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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. jim

    Actual freedom of thought and the ability to reflect has always befuddled the lay christian. And when base people are confused they often turn to anger because anger is a base emotion. In other words, anger is easy when you don't understand. Organized religion is a method to control the masses.

    And to the people regurgitating that fox news mantra that Hitler, Pol Pot, etc. killed in the name of atheism. No one has ever killed in the name of believing in nothing. Many, MANY, people have killed in the name of God.

    April 11, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Mickey Haist Jr

      I think you could be onto something about the church being a 'people-controller.' You could definitely argue that once that odd brand of Christianity was adopted by Rome as the national religion, the broadest impact of Christianity has been as an effective people manager. It's hard to reconcile the warrior popes, the Spanish Inquisition, and the awful actions of Westboro Baptist with the 'be nice to each other, love everybody' message that many people say the Bible is about.
      We have access to the Bible these days, and though it is hard to read it without the evils of the church chirping around in our ears, we can see that the message of the book isn't really anything to do with being nice or following rules. Most of it is spent telling us how bad we are. The self-righteous are the most commonly attacked by God in the Bible. The message is not, "Do good or else." The message is, "You are not doing good, let Jesus do good for you. And God will see you as good because of Jesus."
      Like a sports fan rejoicing in the victory of his team. The fan did nothing. The team did it all, but the fan shares in the victory.
      Anyway, I got off-topic. You could say that the church is an instrument for controlling people. That is fair. However, it clearly was not initiated as an instrument for controlling people. These were disrespected men and women, who were systematically slaughtered by their people. They were poor, often homeless, and they had no authority structure until after Rome assimilated a form of the religion. These people gave everything they had to poor people, were rejected by their families, and usually had the threat of execution hanging over their heads. Who would invent a religion like that? Who would join a religion like that? It was only after Constantine supposedly saw a vision of the cross (which he likely considered just another rural pagan god's symbol) and appropriated the religion into the government. Then, you see people joining for financial, social, and political gain. After Christianity was 300 years old.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Mara

      I always find the Hitler/Stalin/PolPot argument amusing. Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot were bad dudes...but athiests? Naw. In fact, without the church and their beliefs, they may not have ever risen to power at all.

      Hitler was a practicing Catholic and viewed Catholicism and Protestantism as essential to the souls of the German people. From the earliest formation of the Nazi party he expressed his Christian support to the German citizenry and soldiers. He was baptized as Roman Catholic in Austria, attended a monastery school and was a communicant and an altar boy in the Catholic Church. He was confirmed as a "soldier of Christ" and his goal was to become a priest. He was never excommunicated or condemned and the church had stated that he was "Avenging for God" in attacking the Jews for they deemed the Semites the killers of Jesus.

      While Stalin wasn't as pious as Hitler, he did enter the seminary as a youth and as leader of the USSR, re-opened the Russian Orthodox churches and freed its clergy who were rotting in prison. The church, in turn, provided financing and propaganda for the regime.

      Pol Pot not only spent 8 years studying Catholicisn, he also entered seminary (a Buddhist monastary) The renunciation of the material world as called for by Theravada Buddhism fit in very nicely with Pol Pots communist beliefs. Though Buddhism doesn't represent a 'god' per se, it certainly isn't atheism.

      April 11, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  2. anthony constantino

    If you read in the Holy Bible what it says in the book of Galatians, that if an even an angel or any other being preachs any other gospel let that person be accursed. After reading some of these posts, I can see that they don't know what the bible says,
    these are the ones who will be acursed. As for the author of this article, he's just robbing you of your money.

    April 11, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  3. Pat

    For him, it may very well turn out to be "A wasted life's work".

    April 11, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  4. tensor

    In other words, written by smart people instead of greedy land grabbers who used religion of the masses as tools of the church to gain riches. Too bad world history/Western Civ isn't taught in school as it once was. The Holy Roman Empire wasn't very holy, nor was medieval Europe that followed, nor was ... you catch my drift.

    April 11, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  5. Chris

    This book was brought to you by the same sentiment that created Tofurkey.

    April 11, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  6. JayG

    Grayling seems like the king of all cretins. Moron.

    April 11, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  7. Ally

    A guy compiles a book with excerpts of philosophy from some of the greatest thinkers in the world, looks like it might be an interesting book to read. The author mentioned that it's not aimed at snubbing the Holy Bible. So why is this entire list of posts dominated by Christians condemning the book, Athiests holding it as a beacon and everone attacking everyone else? Petty...

