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. nownow

    Newton was the first to see an apple fall off a tree? Now there's a real fairytale.

    April 11, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
  2. Trent

    I pray for the coming of Jesus.... That he takes all the Christians and even the Muslims (since they accept him as a major prophet) away... Then maybe the rest of us can finally live in peace.

    April 11, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      Well Trent, what follows the rapture of the Church will be Hell on earth for those left behind! The peace you crave will be false and very short lived. There will be wars that make WWI and WWII look like a cake walk! I am not belittling WWI and WWII. I am just telling you it will be Hell like never before! No Christ, no peace!

      April 11, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  3. Luke

    Scientist and God

    One day a group of scientists got together and decided that man had come a long way and no longer needed God. So they picked one scientist to go and tell Him that they were done with Him.

    The scientist walked up to God and said, "God, we've decided that we no longer need you. We're to the point that we can clone people and do many miraculous things, so why don't you just go on and get lost."

    God listened very patiently and kindly to the man and after the scientist was done talking, God said, "Very well, how about this, let's say we have a man making contest." To which the scientist replied, "OK, great!"

    But God added, "Now, we're going to do this just like I did back in the old days with Adam."

    The scientist said, "Sure, no problem" and bent down and grabbed himself a handful of dirt.

    God just looked at him and said, "No, no, no. You go get your own dirt!"

    April 11, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
  4. kid

    I am a Christian. If there is no God (which there is), then how did we all get here? are u atheists philosososopopososophers gonna tell me that a random atom outta nowhere exploded and everything appeared out of thin air... cmon give me a break and grow a brain while ur at it. also, are u seriously gonna tell me that we came from hairy brainless apes who scrath their butts into they bleed?

    April 11, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
    • John Pedant

      Stephen Hawking, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, has argued that everything came from gravity, which was sufficient of itself to produce (not "create") the universe. But Hawking does not explain where gravity came from. Heavy.

      April 11, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      John Pedant
      Stephen Hawking, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, has argued that everything came from gravity, which was sufficient of itself to produce (not "create") the universe. But Hawking does not explain where gravity came from. Heavy.
      I wonder why there is no explanation for the origin of gravity.

      April 11, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
  5. beelzebubba

    RE: "...an atheist believes that someone at some point in history began the belief in God. Can they prove through science who did? No."
    Scholars already know the laws of the old testament, the genesis and great flood biblical stories appeared long before they were incorporated in the old testament. So, yes there is proof that the ten commandments already existed, and the other stories were borrowed because they fooled some of the people some of the time. That does not disprove gods existence. It does disprove your zealous, close-minded literal-translation-swallowing dogma. Unless you are a cult-member who cannot question what you are being told.

    April 11, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
    • Lycidas

      Didn't you know that correlation does not equal connection. You probably believe that the Auk and Penguin is related to each other because they look alike too.

      But hey, keep on throwing insults..it shows how much you really know.

      April 12, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  6. solowd

    As an atheist I find this kind of irritating.

    Atheism isn't a religion. It doesn't have a philosophy. There is no such thing as a "leading atheist."

    April 11, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
  7. Rick

    Chrisitians are similar to children. They have this imature belief that they will go to some fairytale land where they will be rewarded for their deeds. It's a narcissistic point of view. When I die my values will be past on to my children and those who I influenced. What's wrong with that? Itsn't that enough? Not for christian greed. They want paradise after death. Of course heaven and helll served a purpose when we all lived with nature. Not anymore.

    April 11, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • RD

      A "real" Christian belief is to follow Jesus which means to replace the self with the Holy Spirit and do things because of a loving relationship with the Lord, not to do a bunch of good works and hope you will be rewarded. The Gospels say that many will say to God "Lord Lord" like they really know Him

      April 11, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
  8. kid

    atheists suck

    April 11, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
  9. Lawrence

    Everyone here and everywhere should get off their "team" and get into the race-the human race. Be you Christian, Jew, Muslim, atheist or of any other belief system, the most valuable trait a human can possess in this world is respectful tolerance.
    All of this black vs white, spy vs spy, theist vs atheist stuff I've read here contradicts the logic that for us to get along well enough not to destroy ourselves and our planet, we need to practice respectful tolerance for the beliefs of others unless those beliefs are so virulent (i.e. Hitler) that the ethical world needs to band together to fight for freedom.

    April 11, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
  10. clark1b

    he is absolutely correct .... a book of conglomerated human fallible authors full of opposing views and contradictions would definitely be very different from the God-breathed scripture of the Old and New Testament that is infallible and without error in its original transcription. The first is written on the "authority" of man's whit and whim ... the second is founded on the unchanging authority of the Creator of all things.

    April 11, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
  11. Gaucho420

    I'm an atheist and even I think this is lame. Let the Christians have fun with their bible, who cares? I've already read the King James front to back and its reading was the reason I started doubting God and certainly JC. Its all hubris, hogwash and fables. Those with a brain and the learning to back it up certainly see it for what it is.

    April 11, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
    • rrb333

      "Those with a brain and the learning to back it up certainly see it for what it is."

