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. Camronk Rekstenh

    I cherished up to you'll obtain performed right here. The sketch is attractive, your authored subject matter stylish. however, you command get bought an impatience over that you wish be handing over the following. sick indubitably come more beforehand once more since precisely the same just about very frequently within case you defend this increase.

    July 29, 2012 at 11:04 pm |
  2. Kenny from Scotland

    Recently finished this book; a rich and deeply inspiring read. I personally loved the familiar format; the chapters and verse made it very easy to pause and think at so many passages. I also liked the absence of footnotes and references; if I wanted to trace who wrote what a google search answered the question easily.I recommend this book; don't be put off by people screaming "offensive" – it's not.

    May 7, 2012 at 5:03 am |
  3. Andrew

    Deeply unprofessional journalism. The host does a very poor job at hiding her own bias in this segment. For a moment, I had to check to make sure that I was not watching Fox News. This level of journalism is disappointing for CNN.

    March 10, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  4. tryecrot

    Yes there should realize the opportunity to RSS commentary, quite simply, CMS is another on the blog.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:59 am |
  5. tom

    Ummmm, Isaac Newton was a believer. As was Albert Einstein.

    August 22, 2011 at 8:46 am |
    • Annatala Wolf

      So what? The book isn't anti-religious, it's pro-thought.

      August 22, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • frommo

      Einstein did not believe in a personal god. Neither did Issac Newton. The two of them where PC towards the subject to avoid scrutiny from the Church, which of course they did not always succeed at doing.

      April 20, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  6. andres

    aethiest are trying to copy christians by creating their own bibles making up their own theories on the universe and so on.
    my opinion is that its just not going to work, anything man-made will not last.

    August 16, 2011 at 1:18 am |
    • rev. matt

      umm... reality check! the bible was man-made genius!

      August 20, 2011 at 10:53 pm |
    • Annatala Wolf

      Those silly scientists, trying to come up with explanations for things. Haven't they seen the Bible? It already tells us the Universe is 6,000 years old, so geologists and astronomers are wasting their time. Why won't people just read it and stop asking pesky questions?

      August 22, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
    • frommo

      Which is why your bible is on its way out lol....

      April 20, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • emilio

      is the bible not man made?

      May 26, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  7. Thinking Southerner

    When religious people [especially xians] try to define their faith using logic they always fail.

    Example; Xians believe in a zombie who is his own father and wants to 'save' you by removing evil [which he created] from your soul that was placed there by a rib woman who was deceived by a talking snake.
    Makes perfect sense!

    July 10, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
  8. jtlawler

    As a psychologist who is also a Catholic, it always amazes me the faith humans put in reason. Daily, in my consulting room, I see the misperceptions, distortions, false personae, unconscious forces that drive people to make what they fully believe are rational chices and judgments about the world. And these are not what are understood as "mentally ill" people but ordinary souls struggling with pain. Even Grayling might ask why he was driven to publish this work, what particular constellation of early influences and cultural forces led him to his faith in reason. Make no mistake, secularists have their own set of unprovable beliefs from an emperical standpoint but they tout them as self evident without ever questioning them.

    June 11, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
    • PhysicsFrog

      I absolutely LOVE your style! 1) Make a broad assertion–never back it up 2) Attempt to dumb down atheism by equating it with your position and claiming it to have unproved beliefs–....and then never back it up! You sir are absolutely brilliant, you're right, we're all equally stupid! Atheists have just as much faith as religious people do, imagine that. Oh wait, back to reality for a second, atheism is simply the lack of belief in God's.

      June 18, 2011 at 1:51 am |
    • Ian MacDougall

      jtlawler: "As a psychologist who is also a Catholic, it always amazes me the faith humans put in reason. " {etc}

      Has it not occurred to you that you could not even begin to write the above example of a reasoned argument if you did not have faith in reason yourself?

      " Daily, in my consulting room, I see the misperceptions, distortions, false personae, unconscious forces that drive people to make what they fully believe are rational chices and judgments about the world. [This is also a rational judgement.]

      " Make no mistake, secularists have their own set of unprovable beliefs from an emperical [sic] standpoint but they tout them as self evident without ever questioning them." [Stated I presume not on the basis of revelation from sacred scripture, but rather arguing from empirical observations of yourself or others.]

      Sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you have just blown your own case out of the water.

      June 27, 2011 at 8:20 am |
    • Richard S Kaiser

      Hello jtlawler,

      For one such as yourself to be into Pschyciatry and Catholocism, I do so commend you! I , however do see in our futures that Human Secularism will be upon the forefront of the Human Condition. I say this because I believe Spiritualism to be a "No Show" when it comes to Today's Ciricularized Economic Conditioning. I also feel that we are but "Human Omnivores" in the Grand Scheme of Animal Sociologies even though we have intellectual hindsightiveness Via the Written and Spoken Word.

