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April 11th, 2011
11:21 AM ET

Leading atheist publishes secular Bible

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN

The question arose early in British academic A.C. Grayling’s career: What if those ancient compilers who’d made Bibles, the collected religious texts that were translated, edited, arranged and published en masse, had focused instead on assembling the non-religious teachings of civilization’s greatest thinkers?

What if the book that billions have turned to for ethical guidance wasn’t tied to commandments from God or any one particular tradition but instead included the writings of Aristotle, the reflections of Confucius, the poetry of Baudelaire? What would that book look like, and what would it mean?

Decades after he started asking such questions, what Grayling calls “a lifetime’s work” has hit bookshelves. “The Good Book: A Humanist Bible,” subtitled “A Secular Bible” in the United Kingdom, was published this month. Grayling crafted it by using more than a thousand texts representing several hundred authors, collections and traditions.

The Bible would have been “a very different book and may have produced a very different history for mankind,” had it drawn on the work of philosophers and writers as opposed to prophets and apostles, says Grayling, a philosopher and professor at Birkbeck College, University of London, who is an atheist.

“Humanist ethics didn’t claim to be derived from a deity," he says. "(They) tended to start from a sympathetic understanding of human nature and accept that there’s a responsibility that each individual has to work out the values they live by and especially to recognize that the best of our good lives revolve around having good relationships with people.” 

Humanists rely on human reason as an alternative to religion or belief in God in attempting to find meaning and purpose in life.

Determined to make his material accessible, Grayling arranged his nearly 600-page "Good Book" much like the Bible, with double columns, chapters (the first is even called Genesis) and short verses. And much like the best-selling King James Bible, which is celebrating its 400th year, his book is written in a type of English that transcends time.

Like the Bible, "The Good Book," opens with a garden scene. But instead of Adam and Eve, Grayling's Genesis invokes Isaac Newton, the British scientist who pioneered the study of gravity.

"It was from the fall of fruit from such a tree that new inspiration came for inquiry into the nature of things," reads a verse from "The Good Book's" first chapter.

"When Newton sat in his garden, and saw what no one had seen before: that an apple draws the earth to itself, and the earth the apple," the verse continues, "Through a mutual force of nature that holds all things, from the planets to the stars, in unifying embrace."

The book's final chapter features a secular humanist version of the Ten Commandments: "Love well, seek the good in all things, harm no others, think for yourself, take responsibility, respect nature, do your utmost, be informed, be kind, be courageous: at least, sincerely try."

Grayling, reached Friday at a New York hotel just as he began his U.S. book tour, has been dubbed by some a “velvet atheist” or an “acceptable face of atheism,” he says, in contrast to more stridently anti-religious writers like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, both of whom he counts as friends.

In other contexts, Grayling - who will soon take over as president of the British Humanist Association - admits he’s written critically about religion. But not in "The Good Book."

“It’s not part of a quarrel,” he says of his latest work. “It’s a modest offering… another contribution to the conversation that mankind must have with itself,” and one he says he wrote for everyone, Bible lovers included.

Given where society is today, inviting that conversation is all the more important, he says.

More than 16% of Americans say they are unaffiliated religiously, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Even so, Grayling says the hunger for a spiritual connection continues. That yearning, he argues , can be satisfied for many by taking a walk in the country, curling up with a beautiful book of poetry or even in falling in love.

“In all different ways, we can celebrate the good in the world,” he says.

While many intellectual traditions – religious and otherwise – teach that there’s “one right way to live,” Grayling says he hopes “The Good Book” will encourage people to “go beyond your teachers, your text” to understand that “we have to respect and relate to one another.”

Early sales indicate that people are open to what this new "Bible" teaches. On Monday, Grayling’s book was number 41 on Amazon’s UK bestseller list and number 1 in the philosophy and spirituality categories.

- CNN Writer/Producer

Filed under: Atheism • Bible • Books • Culture & Science • Ethics

soundoff (3,021 Responses)
  1. BGko

    Thomas Jefferson already did this, only his was just the Gospel account, not the entire bible.

    April 11, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
  2. brad

    I'm sure it'll be A GREAT read while enjoying eternal seperation from God. If God didn't exist and the Bible wasn't true, there's be NO atheists, agnostics, and there wouldn't be comical material to read like this.. immitation is the highest form of flattery.

    April 11, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
  3. a4mrtheist

    "What a wonderful world it would be" I hope it makes it to the US.
    BTW: Mary was abducted and impregnated by an alien and they call his name Jesus.

    April 11, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
  4. David B.

