Anthony Grayling: why we need secularism

Someone asked about a statement I attributed to philosopher Anthony Grayling: a statement about how all religions would be repressive if they had complete political power.  I’ve found at least one Grayling quote to that effect, and I commend it to the attention of the citizens of Lebanon, Missouri. It’s from his essay “The secular and the sacred“. If those citizens find it too onerous to read it all, I’ve put the important part in bold.

The statement at issue is in the third paragraph.

. . . all the major religions in fact blaspheme one another, and ought by their principles to engage in crusade or jihad each against the others – a profoundly disturbing thought. They blaspheme each other in numerous ways. All non-Christians blaspheme Christianity by their refusal to accept the divinity of Christ, because in so doing they reject the Holy Ghost, doing which is described as the most serious of all blasphemies. The New Testament has Christ say “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me”. This places members of other faiths beyond redemption; they are damned if they know this claim but do not heed it. By an unlucky twist of theology, Protestants have to regard Catholics as blasphemers too, because the latter regard Mary as co-redemptorix with Christ, in violation of the utterance just quoted. All non-Muslims blaspheme Islam because they insult Mohammed by not accepting him as the true Prophet, and by ignoring the teachings of the Koran. Jews seem the least philosophically troubled by what people of other faiths think about their own – but Orthodox Jews regard themselves as religiously superior to others because others fail in the proper observances, for example by not respecting kosher constraints. All the religions blaspheme each other by regarding the others’ teachings, metaphysics and much of their ethics as false, and their own religion as the only true one.

It is a woolly and optimistic liberal hope that all religions can be viewed as worshipping the same god, only in different ways; but this is a nonsense, as shown by the most cursory comparison of teachings, interpretations, moral requirements, creation myths and eschatologies, in all of which the major religions differ and frequently contradict each other. History shows how clearly the religions themsevles grasped this; the motivation for Christianity’s hundreds of years of crusades against Islam, pogroms against Jews, and inquisitions against heretics, was the desire to expunge heterodoxy and ‘infidelity’ or at least to effect forcible compliance with prevailing orthodoxy. Islam’s various jihads had the same aim, and it spread half way around the world by conquest and the sword.

Where they can get away with it – as in present-day Afghanistan – devotees continue the same practices. The religious Right in America would doubtless do so too, but has to use TV, money, advertising, and political lobbying instead to impress its version of the truth on American society. It is only where religion is on the back foot, reduced to a minority practice, with an insecure tenure in society, that it presents itself as essentially peaceful and charitable.

This is the chief reason why allowing the major religions to jostle against one another in the public domain is extremely undesirable. The solution is to make the public domain wholly secular, leaving religion to the personal sphere, as a matter of private conviction and practice only. Society should be blind to religion both in the sense that it lets people believe and behave as they wish provided they do no harm to others, and in the sense that it acts as if religions do not exist, with public affairs being straightforwardly secular in character. The constitution of the USA provides exactly this, though the religious lobby is always trying to breach it, for example with prayers in schools. George W. Bush’s granting of public funds for ‘faith-based initiatives’ actually does so.

We’ve seen how peaceful and charitable Lebanon’s brand of Christianity is. Left on its own, it presents an amiable countenance. Once challenged, it turns into Godzilla.

You can find a nice free collection of Grayling’s essays here.

36 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    sub

  2. Posted June 9, 2014 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    🐾

  3. Kevin Alexander
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Once challenged, it turns into Godzilla.

    I’m sure the christians would agree. I saw the movie the other day and at the end there’s a banner in the centre of an utterly demolished San Francisco that says, without irony,
    ‘Godzilla, King of Monsters, Saviour of our City’

    • mrclaw69
      Posted June 10, 2014 at 5:24 am | Permalink

      The parallel is even more obvious than that (SPOILER ALERT):

      Godzilla ‘dies’ and then after a period of a day (or so) resurrects to clunk off back to the ocean, no doubt to return once again and ‘save’ us.

  4. Evan Plommer
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Grayling’s point about the inherent conflict between faiths has been brought clearly into focus in Malaysia, where the Catholic church has been barred from using the word ‘Allah’ in their publications as a translation of the word ‘God’. The reason the Malaysian authorities have given for this is (I paraphrase): God and Allah are in fact not the same god.

