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. Jack

    Look at all the cute little Christians getting threatened because an Atheist comes out with a book outlining a peaceful way to live. If you are so mad about Atheists supposedly attacking your beliefs all the time (it happens, but not as much as you complain it does), then why don't you practice that so called "Golden Rule" you hijacked from countless other cultural traditions and accept that some people aren't convinced there is a God. Then, maybe, just maybe, you won't get picked on so much and we can all live more peacefully.

    April 11, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  2. MoHamMad


    April 11, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Yer Right

      Hey, Ham Mad, You forgot – Have Twenty Wives, Kill in the name of Allah, Commit Holy Jihad!

      April 11, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
  3. Reality

    The Conservative Jews and their rabbis pre-empted part of Grayling's by publishing the New Torah for Modern Minds in 2002:

    To wit:

    origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482

    "New Torah For Modern Minds

    Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

    Such startling propositions - the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years - have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity - until now.

    The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument.

    The notion that the Bible is not literally true "is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis," observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to "Etz Hayim." But some congregants, he said, "may not like the stark airing of it." Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that "virtually every modern archaeologist" agrees "that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all." The rabbi offered what he called a "litany of disillusion" about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have "found no trace of the tribes of Israel - not one shard of pottery."

    And Thomas Jefferson, Professor JD Crossan (The Historical Jesus), Professor Gerd Ludemann ( Jesus After 2000 Years) and the Jesus Seminarians (The Five Gospels) pre-empted Grayling's take on the New Testament. Might Grayling be guilty of plagiarism?

    April 11, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • Lycidas

      This is CNN and not the New York Times. Get something to copy/paste from CNN,

      April 11, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  4. Vigilant

    The Atheist "moral code" is simple logic. We use logic to analyze our world and determine what we could do to make it better for everyone. By following this logical conclusion we in essence follow the basic tenants of "the golden rule" which predates any modern religion. Treat others as you wish to be treated. It is simple game theory, if everyone cooperates then the end result has the highest utility. That is where a logical, thinking atheist obtains their "morality".

    April 11, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Doug


      April 11, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • MagickMan

      Correction: "Atheist" doesn't imply any code at all. Try a subset of that group, say, Secular Humanist, Bright, good Samaritan, etc. Each of those tends to stand behind some sort of code, but the set of people labeled atheist includes those who don't as well.

      April 11, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  5. Beam-IN

    It's pretty simple...you can argue all you want, however, at the end of the day, no one on this thread can difinitively tell me there is a God just like no one can say there isn't a God.

    April 11, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • memememememememe

      Can I get an AMEN!!!

      April 11, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  6. Kenrick Benjamin

    Mr. Harry Tuttle gave us some dates please.

    April 11, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  7. ralk

    Where do you people come up with this nonsense! who write this stuff anyway.

    April 11, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  8. Meg

    "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" – Unfortunately Mr. A.C. Grayling does not know the true author of the Bible...these prophets and apostles may have written the words down but they are the words of God. He right about one thing the bible would have been different if it was the work of prophets and apostles...it would not have been the bible....

    April 11, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • MagickMan

      Please read "Misquoting Jesus". Whatever or whoever wrote the long lost 'original' texts had a lot less input that you think into the many thousands of versions of what we currently call "The Bible". Ironic isn't it? The concept of "The" implies that there's only one, but in reality there are more different versions of that one book than there are words in it.

      April 11, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • JustPassingThrough

      I'm curious....do you also worship Zeus and Athena? If not, why don't you? They were around for thousands of years and believed in by millions of people. Possibly before the Hebrew God. So, why don't you worship them? Your answer to that question will be the exact reason that athiests don't worship YOUR God/Christ. Interesting.

      April 11, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  9. saved

    My Savior lives!

    April 11, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • MagickMan

      Really? What's his address?

      April 11, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • Jez

      The lord's address is your body. Because your body is the temple of God. Make jokes as you will but I guarantee you without any resignation you will learn the ills of your words when you stand before God. Do not be fooled, God is real and he will reveal it in his time. If you look at our world that time may be sooner than most think.

      April 11, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  10. ralk

    Where do you people come up with this nonsense!

