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. Lee

    If you don't know what right and wrong are already then you are just the kind of sheep that needs religion. Leave the atheists alone and go suck your god's dick

    April 12, 2011 at 9:30 am |
  2. chrisozman

    Well out of the, literally, thousands of responses here there is still one sobering fact to consider:

    I am a Christian and if I am wrong about God, at the end of my life I have lost nothing.
    If the Atheists posting here are wrong, however, they will have lost everything.

    April 12, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • Maybe


      Guess what? If you have not chosen Allah, you have lost everything.... or if you have not chosen Zeus, Ra, Thor or any one of the thousands of other gods who will punish you for not believing in them, you have lost everything.

      What if the 'real' god hates sycophants and rewards people who use reason & logic?

      What if the 'real' god knows that you are just trying to cover your bets by choosing the religion that you have?

      Look up Pascal's Wager.

      April 12, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  3. bones1918

    haha what cracks me up is the list: Issaic Newton- Christian. Charles Darwin-Christian. Aristotle- believed in intelligent design. Good on ya, AC.

    April 12, 2011 at 9:26 am |
  4. Sorahl

    "Leading Atheist" Yeah right. What a joke!
    There is no doctrine, no dogma, no text, just a lack of belief in a god.
    That's it.
    It's not the sort of thing you can "lead" in. It's a lack of delusion regarding religious belief in a god or gods. No belief. That's it.
    No leading, no text, no "bible", no BS from a BS author like this one.

    April 12, 2011 at 8:42 am |
    • Pops

      I agree with this. At a passing glance it seems like a childish aping of religious text to either make fun of it (boring) or kiss its rear (pathetic). I am athiest and I require no one to lead me against something that does not exist.

      April 12, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • Ed

      your awfully dogmatic about this

      April 12, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  5. Curt

    I like how the atheist who claim they aren't religious have all the trappings of religion, look they even have their own bible now.

    April 12, 2011 at 8:39 am |
    • bobster26

      Go-a-head ,call us names...but, "sticks and stones will break my bones and names will never hurt me". Bully.

      April 12, 2011 at 9:16 am |
  6. Bobbe503

    What if Religion like everything else, is evolving? That would explain how primitive the “rules” were in the Old Testament, how relatively refined, Jesus’ teachings were to the people of his time and how those Religions all seem so ridiculous to a thoughtful person now. And as many have mentioned, how does an atheist know what is right? What is right to one is not right to all. But couldn’t some of these people with alternative views of what is right just be somewhere else on a tangent of evolution? And here is what I find interesting in the discussion. Maybe this book feels right to us because there is a collective “right” and conversely “wrong” or evil and we all know it, but we have all come to despise the overbearing ways of today’s religions and are loath to call this searching as God? Maybe we need a new name for this which might make it easier for all of us to accept?

    April 12, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  7. doneboy21

    morality doesn't come from the bible, it cant come from the bible. i gota wonder if any Christians have read the old testament? its seems like to most Christians that book just totally doesn't exist it never happened. God is a ruthless killer, the biggest tyrant of all time, hes a mean and nasty deity, he orders his followers to kill other people, seems somewhat contradictory to what most Christians believe. any who try reading Leviticus 31:17-18 and you can see some of gods morals, and i use that term morals loosely.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:45 am |
  8. todd saed

    I love that he does that, it seems organized religion had nothing to do with religion. It is a personal experience, Jesus and Buddha
    both said to find your own way, you can have 78%of the power of God the Vedas say, what is 1 % of infinity I would ask.
    God contacted me while I was in the Army psych ward, a self induced psychosis in 1967 to get out of going to the war
    of indpendence in Viet Nam, studied that history, knew it was wrong, It was a consciousness of infinite mercy and love,
    outside the universe, there was no vision, or voice, just the consciousness which completely overwhelmed and terrified me. In case you think I was crazy to claim this, the Army sent me back to duty after two weeks, then prison for seventeen months, plus two months in solitary, and another ten days in a psych ward, kind of a Russian thing. SO I experienced God, my Zen girlfriend said it was me, the higher Self, I know it was not, but the point is to live right in this world, do no harm, and develop the spirit, it is not out there, everyone knows, but inside, only you know it, be free,

    April 12, 2011 at 6:40 am |
    • sonel

      Point of correction: Jesus DID NOT say "find your own way"...definetely the opposite...
      He said "I AM THE WAY....which is quite different from telling us to pursue our own way...

