Posted by: Paul Chiariello | August 17, 2011

‘The Good Book’: Book Review & Thoughts on the ‘Humanist Bible’

So far, I’m a third of the way through ‘the Good Book’, AC Grayling’s 600 page Humanist ‘Bible’.  I know this is a bit of a pre-mature review, but I wanted to talk about the idea of the book more than the book itself, anyway.

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Right off the bat the cover tells you a good bit about the book and its intentions as the bottom reads ‘Made‘ by AC Grayling. Authors write books and photographers take photos, right?  But what do you call the equivalent of an artist whose medium is the collage?

I’ve read a couple of actual reviews on the book now and a lot of people complain ‘he doesn’t cite anything’.  But I think that misses the point.  The Good Book is written in verses and chapters like the Bible.  Often it rhymes as the emotion and poetry of a section crescendos.  It is poetry more than the peer processed postulations of professors.

For those unfamiliar with the Bible and its ilk and just looking for another academic treatise or social rant, you should probably look elsewhere  Instead the book is devotional.  To myself and many other humanists that have come from passionate Christian backgrounds, this is a proverbial and nearly literal place to rest your head.  A few minutes contemplation before sleep or a beautiful, encouraging and thoughtful way to start your day.  In this sense I think it certainly is Bible.

Now for those that think using others’ quotes is cheating, Grayling does list the major sources in the back of the book.  Though he does claim he has taken from literally thousands of authors and traditions from African Ubuntu to Confucius and Buddha to the greats of the Western tradition.  If this still doesn’t satisfy you, simply google the verse or passage and enjoy.  You’ll likely get the author quickly enough.

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Besides all this such, there is only one big difference in which this book is not a Bible in the way we often throw around the word.  And certainly not when compared to the Bibles we print crosses or crescents or whatever on the covers of today.

Though the books within mostly bear different names from the Christian Bible, the first book remains Genesis, literally Beginning – an appropriate place to start, right?  This is the Good Book’s creation story, the place of man, this is its birth of ‘sin’ and our ‘salvation’.

Genesis Ch 1
9 So all things are gathered into one thing: the universe of nature, in which there are many worlds: the orbs of light in an immensity of space and time,
10 And among them their satellites, on one of which is a part of nature that mirrors nature itself,
11 And can ponder its beauty and significance, and seek to understand it: this is human kind.
12 All other things, in their cycles and rhythms, exist in and of themselves;
13 But in humankind there is experience also, which is what makes good and its opposite,
14 In both of which humankind seeks to grasp the meaning of things.

We became that which can reflect nature itself and experience both good and its opposite, suffering.  From this reflection and experiencing of what world it is we live in we learn.  It is by this learning that the Good Book is ‘made’.  The next chapter praises those that set out on this hazardous and imperfect journey with ‘new eyes… needed to see what lay hidden in ignorance, new language to express the unknown (Gen 2:3)”.

I have only read about a third of this book, but a (I think the) common theme – the defining characteristic of Humanism – is that of error and rebirth in learning from our mistakes as well as our successes.  This is not a book, like other Bibles, that claims any degree of infallibility.  It claims to be right, yes.  But only through a constant struggle and collective dialogue of generations using reasons and experience.  And only with the quickly added clause that it might be wrong.  The only way to know life and to live is to learn and the only way to learn is to critically questions others and especially yourself.  This Good Book is not exempt from this.

For instance, in the passage I quoted above, I disagree that human kind is the only thing on this rock that can begin reflecting on itself and certainly isn’t the only thing that mirrors nature abstractly.  Watching Koko the gorilla, or other great apes, I certainly can see a glimpse of understanding in her that there are two things communicating and one of them is herself.  Further, I don’t like the implication of the passage that there aren’t any other rocks out there that some creature calls its home.  But this disagreement does not question my ‘faith’ in the Good Book or the worldview it represents because I have no ‘faith’ in it, it contains no revelation.  If it posits something, I reflect on its reasons for it.  It is a mine, not a map.

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All that being said, I believe this Book represents something beautiful.  Not of course a set of principles we can refer to so we ‘know’ what is right.  Such a concept is contrary to the defining features of Humanism.  Instead it is more social than intellectual.  People need cultural symbols, common references.  I believe it is simply how we are built as social animals; something we should be critically aware of while embracing.

But the Humanist world is growing unimaginably quickly and lacks many of these ‘symbols’.  Of course there is the sharp wit of Dawkins and other ‘militant atheists’, the classics of the world from Buddha to Aristotle and so on and so on that we can quickly quote.  But I think this book represents an important step.  It is in its very existence and physical form consciously pointing to a collective, a community, that exists with common beliefs.  It is an affirmation of the standing upright of a social movement, an argument, a worldview, a lifestyle and an intellectual and social vantage point.  And it is in this that I find the Good Book’s most powerful poetry.

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Responses

  1. Well worded. I have been looking for a good review and insight of the “the good book”. Thank you. I’ll b purchasing out asap.


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