    • thh1859
      Posted June 9, 2014 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      There’s chapter and verse.

  5. moarscienceplz
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Of course the problem is that the good citizens of Lebanon have had their own religion so privileged for so long that they literally cannot imagine how a non-Christian would feel to be preached at by an alien philosophy. I’m sure that is the reason so many of that ilk keep insisting that atheists are angry at Yahweh, which is of course ludicrous, but they can’t even conceive of someone who truly doesn’t believe in their god.
    I think the only way for the scales to fall from the eyes of the Lebanites would be to arrange for an Iman to deliver a good-stemwinder of a sermon in Arabic at the next graduation ceremony. Now THAT is something I’d pay good money to watch. I’d be like hitting a beehive with a stick.

  6. bobsgutarshop
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    How much better would the world be if more people read AC Grayling than Deepak Chopra, Rick Warren or the common bigot Dinesh D’Souza? (It is my contention that there are some in the public sphere whose fervent intolerance of atheism/secularism is so intense, so deeply emotional and irrational that it qualifies as naked bigotry. D’Souza is one of these individuals.) Rick Warren, along with other American Evangelicals, engaged in a personal crusade to have homosexuality deemed a capitol offense in Uganda. They briefly succeeded, it was only after threatening to withhold aid, (>50% of Uganda’s GDP consists of aid from foreign nations and NGOs) that the Ugandan parliament finally relented. And no one, least of all prof. Ceiling Cat, will find much in the way of practical applications for Chopra’s well dressed woo. We’re still badly outnumbered in the electronic media and in print and discourse badly needs more voices like Grayling’s. Grayling, to quote Big Daddy Kane, is “very necessary.”

  7. worried secularist
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Grayling is absolutely correct. The only salvation – if I may be forgiven for using the that word – is that, at least in much of Western society, prevailing religion, ie forms of Christianity, have been largely declawed over the past couple of centuries and so even most of their remaining adherents do not act as – may not believe that – they have a patent on the Truth. Still, the public deference to religious belief, it privileging over other forms of opinion, is worrisome.

    • gluonspring
      Posted June 9, 2014 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      I agree that that much declawing has occurred.

      It is not as dire as it has been in the past or could hypothetically be. This country has existed for a good while with a majority that harbors intensely antagonistic feelings against all non-Protestants, for example, and yet it has managed not to spill over too much into the conduct of government. The certainty of Protestants that Catholics and the rest are Hell bound did not really waver for most of that history, they have always been as certain as ever that they have a lock on Truth, but the truce that has endured all this time is that so long as we all publicly nod towards some historically connected idea of God we will be content to let you go to Hell privately for your heretical views without having to involve the government in trying to enforce the right views.

    • thh1859
      Posted June 9, 2014 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

      As regards ‘de-clawing’, that applies to swathes of the Church of England. My local vicar describes himself as an agnostic and told me his wife was an atheist.

      • mrclaw69
        Posted June 10, 2014 at 5:29 am | Permalink

        …only in the weak tea CofE, eh?!

        I’ve met a few of those. It appears the statements of even the last 2 Archbishops of Canterbury might more properly be called deist than ‘Christian’.

  8. gravityfly
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    That’s an awesome excerpt!

  9. Posted June 9, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    tldr

    signed,
    Lebanon, Mo

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted June 9, 2014 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      Too bold, didn’t dare to read.

      signed,
      Lebanon, Mo

  10. Faustus
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    “It is a woolly and optimistic liberal hope that all religions can be viewed as worshipping the same god, only in different ways; but this is a nonsense, as shown by the most cursory comparison of teachings, interpretations, moral requirements, creation myths and eschatologies, in all of which the major religions differ and frequently contradict each other.”

    But if this were true wouldn’t it make David Bentley Hart’s book on God total bollocks? Shurely shome mishtake…

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted June 9, 2014 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

      Seems like a win-win to me…

    • reasonshark
      Posted June 10, 2014 at 12:20 am | Permalink

      As far as I can tell, about the only two things religions have in common are:

      1. Humans are privileged above all other animals, above and beyond simple mechanical differences in our anatomy and physiology. This is usually conferred via a “soul”.

