A.C. Grayling interview for Center for Civil Courage: I’m a great champion of the rights of women

Oh, I’m a feminist myself. I’m a great champion of the rights of women. I think it is a tragedy in our world that half of all humanity for most of history has not had an opportunity to make its contribution. Its creativity, you know, its artistic productions, its involvement in understanding our world. It’s a terrible tragedy for the human species.

Humanist philosopher A C Grayling is Master of the New College of the Humanities, and a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford. Until 2011 he was Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has written and edited over thirty books on philosophy and other subjects; among his most recent are “The Good Book”, “Ideas That Matter”, “To Set Prometheus Free”, “The God Argument” and “Friendship”. He is a prolific contributor to the press, a frequent broadcaster and judge in literary prizes. He is a vice president of the British Humanist Association, the patron of the United Kingdom Armed Forces Humanist Association, a patron of Dignity in Dying, and an honorary associate of the National Secular Society.

A.C. Grayling interview for Center for Civil Courage 9.august.2014 in Oxford at World Humanist Congress 2014 (s hrvatskim titlovima)

What is your take on the New Atheists? Are they true to the legacy of European humanism? Have they done some harm to the secularist cause?

I think the response to atheism since 9/11, 9/11 was quite a watershed because before that time people who were atheists they didn’t bother to say much about it and people who had a religious view, they didn’t bother to say much about it, either. For example, at a dinner party. But there was a polarisation after 9/11 in which people who were athists or secularists said: ah, no, no. Here is religion causing big troubles again. We don’t wan’t that. So they came out in the open and they took a stand. And the response from people who have religion, and even sometimes from people who think, well religion has its uses to certain individuals, for example to Richard Dawkins, because he’s very outspoken, he provoked a lot of hostility, he also provoked a big following, and so the debate has been a very polarised one. But I think, that even though there’s nothing new about New atheism, it’s the same idea (laugh), nevertheless it has had a very good impact. It has made people think, it has made people sit up and notice. We wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing today unless the whole discussion about secular attitudes,  about humanism is a positive ethical outlook and about the legitimacy of atheism were now completely out in the open. So, in my view, it’s a very good thing that it has happened despite the fact that it has provoked some hostility.

 You are sometimes aligned with  Alain de Botton as a moderate atheist.  What  do you and Alain share that sets you apart from Dawkins and his ilk, and what sets you apart from Alain?

 I don’t know Alain de Botton very well, I don’t even know his views very well except that I hear. I haven’t read his work, so. I heard that he said something about having a kind of church for atheists or something. I don’t think this is a good idea.

What do you think?

 What I think is this. That the religions have hijacked, they have stolen the idea of those aspects of our lives which give us the most refreshment and aesthetic and moral sense of value. For me: to go for a walk, to have dinner with friends, to listen to music, to lie in bed on Sunday morning and relax, these are spiritual exercises. These refresh the mind and the heart. The religions say: oh, you must come to the temple or the church or the synagogue. This is where this happens. And this is false. So we don’t need churches for atheists. We have the world. We have science, we have nature, we have friendship. These are things that really matter and if we would say to everybody: look, life can be good. It can be good if we celebrate the things that are positive about human beings. We don’t need any gods and goddesses, we don’t need a special place to do it, the world itself is enough.

Is there anything that moderate atheism or, what you call “Humanism”,  can learn from religions?

 Well, first you notice that atheism, secularism and humanism are three separable things. They are naturally connected. The word atheism is a theists’ word. The people who have a theistic outlook they used the word atheism to describe people who don’t agree with them. It’s like somebody who collects stamps who says: “You are an a-stampist.” It’s his word. It’s not my word. If I don’t collect stamps I have no interest in stamps so why all of a sudden should I have fight with people who collect stamps? The fight was picked by the theists. So I like sometimes to say to people: a better word for me is “a-fairiest” because I don’t believe in fairies. OK? So if I would have a discussion with somebody about fairies, and he, you know, like the Pope for example, and say to Pope : “Do you believe in fairies?” He says:” No.” I say: “Why not? Give me your reasons.” And then I say to him: “Take these reasons and put them in theology. They are the same reasons.” 

What do you think about feminism?

Oh, I’m a feminist myself. I’m a great champion of the rights of women. I think it is a tragedy in our world that half of all humanity for most of history has not had an opportunity to make its contribution. Its creativity, you know, its artistic productions, its involvement in understanding our world. It’s a terrible tragedy for the human species.

Do you think that there is such a thing as “scientism”, the tendency to think that hard sciences have all the answers, or at any rate, that they raise the only interesting questions?

 Yes, I think that there is such a thing as scientism, that is the over application of science. I think, any self-respecting scientist will say: “I research some aspect of botany, or particle physics, or cosmology, and to think that science has all the answers to everything is completely overreaching itself.” Scientific method, that is rational, experimental, empirical, accumulation of data and examination of it, putting things to the test… Scientific method has its uses outside science. It has uses in social science; it has uses in history for example. It has uses in our thinking about which train to catch from Oxford to London. So if scientism is the idea that science can solve all human problems then scientism is bad. The use of rational methods of enquiry, which we have learned to apply so successfully in science, that’s very useful. But there are whole aspects of human life and experience which need… Music and poetry, and love, and dance, and… these are not things… Science can tell us about why do you feel so good after you’ve been dancing in a club all night, you know, because of the endorfines, but you don’t need to know about the endorfines to have a good time.

What is the future of the humanities?

The future of the humanities… Well, by the humanities we mean the study of literature, of philosophy, history and languages, and classics, and so on. In my view, and maybe you know, I have founded a college of humanities (laugh)… I think that the humanities together are conversation of human kind about our values, about the things that we care about, about the aspects of human experience which are deepest and richest. And most places in the world today are poor in money and educational efforts into science, technology, engineering, mathematics, we call this STEM, the STEM subjects. And of course this is important, and of course we must do it. But if we did that and we ignored what history can teach us, what we can learn about human nature, human experience, from literature, what philosophical reflections can give us about how we live and how we use what we know. If we ignore the humanities, we become less reflective, less intelligent, less understanding. Because science, technology, engineering, mathematics, these are about knowledge, about data. But there is something which is one more step than knowledge. And that is understanding. And the humanities help us to achieve understanding.

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