      "Fractal Cosmologic Relatives" is Indicative of Bible Theosophies, Yet; Few People have considered such. Let me explain what "Fractal Cosmologic Relatives" truly is,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

      Our Celestial Universe is an Omni-Fractal while any Life Forms' Cell-Like Structures are as mini-universes and the myriads of Celestial Universes are Infinite and Huge in Scale while the mini-universes being but cellular and confined within all Life Forms for but of a Finite period of Time, Alive and Living until such Dies. Is it Not written in the KJVB that a thousand years is but a day and a day is but a thousand years in GOD's Kingdom and His Sons Kingdoms Which is Biblically Stated as a Truth? GOD is ALL OF CREATION while His Gods, or Sons do live out their Days "Within" All Celestial Based Life Formations Including our physical Bodies. The Time Differentials between any Celestial Universe is as a Day but is as athousand years to our Time Periods while the Cell Sized Universes are as a thousand years where in our perceptions but a Day.

      July 29, 2011 at 8:56 am |
    • GuestII

      Catholic pychologist....now THERE'S an oxymoron!

      November 23, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  9. Shannon

    Satan is the ruler of this world that we live in today (1 John 5:19) and this is just another way Satan misleads people away from God.
    "If, now, the good news we declare is in fact veiled, it is veiled among those who are perishing, among whom the god of this system of things has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, that the illumination of the glorious good news about the Christ, who is the image of God, might not shine through..." (2 Corinthians 4:3, 4)

    June 5, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Jeminai

      If this is true then Satan's writing of the good book makes God himself the evil one. In God's bible he condones the wholesale slaughter of entire peoples and even commands it. In the Good Book, this is unacceptable.

      Your God has slaughtered literally millions with his angels. the Good Book finds this answer to problems morally reprehensible. So YOU tell us, which side is right on the subject of genocide?

      June 13, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  10. James Black


    June 3, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
  11. Putt


    May 20, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • Brent Beach

      If atheism is a religion, having the the TV off is watching a channel.

      May 22, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • Sam

      Atheism literally means "no (a-) god (theos)". If you define religion as a belief system of any sort then Atheism would fall under it, because it is in fact a way that millions of people believe.
      But if you define religion under "belief with a god(s)" then you would exempt Buddhism from the category. And the belief in ghosts or spirits doesn't require the person to have a god, though they may.
      It all depends on how you define it, which dictionary you use - just make sure you know your facts before posting.

      July 8, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
  12. Eric

    Can we get an iBook for my iPad???

    May 16, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  13. Ctantony

    If you think that following the laws in the bible with out following Gods reason for giving the laws or without finding freedom through the sacrifice of Jesus's life is new, think again. Go sit in one of those churches that have been around forever and whose members are only attending because they have nothing better to do with their time. Their just a hoot! Wake up! Following rules without purpose will grow old fast and you miss the best part!

    May 12, 2011 at 5:12 am |
    • CGibson

      What? I have no idea what side you are on.

      May 21, 2011 at 12:03 am |
    • Vince1980

      Who said anything about following rules without purpose? I (try to) follow God's rules because I love Jesus and I don't want to hurt Him and I (try to) follow the greatest commandments because when I do I help to make the world a better place. Is this enough purpose for you? It's plenty for me.

      May 23, 2011 at 6:51 am |
  14. Michelle Malkin

    As soon as anything positive is mentioned about atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics and freethinkers,
    tons of hate-filled Christians come out of the woodwork to lie and spew their poison. Of course, not all Chistians
    are like this, but there are plenty on the Internet who are. And, we've seen a barrel load of them here. Even the
    good ones who think they are being kind threaten us with their disgusting hell myth. I wish these people would
    grow up and keep their religious beliefs to themselves.

    May 11, 2011 at 1:02 am |
  15. Ako

    Atheist are DUMB! trying to be good, but cant be good. Because all are flawed. Be realistic ,this good book wont change you a bit! who cares hell? You dont! But when an atheist die, for sure they will cry their heart out for reaching their real destination. CHEERS

    May 10, 2011 at 8:10 am |
    • CGibson

      Haha. We try to be good because it's the right thing to do. Not because we feel bad that Jesus died.

      May 21, 2011 at 12:05 am |
  16. Aaron Thompson

    If you are atheist wouldn't having a bible or any sort defeat the purpose. Your saying I don't believe in God but what other non-perfect humans say is correct. Seems a bit ridiculous.

    May 9, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
    • Eric

      It's not about whether it's correct. They are quotes for you to think about, by some of the most brilliant people to ever live. They are uplifting, inquisitive and humanistic.

      May 16, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Sun of Gad

      It is not ridiculous to trust what is the current view assessed by humans because there is nothing else. If a so-called all-powerful god made everything then why is his book(s) so full of inacuracies? You only think it is a non-human's rendering of the world but humans wrote it. It did not fall from the sky so a human is always involved in everything you think.

      Atheists with a brain to think like the members of http://www.AtheistSocial.com are not so essily fooled by your nonlogic.

      May 17, 2011 at 2:43 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.