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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. Roelof

    I think they are a little bit obsessed with the Bible. Why can't Humanists think of a own name? By the way modern humanism was founded by a Christian. Real Atheism is North Korea, where religion is forbidden. Mao, Stalin... communism over 250 million victems.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:51 am |
  2. Chris F

    I think that this is the future. Particularly if this perceived religious polarization between Islam and Christianity results in a major conflict. After the 30 years war in Europe in 17th Century which devastated the continent people had enough of fighting for religion, the enlightenment came about, which eventually of course led to the American and French revolutions. The same will happen again if the world experiences a serious international conflict. Only this time the embrace of reason and control over emotions will last much longer.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:40 am |
    • Neville

      I'm not here to bash athists and I am praying for your lost souls. God loves you!

      April 12, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  3. To misguided

    For a bunch of atheists, who apparently don't believe in God, you sure spend an awful lot of time (decades even!?), money and effort trying to prove that He does not exist. All this for an alleged figment of the imagination!? Why would you do this, is it maybe because you are not really sure, not really convinced in your own imaginations? More than likely!!

    April 12, 2011 at 4:37 am |
    • TheStupid

      To all christians:
      Stop bashing at atheists and do your job and pray for our lost souls!

      April 12, 2011 at 5:00 am |
    • Meghan Vaughan

      Don't be ridiculous. You can't prove a negative, duh. That's middle school science. We don't try and PROVE he doesn't exist, we just don't believe in any god. Not Jehovah, not Buddah, not Zues, not Isis. We don't go around trying to prove any of those concepts exist because we know it's a waste of time. I have no idea why people think that's what scientists are doing, are that somehow they are supposed to do it. They're not. And btw, the scientists who know about the "god concepts" are called anthropologists, not physicists or biologists.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:32 am |
    • ThinkBeforeYouSpeak

      @misguided

      with all the harm religion has caused in the world and continues to cause, wouldn't atheist be stupid to not invest effort and try their best to show the world that this fairy tale that causes so much human misery and suffering is a lie?

      what a foolish thing for you to say – it's in all of our best interests to convince as many people as we can of the truth and ludicrousness of these religions.

      I only wish that atheists would organize and do what the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses do to spread the word – go door to door to talk to misguided folk like you about atheism and the fact that religion is a lie, and a terrible one.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  4. LoveGod

    ANOTHER DISTRACTION FROM SATAN, HOWEVER, THIS WILL NOT STOP THE KINGDOM OF GOD FROM ADVANCING, IT WILL JUST SPEED IT UP!!!!

    April 12, 2011 at 4:35 am |
  5. Howard

    Here are the questions I never see posed:
    What is the difference between indoctrinating someone into their faith, and brainwashing them?
    How can you tell if you "believe because you REALLY DO believe," and "just believe because you've CONVINCED yourself of the need to believe."
    Are those who've been brainwashed ever able to discern that that's what has happened to them?

    April 12, 2011 at 4:21 am |
  6. Joey

    Well, either someone has way too much time on their hands, or can't write a good novel themselves. Ragging on religion of any sort is the last hurrah of a so called writer that can't come up with an original idea. Hey, I know, I'll write a book making fun of Darwin's theory! I'll make him a wacky, funny guy with a beard who does not have a clue about science. Same thing. I'm not really religious or anything, but a cheap shot for fame is a cheap shot. Write a good book on your own if you are a real writer.

    April 12, 2011 at 4:06 am |
    • Howard

      Uh, did you read the article? He pointedly said he didn't "rag" on any religion in this book.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:24 am |
    • Meghan Vaughan

      Ummm.... they have like 500 of those kind of books all ready. They totally have books that say Darwin wasn't a good scientist and that he repented on his deathbed and all sorts of lies. Compiling great works is in fact a tradition in art, and I don't see why it couldn't be in literature. One does not slag off art historians for making books filled with the world's greatest works of art, so slagging off a writer for doing the same shows an obvious lack of perspective.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:26 am |
  7. ThinkBeforeYouSpeak

    Bible morality:
    Exodus 35:2 says "For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy day, a sabbath of complete rest to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death."