      April 12, 2011 at 8:34 am |
  9. Jellyfishdude

    This doesn't address anything Christianity addresses...what's the point in making something secular? secular is common sense. Christianity isn't. You have to be selfless to get Christianity. Humanism seems to revolve around the ego.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:39 am |
  10. ILoveJesus

    2 Timothy 4:4
    And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:39 am |
    • Pops

      .....and self-reinforcing delusions cannot be argued. You see, you guys do not play by the rules. I constantly see logical fallacies and utterly deluded logic held up as examples of why the non-religious just don't get it. The fact remains that we cannot seem to even have a conversation with you about it because most of us are required to play within the parameters of logic and factual reasoning and you do not. Religion by its very nature requires you to leave logic at the door. So, there seems to be no real conversation to be had here. I am not an atheist because I somehow feel an arrogant superiority to God. You see, that's what you guys always miss. If there is no god, then there is no mythical judgement. There is only me, dealing with you.

      April 12, 2011 at 9:49 am |
  11. Louise

    Who would want to end up in a Heaven filled with self-righteous Bible Belters anyway? I think spending all eternity with a bunch of preachy Mormons would be my idea of Hell.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:34 am |
    • GeorgeW

      Amen, sister! How can people who can barely spend an hour per week in church expect to be so happy spending eternity in church after death? I can think of nothing as hellish!

      April 12, 2011 at 8:52 am |
  12. john

    if everybody you know says santa is real when your young then you tend to believe them. the same is true with religious beliefs. the only thing different is they tell you when your older that santa is not real. i have always wondered what people do in heaven to stop getting bored. i know what to do here but not there.

    April 12, 2011 at 6:09 am |
  13. leslie thomas

    sad that so many people believe a lie, read the bible for yourselves then come back and post your coment

    April 12, 2011 at 5:53 am |
    • Culture Bearer

      Did read it. Sounds like a fairy tale by a not-very-talented author. It's full of contradictions, not to mention murder, polygamy, slavery, subjugation of women, and insest. There was this one interesting guy, Jesus, but the story they concocted about his birth and death makes it hard to believe.

      April 12, 2011 at 6:35 am |
  14. roxygirl

    Morality is doing what is right regardless of what you are told, Religion is doing what you are told regardless of what is right

    April 12, 2011 at 5:46 am |
    • Culture Bearer

      Good observation.

      April 12, 2011 at 6:31 am |
    • MarioD

      And how do YOU know what is right? If by what "feels" right or "appears" right due to popular opinion or sentiment – that is not Morality; that would be Relativism ...majority rules. In your system of right and wrong there are no absolutes....very dangerous way to know how to behave. Religion on the other hand provides a claim to absolute rule of right and wrong behavior. Thus the trick can be which religion is the correct one? Only one was started by a man who claimed to be God on earth....oh, but then you have to accept there is a God...good luck.

      April 12, 2011 at 6:41 am |
    • Lisa

      @MarioD – Personally, I think it is not so far-fetched to consider that reasonable men do possess a sense of right and wrong. To consider it as majority-rules relativism is dismissive. Within the realm of reason and knowledge, exists the ability to determine right from wrong.

      April 12, 2011 at 8:34 am |
    • totong batotong

      Religion (Church of God) is all God's goodness and love to humankind , if only human believes in Mind over Matter thing then this will simply end man's delusion of atheism..men will never understand God until he heard of the Reader of the Bible.

      April 12, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  15. Tmac

    Why is someone really an atheist? The answer is simple. They don't want to face the fact that when we pass from this life that we will give an account for the way we have lived on this earth to God. They try to promote that there will be no consequences for evil done on this earth or rewards for those who lived according to God's word.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:35 am |
    • Jan

      What an arrogant nutjob you are. You, like everyone else, know nothing of what happens after we die except what a bunch of ancient, the-earth-is-flat thinkers claim in a book.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:52 am |
    • DisplacedMic

      yep...what Jan said.

      April 12, 2011 at 6:19 am |
    • Culture Bearer

      The people who told you that weren't smart enough to have discovered electricity or figured out how to make cars or printing presses. As we get more intelligent as a species, don't you think our beliefs should evolve along with them? I bet you make fun of the Indians for thinking the volcanoes and rivers are gods. Well, likewise, people think you are a little light in the head for your "better be good or you'll go to a big fiery hell" belief.

      April 12, 2011 at 6:25 am |
    • MarioD

      "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me." Mt 5:11

      April 12, 2011 at 6:32 am |
    • Terry

      No other book has been rewritten as many times as the Christian Bible. It seems to me that the need to edit so many times is driven by the men who want the message changed to suit their current needs. Case in point, the current need to remove the word "booty" from the bible. You would think that the all-knowing would have had the foresight to know that the 21st century would see "booty" in a different light.

      April 12, 2011 at 6:33 am |
    • Marshall

      Why is someone really an atheist you ask.It's only because they think for themselves,they question what most religious people are afraid to.And they come to the conclusion that the bible was written by man to control society through fear.RELIGION IS MENTAL ILLNESS."All thinking men are atheists" Ernest Hemingway

      April 12, 2011 at 7:02 am |
    • smithy

      It’s funny that there is a belief that a cosmic Jewish zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-women was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree....yeah, makes perfect sense.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:25 am |
    • Reasonable

      "The fact"? Can you give me some evidence for what you´re claiming?

