Anthony Grayling is not an enemy of new or gnu atheism, though I suspect some people would like to shoulder him into that category. He won’t be shouldered though. He’s very polite about it, but he won’t be shouldered.
The little jokes and kindly bearing can make Grayling sound quite benignly jovial about religion at times, as he chuckles away about “men in dresses” and “believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden”, and throws out playfully mocking asides such as, “You can see we no longer really believe in God, because of all the CCTV cameras keeping watch on us.” But when I suggest that he sounds less enraged than amused by religion, he says quickly: “Well, it does make me angry, because it causes a great deal of harm and unhappiness.”
He spotted the attempt at shouldering, you see, so he replied quickly.
…we have to try to persuade society as a whole to recognise that religious groups are self-constituted interest groups; they exist to promote their point of view. Now, in a liberal democracy they have every right to do so. But they have no greater right than anybody else, any political party or Women’s Institute or trade union. But for historical reasons they have massively overinflated influence – faith-based schools, religious broadcasting, bishops in the House of Lords, the presence of religion at every public event. We’ve got to push it back to its right size.
Not very anti-gnu, that. On the contrary.
it wasn’t the atheists, according to Grayling, who provoked the confrontation. “The reason why it’s become a big issue is that religions have turned the volume up, because they’re on the back foot. The hold of religion is weakening, definitely, and diminishing in numbers. The reason why there’s such a furore about it is that the cornered animal, the loser, starts making a big noise.”Even if this is true, however, the atheist movement has been accused of shooting itself in the foot by adopting a tone so militant as to alienate potential supporters, and fortify the religious lobby. I ask Grayling if he thinks there is any truth in the charge, and he listens patiently and politely to the question, but then dismisses it with a shake of the head.
“Well, firstly, I think the charges of militancy and fundamentalism of course come from our opponents, the theists. My rejoinder is to say when the boot was on their foot they burned us at the stake. All we’re doing is speaking very frankly and bluntly and they don’t like it,” he laughs. “So we speak frankly and bluntly, and the respect agenda is now gone, they can no longer float behind the diaphanous veil – ‘Ooh, I have faith so you mustn’t offend me’. So they don’t like the blunt talking. But we’re not burning them at the stake. They’ve got to remember that when it was the other way around it was a much more serious matter.
“And besides, really,” he adds with a withering little laugh, “how can you be a militant atheist? How can you be militant non-stamp collector? This is really what it comes down to. You just don’t collect stamps. So how can you be a fundamentalist non-stamp collector? It’s like sleeping furiously. It’s just wrong.”
Now the odd thing is that yesterday on Facebook (one does find out some interesting things via Facebook, there’s no denying it) the Institute for Science and Human Values flagged up a cruise next October with guest speaker…Anthony Grayling. The ISHV is very very very hostile to “militant” atheists. Several of its founding members spend a remarkable amount of time saying how hostile they are to “militant” atheists. I’m wondering if that’s going to turn out to be a rather tense cruise.