Philosophy and Religion: The Case for a Bigger Picture View

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Email sent 21/2/10

Professor Anthony Grayling,
Professor of Philosophy,
Birkdale College,
University of London

While I have not studied your work on the relationship between philosophy and religion in depth, I should like to suggest some 'bigger picture' issues that might usefully be considered on the basis of a couple of articles, by you and about your work, that are outlined following this email.

As I interpret those articles, some significant themes in your work include: the need for people to be 'good'; the problem with 'religion' as the way to promote this (eg lack of credibility; exclusive claims of moral authority; association with violence; and demands by religious minorities for special consideration by governments); the strengths and current relevance of the classical philosophical traditions; the intellectual, and now increasing political, conflict between religious and non-religious people; the moral panics that can arise at times in Anglo-Saxon societies because people mainly focus on micro issues; and the risk to tolerance and secular government.

In relation to this I should like to submit for your consideration that:

  • classical philosophy seems more at risk from the rising influence of non-theistic traditions in East Asia that are incompatible with it, than it is from 'religion';
  • while there are valid points in your concerns about 'religions', there are also weaknesses (eg it is political extremism that generates violence (not 'religion' as such), and over the past century the most extreme ideologies that generated conflicts have typically not been associated with 'religion'). Moreover, while there is a great deal to be said for keeping 'religion' out of politics, making the role of 'religion' into a major political issue won't achieve that goal;
  • Anglo-Saxon societies' tendency to focus on 'micro' issues has great practical advantages;
  • differences in cultural assumptions result in radically different ways of thinking and organising societies - and this can generate frictions (eg when some succeed and others don't). The failure of Western intellectuals to evaluate the practical consequences of such differences in assumptions (including those derived from 'religion') makes them partly to blame for resulting conflicts;
  • the question of how people can be 'good' is of great current importance. However only where responsibility for moral behaviour resides in individual consciences responsible to God (as it does under the Judeo-Christian tradition) can human elites avoid constraining liberty by themselves claiming moral authority;
  • 'good' behaviour and liberty could thus best be promoted by demolishing the intellectual obstacles to 'Christ-ian' adherence that have emerged over the past century (such as: the view that 'science has all the answers', or the post-modern alternative that 'no answers are better than any others').

The above points are developed further below, and I would be interested in your response to those speculations.

John Craig

Outline of Articles

Outline of Articles By Anthony Grayling, and About his Work

People would be better off without religion. Religious and non-religious people increasingly quarrel - and this raises questions about the role of religion in society. Disagreements have increased because: people used not to be public about faith; societies had become secular; and past murderous religious factionisms were remembered. But now all major religions are more assertive in public domain. Muslims complained first about Rushdie's 'Satanic Verses'. Sikh's closed a play. Hindus complained about stamps that Christianised an Indian theme and Christians protested against Jerry Springer: the Opera. Public funding has been extended from Christian schools to other faiths, and the latter have also gained BBC airtime. Changes to laws have been sought - and the Labour Government has made concessions to everyone. However ghettoising children with faith-based schooling can be disastrous - as in Northern Ireland. Schooling should be as mixed / secular as possible. Secular opinion has hardened in the face of different religious bodies seeking concessions. In US the religious right numbers about the same as those with no religious commitment - but the former are better organised and have huge huge political clout. Secular objections are increasing because increasing influence by religious bodies threatens the secular arrangement that accepts all views. Where one view dominates, others are at risk - with Taliban-style rule the extreme example. When liberty of conscience was secured in Europe, millions died because one church did not want to give up control of what people can think. The Treaty of Westphalia accepted religious differences as the only way of preventing endless religious wars - and this is now unravelling. Faith organisations now make common cause - despite their mutual exclusivity and historical relationships involving bloodshed. Non religious people's attitudes are also hardening because they believe religious belief has the same intellectual respectability, evidential base and rationality as belief in fairies. This offends many who however take the same attitude to all but one of the many gods who have ever been claimed to exist. Atheists don't add many to the list. Religious beliefs are humanity's earliest science. Judaism, Christianity, Islam are young religions - and modelled their deities on kings with absolute powers. But for thousands of years before the natural world had been explained by animistically - in terms of spirits or gods. The latter disappeared as knowledge increased. Non-religious folk can't take religion seriously if they view it as ancient superstition, and can't accept religion's claim to a disproportionate influence in society. Active believers are all faiths make up only 8% of UK population. Religion is seeking to claim a special place and a share of taxes, while religious fanatics in America, Europe and the Middle East commit atrocities. The certainty given to ancient texts is dangerous. The moral crusader who wants to stop others seeing things he finds offensive is not all that different to suicide bomber - and secular people are no longer willing to make concessions. The politeness and restrain that once kept non-religious folk from expressing their true opinions about religion is disappearing. This is why there is an increasing quarrel between religion and non-religion today (Grayling A., 'Believers are away with the fairies',, 26/3/2007)

