A C Grayling: Iconoclast of Religion

A C Grayling is Professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, a humanist, atheist and an ardent critic of religion. His personal website www.acgrayling.com has a selection of short papers which outline something of his personal worldview. This short profile draws from two of those papers and illustrates why this is an important contemporary source for arguments against the morality of religion in debates about ethics and the philosophy of religion.

Religion opposed to morality

In his online paper Morality and the Churches, Grayling explores his reasoning that religion should be a trusted source for moral guidance. He is critical about the role that religion has in education and that “churchmen” as he describes them are given privileged even exclusive positions in debates about morality. Religions seem to be the least competent organisations to give such advice. They are obsessed with a small range of human activities, mainly associated with sexuality and have always sought to restrict sexual behaviour. These are either largely irrelevant to genuine questions of morality or are positively anti-moral!

Religion seems to take opposing views to modern thinking. In modern societies personal freedom, achievement in earning a living, providing for a family, saving against a rainy day, and being rewarded for success in one’s career, is approved but Christian morality says the exact opposite. The Bible

tells people to consider the lilies of the field, which neither reap nor spin, and take no thought for the morrow. It tells believers to give all their possessions to the poor, warns that it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a well-off person to enter heaven, and preaches complete obedience to a deity.

For Grayling the fact that these messages so conflict with modern thinking is evidence that they are wrong. Of course religions tend to argue that the very contradiction is proof that they are right.

However, it is not merely that religious views are irrelevant for people living in the modern age, they are positively anti moral. He goes on

The great moral questions of the present age are those about human rights, war, poverty, the vast disparities between rich and poor, the fact that somewhere in the third world a child dies every two and a half seconds because of starvation or remediable disease.

By being obsessed with premarital sex, the churches are ignoring the far greater concerns of the world.

Finally he argues that religion is frequently immoral. He points to religious fundamentalists and fanatics who incarcerate women, mutilate genitals, amputate hands, murder, bomb and terrorise in the name of their faith. Given this case against religion, it is extraordinary that churchmen are given any precedence over those that could be drawn from the richness of thoughtful, educated, open-minded opinion otherwise available in society.

Religion as a threat to society

Grayling is concerned about the power and influence of religion, or the sacred, in public life. In his online paper The secular and the Sacred he acknowledges the right for people to have religious beliefs, but is concerned both about the growth of faith-based schools be they Christian, Islamic, Jewish or Sikh, and the idea of protecting people from suffering offence on the grounds of their faith. For Grayling both developments seem innocuous, even (in the latter case) desirable; but in fact they dramatically increase the potential for social divisions, tension and conflict, which when understood shows that society urgently needs to be secularised. Grayling argues that the world’s major religions” especially Christianity, Islam, and Judaism“ are incompatible and mutually antithetical – they are in theoretical conflict because their truth claims clash and there are plenty of examples of how dangerous this clash of thruth claims can become when it moves to their logical conclusions and into public space. They take fundamentalist forms, and here Grayling sites Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Taliban. These are not aberrations, but the natural full expression of their respective faiths. All the major religions in fact blaspheme one another, and ultimately, if their principles and beliefs were taken to the fullest interpretation, would engage in crusade or Jihad each against the others. Non Christians who don’t accept Jesus is the way the truth and the life, blaspheme Christianity. Non Muslims who do not think the Prophet was the messenger from God blaspheme against Islam and so on.

Religion is morally risky, much more so if it is allowed into public space. When religion is given political power it becomes very dangerous. It is only liberal and peaceable when it is on the back foot. For its own protection society must secularize,

for as science and technology take us even further away from the ancient superstitions on which religions are based (a separation tellingly emphasized by the current cloning controversy), the tensions can only become greater. The science-religion debate of the nineteenth century is a skirmish in comparison to what we are inviting by allowing not just religion but mutually competing religions so much presence in public space.

For Grayling it is time to place religion wholly in the private sphere

along with other superstitions and foibles, leaving the public domain as neutral territory where all can meet without prejudice as humans and equals.

Perhaps the irony of some of Grayling’s arguments is that religious will tend to agree with some of his criticism of what might be seen as extreme religion. Christians involved in aid and development for the third world, such as CAFOD, Christian Aid and Tearfund might well have sympathy with the amount of attention given to sexual morality when poverty is such a huge issue. The obsession with sexuality is one that seems to afflict many aspects of Western society, not just religion and one could make a case that all the religiously inspired charitable and campaigning work that goes on by religious charities, tends not to make such interesting reading in the newspapers, as comments by “churchmen” on sexual matters. If we accept Grayling’s definition and explanation of religion then it seems to be a frightening force. The question is whether his picture of religion, like that offered by Richard Dawkins is complete enough and accurate enough.

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