by Julian Baggini
If you regularly use the Internet, the chances are you will have come across the postmodern generator. One simple click of your mouse is all the work you need to do to produce your own, customwritten postmodern essay.
If there were such a thing as a humanist book review generator, it could easily do a plausible job of consigning this latest contribution to the moral education of our nation to the dustbin. Every stock rationalist moan applies: it deals with an ethical issue within a religious framework, implicitly relegating secular ethics to the sidelines; it treats outmoded religious views with a bizarre degree of respect and admiration but seems to imply that all forms of atheism are sinister, amoral variants of relativism or postmodernism; and because it is clearly aimed at schools this kind of surreptitious distortion is going to poison the minds of our children.
To these stock complaints, a slightly more sophisticated but no less hackneyed addition can be made. The book deplores all kinds of moral relativism yet, in treating all the major religions of the world (and a few minor ones) as equal, it itself buys into a kind of theological relativism where what's true for you is just fine, just as long as it involves something spiritual.
Having blooded the poor book's nose, we can dispatch a final brutal kicking by judicious selection of a few choice quotes. "The idea of a force of evil has a long history and is still relevant today," the authors write, following it up with the astonishing non sequitur, "People even in the socalled educated west are still nervous of being alone in the dark." Cue superior sniggers from "socalled educated" New Humanist readers.
But contain yourselves, there's more. Augustine, we are told, claimed that the moral choices of human beings "have a mysterious impact on the natural world and bring about natural evil [such as plagues and floods] as well." Barmy? Not at all. In fact, this shows how "Augustine therefore brilliantly explained the existence of evil." How funny it would all be if people didn't actually believe it.
Add to this the authors' penchant for capitalising KEY WORDS seemingly at random, emboldening important passages, and sometimes doing both at the same time, and you have all the makings of a thoroughly TRASHABLE TOME.
But before we call for the literary undertakers, let us consider a few uncomfortable truths. First, secularists are not immune to the failings displayed by the religious. I don't like the title of this book, for example, since it claims it is for "the thinker" but the thinker in question is clearly religious, thus implying I don't qualify as a "thinker". But did not the Rationalist Press Association publish a collection of quotes for humanists recently called The Thinkers Guide to Life, implying that the religious are not thinkers? Is that any fairer or more respectful?
Second, though we may moan about the religious bias of this book, if we were honest, most of us do not want it replaced by an unbiased book, but one which deals with ethics in a purely secular fashion. But such a book, premised as it would be on the separation of ethics and religion, would not be neutral between the views of the religious and atheist on ethics. In other words, it is not bias many of us object to, but religious bias.
This is why pointing out examples of sloppy thinking in the book is little more than rhetorical point scoring. We are already convinced our worldview is more rational than the religious one and what we really want is to get our view across at its expense. The existence of books like this is thus mainly irritating because it is one more setback in the propaganda wars.
And this is where we really should get uncomfortable. Because this is a punchy, rhetorically effective, (though often poorly argued), wellproduced volume, with fullcolour throughout and an engaging, if sometimes facile use of examples from popular culture and history. The fact is that the religious do this kind of thing very well, dare I say better than the secularists. We're good at earnest soapboxing and neosamizdat publishing. We're not so good at getting our voices heard in the mainstream. New Humanist is trying to rise to that challenge, but it's not there yet. All the while that's true, we can criticise books like these all we like. Our complaints will merely bounce off them like rocks against tanks.
The Thinker's Guide To Evil Peter Vardy & Julie Arliss. O Books, 192pps