The shock of Apostasy

I seem to have picked up another fan. A C Grayling, in comments to one of my Guardian blog pieces, says:

Andrew; perhaps meditating what tendentiousness you could muster in response to the extraordinary courage of some dozens of people there who had chosen to think for themselves and free themselves from the superstitions that oppress so many of their ex-coreligionists - and at considerable personal risk to themselves. You are a perfect example of a person whose zeal to defend fairy stories makes you dishonest and mean-minded. Once upon a time your sort did to those who think for themselves what the mullahs would like to do to the brave men and women at that conference: confined now to snideries, your essential poverty of outlook is on magnificent display here.

Now, obviously I thought about retaliating in kind, but I am above such things.1 But there is an instructive point, too: what seems to have driven Grayling into this frenzy was that I committed two offences very like blasphemy and apostasy. I went to this meeting and failed to see in it what he saw. What’s more, his tribe was treated – in the Guardian of all places – without much respect. For him the meeting was a celebration of almost unimaginably brave people who had escaped from a terrible tyranny, and should be reported as if we had gathered in 1943 to hear speeches from members of the French Resistance. For me, the audience was a bunch of old-fashioned lefty freethinkers who were on some deep level confused as to whether America or Iran was a greater threat to civilisation, while the panel was also divided and not going anywhere much. I don’t think I was anything like that rude in my piece and it would have been wrong to do so but to see the meeting as I did was something like seeing the Eucharistic Host is “just a cracker”: Grayling and I don’t actually disagree much about the accidents of the meeting2 but I deny the real presence of enlightenment there.

So much for blasphemy.

The apostasy comes because this appeared in the Guardian, written by a self-proclaimed atheist, or certainly someone who doesn’t believe in the truth of the Creeds, the divine inspiration of the Qur’an or anything else along those lines. I don’t know if he was expecting news coverage for the meeting – but I presume there was an assumption that all the paper’s comment would be respectful.

The interesting point, of course, is that all this excitement strengthens a secular, psychologising analysis of religion. It suggests that some of the cognitive and emotional reactions of believers are indeed deeply emotionally rooted and quite unsusceptible to rational argument. Unfortunately for the National Secular Society, it doesn’t do anything to map irrational group think neatly onto theological or supernaturalist belief.

1. Right.

2. Yes, the ex-Muslims were a small minority of the audience; yes there was a disagreement about Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Yes, the audience was about 300. There is videotape of all this, anyway. This does matter a bit, because if there had been 30 long-standing members of the BHA in an audience of 300 ex-Muslims, it would have been a very different story.

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11 Responses to The shock of Apostasy

  1. A. C. Grayling says:

    Andrew – nice try, and you’re quite good at attempting spin: but I was blunt with you because you were rude about the people at that conference (‘white middle aged members of the British Humanist Association’ – what does their colour or age have to do with their principles, pray? You say it to insult – come on, fess up) and you were worse than rude about the people there who might get killed because of their views, You are squealing away here because I called you mean-minded (about the brave ex-Muslims and what they are trying to do) and dishonest (about the conference, which you only partly attended and seem not to have quite understood – hence the ‘confusion’ perhaps?) – which is a far cry from someone wanting to kill you. You are safe in your complancies, and can mock and fleer, and now in a flurry of self-defence you try the old trick of claiming that you – poor you – are being subjected to accusations of apostasy and blasphemy, No, Andrew, you cannot calim that dignity; you are in no danger of being murdered for having been mean-minded and dishonest about last Friday; only ticked off. Sleep easy! Anthony

  2. Mrs Tilton says:

    If Mr Grayling would only take a few minutes to collect himself before dashing off comments like that, perhaps with a nice cup of tea, I’m sure he’d find he’d come off somewhat less the spittle-flecked hysteric; and he’d probably make fewer spelling errors into the bargain.

  3. acb says:

    “Professor Grayling”: to you, ma’am.

  4. acb says:

    Anthony, stop wriggling. Being middle aged and white is not an insult. It is a factual description, of you and me, as well as of the majority of the audience. I repeat – a majority of the audience. Had this been a conference of 270 ex-Muslims attended by 30 sympathisers from the humanist movement, it would have gotten a different write-up, though even 270 is hardly a mass movement. And I don’t mind being accused of apostasy or blasphemy any more than you would. I mind being called a dishonest, mean-minded apologist for totalitarianism.

  5. Mrs Tilton says:

    Ah yes, the one with all that dreamy hair, isn’t it.

  6. Roger says:

    “And I don’t mind being accused of apostasy or blasphemy any more than you would. I mind being called a dishonest, mean-minded apologist for totalitarianism.”

    Surely a belief-system that wants to kill people for apostasy or blasphemy is totalitarian.

  7. Rupert says:

    I tried swapping goggles on ACB’s report. I normally wear ones ground to a similar (regrettably, much softer) focus to his, but I tried ACG’s prescription.

    They gave me a headache. The original posting seems to me to be making a fair point, albeit with the sort of artificially heightened contrast that NASA applies to photographs of alien landscapes to bring out interesting details. ACG’s optical transformation was closer to the sort of creative photoshopping that makes monumental faces out of Martian molehills.

    The only person accusing – in a rhetorical fashion – ACB of blasphemy and apostasy was ACB. That was rather the point. I just can’t read that, as ACG seems to have done, as a bid for martyrdom, in the same way that I can’t read the report of the composition and nature of the meeting as being in some way an attack on bravery. A perspective on the ironical dissipation of bravery and motivation, perhaps: an irony familiar to anyone who finds themselves drawn to a cause but unsettled by their fellow travellers.

    But, try as I might, I can’t see ACG’s responses as anything other than a bodyline ad hominem response (“your sort” indeed!). I find that surprising, as someone who’s frequently enjoyed his homespun discussions of the practicalities of truth in philosophy and how both apply in being human. In this case, there seems to be the sort of mistake which equates criticism of Israel with antisemitism. I’ve never found that a corrective prescription.

  8. acb says:

    Roger, how is anything I wrote an apology for totalitarianism? I described Iran as “a fascist theocracy”. Do you read that as a defence for Mullahs?

  9. Andrew says:

    Anthony Grayling’s current schtick (pretending that anyone who disagrees with him, however slightly, shares the belief system of the mediaeval popes) really makes him look ridiculous. (Even more than his biography of Descartes, which did the reverse trick of insinuating that Descartes wasn’t really a sincere Catholic). Change the record, Anthony.

  10. JamesP says:

    Huh, A.C. Grayling is just as boring and self-righteous and tendentious online as in his books. Who would have thought?

  11. H. E. Baber says:

    I wonder where this animus comes from. I’m American, a citizen of the most God-fearing nation in the developed world, and I’ve never personally encountered any pressure to be religious. And I teach at a Catholic college.

    I was brought up as an atheist. Most people I know (including my colleaugues) are atheists and none that I know have been in the least disadvantaged because of it. Somewhere out there I suppose there are places where Fundamentalists–Christian or Muslim–conduct witch hunts and where it takes guts to reject religious belief. But I’ve never been there–and I’ve lived in some choice places like DeKalb, Illinois, located at the epicenter of a cornfield stretching 30 miles in every direction, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

    In the US religious belief is a class marker. Check out Stuff White People Like. Polite Agnosticism is the Church of the Upper Middle Class and anti-religious sentiment is the socially acceptable code for plain snobbery. Grayling wrote a very nice book on philosophical logic–what’s he doing assing around with this stuff?

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