      April 12, 2011 at 8:09 am |
    • OmegaGramma

      I find it interesting how so many seemingly intellegent people, educated in science, and skilled in language, and yet do not understand some of the most basic things of what the Bible teaches. Can not put 2 and 2 together.
      But, it is always very obvious that everyone presupposes something into the text before hand, and is then taken out of context, or just plainly twisted to gain an advantage over the other person.

      April 12, 2011 at 8:20 am |
    • Lisa

      @tmac – Ridiculous. Try opening your mind a wee bit. Though it comes off sounding arrogant and angry when you accuse others of WANTING to do evil, I realize you were probably steeped in the notion that humans are by nature evil... that the devil wants to control us.

      Try this for a change. You were lied to. Most people want to do good. They really don't care about "evil" – it's really not that appealing to most of us.

      Many atheists reject the notion of the supernatural – they don't see it as any different than the ancient Greek beliefs that are now termed "mythology". It's that simple. Look beyond the brainwashing that you may have suffered as a child.

      April 12, 2011 at 8:31 am |
    • GeorgeW

      This is some presumptuous, arrogant mess! Why give account to God? Wouldn't it already know all about us? No...your guess as to why people are atheists is completely WRONG! In my case I came to the awareness that no righteous being could condemn what it created because what it created thought for itself. This could only come from man's tiny mind. Therefore, we created gods and not the other way around.

      April 12, 2011 at 8:48 am |
    • Toshin

      @Terry The Bible is often re-written to help better translate what is being said into a more easily understood context by the modern reader. Not many understand Old Hebrew or Aramaic. Not even Latin or Greek. And even the perverse can lern and understand (if not already know) the other context of words like "booty". But then we need to understand and learn of words that are used in an unfamiluar way like "feet". So it helps to have that kind of stuf annotated and defined. But the basis of it still remains in tact- though much is lost in translation and modernization, so the multiple meaning in one phrase ends up to being cut down to one meaning. What have you to say to this? Is my point making wanting and without comprehension? Or shall I try an approach more direct speaking of the writtings both old and new so you may better see to what I say? For I can tell you have only seen revisions made but never looked to see what revisions have been bestowed and in what way they were and are. I ask you to read the different revisions as you to read something to the liking of revisions of "Sherlock Holmes" or "Romeo and Juliet". Though many hold the orginal, they too have been revised so the young can best understand the story. And not read only just one part, read a few, a book, even if it were a short one, compaire them and see what you may. Then speak about revisions. Our way of speaking is always being revised, perhaps then our ability to communicate is nothing more than a facade.

      April 12, 2011 at 8:56 am |
    • totong batotong

      atheists are people who do knows and believe but speaks not the Goodness and Existence of God: hear of Charles Darwin?

      April 12, 2011 at 8:58 am |
    • Claes

      Ah, so you mean religion is accepted DESPITE offering an afterlife – something only the courageous are willing to accept. The weak, on the other hand, don't have the guts to do more than to pass into nothingness and decay after death... Schmuck.

      April 12, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  16. Tosin

    I believe in hell but not hardly in heaven

    April 12, 2011 at 5:32 am |
    • Toshin

      Everything is with an oppisite, be it greater, lesser, or equal. Without one there cannot be the other. Light can't exist without dark; hot without cold; life without death. For what proof is there of one without the other. If all you can see is one, then you must change your perspective to see the other. Sometimes we are so blinded by what we do see, that we miss what we don't see. We are often distracted looking one way, that we never know what is the other. And, unless we open our view of things, we will only know what we want to know.

      April 12, 2011 at 8:33 am |
  17. AaronS

    I'm a sincere Christian, but this is indeed a wonderful idea! I have come to believe that the Bible's statement that "it rains on the just and the unjust" also includes God giving wisdom and insight to people and religions that may not be "The Chosen." That is, God cares about ALL of His creation, and wants the best for them.

    Many wonderful insights arise from science. Many wonderful things arise from philosophy. And even though I understand the wish for this tome to remain skeptical, I know that many wonderful things arise from religion (e.g., Mother Teresa surely was a good result of religious devotion).

    Very simply, Christian or atheist, we should not discard or disregard the wisdom of others. The atheist should be willing to hear from Jesus; the Christian should be willing to hear from science. That is, WHEREVER THERE IS TRUTH, let us pursue it. God is never dishonored by the truth. In fact, Jesus Himself claims to be "The Way, The TRUTH, and the Life."

