‘Let us discuss the existence of fairies’

A.C. Grayling speaks at University of Manitoba Photo by: Bryce Hoye

On Sept. 18, British philosopher A. C. Grayling gave a lecture on the topics of atheism, humanism, and secularism in University College on the University of Manitoba’s Fort Garry campus.

“Each of the great debates denoted by these terms have their own distinctive character and one’s approach to arguments about them; the considerations they raise really deserve scrutiny in their own right.”

Grayling, author and editor of over 30 books, including The God Argument: the Case against Religion and for Humanism, spoke to the crowd about the differences and misconceptions surrounding the three terms in question.

Atheism is merely the absence of belief in supernatural agencies in or associated with the universe, said Grayling, likening atheism to a lack of a belief in the existence of fairies.

“It’s not a trivializing point when I say I am an a-fairiest, because being invited to discuss questions about the existence of transcendent beings or non-natural or supernatural beings of any kind, I think it’s pointful to say, ‘let us discuss the existence of fairies,’” said Grayling.

“If you, that is, my theological opponent, don’t believe in fairies, then you can give me the reasons to why you don’t, and I can just say to you, ‘well, export those reasons to any non-natural or supernatural agency.’”

Grayling specified that the atheism-theism debate is not “about knowledge,” but rather hinges on what is or is not rational to believe, considering the presence or absence of evidence.

“What you do and how you act [ought to be] proportioned to the evidence that you have, or the reasons that you have,” said Grayling.

Referencing the seminal philosopher of science Karl Popper, Grayling noted that “a theory, a hypothesis, a claim which is consistent with everything, which doesn’t admit of anything [that] could refute it [. . . ] such a claim is empty. It means nothing.”

“I’m afraid most deistic claims are consistent with everything, and in Popper’s view they are therefore empty,” he continued.

Regarding the so-called “New Atheist” movement and its most prominent figures—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet, and Christopher Hitchens—Grayling discussed the tendency of critics to confuse aspects of atheism and secularism, and pointed to the labelling of the aforementioned characters as “militant atheists” as an example.

“It is possible to be a militant secularist, but actually it’s not possible to be a militant atheist [ . . . ] Atheism is to theism what not collecting stamps is to collecting stamps [ . . . ] It’s terribly hard to not collect stamps militantly,” said Grayling.

People can believe what they choose, providing that belief does not motivate them to harm others, “and of course they have every right to persuade us of their beliefs,” said Grayling. He went on to note, however, that the platform allotted to particular religious organizations in the public sphere is disproportionate to the actual support they receive and the actual number of devout adherents in society at large.

“If these [religious] bodies were genuinely proportioned to their actual support in society, that voice would have a very different amplification,” said Grayling. “As it is, religion everywhere [ . . . ] gets a megaphone when it doesn’t deserve one.”

Two days prior to the talk at the university, Grayling spoke to a packed audience at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights as part of the U of M’s centre for professional and applied ethics lecture series, Fragile Freedoms: the Global Struggle for Human Rights.