The Columbia Humanist Society, a new group at Columbia dedicated to secular discussions about politics, society, and everything in between, had its first big event last Wednesday, when they invited A.C. Grayling to give a small lecture in Hamilton. A. C. Grayling, first Master of London’s New College of the Humanities. He’s written numerous books, most notably The God Argument; the Case Against Religion and For Humanism, which he was promoting at the event. All agog atheist Artur Renault reported:
After a long introduction by a CHS member, A. C. Grayling stepped up to the podium with his outrageous gray mane and warmed up the crowd with a warm humblebrag: “One thing I’ve learned in my career is that if you do less, you get to speak earlier.” From that point on we could see that his gentle British humor would keep us company throughout the lecture.
The beginning of the speech was an interesting digression from the general trend of New Atheism, because Grayling said he didn’t want to change anyone’s mind: he just wanted to examine the argument. He noticed that after 9/11, religion seems to have penetrated public life in a new way. Previously, religion was something private and out of the public eye. But since, thousands of books have come out preaching religion and about half a dozen have come out speaking against it, including those by Grayling’s friends Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Steven Pinker, and no public debate seems to be free from the influence of faith.
Grayling separated this phenomenon into three different debates that are often confused. The first he called the atheism debate: what is in the universe, and what controls it? The second, the secularism debate, regarded the role of religion in society—he stressed that it’s possible to be religious and secular. The final debate, he said, was one of ethics: how do we lead our lives?
He focused on the last one first: explaining that ethics and morality aren’t the same thing. “Painting the door of your house is an ethical problem, but it only becomes a moral one once your neighbors complain,” he said. He split this debate in two, the first side was the religious side, which takes its ethics from divine command. The other was the one Socrates’ wondered about when he wondered what a good life was: as Grayling calls it, humanism. Humanism has no doctrine, code, or rules, he said: it’s just an attitude of being good according to the purest human nature. It is an invitation, not an obligation. And it doesn’t impose rules, not even the golden, because in humanism, how could the morals of one person be the guidelines for our whole species? There is a variety of acceptable good lives, defined by the commonalities of our nature. But we should always critically examine our own beliefs—this is what Grayling had to say on the ethics of humanism.
He went on to discuss the secularism debate. He stated that while everyone has the right to try to convince people to change their religion and that everyone should listen openly, the privileges currently given to religious organizations and interest groups aren’t fair. He compared the United States to his native Britain; while the former has secularism written into the constitution, the latter has the huge influence of a state religion over parliament and public organizations such as the BBC. Grayling thinks that most people are secularists, but they are hugely underrepresented since they have no real leader.
Finally, he turned to the atheism debate, which he admitted was the more complicated one. Here, Grayling didn’t want to focus on the arguments for or against the existence of God, but rather on the historical and psychological reasons for them. He covered the broad history of religious beliefs, beginning with their social purpose in ancient times, passing through their changing views over the last few millenia. Grayling also stressed that most people follow the religion of their parents; he claimed that this is a sign that people follow religions out of tradition and not conviction, and they continue being religious because of the association between happiness and childhood.
Then, Grayling invited us to replace any usage of “God” with “Fred” in order to observe how ridiculous it makes belief in God sound: “Fred watches everything,” “Fred works in mysterious ways,” “The Word was with Fred and the Word was Fred.” After this point, his lecture changed into something more reminiscent of Dawkins or Hitchens, outlining many specific problems with theism in general. He pointed, for example, to the huge social pressures in Islam to remain within the faith and to the Mormon belief that Jesus came to America (“They say that it doesn’t seem plausible now but it will in 1,000 years”). He also said he didn’t like being called an atheist—he prefers the word “afairyist,” because he doesn’t believe in God for the same reason that he doesn’t believe in fairies. But Grayling said there were problems in the atheist movement now; he said it should take the example of the gay movement, which emphasized the importance of “coming out” and now is much more out in the open. “We need to be out and proud about atheism,” he said. An audience member who raised his hand and exclaimed “I am an atheist!” when called on embodied this belief.
The question, he closed, was simple: how do we live our life? And answered this question by looking at Plutarch’s “Dinner of the Seven.” The text considers what is the duty of the host, and the duty of the guest at a dinner. Grayling said that one should be “a good guest in the dinner of life.” What’s the best way to do this? “I don’t know, but whatever it is, it has to be genuine.”
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