Fran Lowe, Online Features Editor, and Theo Stone, Online Features Columnist, interview the British philosopher, A.C. Grayling, on his influences, the role of religion in our lives and morality.
We may not be able to confirm the existence of God, but we can confirm that A.C. Grayling is one of the most prominent philosophers of the 21st century. Among his many roles, Grayling has been at the forefront of a pro-secular campaign for many years, something that has led to him becoming known as the ‘Fifth Horseman of the New Apocalypse’.
After a short reception in one of Peter Chalk’s many rooms, we are moved to a separate room, albeit without as many adoring fans (of Grayling, not us), to begin our interview. Whilst many see Philosophers as being aloof and unreachable personifications of ivory towers, the complete opposite can be attributed to Grayling. His warm personality grants you the impression of someone who knows exactly what they’re talking about, and has nothing to hide. In short, he is relaxed and comfortable, and looks just at home in a conversation as he does both on-stage delivering his secularist rhetoric and on paper in his many books.
In order to cut straight to the bone, we ask him for his opinion on the late Christopher Hitchens’ famous quote “Religion Poisons Everything” from his book ‘God is Not Great’. Grayling, to a point, agreed with this. As a personal friend of Hitchens, he sees this as most prominent in the ‘Public Square’, where it tends to have a “deleterious effect on things”.
Examining the limits of religion, Grayling’s statement that “faith is what I die for, dogma is what I kill for”, cuts hard into what he perceives to be the “global-social-political-scene has been poisoned by the fact that highly activist forms” have reacted in horrifically violent ways to various changes. However, it is not just the fanatics who are to blame, but our governments as well, who simply start “introducing laws that limit our civil liberties”. Because of this, Grayling postulates that, when religion leaks out from the “private sphere”, it does tend to have a poisonous effect.
Regarding the recent events in Paris, Africa and the Middle East, we turned the conversation towards whether or not people should reevaluate the position of religion in our lives. Grayling expressed his belief that “we seem to be in a phase of events now where everybody is in semi-denial about the harmful effects that religious extremism”, and our repeated reaction of simply proclaiming it to be “just the fringe” of religion. Regardless of the religious background, Grayling believes that we must now turn towards cooling down religious influence, including taking Religion out of education, to stop them from appearing to be “natural and plausible” in order to “give people an opportunity to think for themselves”.
Furthermore, Grayling believes that we need to encourage Churches and other faith communities to realise themselves as what they truly are, which are, to him “interest groups”, who are given a massive point of interest by government for purely historical positions. However, “if they are to subscribe on their members subscriptions, and they didn’t get any help from the state, we would see them for their true size”, and thus their influence would be diminished. To Grayling, this would put religion back into “its proper place in the queue”.
Shifting from the political to the personal, we delve into Grayling’s influences, who he lists as being “Aristotle, Hume, Kant and Russell”, because of the work that they performed “both in and around Philosophy”. For example, Bertrand Russell campaigned fiercely for Women’s Suffrage, Nuclear Disarmament and Homosexual Rights, and stood in elections for the Labour Party.
Grayling admires those who are “engagé”, such as Camus and Sartre, who take part in the “public conversation” on various matters, as opposed to those who spend their lives shut away thinking. The answer great Socratic question ‘how should I live’ is still under debate, and those that perform a civic duty, as well as an intellectual duty, are the ones who are, to Grayling at least, the ones to be admired.
After this brief diversion, we jump back into Religion, with a question concerning whether or not the ‘Heaven Principle’ can be seen as a form of ethical egoism (wherein one performs actions for their personal gain). Grayling notes how “reluctant Christians are to die” despite the fact that they have seemingly been fruitful members of their faith, since they “should be happy about singing hymns for eternity”, and yet, they somewhat paradoxically champion anti-euthanasia legislation. He talks about one of his two father-in-laws who was terrified of dying because of the sins that he had apparently committed, which leads into him perceiving it to be in fact a “cruel view”.
Indeed, to him, the view is only comforting to those who refuse to believe that this “rich panoply of experiences has a term and is going to come to an end”. Certainly whilst it is a popular belief among the elderly factions of society, it is actually more popular among the younger members that “haven’t yet done what they want to do”, and thus have not yet been satisfied. He presents us with the Heideggerian proposition that, whilst we experience ‘dying’, we never experience death itself, and thus there is nothing to fear in death.
But without the afterlife, what keeps us moral? The answer is simple; a great deal. Grayling sees the idea of a supernatural absolute generated by religious dogma as “controlling”, and thus something to be abandoned. He notes that the “invisible policeman” that is constantly watching you has been pretty much abandoned in our daily lives, thanks to the abundance of CCTV cameras and other forms of observation that are present in our daily lives. We interact with each other both for personal and naturally neurological reasons and this is not because of a God, but because of who we are. Indeed, as get become further and further away, we become less concerned. One only has to look at the attacks in Paris and compare them with those made by Boko Haram to see that we are more concerned for those who are both geographically and culturally closer to us.
To further his secular viewpoint, Grayling describes a remark by William Hazlitt, who, whilst on a hiking tour with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “stopped off in a fishing village, where there had been a storm the night before, and a boy had been drowned, and the people in the village had tried to save the boy at the risk of their own lives. Richard asked them, ‘why did you risk your lives to save the boy?’, to which the Fisherman replied, ‘it’s because we have a nature unto one another.” To Grayling, that man was absolutely right.
Grayling’s talk can be found below:
Seeing as how we were in agreement with him on raising the awareness of humanism and similar concepts, we asked him for his ideas about a humanist approach to teaching. Grayling believes that we need to simply have to be “active about how we are going to live”. People need to “assume responsibility for their choices”. Grayling proclaims that religion is not a “particularly good source of the values” and is in fact the opposite, and thus it must be rejected as a principle of education. We need to think for ourselves, and thus we must take responsibility.
So if religion were to be extinguished, what would a truly secular society look like, if it adopted the Humanist tradition? Grayling believes that it is not an easy question to answer. He uses the example of human longevity, wherein as we lengthened our natural lifespan, new diseases became apparent. If religion was to disappear, new things wherein “humans can fight one another over” will most likely emerge. However, because Humanism, at its core, is about the respect of others, it would, to him, be a much more liberal, open and tolerant society.
John Stuart Mill’s essay ‘On Liberty’ is perhaps the most likely source of an example, wherein “there should be as many experiments as possible wherein people might live”. Grayling notes that his concerns are similar to Mill’s, in that they are both concerned with ‘social repression’; despite the fact that many people wish to live within a different system, they are forced to comply with this one. To Grayling, the Universal Human Rights is the most important result of Humanism, wherein its only mention of religion was in Clause 18, which endures a freedom of conscience. Aside from that, there is no other mention of religion or culture, and this is, to Grayling, a victory for “civilized, global ethics”.
With this the interview sadly draws to a close, but with it I am left with the feeling that the apocalypse has been cancelled.
A.C. Grayling came to Exeter University to give a talk to the AHS Society, a society where non-religious, agnostic and atheist students can come together and share ideas. Primarily opposing the excessive entanglement of religion with university and government policy, the society is a forum for debate relating to humanist and social issues. Membership is open to all students, you can sign up on the Guild website.
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