    April 11, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  8. Clarke

    If there IS a god may he strike you all dead right this second....um..er..still there?? End of discussion.

    April 11, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  9. Al V.

    As an atheist, I object to the premise of this article. There are no "Leading Atheists". Atheism is not an organization like the Catholic Church with leaders and followers. There are prominent atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, but they are self-nominated to their roles, and have no organizational support, because there is no organization to support them. Grayling's book may be worthwhile, or it may be terrible, but in no way does he speak for me or other atheists.

    April 11, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Floyd

      Yes, but he is sure trying to. He is also capitalizing on this. So he writes a "Best Of" book ripping off dead philosophers, calls it a Bible and provides a moral code to live by. Hmmmm....sounds like this guy has a God complex. He is gonna make a fortune off unwitting people. Sound familiar? What a hypocrite!
      The article even buys into the notion an athiest hierarchy. Very funny!!!! Hahahahahahaaha...

      April 11, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • ScottK

      @Floyd – Just to clarify, this is a "Humanist" bible, not an "atheist" bible. They are too different things. You can be an atheist and not a humanist, though its tough being a humanist without at least being agnostic since the belief in a God would supersede any humanist doctrine.

      As for him having a God complex, this is true only if you define "god complex" not as one who wants to be or believes themselves to be a God, but as one who has collected moral wisdoms from many different humans and presented it in a similar format as other books that claim divine origin.

      April 11, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  10. Dean

    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..................................................................................................And mankinds history would probably be different if we had paid attention to all those great scholars who thought the earth was flat and that the earth was the center of the universe.

    April 11, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Steve

      Dean,,,,or the POPE Urban put Galileo on lock down because he said the sun was the center of the universe instead of the Earth. So who had that one right? Small minded comments.......no thought behind them....LOL

      April 11, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Of course the ancient greeks had already worked out the earth was not flat but spherical. This information was known amongst the learned folks through history, it was really only the uneducated masses that clung to the earth is flat notion.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  11. Rationalfaith

    The blogosphere is full of vitriolic debate on both sides of the faith issue. I can't figure out why it is so imperative for non-believers to condemn and dismiss the ideas of the faith community. I fully accept that there are conscientious skeptics, but there is no rational reason for dismissing faith altogether. As science advances and faith unfolds, there is a remarkable integration of the two camps of thinking. There will never be a concrete block of evidence to defend either faith or science. There are evident steps which lead to differing conclusions, but even science has to make some faith leaps to come to conclusions. There will always be an intelligent debate about the origin of life, and until science can demonstrate its creation in a sterile environment, the debate will continue. The faith it takes to contend that organic matter just happened and that it fragmented into the rich diversity that exists today is often more complex and profound than the faith it takes to believe that a parent being put those steps into action. I enjoy the debate, and I respect my faith. I also respect the skepticism of people out side the faith community. I'm not sure why that is so difficult for people who don't hold to a religious faith. Faith traditions have formed the narrative and fabric of both developed and primitive cultures . . . how about a little respect for the dialogue between the sides. The war of words has been anything but rational.

    April 11, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • KAS

      "I can't figure out why it is so imperative for non-believers to condemn and dismiss the ideas of the faith community. "

      Because the basis of the faith community is the same as those who believed in Odin, Zeus and a hundreds of other gods over the centuries. They are all man-made beings which have been created to explain natural events such as lightning, thunder, rain, the movement of the Sun across the sky (well, the turning of the Earth which causes the Sun to appear to move across the sky) and every other event that happens every day.

      It's called coming out of the Dark Ages. We're supposed to have moved on from the ideas of ghosts, demons and gods, yet for whatever reason, people desperately cling to this notion that an omnipotent and omniscient being controls our lives and records our deeds for all eternity. That if we don't follow its rules, we will be punished. That this same being told a father he had to make a decision as to which son to kill to prove his loyalty to this being. That this same being only created one male and one female human which insured that incest had to occur for population of the planet to occur.

      Yeah, that being is totally believable.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Yeah

      Hmmmm.... I think if you examine this more carefully, perhaps from a historic perspective, you may find that the faith following side (from most religions - ESPECIALLY Christianity and Islam) have caused more violence and pain and death than just about any other reasonably controllable thing on Earth. Part of the reason that we non-believers feel obligated to step in and let our opinions be known is because 1) believers have demonstrated a propensity toward 'converting' non-believers, 2) many believers (let's focus on Christianity and Islam) are inflexible when it comes to disagreement with the tenets of their chosen faith, and 3) believers tend to be almost incapable to develop logical arguments and instead rely on broken fundamentals to support broken arguments.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • LadyAnon

      There is room for religious beliefs, science, this book and others. As science goes along in its remarkable discoveries, I too can say that new light is sometimes shed on my own areas of faith, which are not, by the way, Christian.