    April 11, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • ScottK

      Well, it likely started with an ancient people who began trying to explain their surroundings and began inventing God's and Godesses in story's and legends passed down verbaly and eventually began to identify the people themselves like "They who worship sun" & "those who worship moon". Then social evolution began adjusting and adapting religion to the people and regions and began to be written down. Then a few thousand years later an ex-prince of egypt in exile began to write a new history for his people based largely on the ancient religions and histories he learned when raised as a prince. He then led a large group of worker class people out of egypt after the land was plagued by the after effects of the Santorini eruption and into the Jordon valley where he died but passed on his new history of the world with his people smack dab in the center as "gods chosen people" so on went his 2nd in command, a general who went on a rampage ridding the land of its former inhabitants because he claimed that their new God had "promised" it to them. Then about 1500 years later a carpenters son said some things that made sense and some fishermen followed him around and then four of them decided to write biographies about 30 years after the carpenter had died. Then about 350 years later all the writings about the carpenter were compiled by a group of ex-roman priests who took out anything they didn't like and the roman emperor had a vision and won a battle and thus a third of the world was converted at the point of a sword.

      April 11, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
  11. Mark B.

    I think they meant to call it the Libel

    April 11, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • JustPassingThrough

      I love born again Christians....they are incredibly entertaining.

      April 11, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Sandy

      One cannot be born into a family of Christians and automatically "be" a Christian. You must be Born Again of God's Spirit to become a Christian. We are all born of "water" – the birthing process and we must be "Vorn-Again" of the Spirit to be a Christian and belong to God's family. Beign Born Again is based on the fact that You believe that Jesus Christ, who is Very God and Very Man, came to earth to pay the debt to Almighty God, our Father, which we could not pay on our own..His death and nothing else can bridge the gap between poor, pitiful, sinful, prideful man and a thrice Holy God! You are either Born-Again or you are NOT a Christian and anyone who is "Saved" or "Born-Again" knows this foundational Christian Truth!

      April 11, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  12. Doug

    I'm a non-believer. I'm not better than anyone else. I do what I do because I enjoy it. I do what I do so that others might be happy. I work hard for what I have and give away what I've earned after I fulfill my obligations to myself and my family. I don't go out of my way to tell someone they are wrong. Think what you will, I don't and won't control you.

    What is the reward for me? Seeing a genuine smile on a face after they have received the help I can offer. I've had the feeling of happiness before and I enjoy it when others can feel the same. I can't count the number of things I have repaired for the pure enjoyment of it. No monies changing hands. Maybe a beer, though. I won't turn down a drink.

    April 11, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • Mark B.

      That's all well and good while you are here. What about the afterlife? Do you believe Jesus lived? Do you believe He was a great profit? Do you believe He said "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one goes to the Father except through me".
      Do you believe He was a hack and liar? He is either the Son of God or a charlatan. You see with Christ , there is NO gray area. No negotiating, no escape clause, no redo's. Christ spoke of Hell more than he did of Heaven. Time is running out. Pride won't save you. Good works won't save you. Going to church won't save you. Accepting Him as your Savior is the only ticket in town.

      April 11, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • JustPassingThrough

      This is quite possibly the best statement I have ever read on the internet....bar none. Thank you.

      April 11, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • Dave C

      Mark – a thought.
      Wouldn't your saviour be more inclined to let humanists into heaven, who had loved their fellow man for its own sake, as opposed to the Christ-worshippers who have only committed good deeds for the sake of a better afterlife?

      April 11, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Doug

      Mark B. Do I believe a guy named Jesus lived? Sure do. I know he has been a great profit to many, but I also believe the term you were meaning to type was "prophet". Joking aside, I don't believe in a creator called "Christ". The afterlife will be the afterlife, or I'll be worm food. Either way, whatever happens is going to happen. I'm willing to roll the dice. Your reply is seemingly an attempt to scare me into belief. I would like you to understand, I don't roll that way. Could there be a god? Sure. Also the chance that no god exists. Of course, "God" is what you make it. The sun could be god. It doesn't exactly create, but it does produce a lot of energy for plants.

      So, I guess I'll see what happens when I die, or I won't. Either way, I am satisfied with my life, which is all I know. You are satisfied by the explanation given to you by religion. I'm glad that you are pleased with that. I just don't believe in it. I like a little bit of gray, as well....

