Editorial: Big books
Bibles, doubt and morality without God
This year, as you won’t have failed to notice, sees the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. The Bath Literary Festival marked the event with a five-day non-stop reading of the entire tome. In this issue, Michael Bywater, who took part in this marathon, reveals what it felt like to be an atheist reading from a Bible in a church. Meanwhile, not to be outdone, Anthony Grayling, the new President of the British Humanist Association, has produced his own Good Book. Read our interview to find out how he managed to reproduce the structure of the original, while omitting many of its leading characters – including, obviously, God – as well as religion, miracles and Armageddon.
But if you can’t look to God for moral guidance, why not try science? That’s what the prominent American atheist Sam Harris recommends in his new book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Kenan Malik, himself a trained biologist as well as author of several books on the relationship between science and culture, puts these claims under the microscope.
But how can atheists be so sure there’s nothing out there? Many of us simply believe the notion of a supreme being is so implausible and so irrelevant that there’s no point bothering to refute the superstitious nonsense. This is the position of New Atheism, which tends to assume that agnostics are merely spineless fence-sitters. Christopher Lane, author of the new book The Age of Doubt, takes issue with this dismissive view, and pays tribute to the tradition of Victorian agnosticism.
As an antidote to all this gentle tolerance, we’ve two stark reminders in this issue of the appalling tyranny and cruelty that religion can inspire. The medieval Church wielded extraordinary power over its congregations, demanding submission and the payment of tithes. In exchange they were promised miracles and given an extraordinary array of relics to venerate. Historian Charles Freeman assesses the British Museum’s forthcoming exhibition of exquisite reliquaries from the Middle Ages.
Worshipping old bones may strike you as outlandish, but some medieval practices still flourish today. In Malawi and Nigeria, for example, there is routine persecution of those alleged to be practising witchcraft. Richard Wilson reports on the courageous campaigning of African humanists to free those accused of witchcraft and silence the witch-hunters.
But if all this irrationalism is getting you down, we also bring you two inspirational examples of reason and humanity. Laurie Taylor interviews the immensely influential social thinker Stuart Hall, while Anne Oakley recalls a redoubtable humanist heroine, Barbara Wootton.
In fact, this edition is so rich and rewarding that you’ll probably want to keep it for ever. And if you are a hoarder, a classifier or a collector, where Sally Feldman will tell you what obsession really means.