    As a Christian I can't help but agree with the "atheistic" purist motivation for doing good. If I am doing good to please God, then I have completely missed the point. God calls us to do good (Isa 56:1-2) but Christians will not be rewarded (saved) because of their actions (Eph 1) My dog does good and is motivated to please me, so its not a very highly developed function for my dog. When he runs into the street, he knows he has done wrong, he tucks his tail, anticipating my displeasure before I say anything. But he does not understand the danger of running into the street at all. God calls his friends to understanding (John 15:15) so like atheists we are called to an understanding of what is good, and not to blindly do what God says without seeking an understanding. If we do that, we end up doing stupid things that made sense hundreds of years ago (Read Leviticus), worked for the nation of Israel for hundreds of millennia, but don't really help in modern society.

    April 11, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
    • beelzebubba

      Your analogy has some holes. So you are like a god allowing your dog to have free will (running into the street). But if he gets hit, you could be charged with neglect. So, by your analogy, when god knowingly lets us do harmful things, by human standards he is neglectful. I guess we humans just expect too much unless we are brainwashed to not question religious authorities. Thanks for the inspired discussion

      April 11, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
  5. William

    After reading some of the comments left here and some of the rhetoric you see in certain media outlets (I'm looking at you Faux news) you zealots scare the crap out of me. Nothing more frightening than the thought of a Christian version of the Taliban right here in the States. Please don't kill me in the name of your God.

    April 11, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
  6. A moral thinking person

    There is good, and there is evil. I choose to believe God is on the side of good. If that means that people will not worship God for the sake of getting along, be good to each other, tolerate and help each other and pursue science to get closer to God, I believe God will be very happy with non-believers. Don't force others in your own preconceptions of what God is... you either believe or not, but regardless be moral. If you believe use it as a way to guide your actions towards good. If you don't believe use morality as your compass to achieve the same thing. Either one works for everyone.

    April 11, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
  7. Greenspam

    Bible was written by man. Man created God in his own image. Enough said.

    April 11, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
  8. Me

    Athiest are so insecure they have to copy what "God" has done. then again if I was up against God I would be insecure also. The reason Athiest dispise people who believe in God so much is that they lose so many athiest who finally wake up and see God.

    April 11, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
  9. Muneef

    As said the chosen words written by those authors must have come from old religious books even if they were rearranged to look otherwise...
    What other words can man invent that were not already mentioned in The Holy Books...?!?

    April 11, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
  10. Oregon

    "God has no religion" Gandhi

    April 11, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
  11. Jesus Saves

    "The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever." Isaiah 40:8

    April 11, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
  12. God

    To the religious worshipers: God is not outside of you nor is God separate from you. You are God. To the atheists: You are mystery. You are wonder. You are God. What is the presence that allows plants to grow, birds to sing and your heart to continue beating. Can we not call that presence, God? God is a mystery, and thank God for that because if we figured God out, life would be pretty damn boring. Why can't we just accept God as the beautiful, mysterious life force it is? Must we bog it down with labels, religion, & awful portrait drawings of an old white man with blue eyes. The world would be a better place if people, instead of talking about God, observed God. "The kingdom of god lies within you." When you stop living for some future fantasy in the sky and start living fully in the present moment, then you will find heaven, salvation, or whatever happiness humans continue to look for outside of themselves and their present realities. Realize your salvation NOW. You, me and all of creation are the same god-stuff.

    April 11, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
  13. Friend of JC

    I will cast no pearls before swine on this one . Live without God now and you will die without God forever.In Jesus name , Amen

    April 11, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
    • chg66

      thanks for the fear tactic

      April 11, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
    • Justin Observation

      And so you decided to cast swine, and you expect pearls in return? If god does exist, he too might think your comment is a bit dickish.

      April 11, 2011 at 10:53 pm |
  14. James

    The funny thing is all these GODS lived in the stone age before the wheel is invented.

    April 11, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
  15. Mr Lovey

    Atheists can be the most moral people ever.
    They may also beleive in a creator but not in human terms
    as a God after all someone .some happenstance had to make God!
    In any event this war of words will never be resolved,most do what
    Mom & Dad did, Atheists are as varied as the religions of Muslim,Jew & Christian.

    April 11, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
  16. no gods

    You don't need a tyrannical magic sky fairy to be a good person. Reality is awesome.

    April 11, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
    • Carolyn

      and so mundane.

      April 11, 2011 at 10:24 pm |
  17. Justin Observation

    I read that if all the atheist left the U.S. it would lose 93% of the National Academy of Sciences and less than 1% of the prison population.

    I'm not an atheist or a theist but if they all left, I would go with them, because they must have discovered someplace really nice.

    April 11, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
    • JustWondering

      How are you not a theist or athiest? It would seem to me that if you must be one or the other.

      April 11, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
    • Leigh

      That's just an anecdote. Many people who don't know much about science like to misappropriate science to support their personal philosophy. My husband is a scientist and a Christian, and we know many other scientists of faith.