      April 11, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  13. Gabriel

    1. The anchor seems a little irritated by the book. She didn't seem very neutral. A little disappointed with CNN. Just a little. :-/

    2. I wonder if anyone watched the video to hear the author's point of view? The book gathers tidbits from all over the world in an attempt to get everyone to get along and be good citizens of the world. That's bad? 🙁

    April 11, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  14. Dan

    "Think for yourself" should be the first commandment.

    April 11, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • memememememememe

      exactly, and 'to thine own self be true.' Has nothing to do with being mean to others, or careless, rude and indifferent to those around us. Has everything to do with working on yourself as a person, and leaving everyone else to work on themselves. Common courtesy, common respect.

      April 11, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • Mike J

      Agreed! I saw a sign at a church that said, "Trust yourself less and god more." Really?????? So when some crazy hears a "voice" in his head that he thinks is god and it's telling him to kill someone, he's supposed to say... Well gee, it seems killing is wrong, but god is telling me this person has killed someone and deserves to be punished, since I'm supposed to trust god, I will do what he wants me to do.

      April 11, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Joe

      I agree to that. Although all aspects of life should not be thought of that way. which is the premise of the ten commandments. Also when we read the bible we have and awesome and powerful God backing up what we are reading, but i dont know what credibility this "Humanist Bible" has, because its written by a random Atheist, should we live By it. ( not the whole comment was a reply to Dan)

      April 11, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • Joe

      @Mike J
      when we Hear (or feel)God telling us to do something contradictory to what we think is rite. we simply Check with the Bible(the real Bible) and see if that is something God would want us to do.

      April 11, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  15. Arnie

    When they burn this book will anyone care?

    April 11, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • kevin


      April 11, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • MagickMan

      Nope. As long as they don't try to burn MY copy.

      April 11, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Doug

      I can't speak for anyone but myself. I'll only care if it is the last copy. History should not be destroyed, but learned from.

      April 11, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Allison

      Burning any book sucks... jerk.

      April 11, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  16. Chris

    Whenever religion is brought up on a site such as CNN there will be an amazing amount of comments, people from every walk of life will give their opinion. Isn't religion supposed to be personal? Why must everyone spread their beliefs to others? If I am a Christian why do I care what atheists do with their lives because in the end God will be the ultimate decider. If I am an atheist, why do I care if you are a Christian? If there is no God and Christians lived their life according to what they believe then who are they hurting? It all comes down to pushing your beliefs on others, keep your religion to yourself and everything will be fine, there will be less war and less anger. Live how you want to live and leave your neighbor alone (religiously)

    April 11, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Doug

      I agree, leave your neighbor alone. However, I do have a sign up on my door that clearly states "If you were not invited you are not supposed to be here". Plain view. Can't miss it. Yet, every week or two a few missionaries come knocking on the door(I disconnected the doorbell), and claiming they are above and beyond my sign because they are missionaries. That's not very nice, now is it?

      I guess these people aren't my neighbors, though.

      April 11, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • EDGY

      Chris, living in a bubble is not possible. The belief system (religion) of the majority greatly influences the conditions of life for the rest of us.

      April 11, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Jez

      Chris, if you are a christian you are supposed to spread the word of God to save souls. Just leaving everyone alone is not what the bible teaches and is not the christian way. If everyone left everyone alone how would people get to know God?

      April 11, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Bebekashmir

      You're so far off base. Atheists care because believers won't leave us alone. They govern us with religious laws. They create large and very visible groups to overpower us socially. They claim to have authority in an area where there clearly is none. For some reason when an atheist says "hey guess what, you're wrong" people like you get all upset as if it's our place to shut up and be told what to do. Sorry to tell you but we have every right to oppose forces trying to damage us as individuals humanity as a whole.

      April 11, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Teth-Adam

      Chris, is that what YOU believe? So, this is a core foundation of YOUR belief system, eh? If so, then why do YOU get to spread what YOU believe (here in this chat room) and I (as a Christian) shouldn't? I mean, YOU are prosthelytizing (sharing your beliefs) are you not?
      So, what it REALLY comes down to is this: YOU want all of us to stop believing in what we do, and start believing what YOU do. After all, according to your system of beliefs, that would make the world a better place. Do you even see how ridiculous you sound? By telling everyone else they shouldn't share their beliefs (and stifling open debate), you are forcing your beliefs on me. Not really fair is it?

