08 February 2012

Simon Blackburn on faith, religion and secularism

It’s always nice to see philosophy articles in magazines that aren’t specialist publications. I take it as a sign that philosophy is shedding its navel-gazing, ivory tower image - that its relevance to modern life is gaining recognition. Case in point: philosopher Simon Blackburn was interviewed by Tara Wheeler for Glass magazine’s winter 2011 issue, which carries the theme of ‘faith’. Glass belongs in that genus of culture magazines that cover art, design and fashion, having the common morphology of thick matte paper, stylised photography, clever graphic design and ubiquitous luxury brand ads. Given this, a philosophy article is a rather incongruous feature, much like antlers on a duck.

Since the winter issue’s theme is ‘faith’, and since you can’t mention faith without mentioning religion, Blackburn was asked for his views on faith, religion and secularism. I reproduce below his lengthy yet incisive responses to two questions, where he points out how religious believers cherry-pick their holy books (thus contradicting their supposedly infallible moral authority) and how moral values are not exclusive to any one religion, or to any at all. Essentially, Blackburn is arguing what humanists and atheists have always argued: you can be good without God.

The theme of this issue is Faith. How do you feel about faith in society today? Perhaps we could begin with looking at the decline of religion – do you think secularisation risks leaving society with a vacuum of moral infrastructure?

Well I think that we human beings stand on our own feet. We have to, even if we consider ourselves people of faith. The faith will be provided by a text or by authorities or our own conscience sometimes. So the idea that you’re holding hands with a deity has always struck me as a delusion. You’re holding hands with a tradition, a literature, a set of authorities, a church and with others in your congregation, which may be a very nice thing to do and I don’t deny the consolations of faith altogether, but as far as morality goes you’re still on your own. You have to decide which of the texts you’re going to listen to. If you read, for example, the Old Testament, it’s absolutely ghastly. God’s always calling for genocides. I think Steven Pinker in his recent book on the decline of violence says that there are 1.2 million killings in the Old Testament and that’s not even counting the flood. It’s just a story of murder and rape and carnage as the Israelites interpreted their own history, so that’s not a moral foundation for anyone. You could go on to things like mental illness as possession by devils, witchcraft and so on and so on, and in the New Testament too, all kinds of superstition and witchcraft. Of course the upstanding Christian says, ‘Oh no, I don’t listen to any of that stuff, I listen to the good stuff’ – fine but then you’re using your own judgement and what you’re going to come out with are things that humanists believe in too, things like be nice to one another, love your neighbour, try not to be too retaliatory, turn the other cheek, don’t sweat the small stuff and the usual kind of advice for living well. Well fine, it’s nice that it’s there in the Bible but it’s also nice that it’s there in Confucius or the Greek philosophers and other traditions. So it seems to me that the idea that it’s because God’s holding your hand that you can manage to be a good person is really just an illusion. And there are other values that Christianity is not so strong on too. For example, Daoism in China has enormous respect for nature, for animals, for the natural world and landscape, which Christianity is entirely silent about.

Would you be happy to see an entirely secular society?

Yes I would. I mean, I feel a slight aesthetic piety; I like the fact that England is cloaked in medieval churches. I enjoy visiting them, I get a sense of community and tradition from them, which I find very enjoyable and I’m sort of grateful to the Church of England for keeping them up and I don’t know what would substitute that because I don’t think David Cameron would do it very well, or perhaps I should say George Osborne. One side of me thinks that the Church of England is a nice little Labrador and I don’t want to put it down, but other churches are more like Rottweilers and I wouldn’t mind putting those down. So there is an ambiguity there but, by and large, I think we can do without the superstition, the hostility to outsiders, the exaggerated sense of righteousness of cause and all of the other bad things that come along with Church membership.

Grab a copy of Glass winter 2011 for the rest of the interview.


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