      2. The whole universe cares what we do, and metes out carrots and sticks accordingly.

      I wonder if religion succeeds because, deep down, it puffs up our egos, whether by telling us we’re not expendable animals or by telling us the world is our personal playground. And once you’ve flattered your audience, it’s that much easier to manipulate them. It’s even better if you can manipulate them into manipulating others into the bargain.

      You might also notice that the supernatural consists almost entirely of minds of one sort or another, often human-like ones. Religion is basically anthropocentrism applied to ignorance and, so to speak, deified.

      • Posted June 10, 2014 at 12:56 am | Permalink

        Well, I will happily trade “humans are special because the creator made us special and made the universe for us” for “humans are nothing special and the universe could not care less about us, but we are nevertheless capable of figuring out how the universe works, incompletely, but to an astonishing degree of accuracy”.

        /@

  11. Posted June 9, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    Ah what a dream! An ideal world in which church and State are truly separate. I have always wondered why religions are tax exempt? I understand the mechanics of the law that allows the exemption to happen but it makes no sense that they do not contribute to society the same way that other businesses do. Such vast sums of money that could contribute, properly, to the social welfare and infrastructure goals of government.

  12. Vaal
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    I’m always astonished at how many Christians think their beliefs, if they are held privately, ought to be just left alone. They don’t seem to have any grasp of just how malignant their theology can be. But so far as it’s held “privately” we are supposed to steer clear and grant it respect, or least say “what’s the harm?.”

    I use the example of the bizarre, racist neighbor.

    Imagine you have a neighbor who has always seemed entirely pleasant and decent. Except one day through conversation over the hedge you discover something he believes. He says “All Black people deserve to be hung or burned alive.”

    You react with horror when this escapes from his lips. He notices and says “Oh, don’t worry, I’m not saying that I would ever do such a thing to a black person. In fact, I know plenty of black people and I live very peaceably among them. But see, I’m not the one who is supposed to be hanging and burning them. Someone else, with the power to do so, will be doing that.”

    This would be bad enough for anyone decent person to listen to, let alone if you also happened to be a black person.

    Now, even IF your neighbor only kept this as a private belief, and even IF he’s inserted a premise that he says he would never do this himself to a black person…can any sane person think that it is a good idea that an erroneous belief as vile and sinister as that is good to have rattling around in one’s head? And would it be just fine to sit back and see this belief passed on to his children without challenge?

    This is what it’s like listen to an otherwise sane sounding, smiling Christian
    talk about hell that I, as an atheist, would be sent to by his God. “Oh, don’t worry. I’m not going to do this to you…but the fact is the universe IS run by God, and this is the fate God has in store for you. And, as much as I personally dislike the idea of people in hell, I nonetheless believe your fate must be justified, since I believe God to be All Good. What kind of morals would I have without God??!!”

    Even IF the Christian lives happily and peaceably among atheists, and says his belief would never compel him to harm atheists…how could we say this is not AT LEAST as vile and pernicious a belief to reside in the head of anyone, as the racist neighbor example.

    If we think upon hearing our racist neighbor spout vile untruths about black people that “we should try educating this person out of such bad beliefs,” it makes just as much sense to loudly question even the purportedly “privately” held pernicious beliefs in religion. (Which, of course, aren’t really privately held at all).

    (And few raised these issues better – challenging them loudly and directly – then Christopher Hitchens).

    Vaal

    • Posted June 9, 2014 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

      And of course Hitchens followed Hannah Arendt, who identified an insidious capacity inherent in human nature: the ability of the individual to surrender innate human capacity to think objectively for themselves, instead permitting self to be completely absorbed into absolute obedience to, and complete identity immersion within, systematic ideological doctrine.

      The Banality of Evil

      https://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Cont/ContAssy.htm

    • jay
      Posted June 10, 2014 at 6:03 am | Permalink

      “Now, even IF your neighbor only kept this as a private belief, and even IF he’s inserted a premise that he says he would never do this himself to a black person…can any sane person think that it is a good idea that an erroneous belief as vile and sinister as that is good to have rattling around in one’s head? And would it be just fine to sit back and see this belief passed on to his children without challenge?”

