Book Review: To Set Prometheus Free by AC Grayling

A C Grayling is a British thinker and philosopher who has published over thirty books on freethought, atheism, religion and secularism. Much celebrated then but this book acts as my introduction to his work. It is a short collection containing just six essays which means you could easily read it on a warm and lazy weekend morning or afternoon (just as I did!) and they cover a range of issues concerning atheism, science and freethought.

Where are we in history? is exactly what it sounds like: a no hold’s barred critique of human destructive capability and how gleefully we do so in the name of religion. He proposes how a secular utopia might be achieved. Largely all very well and good but an exercise in wishful thinking. It is a call to arms, not particularly original or eloquently put. Right war, right battle, flawed tactics. The latter half is interesting yet whimsical – theorising that had Christianity not risen in the Roman Empire, the Enlightenment might have taken place a thousand years before. Possibly, but this is mere speculation that we could not say with any conviction.

Second is Why I do not subscribe to religious beliefs, an essay in the tradition of Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian which explains in great detail why he does not in fact, subscribe to supernatural religious belief. This is a far better affair that presents any religious faith for the nonsense that it is and he approaches this from as many angles as possible.

Third is Why Bertrand Russell was not religious. Another self-explanatory title here as Grayling demonstrates that Russell wished to present further systems with which he would replace religion. He also explains quite eloquently the complexities of Russell’s agnosticism

The fourth is a brief summary on creationism in all its guises, Intelligent Design, Creation Science and why they are intellectually destitute and dishonest. He also takes a swipe at creationist/ID poster boy William Dembski. This would probably be interesting to somebody not familiar with the attempts by creationists to get their myths forced into classrooms – but to me it was nothing new.

The fifth is a discussion on literature and argument and the new wave of apologist writing in reaction to the success of the quartet of big selling atheist books by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris. It is a commentary and critique on the glossiness of their approach being an attempt to increase their credibility and appear more science-y. He summarises their arguments as being one and the same and quickly and effectively deconstructs them.

Finally, The Good Life discusses the ongoing conflict of morality in the public sphere and religion’s claim that it is being supplanted by materialism and selfishness – that the two are mutually exclusive. He raises fair comment the bizarre view that any pursuit of pleasure in life is immoral and hedonistic. Absurd, yet still an idea propagated by even some mild mannered preachers.

At times I found his writing style unnecessarily confrontational, focussing too much on the emotive rhetoric used too often by those he criticises. But then to be fair to him, I read this straight on the back of Hitchens’ Mortality and I was always impressed by Hitch’s ability to write a cutting remark composed purely of reasoned argument that had no rational comeback. He also has a slightly irritating tendency to wonder off into the complexities of history and religions place in it. Aside from the simplistic view with which he often presents Christianity’s place in the Roman Empire and later, early medieval societies, I did tend to get annoyed that he was straying off the point. However when he was being pertinent, his arguments were effective.

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