The Meaning of Life: An interview with Professor A C Grayling – Part 2

WELCOME to the second part of our interview with PROFESSOR A C GRAYLING. Here, PETER BRIETBART asks Grayling how he’d combat extremism if he were the Prime Minister of the UK; how we can have morality in a godless world; whether circumcision is ever morally acceptable, and why religions are so common and varied.

PB: If you were the Prime Minister of the UK, what actions would you take in order to defend against Islamic extremism and to increase social integration?

ACG: First, I’d get rid of faith-based schools. I’d make it a requirement that if people want to bring their children up in a faith-dominated environment that (a) it should be at their own expense and remain a private matter, and that (b), it should be open to inspection. But it should also be the case that religious instruction be removed from our publicly-funded schools because it’s very distorting, divisive, and could lead, eventually, in a small number of cases, to people becoming extremists if they follow the logic of what their faith requires of them … although If everybody followed the logic of what their faith requires of them, they would all become extremists.

PB: Without an objective moral arbiter, how can we make meaningful moral judgements, and furthermore, how can we justify them?

ACG: It is actually very easy to identify and to act upon the moral baselines. Moral baselines derive from our understanding of what it is to be human and what human beings need to flourish. For example, at a minimum people need food, they need somewhere comfortable, dry and warm to be, they need friendship, they need opportunities to use their intelligence, because we’re a highly intelligent species. People need opportunities to develop, they need time to rest and benefit from the creativity of leisure, they need safety, and they need social bonds.

We know all these things, and if you look at human rights instruments like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, what they say is what the minimum requirements are for opening a space around individuals, so that they can use their abilities to do things that are good and satisfying for them.

So this very basic understanding of what it is to be human, along with what we dislike, what we want to avoid, what we need, what we benefit from, tells us something about what our obligations are to other people. It tells us how we should respond to them, and on the basis of that, how to deal with more complicated and sophisticated matters, including recognising that other people have interests and needs that we may not share, understand or even like – while recognising that they have a right to them.

That’s where the hard work of being tolerant towards other people comes in. We all think we’re tolerant, but that’s because we usually don’t really mind what others are doing. It’s when we do mind and yet we’ve got to let other people have their margin to be their own way, that we know what’s needed to be tolerant. So we have to start with our most sympathetic understanding of human nature and the human condition, and work from that to a livable system.

PB: On a completely different tack, do you think there is a place for the circumcision of male infants in the 21st century?

ACG: No. There are arguments regarding AIDS and HIV, and about how much more hygienic it is, and how much women prefer the look of it, and all that kind of thing — but it is a form of mutilation. The practice started in religious myth, which is hardly a good reason for continuing to do it in the 21st century.

It does seem to be true that there is less HIV transmission, reduced risk of genital warts, cervical cancer and such. But what this suggests is that men need to wash more carefully and more often.

PB: And in areas where hygiene is very difficult to maintain at high levels? Is there no case that could be made for it as a preventative measure?

ACG: Well, with consenting adults, and in circumstances where there is no alternative to it as a prophylactic against the transmission of STDs, then of course there might be a reluctant case for it. This is an example of saying, in general terms, any form of mutilation would have to be extremely well justified by powerful case by case arguments. Would one similarly argue a case for chopping off someone’s willy altogether if he were an absolute sexual maniac, say? Generally speaking, circumcising infant boys because it’s a fashion, because it’s a tradition, is not acceptable.

PB: We’re in complete agreement there. Now, what do you think can account for the multiplicity of independent and separate religions around the globe?

ACG: One reason has to be their falsity – that they’re all spurious, man-made inheritances – derived from humanity’s very earliest attempts to make sense of the world. I think that it matters tremendously that people recognise the plurality of religions as being an instance of evolution, and another indicator of support for the general presence of evolutionary tendencies socially and ideologically as well as biologically.

What we now call religion wasn’t always ‘religion’ among our earliest ancestors. It was proto-science and proto-technology. It consisted in attempts to impose some kind of explanatory framework on things. To ascribe agency to the clouds, the lightning, the wind is just a projection of our own felt capacity as agents too push things and throw things, to make things happen. So, people might have thought that the thunder was some great being walking on the clouds, that wind was a great invisible being puffing its cheeks and blowing. And as our knowledge grew and as our understanding of nature increased, so these agencies ceased to be part of the natural world, and beliefs about them ceased to be attempts at naturalistic explanation.

And therefore they receded over the horizon, and then upwards: first, to the tops of mountains, then up into the sky, and now the gods are outside space and time altogether. So the further our knowledge advances, the further away these beings go. They’re now in the realm of ineffability. Theologians now tell us we can’t understand them at all, but up to a few thousand years ago they were a part of nature. They weren’t religion. Attempts to appease them, make sacrifices to them, talk to them, a belief that you were making contact with them when you were drunk, or epileptic or after eating psychedelic mushrooms, probably suggests that our ancestors thought we could communicate with them: ask them to send us rain or keep the floods or disease away, cure our diseases, and so on.

The technology side of these early beliefs thus involved attempts to interact with those agencies to influence their behaviour. This became ritual, tradition and taboo. You can see how priesthoods, specialists in dealing with the gods, would want to hang on to their privileges and power. You can see how the temporal authorities would find it extremely useful that the ecclesiastical powers could help them to govern the people.

There’s nothing more powerful than persuading your subjects that there’s an invisible policeman who watches everything you do, all the time, even in the dark when you’re on your own.

It keeps control of people and so it evolves into a very useful tool.

It’s interesting to note that the major religions of the world today: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, even to some extent Hinduism, were modified from these early semi-naturalistic views at a time when political and social structures were monarchical: kingly and hierarchical. So all their gods are modeled on the idea of kings. They’re rulers who give orders, and who punish and execute. That’s exactly what the God of the Old Testament is – a tyrannical, kingly figure. Yet these religions are very young religions, only two or three thousand years old. For tens of thousands of years before that, what we had was quasi-naturalistic efforts to explain the world. Not really religion at all, but early science.

Tomorrow in Part 3, we ask Grayling why religion has stuck around so long, whether we could ever be free of superstition, why humanism is good for the world and if he thinks free will could exist in a purely physical world.

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