Q&As from In Conversation with AC Grayling


Selected Questions & Answers from In Conversation with AC Grayling

Q: What advice do you have for a secular organisation that seeks to be a credible public voice for non-believers?

A: It is very important that people that don’t share the viewpoint of a secular organisation, a humanist organisation, should see that the members of that organisation are consistent, articulate and keen to put forward their views in a very responsible way. It does happen that there are organisations like the American Atheist Association which take a more robust stance in the sense that it is more challenging to the surrounding orthodoxy, partly to shock them into seeing there is an alternative point of view; and that is a strategy.

One can be a little bit more assertive about one’s view but in the longer term, any organisation that wants to communicate its viewpoint to others, in particular to others who may not be predisposed to it, should do it with that kind of consistency and sobriety and at least to the extent possible, a kind of eloquence, making the point with clarity, elegance and humour so that other people will sit up and take notice and engage… to show people there is this mature view of the world, moreover, to remind people this view of the world, this humanist outlook is a deeper, richer and older tradition than, for example, Christianity or Islam. For a thousand years before Christianity became the mindset of Europe, people were thinking about ethics in precisely the humanist way, which is, you start from the realities of human experience in our world and you try to think by your best lights how we are to live together and make a life which is good and significant.

Q: In Against All Gods, you said that non-believers should avoid the term atheist, do you still hold this position?

A: I do. The term is a theist word to describe those who do not share their view. Whenever I am invited by theists to debate them, I say, Look, I much prefer to be called an “a-fairist” or an “a-goblinist” because I don’t believe there are fairies and goblins; and if you want to have a discussion, let’s first have a discussion about fairies. You can give me all your reasons why you don’t think there are fairies in your garden. When you’ve given me those reasons, I’ll invite you to export those reasons to religion because they are the same arguments. Of course, people are reluctant to do that because they want think that the word G-O-D with the capital “G” is the name of something. In fact, you’ve got to start way back before you even concede there is a discussion to be had on that topic, and you illustrate that by pointing out that everybody in the world is an atheist about most of the gods of history. We managed to get down to one, just about, or if you’re Christian, nearly three or something. We’re making progress. It’s much better than having hundreds of them. The word that I prefer to use is naturalist—somebody who thinks the universe is a realm of natural law—but if you say to people you are a naturalist they think you take your clothes off and run around naked on weekends. Perhaps a better word is freethinker.

The point is sometimes very well put that atheism is to theism what not collecting stamps is to stamp collecting. Stamp collectors say, you’re an “a-stamp-collector”, then they’ve labelled you by definition of their own interests. And they say, not stamp collecting is just as much a view or a faith as stamp collecting is. And that shows you there’s something very wrong with the apparent symmetry between the two. Now, you can be a militant secularist but you cannot be a militant atheist, anymore than you can be a militant non stamp collector. You can’t say, “I DON’T COLLECT STAMPS!” You just can’t do it. Just try it sometime.

Q: Where do you see the limits of religious freedom?

A: The obvious first answer to that is imposing your religious beliefs on other people or persecuting other people because they don’t share those beliefs. That, I think, is beyond the acceptable limit. This is a point about secularism rather than the theism-atheism debate because a responsible secularist should say everybody is entitled to their views and beliefs, what they are not entitled to do is imposing these beliefs on others in a way which is harmful. It used to be the case, in fact, in the UK and some western countries, until fairly recently, that people would treat their religious beliefs very much like their sex lives. Your sex life is generally something you don’t talk about in public; you talk about it in private. Certainly before 9-11, it’s very unusual, if you went to a dinner party, for someone to say, by the way I’m a Christian and I want you to treat me accordingly. It’s characteristic of people with a very strongly held view, especially one with moralistic implications: I think this and therefore you must think it too; or, I don’t like it and therefore you mustn’t do it. This attempt to mould other people along the lines of your own commitments is not acceptable.

One final point. People will come at me and say, you are a secularist so you want to impose your secularism on everybody else. And again, this is an asymmetric argument. This is a wonderful opportunity to get into the informal fallacies of logic when people try to run this two-way thing. I say, no, the difference between having a particular view and wanting to impose them on everybody, and arguing that everybody is entitled to their views but not entitled to make other people’s lives miserable are two very, very different approaches to the same problem. The latter is the one I advocate.

