FFRF interview with Anthony Grayling

January 17, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Here’s a new 25-minute interview of philosopher Anthony Grayling by Dan Barker, co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). Anthony and Dan cover a surprisingly large area of ground in this short time (there’s the famous Ron Reagan’s “not afraid of burning in hell” commercial in the middle, which is still great), and rather than summarize what Anthony says, I’ll just write down the questions he fields:

What is your background? Why did you take up the study of philosophy? I did not know that Anthony grew up in what was then Rhodesia. His entrée into philosophy—and his explanation for why he never believed in God— are worth hearing.

How can we be moral without a god? Here Anthony espouses the humanistic philosophy and ethics that so many of us are familiar with. I’m not sure this bit will persuade those who require a god to be moral without one, but it’s nice to hear it expounded by someone who not only believes in humanistic ethics, but also has thought about this for decades.

How do we make it through hard times without a god? I didn’t know this, but Anthony’s sister was murdered just after she was married. How did he cope with it? And how, in general, do we deal with any tragedy without the consolation of religion? Anthony’s answer involves compensating: doing something good to mend the world, which at the same time may mend you as well. I have found this useful, and did my most ardent volunteer work during the darkest times of my life. It really helps; it’s hard to think about your troubles when you’re helping people who are as bad off or worse off.

How does one find meaning in life without God? We had a long discussion about this five years ago on this website.  Anthony gives a good answer, one that involves both buttressing your relationships (“good relationships are at the very heart of good lives”) and either immersing ourselves in our rich human culture or helping others to do so. I found this one of the best parts of the interview.

The one bit that I found somewhat wonky in Anthony’s musings was his idea that the universe is justified by its having produced a species—us—that has created on balance more good than bad. (But what about all those other species that are the results of evolution as well?). He concludes that it’s our duty to add good to the world “for the sake of the universe.” This resembles religious Jews doing mitzvahs (deeds commanded by G*d) in the world to hasten the coming of the Messiah.

What can philosophy teach us about dealing with the pandemic? Here Grayling evokes Stoicism, which seems to be popular these days (Massimo Pigliucci is another advocate) and almost sounds like a form of Western Zen Buddhism; but here I’m out of my depth. Grayling also calls out the British government for its stupidity in dealing with the pandemic.

Why are we in this predicament?I refer to the pandemic here, and Grayling’s answer leads to his next topic:

Why is there so much science denialism throughout the world? Again, another good answer.

What is Grayling’s next book? He’s got one coming out this spring, and it’s relevant to the question just above. His book The History of Philosophy also comes out February 2, and I’m going to read that one for sure.

Voilà: the interview:


11 thoughts on “FFRF interview with Anthony Grayling

  1. I do not know what is being published in february, but Grayling’s History of Philosophy came out a bit over a year ago and it has made for some excellent pandemic reading for me over that period. Of course i say this knowing virtually nothing of philosophy, save 12 or so course hours i had in the 1960’s as an undergrad…and three of those hours were in logic. The book is a bit of an anthology, but seems very complete and i think he points out that it differs from his earlier works in that he has a section at the end that explicates a bit on non-western philosophies and some confusion regarding these philosophies between what is philosophy and what is religion. I highly recommend this book for non-expert general readers who might want to see the overall view of the field today from 25,000 feet as some say, but also for specific readings and insights into individual philosophers as an initial inquiry rather than going to wikipedia. He starts with a brief introduction to the field and has an appendix that is devoted to logic and one which gives timelines at a glance for 3000 years of philosophers. The book is generally chronological for western philosophy identifying and distinguishing between unique characteristics of periods such as renaissance and enlightenment.

    1. I just watched the short video and it was nice to put a voice and face to the words i have been reading over the past year. His two books that he refers to at the end of the interview are: “TheGood State: On the Principles of Democracy” (2020); and “The Frontiers of Knowledge: What We Now Know About Science, History,and the Mind” (to be published in the spring).

    2. Indeed, Grayling’s History of Philosophy was published in Nov 2019. Here’s the link:

      For people interested in a modern history of philosophy there’s also this:
      Anthony Kenny: A New History of Western Philosophy. Oxford Univ Press, 2010, 1000 pages

      It’s divided into 4 periods: ancient, Medieval, the rise of modern philosophy, philosophy in the modern world. For each period there’s also chapter on god.

  2. I have read several of Grayling’s books and seen him speak.
    I like the man, as much as one can from afar.
    I generally agree with his conclusions,
    But I don’t agree with how he gets there.

  3. And yet Grayling was implacably anti-Brexit (fair enough, we all have opinions) to the point of trying to reverse or sideline the Referendum. Arguably to the point of being anti-democratic.

    1. As if the referendum were properly democratic in the first place!

      It was officially announced as non-binding. Although I think that that is stupid, everyone knows that had it been announced as binding, there would have been fewer protest votes and it would not have passed. Of course, just because it is non-binding doesn‘t mean that it can’t be implemented if it passes, but common sense, supposedly a component of Anglo-Saxon judicial tradition, dictates that if it is non-binding and close, then one should have an officially binding referendum.

      Actually, referenda make sense only if 5 conditions are fulfilled: it must be binding, it must be proposed by popular initiative, it can be revoked only via another referendum, all possible results must be constitutional, and it must be essentially a yes/no question. The Brexit referendum failed the first two.

      Of course, a first-past-the-post system, in practice a two-party system, with no proportional representation, can hardly be called democratic in the first place.

      1. A point of correction… in the UK all Referendums are non-binding by default… but the Government of the day stated in advance that they would honour the results.

  4. His surname is spelled incorrectly in the introduction. It is spelled with an “A”, not an “E”. The spelling of gray with an “E” is more common in British English though.

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