Anthony Grayling deals with many current issues (the war on terror, globalization, bioethics, the decline in manners). He is tough on cant and easy on human frailty. He seeks to make people think, and argues that people seek to make sense of life. He sees religion as a problem because of its exclusive claims to the moral life. Inquiry into the good used to be seen as part of being human - but over the past 1500 years the idea developed that this could only emerge in religious setting. This leaves out many things that were commonplace in the philosophy of classical antiquity. He believes those without religious commitment are seen as incapable of ethical thinking. People in Anglo-Saxon societies worry about small things rather than the big picture most of the time - and this at times leads to moral panics. Now people allow children much less freedom, though their environment is much safer than it was. Civil liberties are eroded in the hope that it will make us safer against terrorism and crime. Grayling helps people tap into the philosophical resources of the Western tradition, and notes that ethical roots run deep and that extraordinary technologies have been developed. Though newspapers are full of violence, there are millions of acts of kindness every day. People have a great deal of responsiveness to one another, and have to work hard to put others into groups they can hate. Philosophers have been agonising over the same questions for thousands of years (ie trying to make better people). Christianity is a young religion, and the classical tradition is only 2500 years old. Conflicts occur because human nature is slow to change. There is a need to get through current era of risk (with too much technological capability and insufficient good sense to manage it properly) and create a more peaceable, constructive and cooperative future (Cosic M., 'How to be good without bothering God', The Australian, 20-21/2/10).

Detailed Comments

Detailed Comments on Major Themes

Firstly classical philosophy is more at risk from non-theistic humanist traditions (ie those of East Asia) than it is from the elements of 'Christendom' that are the main focus of Professor Grayling's concern.

At the recent World Economic Forum, it was reportedly recognised that (because the foundations of Western capitalism were severely damaged by the global financial crisis) China's authoritarian state-led variety of capitalism might dominate in future (see Kaletsky A., New capitalist model needed: World Economic Forum, The Australian, 5/2/10).

This is significant because 'China's state-led variety of capitalism' works (to the extent that it does) on the basis of traditions that presume the failure of rationality and are thus incompatible with classical philosophy (see Understanding East Asia's Economic Models, and an attempt to provide an account of their arational / intuitive epistemological foundations - East Asia in Competing Civilizations). 'Good' behaviour is ensured, not by consideration of the moral principles defined by philosophers (as universal principles are simply not believed to exist), but rather by subordinates' adherence to whatever rules are established by their social superiors, and by promoting uniformity of thought through controlling access to information and by forcefully crushing dissent.

In the longer term, economic dominance by China's authoritarian state-led variety of capitalism (which is the model that emerging economies are now rushing to emulate) would translate into international political and cultural dominance as well.

Some complications to consider are that:
  • East Asian economic models tend to be very good at organising production, but quite bad at doing so 'profitably' - a fact which doesn't matter so long as a strong cash flow is generated and a great deal of this is saved, so no outsiders can express concern about balance sheet problems. None-the-less, it is possible than in the medium-longer term, economic models such as China's might fail (see Are East Asian Economic Models Sustainable? ) - but attempts seem to be being made to create an environment in which that risk could be reduced (see Creating a New International 'Confucian' Economic and Political Order?);
  • Western democratic capitalist economies have their own severe problems, including:
    • large sovereign debts (partly as a result of saving financial institutions) - which will: force up interest rates; constrain public spending; require higher taxes; and encourage a relaxed approach to inflation. None of these are economically constructive;
    • no obvious way of macroeconomic management (ie preventing booms and busts) because: (a) this role had been taken by monetary policy after fiscal policies had shown themselves to amplify booms and busts in the 1970s; and (b) easy monetary policy by the US Federal Reserve (to sustain US / global economic growth in the face of the demand deficits in East Asia and elsewhere) was complicit in causing the asset bubble that gave rise to the global financial crisis;
    • no obvious directions for economic advancement, or means for achieving it. Developed (democratic capitalist) economies tended to lose their most productive industries (ie manufacturing) from the 1960s and shifted into new often knowledge-intensive functions to maintain their productivity lead in the 1990s. However: one of the main industries into which they diversified was financial services, and the key driver of the the shift was a capitalistic search for profit - and both of these again were complicit in the financial crisis and likely to be constrained in future.
  • humanity generally faces challenges of environmental sustainability in relation to both population and economic growth (eg associated with soil and fresh water limits, loss of biodiversity, constraints on fossil fuels).

Second, there appear to be be both valid points and also some serious weakness is Professor Grayling's concerns about 'religion'.