    April 12, 2011 at 4:02 am |
    • mdc

      I died a thousand times.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:44 am |
  8. ThinkBeforeYouSpeak

    Bible morality;
    Deuteronomy 22:19-21 "But if this charge is true, that the girl was not found a virgin, then they shall bring out the girl to the doorway of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death"

    April 12, 2011 at 4:01 am |
    • LoveGod

      Why don't you quote Jesus defending the woman caught in adultery, have you any understanding of the dispensations in the bible, haven't you read that Moses gave them the law because they were stubborn? What does it profit you to try to discredit God's word by taking it out of context? Don't you know the law came with Moses, but grace and truth has now come by Jesus? it was God's purpose to provide the law as a school master till we attained grace. The law tells you you have a problem, grace takes care of the problem. So please stop discrediting God's word, for all shall be judged by it. Thanks!!!

      April 12, 2011 at 4:48 am |
    • Meghan Vaughan

      Because Christians quote the 10 commandments all the time at us, and what that other person quoted is a follow up to the ten rules everyone shoves in our faces all the time. If you're going to claim to believe in the big 10, then you best believe what God said about what the earthly punishments are for those rules. Religion is not a salad bar. You're not supposed to just get to pick and choose what you like, and leave the stones for other people who might enjoy them.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:20 am |
    • D. Zarr

      The bible is a collection of fairy tales as you well know, but in what ever way you try to put it for numskulled you will fail to reach their common sense....Remember; Common sense is not that common...

      April 12, 2011 at 5:27 am |
  9. ThinkBeforeYouSpeak

    Bible morality:
    Deuteronomy 22:28-29: "If a man finds a girl who is a virgin, who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her and they are discovered, then the man who lay with her shall give to the girl's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall become his wife because he has violated her".

    April 12, 2011 at 4:00 am |
    • Nan Tuckitt

      In Ancient Hebrew society, that might have been a curse
      In today's society, that would be so unreasonable that even fundies don't advocate for that... anywhere in the world

      Also in Christianity there is a debate over how many of the Jewish laws (like the one you quoted) are still in effect

      April 12, 2011 at 4:16 am |
    • ThinkBeforeYouSpeak

      @Nan Tucket

      I gave you a direct quote from the bible, and you tell me it's so unreasonable that even fundies don't advocate for that. So, it seems that we agree that at least portions of the bible are completely unreasonable.

      Which I would suggest might throw into doubt the reasonableness of the entire book. Or do we just get to pick and choose what we like from it and what we want to ignore?

      Is this book supposed to, in any way, reflect the wishes of god? If so, are you saying that god wishes are completely unreasonable, at least as conveyed by certain passages of the bible?

      April 12, 2011 at 4:24 am |
  10. ThinkBeforeYouSpeak

    Bible morality:
    Numbers 31:17-18 "Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately, but all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves".

    April 12, 2011 at 3:59 am |
  11. NSTAR

    A money changer disguised as a modern pseudo-religious zealot ?

    April 12, 2011 at 3:54 am |
  12. Kris in AL

    MAN STUDYING MAN IS NO PATH TO GOD.

    April 12, 2011 at 3:53 am |
    • Mike

      If man is not god, then we can rule out what comes from man as being from god. There is no proof of supernatural inspiration in any holy text throughout the known world.
      If we can induce hallucinations so easily, why do you not allow for this when making claims of supernatural inspiration? Our brains are not perfect and lack a great many things we need but do not have.
      Your god gives you a piece of crap for a body and a brain and you, using them, think this is some sort of blessing.
      Well, that would certainly be in line with your original line of BS, wouldn't it?

