Report of Meeting, 20 February 2008

We met on 20 February at David Lambourn's house. Present were David Belcher, John Challenor, Paul Graham, John Howard, David Lambourn, Simon Mapp (welcome), and Stephen Williams, with an apology from Michael Bennett.

As agreed we discussed Against All Gods by A C Grayling, although as the conversation progressed it became questionable whether it had been worth the effort of reading. It started well with a sensible critique of the role and claims of religion in society and ended with an unobjectionable argument for a social ethic based on humanism. However in the central chapters, he, like some other recent critics, argues against a depiction of religion that is not really recognisable to those more versed in the range of religious practice or the sophistication of religious understanding. In particular by insisting on a notion of religious belief as a set of propositions about the world as it is, rather than an exploration of meaning through myth and metaphor, he makes his whole case much too easy for himself. It becomes simply a matter of whether statements are true or false; be can present his position as rational and naturalist, by definition superior to religious irrationality and supernaturalism. In his own terms he is right to defend himself from the argument that atheism is a faith position, but in so doing he has to ignore the personal and ethical meanings, choices and commitments that atheism makes possible. He is bemused at the thought that religious people can also be humanists rather than acknowledge the fluidity of boundaries that makes meaningful dialogue worthwhile.

Grayling is more generous than some others in tolerating religion for those who want it. His main concern is to keep it as a hobby, confined to something pursued in private that does not overflow into the public realm. Reflecting on this, however we were not sure that the public/private boundary can be that clearly established or policed. Religion is not simply a body of beliefs that individuals choose (as a result of not reasoning properly, according to Grayling) but also needs to be understood as a sociological and cultural phenomenon, inherently the shared property of a community. (Even the Birmingham SoF group is about hospitality and a shared history as well as the ideas we discuss!)

We also recognised a different public/private issue that is closer to home for us in SoF. We obviously want to defend the kind of understanding of religion that we have been exploring over the years from the simplistic criticisms of Grayling et al, but given that he comes to this as an outsider basing his arguments on the most readily available manifestations of religion then his conclusions are very understandable. SoF type arguments or even radical mainstream positions don't get much coverage and, where they do, they invite ridicule or accusations of sophistry, and that response is as likely from within religious institutions like churches as it is from external critics like Grayling. SoF members who maintain a church life must often "walk silently among friends".

We felt that we had dealt sufficiently with Grayling's book, but that some of these other ideas were worth exploring further. We want to look more at the question of distinct public and private spheres, and the related dichotomies of sacred/secular and ethical/legislative; and we want to do this in the context of both larger society and the churches.

This will be the topic for our next meeting which, as previously arranged, will be on Wednesday 2 April 2008 at 1930 at David Lambourn's (0121 242 3953).