For example:
  • there is no doubt that early human religions reflected an attempt to understand the world - just as science has done in recent centuries;
  • not all 'religious people' can validly be lumped together and contrasted with 'non-religious people', because some 'religions' (eg some that originate in Asia such as Buddhism, Confucianism and Shinto) are non-theistic, and the latter is presumably the main characteristic of non-religious Western people;
  • while 'religion' at times has been associated with violence, this only arises where a religion is adopted as the ideological basis for seeking political power. Moreover over the last century 'religion' had little to do with the major conflicts (eg the world wars) and the great tyrannies (eg of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot) that had the really big body-counts. Political extremists (ie those who believed that they have a great 'mission' which justifies extreme measures) have played a role in these events - but 'religions' were not significant factors in any of those 'missions'. The only significant role that a 'religion' seemed to play in major 20th century conflicts and tyrannies was that which Shinto (a non-theistic religion) played in Japan in WWII. Moreover current clashes between Western societies and Islamist extremists can't validly be said to be based on 'religion' (see God on My Side: A Conspiracy Theory?);
  • Christianity's founder, Jesus of Nazareth, apparently agreed with many of Professor Grayling's criticism of 'religion'. He reportedly opposed human claims to moral certainty - especially those of 'religious' leaders (eg see Mark 7: 8), and was uninterested in seeking political power or support (see Church's Mission);
  • there is considerable doubt that Christianity should be described as a 'religion' as it arguably reflects God's outreach to humanity in order to create a relationship, rather than a human attempt to either understand the universe or to find God. Jesus of Nazareth: (a) claimed to be a manifestation of God; (b) presented unprecedented moral teachings that have had, and continue to have, more influence on world history that those of anyone else and tend never to be criticized by moral philosophers; and (c) gave a very impressive display of supernatural capabilities through his resurrection (for which the evidence is not trivial, and which clearly convinced his followers that something extraordinary happened as they took on the world in his name, even though most were killed for doing so). The combined impact of (a), (b) and (c) demands attention;
  • there is a great deal to be said for keeping religion out of the political arena (see Is a Religious View of History Valid?, Church's Mission, and Restoring 'Faith in Politics') but making the role of religion a 'political' issue will tend to increase, rather than reduce, its role in politics (ie force political leaders to try to be the arbiters of religious and non-religious assumptions, and to constrain liberty by determining the nature of a moral life - see Can Political Activism Separate Church and State?).

Third the fact that the contest between 'religion' and human philosophy as the route to defining 'good' behaviour is ancient (as Professor Grayling reportedly suggested) is illustrated in Genesis - which seems to be a transcription of oral traditions that went back to the agrarian revolution (say 13,000 years ago). Genesis 3 described 'eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil' (presumably a reference to human philosophy?) as mankind's original sin.

Fourth, as Professor Grayling reportedly suggests, thinking about small things most of the time is undoubtedly characteristic of Anglo-Saxon societies. It can also be highly advantageous - because rationality (ie the assumption that simple abstract concepts usefully model reality) does not fail as often or as seriously as it does if attempts are made to understand very complex systems (see The Economic Advantages of Freedom in Competing Civilizations).

However: quite different styles of thinking prevail in other cultural traditions (ie individual rationality is not universal), and these can lead to different ways of organising societies and to poor communication between cultures. For example Frenchmen, committed to rationalising a group consensus (and thus concerned with the 'glory of France' as a whole) once characterised Britain as merely a 'nation of shop-keepers' whose success through individual action was a source of both contempt and alarm. Arguably such differences (which can involve styles of thinking more different than those between the Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic worlds) are a major source of friction, as some lead to material success much more readily than others. The fact that Western intellectuals have paid little attention to the practical consequences of differences in cultural assumptions (including those embodied in 'religion') makes them partly to blame for any resulting conflicts (see Competing Civilizations). For example:

  • Discouraging Pointless Extremism suggests that 'internal social oppression' (associated with the presumption that people need to control others' behaviour) has adverse political and economic consequences, and appears to be a consequence of Islamic traditions - most particularly of the world view that scholars have erected around Islam. The fact that Western intellectuals have not considered such issues, gives those who are disadvantaged by their cultural assumptions no way to understand the cause of their problems - and thus a tendency to excessively attribute them to 'external oppression', a view that extremists have used as a basis for justifying attacks on Western societies. Thus the need to constrain civil liberties on security grounds to guard against terrorism, partly reflects the failure by intellectuals to do their jobs.

Fifth, the major focus of Professor Grayling's work, ie the question of how people can be 'good' (ie act morally), is of immense current importance.

However, in most societies moral behaviour by individuals seems to be promoted by external coercion (eg by social / political elites).

Liberty (which, when combined with the rationality derived from the classical tradition, has provided huge advantages) emerged uniquely as a feature of Western societies. More specifically liberty was arguably tolerable to elites because, under 'Christ-ian' traditions, responsibility for morality was located in individual consciences responsible to God subject to a very general requirement to 'love God and others as oneself' (see Cultural Foundations of Western Strengths).

However as general community adherence to the 'Christ-ian' foundations of Western societies has weakened, systems of law and government based on assumptions of individual liberty may not remain acceptable indefinitely. Political authorities are clearly under ever-growing pressure to claim moral authority and control people's behaviour in many different ways that put liberty, and its advantages, at risk (see Moral Foundations of Individual Liberty).

Finally, there is arguably more to be gained in terms of now promoting 'good' behaviour while protecting liberty by working to demolish the obstacles to 'Christ-ian' adherence which have resulted over the past couple of centuries as Western intellectuals have arguably mislead those who have taken their writings seriously, with unrealistic claims about human knowledge (see Ethical Renewal in Competing Civilizations, which refers to the intellectual obstacles that have been erected such as the perception that either: science has all the answers; or that no answers are better than any others - the 'post-modern' view).