      Guess these guys don't have a brain. By the way this is a very partial list.

      Isaac Newton
      J. S. Bach
      Robert Boyle
      Johannes Kepler
      Gregor Mendel
      Leonardo Da Vinci
      Christopher Columbus
      CS Lewis
      John Dalton
      Blaise Pascal
      Wright brothers
      James Clerk Maxwell
      Lord Kelvin
      Gregory Mendel
      Adam Smith
      Samuel Morse
      Charles Babbage
      William Petty
      Louis Pasteur
      George Washington Carver
      T.S. Eliot
      Samuel Taylor Coleridge
      Leonhard Euler
      Henry Ford

      April 11, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
    • ajax

      At rrb333 lets not forget the conquistadors, the religious orders that led the inquisition, the witch hunts, as well as all of those crusaiders killing for the glory of God.

      April 11, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
  12. Pam

    It seems that the atheist view is much kinder than the christian one! I read the entire bible when I was 12 years old and thought it was the meanest, most arrogant, cruelest book I ever read. Reading the bible convinced me that organized religion is just a way for mean people to express their cruelty under the guise of "God". I know there are lots of good people who belong to religions, but I just think they believe in fairy tales. I do believe in something, but don't have the arrogance of religion to know exactly what it is (and they don't have any more of an idea than I do, just lots of arrogance).

    April 11, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)


      Did you read it with the guidance of the Holy Spirit? if not you read it with no spiritual understanding!

      April 11, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
  13. Lindsey

    Christians, please respond to this.

    Thankfulforgrace says, "Animal sacrifices aren't required anymore because Jesus came as the perfect sacrifice (in the New Testament, animal sacrifices are no longer made by believers)." Am I right in understanding that Christians believe that before the coming of Christ, one could still get into heaven by performing animal sacrifices? And that after the coming of Christ, animal sacrifices were no longer necessary? Doesn't that make it sound as though Jesus came to save the animals, not the humans?

    April 11, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
    • Sick of Atheist Hypocrisy.

      @Lindsey. How about you do the research on your own, and learn something for yourself for a change, instead of whining about it like a typical Atheist. I've dealt with your kind before. You don't actually care what the answer is, or want to know, you want to have a hostile debate and try to assert your (supposed) intelligence. But in reality, through your sarcastic, uneducated diatribes, you reveal your true arrogance and ignorance, as you're more concerned with scoffing, than asking and researching legitimate questions and answers. Intelligent people search for answers on their own.

      April 11, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      Christians, please respond to this.

      Thankfulforgrace says, "Animal sacrifices aren't required anymore because Jesus came as the perfect sacrifice (in the New Testament, animal sacrifices are no longer made by believers)." Am I right in understanding that Christians believe that before the coming of Christ, one could still get into heaven by performing animal sacrifices? And that after the coming of Christ, animal sacrifices were no longer necessary? Doesn't that make it sound as though Jesus came to save the animals, not the humans?
      That is actually a great question. First, understand the law was powerless to save anyone. All the law did was point out what was sin and then it symbolized what Jesus would do when he came! The law was only a temporary measure God put in place to teach what sin was and what the consequences of sin were. As for animals, the have no need of being saved as they have no souls! If you desire to know more about the law and grace you can read it in the book of Galatians. It is only 7 chapters and a short but powerful read! Let me know if you want to further discuss!

      April 11, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
    • Lindsey

      The Real Steve:

      Thank you for a sincere answer. So what do Christians believe happened before the coming of Christ? Did everyone go to hell? Did their souls simply wink out of existence? Please clarify.

      April 11, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      The Real Steve:
      Thank you for a sincere answer. So what do Christians believe happened before the coming of Christ? Did everyone go to hell? Did their souls simply wink out of existence? Please clarify.
      Christians believe Those who were faithful to God and died before Jesus came went to a place of rest. This place was called Abraham's Bosom. Those who did evil went to the place of torment, know as Hades. Abraham's bosom was a place of rest until Jesus came and died. Souls did not just stop existing before Christ! I am not a scholar but maybe this passage of scripture can help. keep in mind this is being told by Jesus BEFORE he died: in this you will see one soul in torment and the other at rest! Keep in mind Abraham's Bosom was NOT heaven! I say WAS because now AFTER Christ those who die in Christ go to heaven and not not a hold area. Jesus made that possible by his life, death and resurrection

      From Luke 16
      22 There was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores ,
      21And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
      22And it came to pass , that the beggar died , and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died , and was buried ;
      23And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
      24And he cried and said , Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.
      25But Abraham said , Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted , and thou art tormented .
      26And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed : so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot ; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.
      27Then he said , I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house:
      28For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.
      29Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.
      30And he said , Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent .
      31And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded , though one rose from the dead.

      April 11, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
  14. Ed

    Nurse Lisa – Job 1:8

    And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?

    Satan (he is not identified as the Devil here) does the deeds but only after receiving God's permission and guidance.

    It's just my opinion but if God is calling you "perfect" then you're probably truly righteous in His eyes.

