MC Lawrence Leung was having fun watching the ‘twitter wars’ between competing hashtags #GAC2012 and #atheistcon. He was a bit concerned, however, that some atheists insist on spelling the word ‘athiest’.
He offered a handy reminder: “Remember, i before e … except if there’s no god.”
British philosopher, AC Grayling was next to take to the stage. I met Grayling at GAC 2010 and found him to be a very charming, affable and kind-hearted man. It’s nice to meet people you admire and find they not only live up to, but exceed expectations.
During the convention a friend of mind (not mentioning any names, Geoff Cowan) asked Grayling whether conditioner was the secret to his beautiful mane of long gray hair.
“No, I don’t use it,” he said, eyeing off Geoff’s balding head, “and I see you don’t either.” Touché!
Grayling’s speech was titled, “What next for atheism?”
His was an optimistic view. Generally, he believes things are trending in a positive direction; that increasingly, more people are coming to think they might be atheists.
What does history tell us about the present phenomena?
Grayling looked back to the 16th century after the Reformation, the 18th century Enlightenment and the 19th century after Darwin and the rise of Biblical criticism in Germany and suggested that then, as now, the Catholic church fought back bitterly against this assault on its power and influence. In fact, he said, the church ‘fought back like a cornered animal’ – just as it is doing now. This has to be a good sign that we’re making a positive impact!
The result of such movements, said Grayling, is that a lot of people are motivated into activism – either ‘for’ or ‘against’. The contemporary ‘culture wars’ can be understood in the context of these other social revolutions.
As social progressives we need to capitalise on the positive momentum that has been created by a greater awareness of atheism and secularism. But what should we DO?
1. We need to engage in metaphysical debates about the nature of the universe we occupy. We need to consider the question of ‘supernatural agencies’ with rationality and evidence.
Children, said Grayling, are credulous for good evolutionary reasons. It is important for a child to believe an adult is telling the truth when they say, “Don’t eat that berry, it’s poisonous” or “Don’t stand too close to the edge of the cliff, you might fall off”.
Religion puts both children and adults into this credulous state and is assisted by powerful, social reinforcement. It’s taken by our governments, for example, that the advancement of religion is a ‘good thing’, worthy of tax exemptions!
But, said Grayling, we need to get people – both adults and children – to start thinking critically and rationally about religion.
We need people to know more about the origins and history of religion.
We need people to look at the fruits of religion? How do nations fare under religious governments?
Churches are anxious to obscure upleasant facts about the past; historical ‘amnesia’ is useful to them.
We are termed ‘militant’ atheists, but what was once the church’s response to those who challenged it? It burned people at the stake. What do atheists do? We just ask questions.
Grayling reminded us of a quote from Thomas Huxley (known as Darwin’s bulldog):
“Bishops are like pigs. If you poke one, they all squeal.”
Religions are ‘slippery’ said Grayling. When the weight of criticism becomes to great, they shift to avoid it; they keep shifting the goal posts.
His comment reminded me of the Mormon church which banned African-Americans from its American universities, until the government told them that unless they changed their policy, public funding would cease. As if by magic, the head of the Mormon Church received a revelation that God had changed his mind about admitting African-Americans, and the funding was retained. Incredible!
2. We need to talk about secularism and consider where the religious voice is positioned in the public debate.
Separation of church and state needs to be a matter of public policy. We need to explain that it is NOT a threat to freedom of religion. Grayling noted that while the religious obviously have a right to be heard in the public square, religions currently have a massively inflated presence when one considers the actual number of active adherents. We need to speak out against this over-representation.
Tax-payers money should not be spent on socially divisive, faith-based schools. There is a two-word argument against this, said Grayling: Northern Ireland.
Neither should public money be spent on religion, to support religious groups or the advancement of religion. Religions are corporations. Like trade unions, they are self-interested lobby groups. We need to make them see themselves for what they are. We need to vehemently oppose their consistent message, “We don’t like it, so you mustn’t do it.”
And, most importantly, said Grayling, religious institutions should not be allowed to proselytise to children.
We need to significantly diminish the presence of religion in the public square because most people are functionally secular. Religious views are not representative of the majority view of most Western nations.
3. We need to start a debate about the ‘humanist’ view of ethics and talk about how, as atheists, we live our lives ethically.
David Hume talked about the subjective nature of beauty – that nothing is intrinsically beautiful – beauty is a attribute we assign to things. Grayling tends to disagree, arguing that there are some things like love and compassion which are intrinsically beautiful; things we should nurture and celebrate.
Things ARE getting better, says Grayling. There is a powerful trend running through history driving us to take back possession of the positive aspects of humanity. And, he insists, these positive aspects are not expressed only through religion.
So, what do we need to DO?
We need to challenge the claims of religion. We need to challenge their version of history and their versions of their own histories. We need to point to the man-made origins of religion. When the religious make impenetrable statements (what Dennett might call ‘deepity’) we need to keep asking, “What do you MEAN by that?” And we need to challenge their representativeness – their right to hold the power in society they currently claim ‘as of right’.
And, says Grayling, we need to show that living our lives for ‘good’ does not require a belief in the supernatural.