Tuesday, April 17, 2012

AC Grayling and Geoffrey Robertson QC on Q and A

Two well known atheists -- AC Grayling and Geoffrey Robertson QC -- were on Q&A last night. They are very dapper and distinguished lookin' fellas aren't they? And they both have mighty impressive grey manes.

This seems to be a feature of the celebrity atheist. Richard Dawkins, while possessing a less luxuriant head of hair, is still elegantly, albeit subtly, coiffed. And Tariq Ali surely has one of the most magnificent thatches in all of, er, anti-Christendom. (Though it must be said that Phillips Adams is actually follicularly challenged on top. But to make up for it he sports an excellent wise man's beard.)

Well, whatever their hairstyles are like, it's what's going on underneath them that matters. And sometimes I reckon that's a bit of a worry. Not on the general issue of atheism itself, mind. I agree that religion is irrational and unscientific. It's just the lengths they want to go to with their atheism that worry me a bit.

Take Grayling's attitude to the "why are we here?" question:

AC GRAYLING: The problem with the question is that it is a question begging a question. If you think it is a valid question to ask, you have already made the assumption there is an answer external to what is the case about us, which is that as intelligent monkeys, we are essentially social animals, we live in communities with one another and we have a responsibility to think, to use the intelligence we have got and to make meaning, to make purpose in life. There isn't an antecedent purpose which you can cite as the answer to that question "Why are we here?". The fact is we are here, we have to get on with it, and make the best of it. And the way that we make the best of it is to make life meaningful.

That's not an extreme statement in itself, of course. But there seems to be a quasi-authoritarian subtext to it, particularly when you combine it with other things he said (which I'll get to in a minute).

I mean, why doesn't religion still have a lot to offer in a world in which the question is "invalid"? That is, if people are to get on with it and make life meaningful as he suggests why can't they do that by constructing complex and sophisticated religions that give their followers spiritual guidance and a deep sense of meaning?

But Grayling really doesn't like that idea at all:

AC GRAYLING: I would like to pick Nicola up on something, if I may, with great respect. I don't think it is OK that people can believe what they like. All our beliefs should be based on responsible reasoning and we should look at the evidence and think about it carefully. 

So, it's "not okay" for people to believe what they like. Sounds like he would much prefer to live in a world where everyone sees the world in the way he does. Strikes me as a very authoritarian attitude, and one which would make life a lot less interesting.

To Robertson: He got a laugh with a cheap and easy shot at Cardinal Pell when he said this:

GEOFFREY ROBERTSON: I thought that last week's debate was quite extraordinary. Because we had the announcement by George Pell that atheists can go to heaven.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Everyone can be saved.

GEOFFREY ROBERTSON: Well, that's right. Why, for example, be a Catholic? Why go to all those Sunday morning services? Why run the risk your kids will be molested by the local priest when you can be... I mean, I am not an atheist, I'm a lawyer. I don't know whether George would accept that lawyers get to heaven. I think God has to draw the line somewhere. Nonetheless, we don't live in a secular society. We may be sun worshippers but in fact there are so many rules, laws, in this country which are biased in favour of Christian believers. You can't buy a bottle of wine on Good Friday.

This just shows how ignorant he is of Catholics' motivations. They don't maintain their faith just so that they can get to heaven. They have many other reasons such as the sense of wanting to be good, caring about others, and having a sense of community, to name a few.

And he couldn't resist making that nasty reference to pedophilia. But the reality is that Catholic priests are no more likely to commit pedophilia than any other group of men. If there'd been a concerted campaign to demonize lawyers as kiddy fiddlers then he'd be copping some of the same kind of abuse he happily hurls at Catholics and I bet he wouldn't like it one bit.

He also clutches at straws with his claims that Christians get lots of preferential treatment, and that we don't live in a secular society. We do live in a secular society. You can go your entire life and never be preached at by a God botherer. You can flout any (or even all) of the ten commandments and get away with it. 

Christians are clearly more tolerant of atheists than the other way around, as evidenced by their lack of nastiness when debating them. (And just as Robertson points out, they'll also welcome non-believers into heaven! That's about as non-discriminatory as you can get, isn't it?)

This stark difference is one of the reasons Grayling, Roberston and their fellow celebrity atheists can't make much of a dent in the power and influence of religion in this country or any other.

