather than idle: "The engagement does not have to be any more taxing than reading, knitting or gardening, though for some it has to take the form of climbing Everest or going to the moon. And there are plenty of worthwhile and creative activities in between".

Apart from their vilification of theists, one gets the impression that humanists are always nice, polite, and middle-class. They are as keen on people being good as any vicar. The trouble is people aren't always nice, and atheism has little to say about that. Attend a humanist funeral and you'll see it works for someone who was pleasant, worked hard, and left behind a loved family. But there is no hope of redemption for anyone who doesn't measure up. It's that search for meaning and hope for the hopeless that continues to capture the imagination of those convinced of their faith, for all the rational arguments put forward by Grayling and his fellows in "the cause".

Catherine Pepinster is editor of 'The Tablet'

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before