A Seminary for Nonbelievers: Is A. C. Grayling Creating His Own Religion?

A.C. Grayling has an impressive resume. He has been a philosophy professor, a representative to the UN Human Rights Council, the Honorary Secretary of the Aristotelian Society, and the author of twenty-some books.

He has even written his own bible: The Good Book, a 600-page compendium of his favorite philosophical texts, released last March. As if that weren’t enough, though, he’ll soon assume yet another title: the founding headmaster at the New College of Humanities, in London. With some of the world’s most prominent atheists signed up to teach (including Richard Dawkins, Peter Singer, Niall Ferguson, Laurence Krauss, and Steven Pinker), the school looks like a seminary for nonbelievers.

One doesn’t rack up so many honors without attracting a few detractors. For those who insist that Grayling is power-hungry and overhyped, the New College of the Humanities makes for a succinct case study. It will be a for-profit institution, elite and very expensive; its tuition is twice that of British public universities, including Cambridge and Oxford. Grayling once stated that “university education should be provided free of charge to all those suitably qualified for it,” but now he is charging students $30,000 a year.

In the United States, expensive private universities are common, but in the UK there is only one precedent—Buckingham University—and Grayling’s outfit is not only private, but for-profit. Terry Eagleton, one of Grayling’s (and Richard Dawkins’) most persistent critics, has called the new university “odious” and “disgustingly elitist”; professors at Birbeck college have accused Grayling, their former colleague, for launching an assault on public education; protesters set off smoke bombs during his reading at a London bookstore; there were several online petitions circling through the web. The fact that the original faculty list included only one woman did not help the image of elitism and exclusion.

Critics also object to Grayling’s school on religious grounds. Giles Fraser, a philosophy professor at Oxford, complained on Twitter that the New College of the Humanities was a “new atheist school.” The Church Mouse, a popular Christian blogger, suspects that it will shut out religious students and faculty:

It seems difficult to imagine how they would consider the CV of a religious professor seriously when looking to fill teaching roles. And how would they respond to a student candidate in an interview who professed a deep belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus, when asked about how they formed their ethical views?

This school, the Mouse argues, will be equivalent to a fundamentalist training camp for atheists. For some critics, the school’s atheist links only compounded its elitism. Academic institutions are well-known bastions of the wealthy, white, non-believing, and smugly rational. Grayling’s school almost looks like a parody.

Grayling, whose long, gray hair looks almost like a barrister’s wig, is defensive about the economics of his new education venture. In interviews and editorials, he points to the fact that government cuts have forced many public universities to privatize informally by accepting greater number of foreign students, whose tuition costs are double that of domestic students. He insists that many scholarships will be available. But when accused of religious intolerance, he just laughs. “How can you be a militant atheist?” Grayling said in an interview with the Guardian. “How can you be militant non-stamp collector? This is really what it comes down to. You just don’t collect stamps. So how can you be a fundamentalist non-stamp collector? It’s like sleeping furiously. It’s just wrong.”

The New College of the Humanities “is not an atheist institution,” Grayling and other spokespeople for the university have stated repeatedly. But it’s hard to imagine Richard Dawkins soft-pedaling on the topic of religion. Grayling insists that he’s not as vehement as his colleague. “I’m the velvet version,” he likes to say.

Bible of Self-Help

In The Good Book: A Humanist Bible, “unwise” is perhaps Grayling’s harshest insult. He believes, for instance, that it’s “unwise” to fear one’s own death, that one should pursue what makes one happy, and that showing jealously towards one’s friends is deplorable. He’s a strong advocate of pets (“the brute is more content with mere existence than is a human”), good manners, and “eating and drinking proportionately.” In the final chapter, “The Good,” he provides a long list of the necessities to live “a good life”: “honour, self-mastery, wisdom, loyalty, justice, sympathy, and kindness.” It’s hard to argue with that.

The Good Book doesn’t call for a new religion in the manner of August Comte, who tried to found a “religion of humanity” in the mid-1800s, complete with its own priests and holidays. It’s more self-help than manifesto. The book, as the inside cover reveals, was “conceived, selected, redacted, arranged, and in part written” by Grayling. The content, arranged in numbered verses, comes from over a hundred mostly-classical authors, including Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil, and Diderot. The concept, however, seems to be borrowed from mash-up culture. There are no footnotes; none of the authors are cited. The Good Book is a megalomaniacal gesture, but it’s humble and disciplined in practice.

If this is is any indication of Grayling’s teaching philosophy, he will have a respectfully hands-off approach to his students. The book places considerable confidence in its readers. “All who read this book, therefore, if they read with care, may come to be more than they were before,” he writes in the introduction. “This is not praise of the work itself, but of its attentive readers, for the worth to be found of it will come from their minds.”

Grayling’s creed, as revealed in his bible, is more liberal pluralism than merely negative atheism. “The wise man is he who learns from all men,” he writes. According to a reviewer for Thinking Faith, an online journal for British Jesuits, for instance, believers “might also find that the good in The Good Book sits well with their belief and begs for hospitality.” As Stephen Colbert put it, “There’s nothing in here that makes me want to kill someone.”

An Elite Humanism?

Grayling’s new university seems to be approaching religion with the same gentle omission as The Good Book. All students at the school will be required to take four courses: logic and critical thinking, science literacy, applied ethics, and professional skills. For their majors, students have a choice between law, economics, history, English literature, or philosophy. History students will have a course on the “birth of Western Christendom” and philosophy students may take an elective in “medieval philosophy,” but there is no religious studies department. There’s a required elective on “the nature of good and the good life.” The curriculum bypasses cultural history and postmodernism in favor of a more rigorous study of the classics.

“My guess is that religion will be included in a similar way that it would in most liberal arts curricula—that is, as professors deem it to be relevant in history, philosophy, and history-of-ideas courses,” says Steven Pinker, who will balance a part-time position at the New College of the Humanities with a full-time position in the psychology department at Harvard. “Religion is included as a topic in many courses with the faculty of arts and sciences at Harvard, where relevant, and I can’t imagine that that would be different at NCH.” During the 2006 standoff at Harvard about the necessity of a religion requirement for undergraduates, Pinker was a leading opponent.

Some critics of the New Atheists, especially Terry Eagleton, have suggested that Grayling and his comrades are “zealots” of “Western cultural supremacism” and free market economics. Most of them, it is true, teach at private universities. But Grayling’s The Good Book at least seems to suggest that his beliefs are well-tempered for a headmaster of a diverse academic institution. Grayling’s good life is accessible for believers and atheists alike. If only he weren’t perpetuating a system in which so few people can afford it.

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Jessica Weisberg is a freelance writer living in Chicago, where she writes about education for the Chicago News Cooperative. Her website is www.jessicaweisberg.com