    April 12, 2011 at 5:26 am |
    • Nick

      True, except when that human wisdom begins to rely on itself as an alternative to The Bible, which is clearly the case here.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:37 am |
  18. alabamamama

    just get back to work,school or watever u do n stop talking abt imaginary stuff

    April 12, 2011 at 5:23 am |
    • Culture Bearer

      You mean that whole "virgin got knocked up and, in spite of being an unwed mother, gave birth to a king" and "the king grew up and died and then came back to life" kind of imaginary stuff?

      April 12, 2011 at 6:21 am |
  19. ProChoiceAtheist/Wife2AtheistSteve

    Humanist 10 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."

    –A.C. Grayling in "The Good Book: A Humanist Bible"

    April 12, 2011 at 5:22 am |
    • Culture Bearer

      Yes, awesome. Wouldn't it be great if everyone could be inspired to be good and do good because goodness is intrinsically valued, not because they are afraid of going to hell or missing out on heaven? What if we could share an ethic about our relationships, instead of starting wars about whose religion is the best one?

      April 12, 2011 at 6:28 am |
    • Ray

      That pretty much sums it up. I think most avid followers of organized religion will have a problem with: "think for yourself". As most consider humans to be inherently evil (some more explicitly than others), "thinking for oneself" amounts to "doing what is in one's best interest". And, of course, "we" make sure our actions don't hurt others, but "they" don't. And, just like in nature, strong internal bonds tend to imply weak external ones.

      April 12, 2011 at 9:40 am |
  20. Tobias

    There is no such thing as a "top atheist", and the idea of a secular bible sounds childish to me.

    April 12, 2011 at 5:11 am |
    • Oliver

      THE SUBGENIUS IS JEHOVAH'S PRIME TOOL, he has a covenant with this deitoid Who is well pleased when His subjects have the wisdom to obey Him. It is the Sacred Chore of the SubGenius to SMITE and ELIMINATE the unwitting, slavish non-partners of Jehovah 1: the Great Unwashed, the Hoi Polloi, Them, the Conspiracy, the Mediocretins, the strange normal ones, the Somnambulacs, Assouls, Cage Men, Pink Boys, Bootlips, PO'Buckers, Bear-Baiters, Emp Loyees, Box Dwellers, Sarnes, Anthropophobiacs, Infidels, Conformers, Timeservers, Mole People, ComMen, Proleterritorials, Automates, Philistines, Pharisees, Sagisees, Witchburners, Skurnbozi, Thankers, Heilers and Smilers, Idi-Atts, Credit Heads, Sloths and Moths, Cons and Johns, Barbies and Kens, Cliants, Losers, Weepers and Sleepers, Dirty Invariables, The Slackless Ones, Dibbies, Corpulators, Signifying Monkeys, Underalls...in short, the Remnants of Man: the Witless Principals who are the FALSE PROPHETS, who have been holding us back and forcing Time Addiction on themselves...and...others.

      April 12, 2011 at 5:44 am |
    • solomon

      "the ethical man knows what is right, the moral man does what is right". A Man said this...not a god.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:11 am |
    • eddie2010

      Yeah, this "top atheist" is doing it wrong.

      April 12, 2011 at 7:47 am |
    • Carolyn

      Just another example of an atheist profitting from religion – hoping that the shock factor will boost sales. Apparently, he doesn't follow his own creed – do no harm except in the literary world and if you can get some attention and especially to make money.

      April 12, 2011 at 8:16 am |
    • LetoAtreides

      I respect the effort of Grayling to compile the best of human thought in to a guidebook. However, what does the author regard as "moral" or "right"? How does a society function if morals and values are up to each individual? Whether you believe or not in God, human beings must be held accountable for their behavior. Laws exist for the undeniable fact that human beings are generally not able to follow appropriate morals and values. Atheism and humanism are naive at best. God knew that humankind was unable to achieve what Grayling thinks we can. Out of love, God sent His Son in to this world to save us. Why is it so hard to accept such love for us?

      April 12, 2011 at 8:22 am |
    • Evy

      and the very idea that "clinging" to religion to redeem yourself and feel "normal" or perhaps to "fit in" with your social circle is beyond childish...its' outright narrowminded!

      April 12, 2011 at 8:53 am |
    • grist

      LetoAtreides: The problem is that the Bitle simply does not give us proper instruction. It calls for the r@pe of young girls, multiple genocides, stoning people to death for blasphemy, and many other things. We have properly rejected most of what is in the Bible. Humanistic ethics is much superior. We actually need to think about what is right and wrong rather than rely on the writings of bronze age men.

      April 12, 2011 at 9:03 am |
    • Sybaris

      @ Carolyn. Atheist profiting from religion, really?

      Turn on your TV Sunday morning

      April 12, 2011 at 9:39 am |
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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.