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. 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 meeting 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.
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.