Q and A on The Good Book
When and why did you become an atheist?
I was brought up in a non-religious family, and when I first encountered religion it simply seemed incredible, no more believable that the fairy stories and Greek myths that I had read and enjoyed as a child.
What motivated you to write The Good Book?
Several decades ago, while studying the ethical theories and systems of the world, I saw a fundamental difference between religion-derived ethics and what I call ‘humanism’, that is, non-religious ethics, namely, that the former present themselves as the commands and requirements of a monarchical deity whereas the latter premises itself on efforts to understand human nature and the human condition – and whereas the former typically cut across the grain of human nature by requiring excessive self-denial and limitation, the latter is more sympathetic and reasonable by far.
How much time did it take you to organise all the information available to make the book and to write it?
I started to gather the materials for The Good Book about 30 years ago, after the realization described above, and as time went by began the process of selecting and editing – going from a great quantity of material to the final selection and arrangement that constitutes The Good Book now.
Why did you decide to publish it now? Has it something to do with the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible?
The 400th anniversary of the KJB is coincidental; unlike sending a rocket to the moon where precision of timing is possible, I couldn’t have planned that this would be the year of publication when I began this so long ago! But it is a useful coincidence, because the KJB provides a good example of how the religious Bible was made, and why it is printed as it is, and why its language is deliberately archaic (even in 1611 the English of the KJB was 100 years out of date, on purpose to give it that authoritative, vatic, somewhat heightened tone).
Aren’t you afraid of being called pretentious or arrogant for this ambitious initiative?
I’ve already been called even worse things than either of those! – I don’t expect that anyone who is hostile to the idea of The Good Book will readily believe this, but I have done it in a sober and collegial spirit. After all, almost all the words in The Good Book are from great minds of the past, from people who experienced much and thought deeply, and in almost all cases were people of great intellect – so when people attack The Good Book they attack Aristotle, Pliny, Seneca, Cicero, Confucius, Mo Zi…all the way to Spinoza, Hume, Chesterfield, Mill and Pater. If they read these people outside the context of The Good Book they would be struck by their insight and wisdom – so if they give The Good Book a fair chance, they would see that I have collected and arranged these valuable texts as a resource for everyone, so that even religious people would find good things in it.
In your opinion, do atheists really need their own Bible?
No one needs a bible, because everyone has the potential to find things out and read for themselves. Since atheists are more likely than religious people to be independent-minded, they are even less in need of guidance and help, because they can go to libraries, learn, and think for themselves. But even atheists need to read and study, and a distillation of the past’s insights and experience relating to questions about how to live (Socrates’ question!) might be of use to some. No-one is under an obligation to read The Good Book given that they can do the work for themselves, and indeed this latter would be the best way; but I offer it anyway as a resource should it be of value to some. And given the wealth of insight, inspiration and consolation that the book gathers together, I have good hopes that some will indeed find it useful, as a starting point for their own reflections. The one demand that The Good Book makes is for people to go beyond all teachings and teachers (and therefore beyond books like The Good Book) and think for themselves.
Is the Good Book made for everyone? Can a religious person read it?
As just indicated, yes, definitely: there is nothing in The Good Book that a religious person could or at least should disagree with – except for those who say we must not think for ourselves but must submit our will and intellect to the doctrines of a religion.
What do you want to achieve with the Good Book?
Again as noted in the preceding remarks, The Good Book is intended as a resource to help anyone who cares to use it as such on their journey to autonomy and independence of mind.
Don’t you fear that it will be considered a self-help book, full of prescriptions for a good life?
Not prescriptions, but suggestions; and from very great minds of the past.
Have you faced any criticism from atheists or harsh reactions from religious communities?
Those atheists and theists who have not seen the book or who have not grasped its purpose, and either think it is a rule-book for atheists (so some atheists might think) or an attack on the religious bible or religion itself (so theists might think) have of course been critical – but the kind of criticism that would be truly germane would concern itself with the choice of texts, their arrangement, the translations used, etc, unless the critics in question are so authoritative that they disagree with what Aristotle et al. have to offer in the way of suggestions for reflecting on ethical questions.
