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Do atheists need their own bible?

By Tom Colls
Today programme

Participants Take Part In A Non Stop Reading Of The King James Bible

In the beginning was the word and the word was... good? Four hundred years after the publication of the King James Bible, philosopher AC Grayling has written a book which offers atheists a "bible" of their very own.

In The Good Book, Professor Grayling attempts to whisk together in one tome the wisdom of Ancient Greek philosophers, Confucian sages, medieval poets and the discoveries of modern science.

Without any reference to gods, souls or afterlives, it aims to give atheists a book of inspiration and guidance as they make their way in the world.

In place of the more well-known Ten Commandments, his atheist principles are: "Love well, seek the good in all things, harm no others, think for yourself, take responsibility, respect nature, do your utmost, be informed, be kind, be courageous."

Professor Grayling, the president elect of the British Humanist Association, is unambivalent about the biblical mission of his work.

"The point about the religious bible is that it purports to give us some direction. It contains the commands of a divinity wishing us to live a certain way," he says.

A mother and children pray whilst the father reads from the bible
A book can act as a text around which a community can be built

"In fact it has a message which is that there is one great truth and one right way to live.

"The modest offering of The Good Book is that there are as many good lives as there are people who have the talent to live them, and that people must take the responsibility for thinking for themselves and making that decision for themselves.

"What this book does is try and offer them resources for thinking about that."

The biblical comparison, however, is a little early in the book's life, according to Melvyn Bragg, author of The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible 1611-2011.

"When you're talking about the King James Bible, you're talking about one of the greatest works in English literature, perhaps world literature," he says.

The King James Bible
The King James Bible was first published 400 years ago

William Tyndale, the 16th Century scholar whose translation forms the spine of the King James Bible, was a writer of genius, he says, comparable only with Shakespeare.

What is more, the King James Bible had a profound cultural impact, forming "the seed cause of democracy" which led, among other things, to the end of slavery.

"Maybe AC Grayling has written a book that over a few centuries will gain in the public's affection and imagination," he says.

"Perhaps it will, I don't know. Today it is simply no comparison whatsoever. Eventually it may turn into something else. Time marinates all sorts of things."

Better stories

AC Grayling's prescription for the good life includes wisdom "plundered" from writers and thinkers including Aristotle, Cicero and Lucretius, focussing on the meaning of the good life and how to live it, without any reference to God.

You might think that Christians would find such a book an insult to their own Good Book, but not Rev Dr Giles Fraser, Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral.

While he isn't sure of the "modesty" of "a Bible with your name on the spine", he does think that you don't have to be religious to be morally good, and that in general, atheists "need better stories".

If anything, however, Rev Dr Fraser believes that The Good Book is a bit tame, a little "cheesy", in comparison with the "full-blooded version".

AC Grayling
AC Grayling is one of the UK's most recognisable humanists

The Bible is, after all, full of disasters and failures, heroic struggles between good and evil and dramatic tests of faith.

It is, he explains, "not a work of morality. It's actually a work of something deeper - the problem is not about just following a few rules, there's something more deeply wrong with the human being".

This deeper meaning of the Bible is something that has evolved through the ages - from the Council of Nicaea, which edited the early biblical texts, to translations - such as the King James Version - that brought it out of Latin and into the vernacular.

There have been graphic novels and comic strips, and even a version translated into Geordie.

For philosopher Mark Vernon - a former vicar-turned-atheist-turned-agnostic - it is partly the slow evolution of the mythical part of our culture that makes it difficult for AC Grayling's work to succeed.

Those who pieced together the Bible, not to mention others who produced much of the Greek and Roman philosophy AC Grayling references, were able to draw together countless diverse themes which we would now consider to be separate academic subjects.

Psychology and theology, philosophy and poetry melded with what Vernon calls "myth-making", tapping into myths that were already being told.

Myths, he says, have been passed down over the generations, allowing something to emerge that speaks to a part of us that cannot be communicated with rationally.

Call it sin, or call it the unconscious, he explains, it is a part of human life that we find it very difficult to see with a clear rational eye.

"It is very significant that in the century or two that religion has been struggling in the west, fiction and history are the biggest section in bookshops," he says.

"The reason is that these are ambivalent ways of telling stories that speaks to all the aspects of ourselves.

"To pretend that we can sort life out with some neat and tidy philosophy, is just deluded.

"If life was that simple we would have done that centuries ago and we would be living in a perfect world."

Do you think atheism needs its own bible? Get in touch using the form below or join the debate on Twitter or Facebook .

Yes, all atheists need a good book. It's just that we all write and read our own already; so why waste paper?
John Cudbertson, Hull, East Yorkshire

As an atheist I often feel like a passive bystander as I watch religious preference squeeze our freedoms of expression and choice. I agree with the notion that we are free of thought, but it's a good thing this book may provide atheists with a reference for common ground and solidarity.
Tom, Birmingham

Atheism is the survival of the fittest. You are free to do what you want as long society lets you get away with it. There is no right or wrong in any action. You are a species out in the wilderness doing your upmost to do the best for yourself.
H Ahmed, West London

I feel that there is no such thing as Atheism, and within us all we have a deep dormant belief, the great mystery of life is what makes life full.
Shira, Cowbridge, South Wales

I think you hit the nail on the head when you said 'To pretend that we can sort life out with some neat and tidy philosophy, is just deluded'. That's why we need help from God.
Joe Tyrrell, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne

As a Christian, I am more interested in my relationship with Christ than the Bible. The Bible is a for me a guide book or a mirror that reflects my life, but not the center of my walk with God. I draw strength and encouragement from reading the Bible, but I gain more in praying and spending time in quite reflection as I build a personal relationship with my Lord.
John Neel, Tunbridge Wells, Kent

Atheists already have own 'book' - every scientific paper ever published. We do not need a work of fiction to muddy the waters.
Richard Watson, Midlands

Athiests should not align themselves to anything that defines them as such. I am often annoyed that I have to have a label to say that i don't believe in rubbish. I wouldn't call myself 'afairyist' as i don't believe in fairies.
David Tyler, UK

Whilst it is true that atheism doesn't require a text, it doesn't mean that it shouldn't have one. As a fellow atheist I feel that this is a brilliant idea as people should be allowed a book of guidance whether they believe in god or not.
Rebecca, Yorkshire

Atheism isn't a religion and this isn't a bible, it's just a marketing ploy. Lumping non-believers together under one banner (or book) gives the anti-secularists the bogey man they want.
Rob, Sheffield

As a committed Christian, I find the atheist 'ten commandments' as listed above to be all perfectly sound, reasonable bits of advice! The only remarks made that I feel the need to comment on are the ones that infer that Christians follow a set of rules blindly and unthinkingly, and you therefore need to be an atheist to be a free thinker! This is simply not true, Christians are simply free thinkers who have reached a different conclusion to atheists; not mindless robots following an arbitrary set of rules!
David, Dawlish, UK

As a Christian , I have always taken the 5 books of 'the hitchhikers guide to the galaxy' trilogy as my second bible.
Dom, Henley, UK

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