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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Monday, October 12, 2009

AC Grayling on getting respect

He pretty much nails it in this article: "We might enhance the respect others accord us if we are kind, considerate, peace-loving, courageous, truthful, loyal to friends, affectionate to our families, aspirants to knowledge, lovers of art and nature, seekers after the good of humankind, and the like; or we might forfeit that respect by being unkind, ungenerous, greedy, selfish, wilfully stupid or ignorant, small-minded, narrowly moralistic, superstitious, violent, and the like. Neither set of characteristics has any essential connection with the presence or absence of specific belief systems, given that there are nice and nasty Christians, nice and nasty Muslims, nice and nasty atheists."

I'm not sure I agree with every point in the article, but this bit is so good (as are others) that I'm not going to quibble. It's a privilege to have friends and allies like this.


H.H. said...

He's right that faith should not be something to be respected, but I actually I disagree with the part you quoted.

"Neither set of characteristics has any essential connection with the presence or absence of specific belief systems, given that there are nice and nasty Christians, nice and nasty Muslims, nice and nasty atheists."

So beliefs don't influence behaviors? I find that idea ludicrous. Of course there is an "essential connection" between what people believe and how they behave. The fact that most religions are monolithic institutions able to appropriate people with widely varying beliefs and interpretations of their religions under a single religious label really doesn't support Grayling's contention that beliefs do not precede action.

What Grayling should be saying is that many religious people are able to remain decent individuals despite the immoral edicts of the religion with which they claim affiliation, which they accomplish by ignoring them. Or to put it another way, many religious people behave morally the less seriously they take their religion.

Russell Blackford said...

H.H., I don't think he went that far. I was a bit uncomfortable with that bit, too, since beliefs can certainly influence behaviours and behavioural dispositions. E.g., Christianity has traditionally encouraged certain behavioural dispositions on the basis that they are virtues, when I consider them vices: chastity, piety, sexual modesty, a certain self-loathing kind of humility. Conversely, a certain kind of proper pride has often been regarded as a vice, as have other good dispositions such as certain kinds of opennness to worldly experience. So Anthony's point would have been more complete if he'd teased some of this out more.

In fairness to him, though, I suspect he'd agree with the above, but he only had limited space, and so was forced to simplify. Also, he seems to have chosen his words with care. He doesn't say "beliefs have no effect on behaviour", but "beliefs are not essentially connected with certain specified characteristics". I think that's probably correct. If you look at the actual vices and virtues he listed, I don't think they have an essential connection with any particular set of beliefs. I.e., no particular set of beliefs is required or necessary in order to have these dispositions.

And bear in mind that he was targetting people who think that religion is needed for the good dispositions, not people like us (an enlightened minority) who think it often encourages bad dispositions.

So anyway, just taken literally, I think what he says here is correct, although I agree that there's more to be said about the relationship between beliefs and dispositions/behaviours, much of it not favourable to religion.

My own worries are slightly different, though they don't detract from his main points.

H.H. said...

Russell Blackford, all fair points. I think the part you quoted actually bothered me more when I first read it out of context then when read in the context of his overall thesis. But I accept your defense of his wording, which seems fair to me.

Emily said...

H.H., I think he is saying that belief in god or a lack thereof is not necessary for people to do good. This statement is not as neutered as it may seem. It undermines the basis from which religionists on one hand assert belief in god as necessary for moral behaviour, and on the other where they may counter observations of immorality in the name of religion with observations that atheists can be immoral too. It places morality in the realm of the natural and human and therefore fraught, as opposed to the realm of the supernatural and god and therefore perfect, which challenges the automatic respect people give religion on account of its monopoly on morality.

(I think I might have said pretty much what Russell just said except in a more verbose and clumsy way.)

Emily said...

Whoops. I normally publish under the name "Parrhesia." My secret identity is exposed! Aargh!

RichardW said...