You say that religious influence is overinflated in our society. What are the biggest consequences of this in our lives?
This question is almost too big to answer in a few lines. All the way from distortion of education (opposition to evolutionary biology, false views of the nature and origins of the universe, corruption of science etc) to oppressive moralities (think of teenagers fearfully struggling with ‘sinful feelings’ because of their burgeoning sexuality) to policies on contraception, AIDS prevention, abortion and stem cell research, to persecution of gays, to murderous interreligious conflicts in many countries (Christians versus Muslims versus Hindus – and Protestants versus Catholics, and Sunnis versus Shias, attacking each other in Nigeria, Iraq, Pakistan, India, Ireland, Croatia…) to religious leaders (e.g. mullahs) inciting hatred, terrorism and mass murder – where are the aspects of our lives that are not in some way affected by the toxin of religion?
In an interview in the Guardian, you joked about being a god in five centuries. Do you believe that the Good Book message can and will last as long as great philosophical books?
The message of the great philosophical books will last as long as there are intelligent minds to appreciate them. Whether The Good Book, which is a distillation of some of the best of these books, will last with them, is an open question. I certainly hope not to be a ‘god’ because, even though history shows that the bar has not been set very high in this regard, I would not be a good one, and anyway if I have a message it is ‘think for yourself, take responsibility for yourself, do not be a disciple, do not abdicate your mind and put it under the feet of someone else’s ideology’.
In the same interview, you said that being a ‘militant atheist’ was like ‘sleeping furiously’. But haven’t you worked and still work really hard to defend the atheist point of view?
‘Militant’ is a term used by religious people who wish that they could continue to enjoy the status and privileges which the now-lost ‘respect agenda’ (‘I think weird thoughts so respect me, I am a man of faith’) once protected for them. My friends Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens do not burn people at the stake for holding opposite views, but criticize them by speaking frankly and bluntly; and I have done the same in other places. There are three areas of debate: metaphysics (does the universe contain supernatural agencies? Answer: No; learn some science) secularism (what is the place of religion in the public square? Answer: it has every right to have its say, but no greater right than anyone else – yet for historical reasons it has a massively over-amplified voice there) and ethics (do you need a ubiquitous invisible policeman watching everyone for people to be good? Answer: No, read e.g. the Good Book). My interest is in all three, but as just noted The Good Book addresses the third of these, by showing that there is a rich, deep, serious non-religious tradition of thought about the good, which is in fact richer and deeper than religious ethics (New Testament ethics says ‘give away all you own, make no plans, do not marry…’ i.e. the ethics of a people who thought the Messiah was very soon going to return; after four centuries Christianity had to borrow great swathes of Greek non-religious ethics to bolster itself.)
What do you say about the thesis that new atheism looks like a religion?
That is nonsense. As has been well said, atheism is to religion what not collecting stamps is to stamp collecting. Not collecting stamps is not a hobby. Not believing in gods and goddesses is not a religion.
Can we live completely guided by rigorous reason and rationality? Do you yourself try to live that way, without emotional subjectivity?
Of course we need emotion; who said that we do not? This is the most important part of our lives: loving, responding to beauty, feeling joy, coping with grief and loss, being human. But we know that a partnership of emotion and reason makes our emotions deeper and finer; the emotions can be educated by reflection – as when we read thoughtfully, learn, study science, acquire greater appreciation of music and painting – recognizing the central importance of emotion does not exclude being rational where rationality is called for (from science to thinking about our children’s health and education to voting to planning our pensions – these are not matters for emotion) and emotion is not mere thoughtless whim and arbitrariness. To go from the thought that emotion is central to life to saying that therefore we can believe any old nonsense is an example not of emotion but or irrationality or even stupidity.
Any special message to an atheist reader?
I congratulate any atheist on being one, and wish him or her well.