February 3, 2013 Comments Off
This is a video of a conversation I had with the sociologist and broadcaster Laurie Taylor on ‘Why I am an atheist’. It was one in a ‘daisy chain’ of discussions on belief organized by 5×15 at the Wellcome Collection in London in December. The daisy chain featured, as well as Laurie Taylor and myself, Laurie’s son Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA (and a fellow-panelist of mine on The Moral Maze), Nick Spencer, director of research at the religious think tank Theos, and Linda Woodhead, Professor of the Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University, each interviewing the next daisy in the chain, as it were. My conversation with Laurie Taylor is at the top. Videos of the other conversations are below. « Read the rest of this entry »
January 18, 2013 § 36 Comments
The European Court of Human Rights ruling this week on four cases of conflict over religious rights, and the continuing controversy in Britain, France and elsewhere on proposals to legalize gay marriage, shows the ongoing battle over how we should define religious freedom. I wrote a long post on this question last year, trying to establish some fundamental ground rules from first principles. Here I want to address one issue that has become prominent in recent weeks: the claim by a growing number of believers, especially Catholics, that the legalization of gay marriage amounts in itself to an attack on religious freedom, even to the persecution of Christians. More than 1000 Catholics priests, bishops and abbots – almost a quarter of Catholic clerics in England and Wales – signed a letter to the Daily Telegraph suggesting that while ‘After centuries of persecution Catholics have, in recent times, been able to be members of the professions and participate fully in the life of this country’, legalizing same sex unions would return Britain to the days of persecution, ‘severely restricting the ability of Catholics to teach the truth about marriage in their schools, charitable institutions or places of worship’. The journalist Cristina Odone, former editor of the Catholic Herald, agreed that ‘David Cameron’s persecution of Catholics makes him Henry VIII, mark II’. ‘Once gay marriage is a law’, she claimed, ‘Catholics will be barred from many professions — just as they were from the Reformation until the 19th Century’. There are, she adds, ‘many Christians willing to play Thomas More to David Cameron’s Henry VIII’.
Such claims, it seems to me, not only fundamentally misunderstand religious freedom, but, in their wild hysteria, serve also to undermine those very freedoms. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 24, 2012 Comments Off
The most historic church in London. It is a big claim to make; after all, historic churches are to London almost as skyscrapers are to New York. And particularly so since it is a claim about a church of which I had never even heard, let alone visited, until last month. Yet the very fabric of St Etheldreda’s Church in Ely Place is soaked through with political and ecclesiastical history. It is the oldest Catholic building in England (though some insist that the Church of Saints Leonard and Mary in Malton, North Yorkshire, holds that honour), and one of only two surviving buildings in London dating from the reign of Edward I. It is also an architectural gem, suffused with grace and light, and echoing with almost a millennium of faith, blood and struggle. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 17, 2012 § 19 Comments
Given the degree of fractious debate recently over ‘religious freedom’ – from questions of blasphemy and ‘defamation’ to the storm over gay marriage, from the controversy over the banning of the burqa to the hostility directed at the ‘Obamacare’ plan to include contraception in health insurance cover – I have been rethinking the question of freedom of religion. These notes are a starting point for debate, not a fully-fleshed out argument.
Religious freedom occupies a special place in contemporary political discussions. It should not. This is not because religious freedom is not important but because it is no more and no less important than other forms of freedom of conscience, belief and practice.
Many believers point out that faith plays a unique role in their lives. That is often true. Those atheists who dismiss belief in God as no more credible than belief in Santa Claus or in fairies miss the point. Religion is more than an intellectual exercise or a matter of logic; it often has, for believers, a vital social and spiritual function. But acknowledging the vital and unique role of faith in the lives of believers does not commit us to providing it with a privileged position in society.
The reason that religious freedom has a special place in contemporary political debate is historical. Ideas of tolerance and of freedom of expression developed in Europe from the seventeenth century onwards primarily within a religious framework. Questions of toleration and expression were at heart questions of how, and how far, the state, and the established church, should accommodate religious dissent. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 29, 2012 § 2 Comments
A few months ago I chose five books to illustrate the idea of morality without God for The Browser’s Five Books interviews. Now, Richard Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford, has picked his list of five works through which to introduce Christianity. One book is common to both lists: Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It is not surprising that both Harries and I should so treasure Dostoevsky’s last and greatest novel. There are few writers who possess the psychological power and the unnerving eye of Dostoevsky, few who can express so eloquently both the necessity of faith and its impossibility. And of all Dostoevsky’s works The Brothers Karamazov is perhaps the one that is most committed in its faith and yet also the most ambiguous about it; a novel that is, at one and the same time, a celebration of existential faith and an excoriation of the immorality of God’s creation.
February 12, 2012 § 11 Comments
In the series of extracts from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 14, which is devoted to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. This extract is from the discussion of Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals.
Nietzsche trained as a philologist, not as a philosopher, and his writing is quite unlike traditional philosophical work, whether the dry, rigorous plodding of an Aristotle or a Kant, or the flights of sometimes barely-intelligible fancy that mark the work of a philosopher like Hegel and, later, Heidegger. It is, rather, frothy, pithy and aphoristic, often fragmentary, usually poetic, always provocative. Nietzsche himself saw his work neither as philosophy nor as literature, but ‘declarations of war’. He was not a writer, nor even a prophet, but a ‘battlefield’ on which was being fought the struggle for Europe’s very soul. There was always a touch of the megalomaniac fantasist about Nietzsche.
Beneath the light and the froth and the absurd self-regard lay, however, an engagement with the most profoundly unsettling issues of the day: the ‘death of God’ and the moral chasm that now seemed to have opened up. Though Nietzsche is usually credited with coining the phrase, it was actually a Young Hegelian, Johann Caspar Schmidt, better known by his nom-de-plum Max Stirner, who first wrote of ‘the death of God’ in his 1844 work The Ego and His Own. Stirner also nurtured many of the key anti-moral themes in Nietzsche’s work, including an early notion of the ‘Superman’. It was, however, Nietzsche who quite unlike any other gave voice to the spiritual disorientation of fin-de-siècle Europe with startling insight. Few spoke to the dilemmas of modern nihilism with as much force and clarity. One of his last books, The Twilight of the Idols, is subtitled ‘How to Philosophize with a Hammer’. Nothing could better express both Nietzsche’s method and his impact on subsequent moral thinking. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 6, 2012 § 44 Comments
Like a lion, perhaps, in a den of Daniels, I gave a talk last week on ‘Why I am an atheist’ to theology students at Bristol’s Trinity College. It was an enjoyable event, and hopefully helped me to think through and sharpen my arguments (though not, I suspect, to change anyone’s mind). Here’s the transcript.
There are three kinds of arguments that an atheist can make in defence of the insistence that no God exists. First, he or she can argue against the necessity for God. That is, an argument against the claim that God is necessary to explain both the material reality of the world and the values by which we live. Second, he or she can argue against the possibility of God, against the idea that a being such as God is either logically or materially possible. And third, an atheist can argue against the consequences of belief in God. This is the claim that religious belief has pernicious social, political or moral consequences and that the world would be better off without such belief. « Read the rest of this entry »