The niche of books meant for popular audiences but written in compliance with the strict standards of academic philosophers walks a difficult line between lazily casual or exactingly didactic. When you’re used to reading Hegel, The Secret just doesn’t seem that impressive. But also who wants to read Hegel? A. C. Greyling has written an impressive primer on atheism and humanism which is concise and cutting and just a little too academic to sway casual readers.
It’s always been a problem for atheists: the arguments in support of a traditional concept of God are weak and yet people still believe. In fact, their very belief encourages them to ignore the weakness of the argument! It is circular in logic and frustrating to engage. The thing that seems to persuade people to believe is something about how they feel. Religion makes people feel seen and loved and understood, philosophical arguments do not.
Trade philosophy is even more difficult. A writer has to make an argument casual enough for a general reader while maintaining a rigorous argumentative structure. Its eternally frustrating that even a well made argument will probably fail to be persuasive, but it does afford technical writers the opportunity to make a rhetorical appeal beyond the soundness of their logic.
I’m not sure if its Grayling’s professorial tone or just his Britishness which makes this book stuffy. He’s certainly writing at an approachable level, he doesn’t invoke arcane terms or obscure references. It just feels, at times, formal. Which means that this perfectly concise survey of arguments against God becomes less effective because it doesn’t make us “feel” like the argument is powerful.
It is powerful, though! His step by step examination of the three most significant arguments for God is about as straightforward as you can get. His explanation, defense, and examination of humanism is lovely. But he doesn’t really get to the core of why people stick to their guns when it comes to religion. He doesn’t examine how good it makes people feel.
Of course, he isn’t a specialist in “feel good” religion, he’s a philosopher. He’s a very good philosopher! It will simply take a certain type of person to enjoy this, though, and that certain type of person probably already agrees with his argument in the first place.