      April 11, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
    • S1N

      @JustinWondering – He could be an existentialist. Many of them take the "don't know, don't care" approach to the notion of a god.

      April 11, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
    • Justin Observation

      It would seem that I must be one or the other? Huh, I did not know that.

      I am what I was before the question of a god's existence or nonexistence was ever posed to me. I am actually that which I was before I was born, perhaps even before I was conceived... I don't know, and I doubt anyone else does either.

      Truth be told, I have no clue what I really am, but atheist and theist, are not real descriptions or truths to me, someone just made all that stuff up. I imagine I am what we all truly are, whatever that may be. Too deep?

      April 11, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
    • just me

      can you take alec baldwin with you, please.

      April 11, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • Carolyn

      S1N – when it comes to believing in God or that concept is a yes or no answer. The I don't know/care or how some arrogant atheists claim there are levels or layers of atheism is just a cover up for laziness and/or indecision. Save your fellow humans from your lack and have the guts to say I am... or I believe...

      April 11, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
    • Justin Observation

      Hi Leigh, I don't thinks it's an anecdote, I think it is a statistic, apparently 93% of the people in the Academy of Science call themselves atheists and over 99% of prisoners claim to be theists, but I never really verified it. I just read it somewhere. Could be false.

      April 11, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
    • beelzebubba

      Whut if they all left for heaven? Heh heh.

      April 11, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
    • Justin Observation

      Carolyn, If you can tell me what god is, then maybe I could give a yes or no answer to your question. I only ask that you do not lie at all, I don't want to know what you think or believe, just tell me the absolute truth.

      April 11, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
    • Carolyn

      Justin, God cannot be defined. The definition of that concept lies within you. My realization of God won't serve you. God is revealed in a relationship not in some petri dish.

      April 11, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • Justin Observation

      Beezabubba, I'd be right with 'em, I always wanted to visit the heavens, and scientists do seem to like space and rockets, I suppose the prisoners would be on prison work furloughs. But if your referring to a pearly gated cloud with gold streets and winged ladies, well hell ya, I'd go there too.

      April 11, 2011 at 10:32 pm |
    • Justin Observation

      Carolyn, I appreciate your response but it just means if it can not be defined, then a concept does not demand or require a yes or no answer. I wasn't asking for a petri dish, just the truth. Anyway, it's no biggie to me, it's all good, peace and good night.

      April 11, 2011 at 10:48 pm |
  18. fimeilleur

    @mrsmoothalways "No man can believe in GOD and commit crimes aganist humanity. Only a person or persons that don't believe in GOD would commit such crimes, no matter what they claim to believe in."

    I present to you George W. Bush...
    I present to you Godfrey of Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade
    I present to you Usama Bin Laden
    I present to you Scott Roeder

    The list goes on... and on, and on

    April 11, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
    • A-theist

      You know, the jails are full o fpeople who are ardent followerd of God, specially after reaching there.
      I bet you will not find a single atheist in any one of them.

      April 11, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
    • beelzebubba

      Isn't it funny that W. & Carter, two of the worst US presidents in the past 100 years, were born-agin'-eeeevangelicals who thought gaaaaawd was their co-pilot? Well, not funny. Obama's election and the exit of Glenn Beck finally showed that the public has had enough of such ridiculous dogma. Unless Glenn's paranoid psychosis morphs into schizophrenia as he wanders through the desert in his white robe and he starts hearing voices imploring him to run for office on the jeeeezus ticket.

      April 11, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
  19. Jesus of Nazareth

    Thank god someone finally did this.

    April 11, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
  20. Sean

    Romans Chapter 1

    20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, [even] his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:

    21 Because that, when they knew God, they glorified [him] not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.

    April 11, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
    • Dennis

      Your book told you to say that. So you did. Because you think it makes some kind of point. Which it only does if you already believe the premise of the book.

      Which you have no reason whatsoever to do. But that won't stop you.

      April 11, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
    • S1N

      Which is irrelevant, as your God does not exist. Also, your Jesus did not miraculously walk on water, turn water into wine, or resurrect. Honestly, the Easter Bunny's chocolate eggs are more believable.

      The world would be a much better place without the concept of God messing things up.

      April 11, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
    • Me

      @S1N Do not confuse God with some That portend to represent him.

      April 11, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
    • Sean

      To Dennis, S1N, Atheists, & all those who deny the creator. I will keep silent and let God himself respond to your comments. You won't have to wait long because that dreadful day of his wrath is fast approaching.

      April 11, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
    • Carolyn

      S1N – so what has God messed up for you or the world? This is the beauty of faith. I can explain it to you, but I cannot understand it for you.

      April 11, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.