I must say my response to the article was: "Yes, but does it need to be said yet again". Then I noticed that the article is three years old.

Russell Blackford said...

You know, I hadn't picked up on how old it was when I came across it, so sorry about that. Mea culpa!

But I do think that these points are worth repeating.

Greywizard said...

I recognised it as an older piece straight away, but in view of the tendency to condemn 'those who scorn God' (as Tony Blair has recently done), this kind of thing bears repeating. The following quote from his book Against All Gods makes the point especially clearly:

"Those who claim to be 'hurt' or 'offended' by the critcisms or ridicule of people who do not share their views, yet who seek to silence others by law or by threats of violence, are trebly in the wrong: they undermine the central and fundamental value of free speech, without which no other civil liberties are possible; they claim, on no justifiable ground, a right to special status and special treatment on the sole ground that they have chosen to believe a set of propositions; and they demand that people who do not accpe their beliefs and practices should treat these latter in ways that implicitly accept their holder's valuation of them."

That, it seems to me, in the current climate, needs to be said again and again, and it is something which the Blessed Tony might, to his profit, in the course of over-compensating in the way that all new converts do, consider more seriously.

Chris Schoen said...

Yes, it's a short piece, but not so short that he couldn't devote two full paragraphs to an argument against religious people publicly affirming their faith through dress and costume, an obvious reference to veils and headscarfs, though there's no reason why it couldn't be extended to yarmulkes and crucifixes.

Russell, do you also find such modes of dress "divisive?" Should we apply the same argument to veterans wearing patches and badges on military holidays, or to gays wearing S&M outfits on pride marches (or just out for a night on the town)? Are these also appeals for "special rights" because they "implicity demand respect"?

When it comes to clothing, don't democracy and tolerance instruct us to live and let live?

Russell Blackford said...

As I said, Chris, I'm not sure I agree with every point in the article.

Chris Schoen said...

I recognize that, Russell, but it seems inadequate to me to put it that way. If two writers had written a piece that drifted into support for, say, abuse of animals halfway though, one writer who was your ally and one your adversary, I'd expect you to call out each one equally.

Grayling's piece is purportedly about equality and tolerance, and yet it is remarkably intolerant of religious people's right to affirm their religious identity in public. Whatever is good and supportable in the article seems to me to pale in comparison to that.

Russell Blackford said...

Chris, I'm not sure what you mean by "intolerant". He may not like public expressions of so-called religious identity, but I don't see where he says he won't tolerate them. To tolerate something is to put up with it even if you don't like it. It looks to me as if he's prepared to put up with it, even if reluctantly. I certainly don't see him advocating anything remotely analogous to cruelty to (or abuse of) animals.

In my case, there are lots of things that I don't like, but I tolerate them.

That's not to deny that ACG may actually turn out to be less willing than me to tolerate some things that we both dislike. I just can't see it in this particular article.

I actually agree that we should legalise, and put up with, all individual choices of clothing, including total nudity. As far as I can tell, ACG might well agree with this.

The philosophical points on which I may disagree with him more seriously, depending on exactly what he means, are still somewhat different. However, they're peripheral to the point of my both his article and my post.

Chris Schoen said...


To publicly speak out against something is by definition to fail to tolerate ("put up with") it, even if it falls short of compelling that thing to cease by force or law. If tolerance means anything at all, it means curbing one's negative reaction to something, or at least sublimating it to something much less oppositional (e.g. confiding to a friend "It drives me crazy when those conservative Jews wear their yarmulkes out in public. But they have every right to.")

I see no way that tolerance can meaningfully include singling out (in a publication with a circulation in the millions) a type of behavior, among a particular demographic, as undeserved special treatment. Grayling is explicitly saying here that donning religious garb in public is an unfair (because the non-religious cannot share it) demand for deference. The implication is that morally, if not legally, it should cease.

