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Sep 25 2012

A conversation with AC Grayling

A student journalist, Will Bordell, has a lovely interview with Anthony Grayling which I’ve just published at ur-B&W. Here’s a big chunk of it.

Spare a thought for philosophy: An interview with A.C. Grayling

What makes Grayling tick is “the fact that the world is so rich in interest and in puzzles, and that the task of finding out as much as we can about it is not an endless task but certainly one which is going to take us many, many millennia to complete”.  There’s a sort of childlike grin that beams out at me, as he affirms that “that’s exciting – discovery is exciting”.  Grayling joys in doubt and possibility, in invention and innovation: the tasks of the open mind and open inquiry.  It’s a mindset, he reveals, that “loves the open-endedness and the continuing character of the conversation that mankind has with itself about all these things that really matter”.

It is this that marks the line in the sand between religion and science.  The temptation to fall for the former hook, line and sinker is plain to see: “People like narratives, they like to have an explanation, they like to know where they are going”.  Weaving another string of thought into his tapestry of human psychology, Grayling laments that his fellow beings “don’t want to have to think these things out for themselves.  They like the nice, pre-packaged answer that’s just handed to them by somebody authoritative with a big beard”.  He looks down towards a small flower arrangement on the table, and plays with it contemplatively before continuing in an almost plaintive tone: “And that is a kind of betrayal, in a way, of the fact that we have curiosity but, most of all, we have intelligence and so we should be questioning, challenging, trying to find out”.

But the pessimism doesn’t persist for too long.  Grayling’s biting wit is never too far from the surface of his arguments, especially when he’s waxing lyrical about theology.  By tracing what he calls “a kind of Nietszchean genealogy of religion,” he adopts a storyteller’s tone: “You see a geography – and it’s an interesting one – in that the dryads and the nymphs used to be in the trees and in the streams,” from whence they evaporated into the wind and the sun.  The more humankind has discovered about the world, the more remote our gods have become.  “They went from the surface of the earth,” he observes, guiding me with his hands, “to the mountaintops, then into the sky, and finally beyond space and time altogether”.  Not only have gods and goddesses retreated into their extraterrestrial hiding-places, but they’ve also dwindled in number (generally) to only one or three, depending on your divine arithmetic: “So they’re being chased away bit by bit,” Grayling chuckles.

For all his cutting cogency, there’s an underlying empathy to what he says.  Grayling seems to be desperately trying to reach out to those he believes to be lost in an intellectual fog of their own making, attempting to lend a hand and pull them out.  But he’s worried – and rightly so.  The problem with extreme strands of Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism is self-evident: “They force people to narrow their horizon of vision down so that they are almost blind, almost infantilised, almost in a straitjacket of captivity.  But every religion goes through a fundamentalist phase,” he acknowledges in his typically even handed manner, “and every religion leaves its fundamentalist rump; you can see this perfectly clearly in the case of Christianity”.

Will we ever grow out of religion, though?  He leans against the wall casually, stretching out his legs before responding with an assured brand of optimism: “It seems to me that in five or ten thousand years time when people look back (if there are any people) at this period of history, the two or three thousand years when Judeo-Christian influence in the world was considerable, they will collapse it down to a sentence”.  Just as we view the advent of Cro-Magnon humans to Europe in 40,000 BC and the disappearance of Neanderthals around ten thousand years after that as historical facts and nothing more, so future historians will consider religion as a mere artifact.  Indeed, according to Grayling, they will astutely recognise that “that was a bad time for human beings, because they were getting cleverer with their technologies, but they were no wiser”.

But it’s crucial to Grayling’s philosophical outlook that when we lose faith, we don’t lose hope.  “Almost any religion can be explained to another person in about half an hour,” he claims, adjusting his imperious-looking gold-rimmed spectacles, “but to know anything about astrophysics or biology or anything that really gives us an insight into the real beauty of the universe?  That takes some years of study at least”.  Such logic allows the adversity of a world without faith to be rebranded as opportunity, oblivion as salvation.  He pauses briefly, before launching into one gem in his immensely vibrant stash of anecdotes and references: “There’s a writer, a man called J.B. Bury, who wrote a wonderful history of Greece a long time ago now.  He talks at one point about the Greeks’ own histories of their own city states, and he was talking about one in particular, the kings of which could be traced back to divine origin”.  I wait, as though anticipating the punch line of a joke, while he stalls for a second in his recollection.  “And J.B. Bury effectively said,” he goes on, “‘Oh it’s so boring.  It was only a god who founded this city.  But if it had been a real man who had struggled, fought against enemies and been ingenious in getting his people together, now that would be a really interesting story’”.  It’s an incontrovertible truth, and it highlights the contrast “between religion, which is very boring, and reality, which is much more exciting”.

Yet for as long as religion rules the roost, we can only undermine it inchmeal.  But challenge it we must.  “I think one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever heard is the remark that George Bernard Shaw made about the ‘golden rule’ – ‘Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you’ – and he said, ‘under no circumstances should you do unto other people what you’d like them to do to you because they may not like it’”.  A barrage of rationality and clarity storms through his argument, measured and incontrovertible: “It’s a very, very deep insight.  What you really have to do is understand the diversity of human nature and needs and interests, and try to see people in their particularity”.  For religious zealots, he remarks with a knowing shake of the head, this is nigh on impossible.  If there’s one right answer, one absolute truth, one correct way of living, “there can’t be any diversity because that’s heresy”.

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5 comments

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  1. 1
    Marcus Ranum

    Grayling is a fascinating philosopher. Rather than fighting the scorched-earth wars over epistemology, he’s reaching back and trying to tackle some of the questions of the ancients (e.g.: “what is the worthy life?”) in a clear yet humanistic way. Everything I’ve read of his is worthwhile, though I found “the good book” to be a bit of a conundrum. It’s wonderful and obviously took a huge effort. I’m puzzled that it didn’t make more of a splash with humanists. It’s possible that it’s simply too beautiful.

  2. 2
    AJ Milne

    I have generally quite liked Grayling. Though he is also one of those writers keeps writing the books I wanted to write, before I get around to it. Jerk.

    Haven’t got to his Good Book. But have got through his two ‘pamphlet’ things, and currently have his Liberty in the Age of Terror open.

    From that very work:

    We can grant that terrorism and crime are serious threats, yet argue that the destruction of civil liberties is not the way to combat them. On the contrary: part of the right way to combat threats to the liberal order is to reassert and defend its values. Terrorists–as their very name suggests–seek to frighten their victims into self-repression, thus making their victims do their work for them, achieving what the terrorists’ brand of religious or political orthodoxy would achieve if they could impose it. To reduce our own civil liberties in supposed self-defence is thus to hand the victory to the terrorists at no further cost to them.

    That. Kinda obviously, even, I’d think, y’know?

  3. 3
    mnb0

    JB Bury is a very good read indeed. If you are interested in Antiquity you can find his main work (and a lot more) here:

    http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/home.html

  4. 4
    Ophelia Benson

    AJ – hahahaha I know, right? He’s written all the books I want to write before I got around to it. He’s so funny…when I had tea with him that time he told me how he writes his books in the evenings, and the way to do that is, to write one by way of refreshment from writing the other, and then switch. Me, I couldn’t write so much as a shopping list in the evening! He’s got the energy and discipline of 50 people.

  5. 5
    highdudgeonaz

    Trivial post:

    I just about plotzed when I hit the phrase “Fundamentalist Rump.” That’s like seventy shades of word-awesome, right there. Plus, it would make an awesome band name. I’m going to have to read more of him.

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