Grayling interviewed

Matthew Adams interviewed Anthony Grayling for the New Humanist. He met the same fella I met.

The couple of hours I spend with him reveal a warm and generous character, capable of being both expansive and associative, while retaining a sense of measure, order and precision.

With an additional element I didn’t meet.

 That order, however, is not much in evidence in his office. It is a catastrophe of books and papers, though in common with people who inhabit catastrophes of books and papers, he is keen to point out that he knows where everything is.

Ah yes that catastrophe of books and papers; I inhabit that too, but I don’t point out that I know where everything is, because alas I don’t. Most things, perhaps, but not everything.

Anthony is happy to concede that the Bible contains some sound moral lessons and moments of great beauty (his favourite being the Song of Solomon), but for him the whole thing is disfigured by phrases such as “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord”. His disdain for the notion of submission before a deity is put with characteristic force: “Just obey, just submit. The usual rather cowed posture of human beings toward divinity in the hope that it won’t inflict too many earthquakes or tsunamis or plagues in the near future.”

The more force behind that observation, the better. It needs to be made with force. The notion in question is one of the worst humans have come up with, and props up many of the others; it’s poisonous; it lurks behind hierarchy and oppression and mindlessness; it stinks.

Adams wonders “why Anthony feels it important to make the case for free thought at this particular moment.” The church fought back hard in the 16th and 17th centuries, Anthony explains, rather like a cornered rat.

“And I think we’re seeing something rather similar at the moment, with events like 9/11. These have just dragged the fig leaf off the claims that religion makes to be a positive and peaceful presence in society, so that people now who never had a religious view or were just a bit disdainful of it are now speaking out frankly and bluntly, and being called militant atheists and fundamentalist atheists and so on.”

The philosophically illiterate charge of fundamentalist atheism has been leveled against many of the figures – Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens – with whom Anthony has been aligned (and among whom he is “proud to be counted”).

As I have noted before. People who detest putative fundamentalist atheists will be disppointed if they hope to include Anthony on their side of the Great Split.

He hopes the book, Adams says, “will help to make the case that a spiritual life can be lived without religion”:

The churches have been so successful in monopolising spirituality. But a walk in the country, a visit to an exhibition, dinner with a friend, or just having a quiet drink in the evening – those are spiritual exercises too. The humanist tradition recognises this, and is much more generous and sympathetic about human nature and its needs and desires. And it recognises that there are as many ways of leading good and meaningful lives as there are individuals to live them.

He ought to know; he lives about twenty of them himself.

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