      April 12, 2011 at 4:19 am |
  13. Aezel

    Look at all you religious clowns on this board. "OMG someone dared to write a book that bases it's morality on facts and intelligent thought that doesn't agree with our imaginary pretend friends in the Bible! Lynch them!"

    If religion is so great, why do you have to constantly rush to it's defense?

    April 12, 2011 at 3:20 am |
    • Tim

      Anyone would rush to defend something they believe in... not sure what your point is..

      April 12, 2011 at 3:51 am |
    • jim

      OMG? ironic

      April 12, 2011 at 5:21 am |
  14. Tom Garito

    "Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools" Romans 1:22

    April 12, 2011 at 2:52 am |
    • Obi Wanstein

      Matthew 15:24
      You're not the droid he's looking for.

      April 12, 2011 at 4:12 am |
    • Meghan Vaughan

      "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." –Star Trek

      April 12, 2011 at 5:17 am |
  15. ruelander

    If I understand well Grayling wrote a book to summarise the wisdom as he sees it out of religious and philosophical texts most people do not bother to read. I wonder if I should buy his book spending money again to read what most people probably could know for them self when studying Buddhism, and esoteric 'aspects' of most religions. By the information as I read overhere I wonder if Graylings is aware of the essence of human evolution from the day human became physically existent on earth. It is by the development of the human individual that at some point, after thousands of years, Newton could see what he saw in the apple falling down from the tree. Is there a better example to show a HUMAN is a real HUMAN when he can be attentive meeting awareness in awareness and being at the core of "I" being I active in awareness? (Maybe God is mainly absolute and pure awareness?) I get the feeling Grayling is a kind of priest with this book where he is known to be a philosopher. I would suggest he would write a book after studying the philosophy of Paul Asmus since I am intuitive certain the outcome of that book is not within his bible.
    That way he would show to be what he is, a philosopher, turning up maybe with some new philosophical insights. Thats where philosophers are for???

    April 12, 2011 at 2:42 am |
  16. Water to Whine

    I think both religious and Humanist theories about morality can be useful to the world. And, I know there are many religious folks who agree with me. However, what I see in the world are a growing number of Christian folks (especially in the US) who have an affinity for their god the same way they do for their favorite sports team, and Americans can be very fanatical about their sports teams. It becomes more a matter of pride and a desire to "win" some game than a desire to win hearts as Jesus did. I think the Muslim focus in the US had just made things worse. The problem is this leads to a stamping out of alternative views, which is wrong in a free country. Christians need to be more like Christ and accept other people and less like The Romans who took by force.

    April 12, 2011 at 2:34 am |
    • Nan Tuckitt

      There have always been evangelical Americans wanting to "win" people over – But in urban areas you don't see that as much as in rural areas. Guess which sector is growing?

      April 12, 2011 at 4:15 am |
  17. Lee Cherry

    GOD DOESNT BELIEVE IN ATHEIST.

    April 12, 2011 at 2:32 am |
    • David

      SANTA CLAUS DOESN'T BELIEVE IN IDIOT.

      April 12, 2011 at 2:47 am |
    • Darren

      Yet here we are.

      So much for the power of god

      April 12, 2011 at 3:28 am |
  18. DaFoeBalow

    This book is probably worth the purchase. I'm considering it.

    April 12, 2011 at 2:31 am |
    • David

      I ordered it from Amazon immediately after seeing the author interviewed on CNN. I hope the actual book lives up to the ideas behind it!

