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Atheism U? A New Elite University Focuses on Spreading Humanism

A.C. Grayling has written his own bible, The Good Book, and started what seems to be an elite, atheist college.

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.