      But to put the shoe on the other foot (always important to try to understand your opponents), that’s what we atheists seem like to them. We’ve rejected their standard of morality, their common shared belief. We are rather contemptuous of their belief that a god died for them… they see us as that person with poisonous ideas: “Maybe the atheist is outwardly a ‘good guy’ but he has motivations and values that we cannot trust”

      This is what we as atheists are up against, and we need to be realistic about it.

      • reasonshark
        Posted June 10, 2014 at 8:47 am | Permalink

        I think this example illustrates that the focus of attention is on action, not thought. Opposing racist policies is important because they demonstrably have consequences on people. A thought locked up in someone’s opinion is toothless, and so long as it remains just a thought, it’s wrong to treat it as a thought crime and not leave them alone. At some point, you have to concede that some people are just going to be uninformed or nasty.

        • Posted June 10, 2014 at 9:19 am | Permalink

          I concede that. I do not, however, concede that we therefore should not attempt to stop the idea from spreading, particularly to the ignorant (like children). It does not also follow from this that any means to prevent the spread is thereby allowed, either.

    • Sastra
      Posted June 10, 2014 at 6:09 am | Permalink

      Yes, you’ve put your finger on the problematic tension in a straightforward reading of Grayling’s point — which would transform all religious debate and especially gnu atheism into unacceptable rudeness.

      The solution is to make the public domain wholly secular, leaving religion to the personal sphere, as a matter of private conviction and practice only. Society should be blind to religion both in the sense that it lets people believe and behave as they wish provided they do no harm to others, and in the sense that it acts as if religions do not exist, with public affairs being straightforwardly secular in character.

      What is meant by “public domain?” If it means government and arguments about the law then yes indeed, it should remain wholly secular. Grayling is spot on.

      But if it means public discourse — “out in public” — then religion ought to be treated like any other fact claims and argued and debated and savaged. The special treatment which allows it to pass as both a significant and foundational truth about the nature and purpose of reality and a “matter of private conviction and practice only” can’t be maintained. That’s an inherent contradiction. What happens instead is cultural approval of faith, any faith — and a taboo against criticism.

      Government should “let people believe and behave as they wish provided they do no harm to others.” But the standards in the public realm of ideas are and should be higher than that. Truth matters. And the more importance placed on religion and spirituality, the more important it is to push back. Otherwise, as you point out we atheists are shooting ourselves in the foot.

      • GBJames
        Posted June 10, 2014 at 6:26 am | Permalink

        ‘What is meant by “public domain?”’

        By referencing the US Constitution the way he did, I think Grayling pretty clearly indicates that he’s talking about separation of government and religion.

  13. Hal
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    “But . . . we may properly judge the church by what it did for centuries in circumstances where it could enforce its will, rather than by statements from civilized adherents in countries where it has largely lost the power to do so.” (George A. Wells, The Jesus Myth, p235)

  14. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    George W. Bush’s granting of public funds for ‘faith-based initiatives’ actually does so.

    Unfortunately, the retention of Bush’s execrable Office of Faith Based Initiatives was a disgusting decision made by Obama even before his first election.

    • GBJames
      Posted June 9, 2014 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

      It was,indeed.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted June 9, 2014 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

        Obama is a faith-head whom the people of Lebanon and their ilk would dearly love, if only his skin contained a few micrograms less melanin.

  15. Dominic
    Posted June 10, 2014 at 2:34 am | Permalink

    Christians will never read that much – they would rather remain in their benighted ignorance. I would say ‘Mediaeval’ but that would be to insult the good people of the Middle Ages who just knew no better.

  16. pooteresque
    Posted June 10, 2014 at 5:38 am | Permalink

    You’ll probably find that AC Grayling is some goddam Brit. He probably has bad teeth & doesn’t endorse Open Carry, so you can safely ignore him.

  17. Owleyes 1
    Posted June 10, 2014 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this useful quotation & link. Sigh. It never ends.

  18. Posted June 11, 2014 at 12:17 am | Permalink

    It’s like the Christians who say they don’t follow all the rules contained in the old testament. With their cherry picking to remain mkoderates they leave the door open for the Evangelising Christians who can re-instate those dreadful verses to control the non religious or those of other religions. Something the Muslims are currently doing worldwide!


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