    Mickey – God identified Job as his best servant and without equal. Being all-knowing and all-powerful, God would have had to know that Job would not forsake Him. However, He chooses to "test" Job...for what?

    April 11, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
  15. Jack Pearl

    The concept of a secular Bible certainly is interesting. I'm sure that he's included a great deal of practical wisdom from many of history's greatest minds, but in the end, it's really just a philosophy collection, not a replacement for the Bible or any other scripture. There's no overarching narritive. The various sources of this book didn't build on each other, and in many cases had never heard of each other, unlike the writers of the Bible.

    I would also question his methodology for selecting which writings to include in this book. If he were to include teachings from every contributor, on every topic, it's doubtfull he could find even one topic that all of them agreed on. After all, these men came from diferent societies with widely differing views on right and wrong. So from a purely humanist standpoint, who was correct? And who get's to decide who's correct?

    If, as I suspect, Greyley method is to only includes those views that he agrees with, then is this really the collected wisdom of humanity or merely the collected wisdom of A.C. Grayling. And so really, how is this book any different from the thousands of others books that claim to have all the answers?

    As for who has the purer motives, I ask: Does a man who lacks a belief in God do good things purely out of the goodness of his heart, or is it partly because of how he wants to be viewed by those around him? And if a person of faith does good works, is it only because he fears hell, or do societall pressures and his own desire to do good not also play a role?

    As for the whole Creation/Evolution debate, and the questions over the Bible's authorship, I could go on and on, but finals are coming up and I need to get back to work. Best wishes to all.

    April 11, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
  16. Frederick

    I find it amusing that many people claim atheists can have no moral code. Atheists derive their morals from logic and self-evidence. It is logical to treat you as I would have you treat me. It is self-evident that all men are created equal. If you believe these ideas must come from an authoritative God, I find many quotes in the Bible about how women should be treated as chattel and people should have slaves. Where is the superior moral authority in those ideas?

    April 11, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
    • sam

      Why is that logical. If a person is an Atheist, they belieive that once you die that's it. So do what ever you like.. You'd have to be an idiot to be moral.

      April 11, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
    • John Pedant

      If it is "self-evident that men are created" ("equal" or otherwise), then it must follow that that it is self-evident that there is a Creator who created those creatures. I do not think that that is what you mean, but "created" is not a word to be taken lightly (by theists or atheists).

      April 11, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
    • Frederick

      @Sam. It is logical because if we kill each we have nothing. It is logical because if I mistreat you, then you will be inclined to mistreat me. It is logical because if I do something good for you, then you will be inclined to do good to me.

      April 12, 2011 at 9:22 am |
    • Frederick

      @John Pedant. It does not follow because we are created there is a Creator. There are many theories of our creation from both religious and atheist people. Only a fraction of those theories involve a Creator.

      April 12, 2011 at 9:24 am |
  17. NotQuite

    "Just because you, personally, happen to believe one is more real than the other doesn't mean that another person isn't allowed to believe the opposite."

    People are welcome to believe what they like.

    For example, some person, say, Bob is perfectly welcome not to believe that getting smacked in the face by a 2×4 hurts.

    I do think getting smacked in the face by a 2×4 hurts based on experience getting smacked in the face with other things.

    The net result is that I duck 2x4s and Bob goes through life wondering why his face is hurting all the time.

    April 11, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
  18. Jeus Is Lord

    Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. If you have not made Jesus Christ Lord of your life, then do it now. It's too late after you die. God's wrath is waiting for those who have refused His free offer of salvation. Trust in Jesus Christ. He is the ONLY way to the Father in Heaven. Get a real Bible and start reading it. Find a good Christian church and start attending. Pray every day. Peace.

    April 11, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
    • PeterVN

      Pascal's Wager.

      Zeus' wrath awaits you.

      April 11, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
    • RD

      Humanists and philosopher’s are people with their own thoughts and views (which can be wrong). The Apostles lived with Jesus and saw Him – that is not a thoughts or view but history. Every knee will bow – who has had knees in history then? Buddha, Muhammad, these self-proclaimed Messiahs to name a few. We will all bow to Jesus because He deserves it and is awesome.

      April 11, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
    • ajax

      How free is the "gift" of salvation if the choice is: believe or be damned. Seems more like a terrorist's perspective "believe in this.... or you'll be sorry" You're theology offers two ways; belief because one wants blessings, or belief for fear of the wrath.

      Why are so many evangelicals so angry with anyone who disagrees, or wants to think for themselves. Live and let live.

      April 11, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
  19. Emily

    Atheism makes me sad.

    April 11, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
  20. dave

    LOLOLOL another non believer in anything trying to come up with an alternative to the holy scriptures...well good luck but it just is not going to happen...good luck with your futility and ignorance.

    April 11, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
    • thinking

      Ignorance is being controlled by pedophile protecting organizations that have been stealing wealth and stockpiling it for all of history. Pope melt your golden scepter, leave your ivory tower, and make amends for your nazi youth and centuries of abuse.

      April 11, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
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