Q: What is the strongest argument for the existence of God you’ve encountered?

A: Alas, I haven’t encountered any strong arguments.

Q: Can you comment on your colleague, Stephen Law’s, The Evil God Challenge?

A: I’m afraid I haven’t read that one yet. Let me just comment on the Argument from Natural Evil. Of course it is the “Get out of Jail” card for apologists for theistic morality that we are given free will so that we can make the right type of choices from God’s point of view; that’s where moral evil arises. But the problem of natural evil has always been a great sticking point for people. The great earthquake of Lisbon, the earthquake and tsunami of 1755 is a famous example that sort of came at the right moment; if God was on the side of the dais of the Enlightenment he did the right thing that year because it persuaded so many people that the presence of natural evil in the world is completely inconsistent with an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God—either God is powerless to control the forces of nature or He can’t be all good…

The thing about the ontological argument is that it is bad for a lot of reasons. It is not bad as to its validity because it’s logically valid but it is unsound. Kant made the point in the Critique of Pure Reason that existence cannot be a property of things. It’s also shown to be unsound by parity of reasoning that you can show that there cannot be a devil. The argument goes as follows: There is a least perfect being in the universe—of course, it’s a reasonable claim that there is a most perfect being in the world, it just has to be less imperfect than everybody else—a least perfect being that does not exist is even less perfect than one that does, therefore the least perfect being doesn’t exist. It’s a nonsense argument but it’s the same reasoning as the one offered by the ontological argument.

Q: A number of people are born into Christianity. For some they have spent almost their entire lifetime living up to the doctrines. But at some point one wakes up to reality and wants to break free, and it seems too difficult. What would be your advice for someone transitioning to be a humanist?

A: It’s good question this one because it’s genuinely difficult for people to let go of that which is constitutive of their own sense of themselves and the world, and it is also very difficult for people to leave a community where how they are seen by their friends, family and fellow church members; a very important scaffolding of their lives. So it can be a very tough choice. It’s also the case, especially in adolescence, that they may go through terrible struggles of feelings of guilt and anxiety of their natural feelings, sexual feelings, for example, feeling that they are guilty, they are sinful, they’ve done themselves great harm in the eyes of the deity. This is one of the cruelties of religious indoctrination in childhood, that it creates these difficulties. For people in Islamic communities to become atheists or agnostics is even more difficult. There are some Islamic communities where apostasy invites the death penalty. In communities where that isn’t the case, nevertheless, it can be drastic the result of leaving and declaring one no longer has faith.

So the usual answer that people give when leaving is that you have to look for friends who share your view, who have made that transition already. This is why organisations like the Humanist Society, for example, where you can find some support and fellowship really matter. You know, this takes a leaf out of religion’s book. Religions have understood something really well: that people do like to get together, they do like to dress up a bit, they do like to sing songs, they do like to feel like they are the members of a club. In all these ways, religions have captured all the things humans need and want, and then of course, they added on the supernatural element which we don’t need. The advice I would give is, look for people who share the same difficulties and have made the transition and benefit from their experience and their friendship, because in the end, it is the fellowship between human beings which provides the deepest and best kind of support for the things that matter to us most.

Q: What advice would you give to secularists in Singapore in public discussion of atheism where questioning the veracity of religious claims is considered politically unacceptable because of the purported risk of offending the religious?

A: Offense, this is a great excuse that people use. I find myself taking offense several times a day by religious claims and if I let it get to me it would be quite a serious disruption. I am very strongly of the view that offense is no defence. You cannot say, you are not allowed to say something because you are not allowed to say or do something because I am offended by it. Being offended by something is your own problem, not the problem of the offender. But there is something to be said on the matter. In general, you cannot choose whether you are disabled, what age you are, your ethnicity (I suppose you can choose your sex nowadays but it is expensive and time consuming); but those things, sexuality, disability, age are things you can’t choose. To be offensive about those things is, in my view, wrong. It’s unkind and unkindness is not a good thing and to put some constraints on that seems to me to be legitimate. To say that I’m not allowed to criticise, to disagree, or ridicule your political views or your religious views, those are completely different matters because they are matters of choice.

