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. Ed

    "...the God I know doesn't torture anyone."

    Meet Job, a man who was righteous in the eyes of God, who then gave Satan permission to do His dirty work (go ahead, look it up – Satan never makes a move without God's say-so). An entire book of the Bible that deals with God totally messing with one man – just because He could.

    April 11, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • Mickey Haist Jr

      He tortured Job just because he could?

      April 11, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
    • Nurse Lisa

      Ed – After Adam and Eve we all lived under the curse of original sin, though they may have tried to be holy or a friend to God, no man was truly righteous in the eyes of God until Jesus paid the price for us all. God allows what we allow. The devil is the only one who stole from Job and attacked Job, ultimately our good God repaid Job with double prosperity.

      April 11, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
  2. dah

    Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy and God. For some reason as our intellect grows all of these are seen for what they are, except the God concept??
    This seems like a 'positive book' with a good message. Why would anyone attack it?
    What makes one religious idol more real than another? Christians, if you were born in Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, Nigeria or Egypt do you think you would end up a Christian? It's all so insane.

    April 11, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  3. Jeff

    "I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." -Stephen F Roberts

    This book serves a perfect need for all; not just atheists. Some of the worst atrocities in the world have been committed in the name of religion so I pose this question: Is your God any less of a God if you don't sit in a building on Saturday/Sunday and pay men to tell you about Him or Her?

    April 11, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  4. rednain

    Howard, I don't believe in that God either. And I'm a Christian.

    April 11, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
  5. IronRider

    All this is a means to justify life without Christ. If you

    April 11, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
  6. really

    Two problems – – Leading atheist...atheism doesn't have or need leaders. Unless of course its trying to become another religion of sorts. and Secular bible...obviously quite the oxymoron. This may in fact be quite a good read but just the fact that its modeled after other religious texts and the marketing behind it makes me not want to read it. What's the point of not having a religion if you're only going to copy religion...

    Next thing is that atheists will all be going to meetings every Sunday morning.
    Each to their own but it seems kinda strange to me.

    April 11, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
  7. Gee

    they are really sure there is no God...Wow , all I can say is be sure.

    April 11, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • Ryan A - Florida

      I'm as sure that there is no good, as I am that I don't live in the Matrix...neither of which can be proven 100% true, but niether can any other "negative" statement for that matter.

      April 12, 2011 at 6:01 am |
  8. mb2010a

    I think where the Bible believers have messed up throughout the Bible era, is they think God really cares about them.
    I think God washed his hands of the whole mankind thing right after he created them, if he did at all. He probably just said, OK,
    here is the Earth do with it as you will. You are on your own... Mankind wrote the Bible, not God.

    April 11, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
  9. mystery

    I am absolutely sure that highly spiritual and religious people are the ones who have saved humanity at their worst moments. Deep spiritual belief in God is the only explanation to times of utmost survival. There is no way a man without God could survive the Lions Den like Daniel, the loss of everything like Job or the birth of an unexpected child like Sarah. This book makes some awesome points like knowledge, relating to others, having good relationships and wants people to feel good. He just overlooks those who have survived the unsurvivable, found the possible from the impossible and been given miracles. Those moments are without doubt a gift from God. This author may not want to discuss these moments rather stay in a spectrum of visible light where he has power over the events. There is the invisible spectrum that shows us that God has the power regardless of how much we try to ignore, wish away or convince others that we are all knowing and not God.

    April 11, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • Suzie

      Which God are you referring to?

      April 11, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • mystery

      The Holy Bible

      April 11, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  10. Lance

    "“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.”
    Such a beautiful and insightful post that could serve so many in the world so well. It mirrors my own conclusions during my decades long journey from fundamental evangelical Christianity to embracing secular humanism – a journey that has taken me into a whole other dimension of life and appreciation for life around me.

    April 11, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  11. TheOracle8191

    The 21st century's Tower of Babel, I suppose...and we all know how that ended.

    April 11, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  12. Edd

    To all you jesus freaks. Stay off my porch and I'll stay out of your churches.

    April 11, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
    • Linda

      As long as the athiests call the shots and the world falls farther andfarther away from God,this world will continue to crumble-Cant you see whats happening?Isnt it obvious that Taking the word God out of a country that was founded on the premise of God and the Holy Bible is destroying our country.We are no longer the Great country we used to be because of non-belief.Hating the actions of athiests does not mean Christians(or those who believe in God)hate athiests.Ahtiests ,of course,hate people who have God-like beliefs and hate is an acid that burns at our country's foundation.

      April 11, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
    • Edd

      Too bad there were other people here BEFORE the white man and his bible. Seeing as how they were here first, you'd think we'd all be following their beliefs instead. And now they cry foul when someone else comes here with (or without) a religion of their own.

      April 11, 2011 at 8:34 pm |
    • Edd

      Most of the atheists I know don't hate believers. And if they do, it's only because some of the believers don't understand when they are told to keep their beliefs to themselves.

      April 11, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
  13. Gregory

    Friends, I want you to put hands on your radio/TV and say I believe!!!!. Then I want you to send $100 to...

    That is all relegion is. A money pit.

    April 11, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  14. Arran Webb

    Science will become dogma. This humanist bible is a strong step forward in the direction of science becoming dogma. When science is mostly dogma it will then use acts of faith to hold together flimsy parts of the theory of life. Then science will be an act of faith. Then a very wise collection of scientists will proclaim a universal theory that unites all other theories (I know they are looking now.) This universal theory that responds to the evolving scientific-faith-dogma they will call – GOD!