      I have taken the time over the years to objectively study various religious beliefs as I am fascinated at how they so strongly effect people's cultures as well as individuals. There is plenty of room in this world for all religious beliefs as well as people with no religious beliefs at all – we ALL just need to stop the childish games of "I know better than you and my God/Religion is the only true and correct belief/way to live."

      April 11, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      The issue springs from when personal faith ceases to remain personal and becomes an organized religion that attempts to dictate to other people how to behave.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • Mara

      perhaps the reason that skeptics tend toward hostility is a) the religious keep trying to legislate their flavor of belief into the law under the assumption that their way is the *right* way and everyone else is wrong (and should be punished or forced into 'right' behavior) – b) we're only reflecting the hostility that the religious have served up to us for centuries, – and c) we are offended that the religious deny us any moral consciousness simply because we can't suspend that skepticism.

      While it is a pleasure to speak to an open-minded religious such as yourself, a large majority of believers aren't that receptive toward other ways of thinking. Most appear to be arrogant in their surity, condescending in their 'ministry', and judgemental toward those not like them. At least in my experience.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  12. pabla

    Please also publish this good book as new quoran as well as new bible.

    April 11, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  13. Jon O

    Woot.

    April 11, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  14. Jenn

    Ok so he he wrote a book. I don't get why its such a big deal. It is not like we are being forced to buy it, read it, and form some kind of stupid zombie cult. Call me a selfish Christian but honestly I don't care. If someone doesn't want to believe in God fine by me! All sides could debate and fight over religion what difference does it make. At the end of the day people are held accountable for the decisions they make in life. Who are any of us to push our own agenda and beliefs on anyone else. Insults are going to endear one side to the other. For me it is real I believe for many reasons, for others it isn't and they have many reasons too. The way I see it if I am wrong then well I cease to exist and that is that. If the non believers are wrong it seriously going to suck to be them. Ultimately IMO I am responsible for myself and I have zero right judging or condemning anyone else. We have Bibles in print and Atheist don't buy them, so now they have one and Christians won't buy it it isn't that big of a deal.

    April 11, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • Kevin

      Jenn, very well said. If more people thought this way then there would be less violence in the world.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • Steve

      Jenn, I'd like to thank you for your post and the respect it shows. An atheist cannot "prove" that god doesn't exist any more than a believer can prove that he does exist. So the only truly honest position anyone can take is to respect each others' beliefs. Both religious and humanist ethics teach that helping each other and being tolerant of our differences is of great importance. I only wish more people would be accepting of the differing views of others and see them as non-threatening.

      April 11, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  15. R. Schauer

    The bible is a book printed by man, like every book. If people want to think that talking snakes, pillors of fire, parting seas, floods, and that every mammal got onto an ark so a loving god could flood the earth and kill everyone for granting free-will? And folks can't see this as being manipulated? Then we have the buring bush. Now if the bush was still burning and talking you'd have something to believe in. Sans that, the bible is but a record of sky-fairy tales. Read not only Grayling but crack open E.O. Wilson's, Consiliance, first.

    April 11, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  16. John

    Christianity is more than religion. It's a relationship with God through is Son, Jesus Christ. God is not a myth; He is very real. I pray that those who question his realness would seek Him and I promise you, you will find Him. Blessings!

    April 11, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • Yeah

      Thank you for your completely blind faith. Since "He" is so real, please snap a picture of "Him" with your camera phone (if you have one) next time you bump into "Him", ok? Post it somewhere online, and let us know how we can view it.

      Thanks

      April 11, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • travis b

      I agree with you alot if more people would think like that then the world would be a better place. come on man human beings in the garden of eden. So the question that i have for all who belive this guy who gave them the brains to figure this stuff out.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • ScottK

      Twilight is more than book. It's a relationship with Edward through the author, Stephanie Meyer. Edward is not a myth; He is very real. I pray that those who question his realness would seek Him and I promise you, you will find Him. Blessings!