Now, I’ll grant you that it’s very hard to make choices about religion because it’s very hard to leave a religious community or a faith you were brought up in but it’s still possible to do it therefore it’s a quite different order of thing from your age or ethnicity. So don’t offend people about their age or ethnicity, that’s just incredibly bad manners and it’s just not acceptable, but do, by all means, offend people about their political views and religious views. You are on pretty safe grounds doing it because most political views and religious views are stupid.

Q: Believers have doubt and they struggle with it, do humanists have doubt, and if you do, how do you deal with it?

A: I don’t speak for all humanists but I think humanists are less doubting than religious people because religious people have much more reasons to doubt than humanists. Bertrand Russell said it’s not so much the question of what you believe but why you believe it. I think if any really, really honest persons committed to a religion ask themselves why they really believe it and look at the repertoire of reasons—because as you know, everything is causally over-determined, there are lots of different prompts, different channels of explanations of why somebody holds a certain view—most of them are going to be non-rational views.

Irrationality is just one form of non-rationality. Emotional reasons are also non-rational reasons by definition although we can educate our emotions to be better adapted to things… but generally speaking, religious views are non-rational views and therefore, the motivations that people might have, might have to do with the aesthetic character of the religion or the psychological support they get from it, or the fact of belonging to a group where they get support and satisfaction. Those sorts of reasons are, of course, not reasons for thinking that the beliefs in question are true. So, when it comes down to thinking about the actual content or the doctrines and teachings of the beliefs themselves, they tend to be the subject of the doubt that religious people have.

It never surprises me; I’ll tell you an anecdote.

I was brought up in a non-religious household. My first encounter with religion was when I met other people in school who had religious views. At that time I just thought they are just peculiar but since they also played cricket and so on it seemed okay. When I was at a boarding school as a young teenager, we had a new chaplain who came to the school. We were so overexposed to religion that we did not listen to it. It was just noise in the background until this new chaplain came. He read a prayer that some of you may know, Lord, open now our hearts by inspiration of thy Holy Spirit that we may truly love thee… the usual sort of brownnosing kind of prayer.

The word inspiration he pronounced, IN-SPI-RA-tion, and I had just been reading about the ancient Greeks and the muses and how they whispered into the ears of the poets, and I thought that was very interesting so I went up to the chaplain and I said to him, give me something to read about Christianity, I really want to find out what’s going on there. He gave me a very interesting reading list, which included Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Bishop Robinson’s Honest to God and he said, you must read The Epistle to the Romans, great converting epistle of Christianity. So I took this whole reading home for the holidays. I read everything. I was a very earnest little schoolboy, studied it all very carefully, got back to school, and went to see him. I said, I read everything that you told me to read and I have a question for you, and the question is, how can you believe this stuff? I found it incredible. He said to me, well, every morning I wake up I pray the prayer of St Augustine, Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief. I said, so you don’t believe it either!

I said to him, Look, if you strip away all the inessentials, what’s the story? The story is God makes mortal maiden pregnant. She gives birth to this egregious character, who among other things goes to the underworld, comes out, joins his father. I heard this story dozens of times. Zeus—lucky fellow—was always making mortal maidens pregnant. They were always giving birth to heroic figures like Hercules. Why are those stories myths but not this one? And you know, he could not answer me. I never found a satisfactory explanation why the Christian story, a familiar commonplace story, should be regarded to be so significant, other than the political, historical reasons having to do with the Roman Empire and Constantine, and coercion and burning people at the stake if they didn’t agree and so on. And the fact that Christianity first recommended itself to women and slaves, the people who were subjected and had second status in society and promised them, what Hercules got, if you engage in the heroism of faith, you too can become a god, you’ll get into heaven. That’s an incredible promise to people who live a life of subjection and oppression, and so the psychology of it explains the belief, but why would anybody if they just stop for a moment and thought? That’s why religions tell you, Don’t think, just believe.