    April 11, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
    • TheOracle8191

      I know string theory is the main unifying idea being kicked around by scientists now. The ironic thing is, that for those scientists whose atheistic views condemn the numerous types of religion in existence, there are more theories/beliefs cropping up that attempt to 'prove' a different unifying theory. Coincidence or irony?

      April 11, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
  15. J

    I think it's funny that so many atheists preach about being open minded, and wanting to get along with everyone; yet so many are hateful towards Christians? It's pretty obvious on this blog.

    April 11, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • Ficheye

      Shucks, I don't hate christians.

      I just want them to stop thinking that war is OK because somehow their god sanctions it.

      And I'd like them to practice what they preach.

      And as a tiny little request I was wondering if they could have a word with those people from the Westboro Baptist church?

      It would go a long way towards creating a more civil discourse.

      April 11, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • Keith

      It's not hate toward Christians. That's a mistake that far too many make. I speak only for myself in this, but I find that it is a dislike of the desire to take the inconsistencies that are so terribly evident in the Bible and brush them under the rug, and then cherry pick certain verses to prove your point. You can "prove" that God is just and loving by quoting verses at me, and I can "prove" that God lied to Adam and Eve by quoting from the exact same book – in fact, likely the same edition that you use.

      I do not hate Christians. I do not hate the concept of Christianity. I hate the way that it is so often used in the United States as a bludgeon, by certain people who do not follow the words that they preach. The rank and file Christian is a good person. But God is not required to make a person good, nor is Satan required for evil.

      Please – do not say that atheists hate Christians. It's simply not true.

      April 11, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
  16. Matt

    Good for him writing a book that encompasses the good lessons from the bible on being a better person and productive member of society verses being a book of judgement

    April 11, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
  17. edvhou812

    Chapter 1, Verse 1: There is not a God or Heaven. Do whatever you want on Earth, as long as you don't kill anyone.
    Chapter 1, Verse 2: There is not a God or Heaven. Do whatever you want on Earth, as long as you don't kill anyone.
    Chapter 10, Verse 30: There is not a God or Heaven. Do whatever you want on Earth, as long as you don't kill anyone.

    April 11, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • Ficheye

      Well, I did like you said. I made love to my neighbors wife, robbed a store, defrauded some elderly folks for their life savings. But now all of these people want to kill ME. I was wondering if you could send them your thoughts?

      April 11, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
  18. Lindsey

    Forgive me if someone has already pointed this out.

    NurseLisa, you say, "what is the possible source of a moral standard for good and right if it isn't God? If everyone makes them up themself surely folks are bound to disagree – then who is right?"

    Among religious people who use what they believe to be God's teachings as their basis for right and wrong there is also widespread disagreement. Even different sects and denominations within the same religion often have wildly different ideas about morality. So I would like to ask you – who is right?

    Humans are capable of empathy, which means that when another human is suffering, I am able to understand what that feels like. I have no wish to cause suffering to another human. That is all the motivation I need not to murder or steal.

    April 11, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • copanut

      Social cooperation is an evolved trait. If you don't think so, then you must believe that bees and ants are following a moral code from God with their social cooperation, rather than following what has allowed their species to thrive over millions of years. Humans likewise have evolved to have social cooperation as an inherent trait, because it works. Further, as intelligent beings they have evolved empathy which takes social cooperation to another level, allowing one to extend sympathies to people that are outside of their tribe who they will never meet and have no hope of direct personal benefit other than that it "feels good". Nowhere is a deity needed in that equation.

      April 11, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  19. Chris

    Come On; just another atheistic approach to try and come to terms with the God that they do not believe exists. Can atheists really be trusted? Let's take a look at history and the times that atheists were in charge of governments. The French Revolution; Lenin and Stalin; Mao; Pol Pot; the Kims in North Korea. Every time the atheists have had power they resort to complete authoritarian realities. The 20th century is the grave of millions who died at the hand of atheists. The great atheist concept of evolution found its hero in Hitler and the gas chambers.

    April 11, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • copanut

      If ignorance were corn flakes, you'd be Kelloggs. There are far more examples of damage done by theocracy than by your examples. Indeed the atrocities committed in the name of one god or another predate history, but to keep it simple lets start with the Crusades which (proportionately speaking) killed more people than WWI and WWII combined. The Spanish Inquisition. Wars between Catholics and Protestants. How about Iran? The Taliban? Every theocracy in the Middle East? And what about Hitler, who claimed himself a good Christian doing the work of God (read Mein Kampf). Did he slaughter Jews because they had hook noses, or because they were JEWS?? Manifest Destiny and the destruction of the indiginous population of America?

      One thing we know is that dictatorships are bad, whether the leader is a theocrat, an atheist, or whatever. True representative democracy implemented in a secular government that separates church from state has proven to be the only reliable protection against dictators. If you think having a religious dictator is somehow preferable to a non-religious dictator, you are delusional.

      April 11, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
    • karla

      Chris, Hitler was a practicing Catholic who spoke often of his faith. If you want to degrade atheists, at least try to be factual.

      April 11, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
    • Greg

      Connecting aheism and Hitler and evolution has been done before, and lost. You have no idea what you are talking about.
      More people have died at the hands of Christians than atheists.

      April 11, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • Charles

      Chris are you an American? If so, you trust me everyday Chris whether you know it or not – A deployed atheist United States soldier..... Oh would you mind pulling the knife out from my back?

      April 11, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • SchmittyJ

      Really? You're going to try and demonize human nature based on secularism while pointedly ignoring religious radicalism (across the ages), the Crusades, the Moor invasions, ad infinitum?
      I'm not an atheist, but I am agnostic... however it's disingenuous to attribute evil acts to belief or non-belief... humans of either bend are capable of greats acts of good or evil.

      April 11, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  20. faith


    April 11, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
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