      April 11, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • Someone

      "If everyone left everyone alone how would people get to know God?"

      This "God" is supposedly a real Big Boy... he'd figure it out.

      April 11, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  17. Mike

    I always find it somewhat amusing that one can declare themselves an atheist and that our Maker does not exist. The great Maker beyond all space and time, the creator of all that is seen and unseen. The Maker that is in all likelihood beyond all human comprehension, past, present, or future.
    To a scholar, or a scientist, that is a very dangerous concept. It's like telling a blind man that the Sun does not exist because he has never seen it. But, did anybody ever bother to ask the blind man how he experiences the Sun?
    Imagine a sea creature living at the very deepest depths of our deepest Ocean declaring that the Sun and the Stars do not exist, because it has never seen them, and even if it did, could it comprehend or define them?
    Mr. Grayling is probably a very great scholar. But, man did not create man. We just evolved from whatever, and will continue to evolve to wherever, until, with all of our humanist intelligence, we will surely exterminate ourselves in one form or another.
    Having said that, I imagine Mr. Grayling's book would make a very interesting and entertaining read, and seomthing that I would surely enjoy, even though I do not share with the same enthusiasm that Man is the be all and the end all of our existence.

    April 11, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • jimmynog

      I might find you somewhat amusing if I didn't find you somewhat retarded.

      April 11, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • MagickMan

      So... You've seen her have you?

      April 11, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • JustPassingThrough

      Are you referring to the Wizard of Oz?

      April 11, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • Joseph

      Do you listen to yourself speak, or do you find you drift in and out?

      April 11, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • memememememememe

      @Mike: I find the bible a very interesting and entertaining read as well. Since your proof of existence is no better than my proof of non-existence, can we agree to disagree and everyone just move along?

      April 11, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • memememememememe

      MIKE: my bad, I re-read your post and see that I misunderstood your point. my apologies to you:)

      April 11, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • glenn robert

      The problem is 'faith", it is not testable. One side says there is a God and can't prove it. The other side says there is no God and can't prove it So I am an agnostic and a good friend says I am wishy washy! As an amateur astronomer I see the immensity of the universe and realise that that humans are of little consequence in what is happening.

      April 11, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
  18. Brandon

    people can believe whatever they want. heck, they can worship the magical flower deity who lives in Dublin, but i don't think its fair to stereotype all Christians or Atheists one way or another. thats stupid.

    April 11, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • memememememememe

      @BRANDON: More than stupid, it's immature, unforgiving, judgemental, narrow minded and rude. Not very christian, nor is it a 'live and let live' way to behave in the world.

      April 11, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  19. john

    I believe in 7 and 1/2 Gods. I am glad you believe in at least one of mine.

    April 11, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • ScottK

      And I believe in your belief of those Gods believe it or not. I know you know that they know we know about those Gods who know we know they know we know, ya know?

      April 11, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  20. Not Chicken Little

    I'm sure this will become a bestseller in no time at all and remain so for several thousand years...LOL...

    April 11, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • Hmm

      How many thousand years has it been since man wrote the bible?

      April 11, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • meemee


      "How many thousand years has it been since man wrote the bible?"

      Less than two thousand, and they didn't finish altering it until the eighth century. People have always picked and chose what suited them best. So what was your point?

      April 11, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Hmm

      That the bible was written by men less than several thousand years ago.

      April 11, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • ScottK

      It took nearly 1400 years for the bible to become a best seller, or at least "required reading" sometimes at pain of death (before that it was death if you had a bible and were not a priest). Who knows what this world will look like in the year 3411 but I doubt they will still be using tree's to make paper books, even for the bible.

      April 11, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • john

      It doesn't matter if either one is a best seller. How many interpretations are there? Count the religions! Hitler was a best seller. And??? What does a best seller have to do with anything? Over the course of 10,000 years, will it sustain its best selling? We don't know and it doesn't matter! Have you ever played telephone? What is the end result? The brain is capable of holding opposing thoughts, and be "logical' about it. see http://fora.tv/2011/02/15/Robert_Sapolsky_Are_Humans_Just_Another_Primate It amazes me that religious and non-religious can't step back and see a bigger picture.

      April 11, 2011 at 5:18 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.