A.C. Grayling is a philosopher, and the author of “The Good Book”.
The title of his talk was “What Next for Atheism?” We’re seeing a swelling in our ranks, but how do we make sure this healthy atheist trend continues? Grayling suggests three ways:
- Metaphysical debate, where we talk about rationality and evidence,
- Secularism, where we discuss the role of the religious voice in public life
- And most importantly, ethics, which involves how we live our lives and how we make decisions about our relationships.
Grayling suggested some ways that we can talk about religion to show how vacuous it is.
Instead of ‘God’, try substituting ‘Fred’.
Who made the universe? Fred.
I have a deep personal relationship… with Fred.
Another suggestion (that I customarily use myself) is to refer to ‘gods and goddesses’.
I’m an atheist because I don’t believe in gods and goddesses.
You can be moral without having to believe in gods. (And so on.)
This job involves getting people (especially children) to think critically. We can do this, says Grayling, by inviting people to think about the history of religions, and whether that justifies the case for them. Religions customarily obscure the facts about their past. Consider how the Church of England (and many others) have abandoned hell, and the Roman Catholic Church has abandoned limbo. I’ve seen this in the LDS Church as they’ve changed or abandoned doctrines with little fanfare and less detail, hoping no one would notice or remember. (It’s that memory hole again.) Grayling observes that this amnesia is very useful to them because it allows them to present themselves well. Religions, he says, are like the Greek god Proteus who could change his shape; Menelaus (or Aristaeus, or both) could only conquer Proteus by holding onto him tenaciously until, having gone through all his changes, he was exhausted. You just have to hang onto them until they get tired.
Yes, the religious will complain when we engage in metaphysical debate. But even this represents a positive change. A modern atheist could say, “When you guys were in power, you didn’t argue with us; you just burned us at the stake. Now when we present challenging arguments, you complain.”
Religious people have the right to believe what they like, and to make their voices heard in the public square, says Grayling. But their influence is currently out of proportion to the number of actual believers. With bishops sitting in the House of Lords, and money going to ‘faith schools’, religion should see themselves as they are: “Lobby groups!” Like trade unions and other interest groups, we shouldn’t be paying for them — they should be supporting themselves. Grayling says this is a point we should be making constantly.
Grayling related how, in debates, there are frequently four clergymen on the panel, and then him, the lone atheist. There are four of them because they can’t agree with each other. And yet they’re willing to make common cause… because they want the public money.
Grayling points out that religious people think they have a social area of morality and human experience cordoned off for themselves, and they claim that they own those things. We need to take back possesson of them.
Religions teach that all the good things come from gods, and all the bad things come from us. In fact, all the things come from us, and there’s no need for mumbo-jumbo.
So in closing, Grayling outlined the way forward for atheism:
- Challenge the claims of religion, challenge their history, pin them down about what they think
- Demand that voices in the square are proportionate to their actual participation, and
- Take back human experience.