What you appear to be arguing is that Grayling does not invoke a legal basis for inhibiting public religious costume. In this sense, he "tolerates" it. But this is a very narrow definition of what it means to be tolerant. We are quite far, here, from Voltaire defending to the death another's right to utter something he finds pernicious.

By this standard, anyone who speaks out against the public actions of gays, atheists, sexual libertines, communists, or Hollywood producers--but stops short of calling for them to be locked up for these actions--can be called "tolerant" because he or she is "prepared to put up with" them. In this sense, Grayling is tolerant the way that Anita Bryant is tolerant, which is faint praise.

I used the analogy of cruelty to animals because it's something just about everyone can agree is
bad, not because it's specifically comparable to opposing religious costume in public. I was trying to make a point about equanimity in
evaluating rhetoric. If a religious person had written that atheists sporting red A-for-atheist logos on their person were pleading the special right of respect for their beliefs, and not
simply affirming their ideological and social identity, I think you would call that a crap argument, bordering on demagoguery.

I also want to make a point about rights, but this is already a long comment, so I'll continue this at my place.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Chris Schoen: "To publicly speak out against something is by definition to fail to tolerate ('put up with') it"

That's dicey. If one is speaking out in such a way as to attempt to create a hostile atmosphere, then that would be intolerant. For example, speaking out against fill-in-the-blank-undesirables-du-jour stealing jobs would be intolerant, and so would racist demagoguery. That, though, is a pretty specific subset of "speaking out."

One problem that I see with the piece is the bit about "a right to be free of proselytisation," which is a "right" that would be utterly corrosive to a free society, since advocating that other people adopt one's world view can easily be construed as a form of proselytisation. I can also see how that ties into your concerns about religious clothing. One wonders if the "right" of which Grayling speaks entails the "right" to not see, for example, clothing advocating a religious message.

Chris Schoen said...


I actually agree, and in the Underverse piece I wrote following up on this comment I back away from directly equating polemic with intolerance, which is dicier than I make it out to be here. That is to say, not everything we fail ot tolerate makes us "intolerant."

However, I think it is important that Grayling is not taking the opportunity in this piece to attack religious expressions themselves, but to deny that the religious have a right to them. (On the extremely flimsy grounds that others may be bothered by them). That, I maintain, *is* intolerant.

Russell Blackford said...

"To publicly speak out against something is by definition to fail to tolerate ("put up with") it, even if it falls short of compelling that thing to cease by force or law."

This is just nonsense.

Russell Blackford said...

I do, however, agree with JJ that a right to be free of proselytisation is worrying. I'm not sure what ACG means by this, since "proselytisation" has various meanings (e.g. it can connote conversion under some sort of pressure).

But I actually think we should have a right to proselytise, if that just means a right to try to persuade people to accept our ideas (religious or otherwise). It's (an important) part of freedom of speech and expression. So if ACG is saying something contrary to this I disagree with him, and I'd happily raise this point with him if an appropriate moment came up.

Happy with that, Chris? I don't agree with everything that ACG says just because he's ACG. I simply posted the bit I posted because I think that, in itself, it's excellent.

Chris Schoen said...


Yes I'm happy with that.

I didn't think you sided with everything ACG says just because he's ACG. You wrote, however, that the rest wasn't worth quibbling with, or at least that's how I took your meaning, and I thought that required a little interrogation.

The illiberal anti-free speech stance in the rest of the piece is, to me, striking, and does not seem, to me, compensated for by the part you cited in your post (which, by the way, I don't entirely agree with. It's possible to afford a basic level of respect even to nasty people.) But yes, I appreciate your clarification.

J. J. Ramsey said...

I think Dr. Blackford's later post, Geert Wilders wins UK appeal, is a good example of how one can publicly speak out against something, or in this case, someone, namely Geert Wilders, while nonetheless tolerating said one.

Chris Schoen said...

Yes, J.J., that was poorly--hastily--phrased, and while I don't think it's "nonsense," it's not the formulation I want to stand behind.

But thanks for following up.