Packed into the cosy lower levels of the Sheldonian Theatre, we welcome Anthony Grayling with a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’, a simultaneously awkward and spirited moment he accepts with great stoicism. Known for his impressive canon of philosophical writing, Grayling today is talking about his latest work, The Good Book: A Secular Bible, a book offering the knowledge and understanding of non-theistic traditions from all over the world.
However, this is not simply a collection or anthology of disparate stories from these traditions. In his rewriting, defending his methods as ‘exactly how the Bible itself was compiled’, Grayling made them into a coherent whole. The ‘Parables’ especially are cleverly interconnected, while the longest section, the ‘Histories’, rewards being read as a continuous narrative of ‘the great war between the East and the West’ but can also be dipped into for individual tales. Grayling has also taken into account the importance of language, in the spirit of the composition of the King James Bible in its day. This is particularly apparent in the poetry of the ‘Songs’, which focus upon human relationships and those between man and nature in a way that is affecting, though unsentimental.
The Good Book, offering a secular vision of how the good life could be lived, is Grayling’s ambitious contribution to what some have disparagingly classified as the ‘New Atheist’ movement. But, as he is keen to point out, ‘it has no direct mention of atheism, or God’ in its 600-odd pages, in keeping with his belief that all books should be ‘positive’ and ‘offer some message of value’. Thus it appears on the other side of the atheist coin, as it were, offering an alternative to works such as Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great with its diatribes against all religious practices. Perhaps this approach is why Grayling has not yet been denounced as a fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse – in addition to the more often condemned foursome of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens.
The structure of The Good Book itself is drawn from the Judaeo-Christian Bible, with chapters and verses within sections, and even begins with the story of an apple – the one that falls upon the head of Sir Isaac Newton. It has been, as Grayling himself is quick to declare, a ‘hubristic undertaking’, and its daring, its silent yet deliberate challenge to the major religions, could fall uneasily on some readers’ eyes. But there is nothing arrogant, only confident and quietly energetic, about the man himself. From the down-to-earth humour of his anecdotes about sceptical cabbies to the reflective allusion to David Hume and John Stuart Mill as important influences, every word Grayling speaks is full of intelligence and conviction. Moments of cheek, such as the joke of the apple, must be forgiven.
While answering questions from the enthusiastic audience, Grayling offers two pieces of his own wisdom. The first is that happiness ought to be a product of our actions, and not the intended target; the second is that the worst falsehood that has ever been told to mankind is that there is only one truth. The Good Book embodies both of these ideas in its wide-ranging content, offering example rather than commandment, and insight in place of injunction.