      Just because someone says something, and even believes it themselves, does not make it true.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • P1969

      Yeah...I have faith you are real but I cannot see you or take a picture of you. I know George Washington was real but I cant take a picture of him. I know Shakespeare was real but I cant take a picture of him. just because you cant see something does not make it not real. Show a little intelligence when you make public statesments

      April 11, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  17. a2rjr

    secular bible, military intelligence. just say'in.

    April 11, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  18. PAUL

    the earth was created by god billions of years ago, he is not a natural human being as we are, we were made in his image, he is life a spirit, we are flesh and blood, at the end of our day's we pass away, his life or spirit is from everlasting to everlasting, meaning he does not die as we and all other life dies, all natural life or species has to be flesh and blood and vertibrate to be able to move, he created everything the heavens earth and everything in the earth and below , our time is not his time, the writer said ten thousand years are but a day in gods sight, it illistrates that one day in his time is a very long time as we know days, years ect evolution is the renewal process as he said be fruitfull and multiple, if we came out of the sea, people would be comeing out of the sea everyday, the same is for amino acids on rocks, minerals ect

    April 11, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • Yeah

      Please write better. What is it these days with people and their inability to construct written sentences? Comma are not periods. Yes, it is important.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • derp

      "all natural life or species has to be flesh and blood and vertibrate to be able to move"

      You do realize that there are far more invertebrates than vertebrates.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • jim

      PAUL-
      "If we came out the sea, people would still be coming out of the sea."
      Here is a major fundamental misunderstanding of evolution. Evolution is ALWAYS changing, We came out of the sea and evolved over millions of years. It's called trial and error.
      Not hating on you Paul, just educate yourself a little before making an obviously uniformed statement.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Jon

      @Paul

      The earliest examples of life came out of the oceans on the ancient Earth. There are no humans coming out of the oceans today because that is not where our most recent ancestors come from. Modern day humans and modern day chimps, apes and other primates come out of Africa. It's perfectly fine to believe that God was behind Evolution, just make sure to get your Scientific knowledge correct.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  19. ken

    God is a Woman, anyway. Men give birth to nothing.

    April 11, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • Catherine Jefferson

      Men are as involved in creating new life as women. It seems to me to follow that God (big "G" - as in the monotheistic God) would necessarily need to have the qualities of both men and women. (IMHO, and quite a bit else that has no analog in our nature at all.) That wouldn't make God either a man or a woman, of course, as the major monotheistic religions recognize.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • NameRequired

      @ Catherine Jefferson. I do not recall any Christian sect coming out and stating that god is neither man or woman. They indeed state "He" is a man. This may be your belief but not what is being indoctrinated into people.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Chris

      Well, that certainly explains why (S)he is so hard to understand.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Richard Mavers

      Who ever said God gave birth to anything?

      April 11, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  20. Sy2502

    Prisons are full of believers. Practically no atheist is in jail. This alone should tell you something about which moral system is superior.

    April 11, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • Catherine Jefferson

      Really? They say that there are no atheists in foxholes either - do you draw the same conclusions about the ethics of soldiers on that basis?

      April 11, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Ihaveabridgetosellyou

      Thats because most people who commit crimes are believers. That tells you something about morality

      April 11, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Morgana

      Catherine: yes.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • Richard Mavers

      I've worked in prison and it's definitely not true there are "practically no" atheists there. In fact, most of the religious people in prison converted after they arrived in an effort to turn themselves around. From what I've seen, offenders are overwhelmingly non-religious when they commit their crimes.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • Marc Ludwig

      The book isn't about God at all. It's a book about critical thinking and has nothing to do with a religion. I don't like the fact he calls himself an atheist though. That's stating something that can't be proven just like faith. This has nothing to do with your post by the way. I couldn't find a comment button.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Chris

      In other words: Us good, y'all bad, and we don't need no stinking statistics to support our claims. The same kind of thinking that blames human crimes on their religion, and human advances on their (sic) secular humanism or whatever new euphemism you wish to coin in that regard.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Tom

      How in the world would you know the beliefs/non-beliefs of people in jail? My guess is that plenty of prisoners are stone-cold atheists who couldn't care less who they hurt.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Joe in Colorado

      Sounds like an interesting read actually.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • P1969

      Sy2502, you win with the most ignorant statement i have heard today!

      April 11, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • LadyAnon

      @ Tom: You really have no true idea or understanding of atheists if you think that not be 'Holy' or having a religion makes them more capable of committing a crime than someone with a religious background or upbringing.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
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