Religion is here to stay whether they like it or not


  1. A 'Why' question is always one that cannot be answered... it is 'How' questions that can be.

    I think that was what both Dawkins and Grayling were getting at. For example, if my house burned down or my family were murdered... I could legitimately ask how that happened, but not why that happened. Likewise, 'why we are here' cannot be answered, but how we came to be does have an answer (an answer that science is currently working on, and that the bible already provides an answer to).

    And catholics largely do (although not solely) maintain their faith so that they can get to heaven. I have often found that for people of faith, the looming threat of eternal damnation is a very powerful motivation.

    Cheap, nasty and predictable shots about pedophilia aside... I wouldn't reference catholic.net if trying to make a credible and unbiased point about priests and molestation.

    The fact is that priesthood has long attracted pedophiles due to the close trust relationships that priests form with families and children. Most kids are molested by a trusted adult, and unfortunately the priesthood provides this environment better than any other occupation/vocation. Especially when combined with sacrosanct seal of confession and the tendency of humans to 'cover for friends'. As such, the priesthood is far more attractive for a pedophile than the occupation of the practice of law.

    And Australia is not a secular society. You can claim that Australia is more secular relative to Iran, but you cannot claim that we are actually truly secular.

    Our whole legal framework is built around Christianity. The preamble to our constitution references God, each parliamentary year is started with a church service, parliament starts with prayers, ministers can choose to be sworn in 'so help me god' and abortion drugs, euthanasia and gay marriage are blocked on the basis of religious belief. This religious belief is over represented at a parliamentary level and largely unrepresentative of Australians predominately liberal attitudes.

    'Christians are clearly more tolerant of atheists than the other way around...'

    I agree with that statement, it's certainly how it appears. I don't know why this is, but I think it may have something to do with how frustrating it gets when trying to have a rational debate about religion, which by nature is largely irrational.

  2. I think that "why" questions are also legitimate. If a psychopath killed your family then he must have had a motivation. And wouldn't you want to know what it was if you had the scumbag in the dock?

    Even if in the grand scheme of things "why" questions don't make a rational kind of sense humans have an innate need to ask them and at least try to find answers. They just won't go away.

    And re pedophiles: Just because the claim I cited is on a Catholic website, doesn't mean it is invalid.

    Do you know of evidence that debunks this claim? If so, what is it?

  3. I agree that we have an innate need to search for answers and ask why questions, but you can't get very far with a why question and they rarely yield what we would deem a satisfactory answer.

    I've found myself reflecting a fair bit recently on the awful Kapunda triple murders here in SA. Why did he do it? He was apparently infatuated with the girl... but we have all at some point experienced lust, or a crush, or pined after someone unattainable/unavailable and yet wouldn't in a million years do what he did. Infatuation as an explanation as to why he did that doesn't reallly satisfy the question.

    You are correct though in saying that just because the claim you cited was on a Catholic website doesn't make it invalid. I'm just somewhat suspicious, because I've often found social research to be questionable. You can usually find a set of facts/figures to support any argument. It's problematic also because research like that is often bankrolled by people with vested interests and conducted by people leading the research either consciously or subconsciouly in one direction. Such is the nature of social research unfortunately.

    The research that you quoted was by Dr Philip Jenkins who I understand to be a professor at Pennsylvania State University... but he is also a member of the Episcopal Church. Not Catholic, but still a religious man. I'm not familiar enough with his methods or research to critiscise or suggest that his data/position is invalid, but it sends off my alarm bells. Maybe I'm just overly suspicious?

    Anyhow... one of the claims on that site is this:

    'There´s no evidence that Catholic prelates are more likely to be
    pedophiles than Protestant ministers, Jewish leaders, physicians, or any
    other institution in which adults are in a position of authority and power
    over children.'

    And that is sort of what I was trying to articulate... that pedophiles are attracted to those professions that involve children.

    Given the limited opportunity teachers and doctors have of being alone with children these days combined with the traditional 'in-house' outside the law way that churches often deal with allegations, it stands to reason that the priesthood is more appealing to a pedophile/sexual predator. I have no research to back up that claim, only that I can see the the logic in it. If a child approaches a priest during confession and alleges sexual abuse by anyone, that priest cannot break the seal of the confessional -- he can only advise the child to follow it up further and try to implement strategies that minimise risk, without breaking the seal. His hands are largely tied. In any other profession that would be a mandatory report.

    I have nothing against the church or those of religion personally -- I attended a Catholic high school and the parish priest attached to the school was/is one of the nicest and most endearing men I have ever met.