      April 12, 2011 at 2:45 am |
  19. Joshua

    Religion has so many built in defenses that I would be surprised if it every died out.
    1) Internal contradictions can be explained away by saying, "it's inspired by God, written by man."
    2) External reasoning against God or religion can be explained away by verses that warn against "the wicked ways of the world" or "wise men leading you astray." The decision to choose religion over philosophy, for example, because you can't get into heaven on your own, "least a man should boast."
    3) Further protection against external attack: The "faith v reason" argument. Basically, even if you prove it to someone completely to the point where they admit they have no logical, sensible reason to believe in God, they say, "You're using Reason, not Faith. Reason is inappropriate to use when discussing matters of religion." How can you possibly discuss that any further?
    4) Religion is self-replicating: People are born into it and that's usually the religion they live with. As a religious person, you're encouraged to convert your friends and sometimes (for the fundamental groups, like Baptists) strangers you run into.
    5) Pascal's Wager: If you're an atheist, and God turns out to exist, you suffer Hell. If you are a Christian and you turn out wrong, you won't even know, because you'll just die.
    6) Appeal to human desire: Generally speaking, most people don't want to die. If I tell you that you get to live forever in paradise, and that's what you really want to believe anyway, it's kind of tough to sell the "Well, the universe is really just random and meaningless" angle.

    My hope, and this might be reaching, is that enough atheists can be up front about it to encourage others to feel comfortable enough to "come out" about it. I know people who are atheist, but who won't tell their parents or some friends. I think it'd be cool if society didn't ostracize us. I don't know if that'll happen in my lifetime, but it'd be cool. As far as Christianity coming tumbling down, if they've been running their game for 2000+ years, I don't think they're going anywhere anytime soon.

    April 12, 2011 at 2:22 am |
    • David

      Well said, Josh. Unfortunately, you are absolutely correct on each and every point.

      April 12, 2011 at 2:44 am |
    • Bill

      What David said.

      April 12, 2011 at 3:31 am |
    • YoBrutha

      Yeah! Go Joshua! Blow them walls DOWN!

      April 12, 2011 at 3:49 am |
    • funkybodhi

      Brilliant ! People go around f@#$%^* up the planet cause Jesus died for all our sins !

      April 12, 2011 at 5:29 am |
  20. LauraJT

    Personally, I like this version, since I was raised with religion and the bible and reject it as anti-life. However, even though it will take hundreds of years before people get over all the "god stuff" in the bible and finally realize we are meant to rise above the beasts in the field and stop killing each other, this book will more than likely serve as the new "Bible" of our ancient world that we call modern times. There are far too many people in this day and age in this country who will call it the devil's words and it's so stupid and so sad. We need to move on, use our brains and above all, be grateful for our lives and for the lives of those around us. Blessing all.

    April 12, 2011 at 2:21 am |
    • Ambrogino

      While this sounds like a fantastic read, my personal favorite was "The Boomer Bible" by R.F.Laird, a great comical read on religion and its hypocrisy.

      April 12, 2011 at 2:40 am |
    • Justin

      Well, everybody poops.

      April 12, 2011 at 2:42 am |
    • Oliver

      BOB
      is the only true godTHE SUBGENIUS IS JEHOVAH'S PRIME TOOL, he has a covenant with this deitoid Who is well pleased when His subjects have the wisdom to obey Him. It is the Sacred Chore of the SubGenius to SMITE and ELIMINATE the unwitting, slavish non-partners of Jehovah 1: the Great Unwashed, the Hoi Polloi, Them, the Conspiracy, the Mediocretins, the strange normal ones, the Somnambulacs, Assouls, Cage Men, Pink Boys, Bootlips, PO'Buckers, Bear-Baiters, Emp Loyees, Box Dwellers, Sarnes, Anthropophobiacs, Infidels, Conformers, Timeservers, Mole People, ComMen, Proleterritorials, Automates, Philistines, Pharisees, Sagisees, Witchburners, Skurnbozi, Thankers, Heilers and Smilers, Idi-Atts, Credit Heads, Sloths and Moths, Cons and Johns, Barbies and Kens, Cliants, Losers, Weepers and Sleepers, Dirty Invariables, The Slackless Ones, Dibbies, Corpulators, Signifying Monkeys, Underalls...in short, the Remnants of Man: the Witless Principals who are the FALSE PROPHETS, who have been holding us back and forcing Time Addiction on themselves...and...others.
      Church of the Subgenius. Look and though shalt be slack

      April 12, 2011 at 5:03 am |
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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.