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March 18, 2007


Francis Sedgemore

Dave - This over-reaction is quite uncharacteristic of you. Now, I'm as tired as you of the silly secular-religious battles being waged in forums such as CiF. I'd rather that they shut up completely, but better that people let off steam in cyberspace than on the street. Grayling's writing on religion is strident, and entirely suited to the spaces in which it is published. That's the nature of contemporary comment journalism.

Hanging your initial attack on Grayling on his use of the word "think" is a bit much. If it had been me writing that article, I would have phrased the sentence something like "...The God Delusion has raised the stakes between those for whom religion is an important part of life, and those who see it as a hindrance to progress and truth.". And I suspect Grayling would have worded it thus had he been a little more careful. I think you are reading too much into Grayling's linguistic sloppiness, which extends to the Sunday Times piece as a whole.

Grayling undoubtedly missed an opportunity with that article. It raises some important points, only to spoil it all with some rather offhand remarks. But this is no reason to damn the man as you have here.

As for your introductory words, what if someone had written: "Professional dad Dave Hill has a forthcoming book to promote. Hence another article in the Guardian about urban family life."?

Simon Barrow

Some fair points, made with passion, Dave. It really is sad when good people and good minds (like Tony Grayling's) allow their judgement to be overcome by visceral dislike - in this case of anything 'religious', whatever that means. In the real world, as you say, religion involves everything from non-theistic philosophical Buddhism to the prescriptive platitudes of the US Christian religious right. There is vast diversity among the non-religious, too, in case AC hadn't noticed. An incantation to reason doesn't resolve deep disagreement any more than an incantation to God or gods. So putting two tanks (one labelled religious and the other labelled non-religious) into battle is a pretty hopeless exercise.

You'd have thought that anyone who'd spent more than a couple of moments thinking about these things would hesitate before using a phrase like "the religious and [the] nonreligious view of morality" (as if they amounted to one straightforward bifurcation) - but the temptations of punditry seem to nuke nuance. FWIW, moral reasoning in the Christian tradition (alone) has embraced a huge range of approaches and outcomes. Some start from deontology (arguments about duty), others from virtue and narrative (forming communities of character), some from institutional authority (hierarchies of values as bearers of continuity), others from context and change (liberation ethics), and so on. Then there's Alasdair Macintyre's "three rival versions of moral enquiry" - encylcopaedia, geneaology and tradition... and much, much more. It's a rich and complex picture.

The practical point is that both 'religious' and 'non-religious' people find themselves located in household arguments about these things. That's life. They are going to disagree - both within and across those divides. Finding ways to disagree usefully is what civilization is about. But it depends upon cherishing the liberality involved in trying to appreciate (and contend with) each others' best arguments, rather than pitching what we have to offer against a crude, homogenized caricature of everybody else. Not that AC, Dawkins et al are alone in this. Certain kinds of religious people do it all the time too. The consolation is that even bad arguing is better than actual fighting.

Anyway, forgive me for sounding off on your space. I've thought about a CIF piece, but it probably wouldn't cut any ice. These days everyone talks up their claim to rationality, but then disdains actually being rational.


Hi Dave,

Grayling didn't say that Aristotle didn't believe in God(s). As a philosopher who has specialised in Ancient Greek philosophy, i think he knows. Re-read his piece.

By the way, Dave. Are you religious?

Dave Hill

Chris: No, I'm not religious (I refer to myself as one of 'we atheists" above). My point about Grayling and Aristotle is that, as you say, the former must know perfectly well that the latter deferred to celestial entities AS WELL AS developing ways of thinking consistent with a non-religious viewpoint. However, in his article he makes no acknowledgement of this. Could that be because Aristotle saw no contradiction between belief and exploring the morality of worldly affairs - a possibility Grayling's argument dismisses as impossible whereas, in fact, in everyday life, it happens all the time. Grayling constructs false oppositions in order to foment a controversy that is not, in the end, especially important. He has far more to offer on other subjects. On this one, he's just academia's equivalent of a pub bore.

David Millar

Yes. Completely over-the-top reaction. The simple truth is that people who 'believe' in a super-natural creator are in need of mental health intervention

Dave Hill

Well, well, David Miller - what a thoroughly irrational, bigoted and unscientific observation.

Simon Barrow

Participating in religious comunities and developing ethical and other convictions within them is not, incidentally, for a great many people, a matter of "deferring to celestial entities". Nor do the notions of "a super-natural creator" referred to in David Millar's splendid troll equate at all with what the best minds in the church and elsewhere have understood by God. Of course deeming the great majority of humankind insane saves a lot of effort in actually thinking about these things. But it doesn't do a lot to commend the rationality of (some of) the anti-religious. Dave, on the other hand, is trying to inject some welcome sense into the debate (read: shouting match). Good on him. Incidentally, for those who may be interested, over at Ekklesia we are involved in some work on inclusive models of secularity at the moment - a related but distinct issue: Reconsidering the secular.

Francis Sedgemore

Dave - Grayling may indeed be the academic equivalent of a pub bore, but the British opedosphere has in recent years turned into a kind of intellectual Weatherspoons.

I think we should be careful to distinguish modern religious faith – where belief, even among neopagans, is in a single, omnipotent creator – from the pantheisms of old.

The Greeks were very into classifying and compartmentalising things, and there are serious contradictions between their humanist metaphysics and crude religion, much of which was pseudo-divine mythos designed to highlight aspects of the all-too-human condition.

The Greeks used philosophy and religion as we might handy tools picked up from B&Q, and this carried through to the Christian Church's hitching of Aristotelian philosophy onto an edifice of borrowed superstition.

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