The empty name of God

'The basic doctrines of the major religions have their roots in the superstitions and fancies of ill

What religious people mean by “god” means nothing to me beyond an incoherent cluster of concepts from which the aforesaid folk choose the subset most convenient to themselves.

But the word brings to mind the man-made phenomenon of religions, whose net effect on humanity now as throughout history has been, by a considerable margin, negative. It would be so just because of the falsity of belief; and the consequent absurdity of behaviour premised on the idea that there exist supernatural agencies who made this very imperfect world, and who have an interest in us that extends to our sex lives and what we should and should not eat on certain days, or wear, and so on. But it is worse than false: it is far too often oppressive and distorting as regards human nature, and divisive as regards human communities.

It is a frequent source of conflict and cruelty. Monstrous crimes have been committed in its name. And more often than not it has stood in the way of efforts at human liberation and progress.

Apologists for religion point to the Sistine Chapel and Bach’s Mass in B minor as some sort of justification for it. I answer: first, the church had the money to commission these things; second, lots of wonderful art is about naked women and bowls of fruit, and required no belief in deities to prompt its production; and third, the existence of religious art does not excuse burning people alive at the stake for disagreeing with some doctrine or other.

Apologists for religion point to charitable works as some sort of justification for it. I answer: non-believers perform these, too, out of simple fellow feeling, not requiring the idea of pleasing a deity or getting into heaven to prompt them to it.

Apologists point to Stalinism and Nazism as murderous ideologies, as if their existence made Torquemada and the Taliban somehow acceptable. I answer: all monolithic ideologies, claiming to possess the One Great Truth and demanding that everyone to submit to it on pain of penalty, with their prophets and pieties and shibboleths and sacred cows, come to the same thing when allowed to go to their all too natural extremes – which is precisely my objection to religion. This does not stop me having the same objection to Stalinism and Nazism, which I very much do.

The basic doctrines of the major religions have their roots in the superstitions and fancies of illiterate peasants living several thousand years ago. It is astonishing that these superstitions, in the partial guise of sophistical successor versions, retain any credibility. The reason they do is proselytisation of the very young, the institutionalisation of religious sects, and certain psychological factors.

I would wish people to live without superstition, to govern their lives with reason, and to conduct their relationships on reflective principles about what we owe one another as fellow voyagers through the human predicament – with kindness and generosity wherever possible, and justice always. None of this requires religion or the empty name of “god”. Indeed, once this detritus of our ignorant past has been cleared away, we might see more clearly the nature of good, and pursue it aright at last.

A C Grayling is professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009

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Donald Trump’s hollow coronation

The presidential candidate was forced to wheel out family members at the Republican National Convention, as party grandees stayed away. 

For a member of what Donald Trump calls his silent majority, Jim Morrison, a haulier from California, talks a lot. “He is touching on things I feel – that millions of Americans feel – but I don’t have the microphone and can’t take on Washington,” Morrison said. The words tumbled from his mouth as he stood beside the blood-red cab of his lorry, which carried him from his home state to Cleveland, Ohio, on a seven-day journey in a “Truckers for Trump” convoy.

Trump had promised an unconventional Republican National Convention and Morrison was typical of the new breed of political activists attending their first Grand Old Party summer jamboree. The start of the four-day convention also offered both a taste of what a Trump administration might  look like and a summary of the factors that helped a bombastic billionaire and political novice secure the presidential nomination for the Republican Party.

The answers lay not just in the cavernous interior of the Quicken Loans Arena, where the delegates assembled, but also among the lawn-fringed public squares heaving with supporters and protesters vying to fly the most outrageous banners. Above all, they lay in the wide boulevards where heavy, concrete barricades had been laid to prevent terrorist attacks, and in the flags flying at half-mast overhead, marking America’s latest mass shooting.

The convention began just a day after three police officers were shot dead by a gunman in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “It’s pathetic that our society has got to the point where they are doing this to our cops,” said Morrison, the trucker, firing gobbets of tobacco-coloured spit on to the pavement.

If one theme sums up the issues at stake in this election – from jobs to terrorism – it is insecurity. The terrorist attack in Nice merely stoked fears that had grown during the past year as Americans dealt with Islamic State-inspired attacks on home soil, the murder of police officers and a gaping racial divide.

In Cleveland, all this manifested in the city ordering an extra 10,000 sets of handcuffs, deploying 5,500 law enforcement officers and buying 300 bicycles for officers tasked with crowd control. Some of the measures were farcical – such as banning anyone carrying tennis balls from the convention environs – in a state where citizens are allowed to carry assault rifles openly.

This is the backdrop against which Trump delivers his hard-line message, warning that terrorists could arrive among Syrian refugees and that the country needs a wall on its southern border. Indeed, Monday’s theme was “make America safe again”, and outside the centre vendors hawked T-shirts portraying Trump as Captain America or Iron Man. “He’s a man to get things done, even if that might upset the PC crowd,” is how one delegate put it as she queued to get into the arena.

Political scientists have identified a trend in this election, suggesting that America’s two main political parties are shaking up not along the lines of left and right, but in terms of attitudes to authoritarianism. Many Republicans are looking for a strongman, according to research carried out by Matthew MacWilliams, founder of the political communications firm MacWilliams Sanders. In this context, Trump’s message – strong v weak, winners against losers, and a new nativism – is a guaranteed vote-winner.

For his opponents, it is not a new message. Edmund Berger, a writer and activist, said that Trump was just the latest “1 per center” to go after the working-class vote by ripping Band-Aids off society. “He’s stoking the fires of racial tension with his stuff on immigrants and hard-line foreign policy,” he said, sitting in Public Square, an open space that has been turned into a sort of Speakers’ Corner. “The hate can come out finally.”

The presumptive Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was attacked relentlessly. “Trump v tramp”, read one banner, and the convention programme followed on from there. It included sessions on Bill Clinton’s sex life and scrutiny of her handling of the Benghazi attack, in which four Americans died in 2012.

Yet even the best-laid plans have a habit of coming unstuck around Trump’s idiosyncratic approach. During one of the most powerful sessions, as Patricia Smith, the mother of a state department officer killed in Benghazi, delivered a searing speech holding Clinton responsible for the death of her son, Trump phoned Fox News. Because of his live interview, the channel cut away from Smith’s speech, leading one of Fox’s analysts to call Trump’s timing “interesting”.

Nor did the programme live up to Trump’s frequent promises to add more showbiz to the convention. Republican royalty, such as the Bush family, stayed away, as did the party’s biggest celebrity supporters, including Clint Eastwood and Jon Voight.

Instead, the roster was padded by the sort of people known only to fans of daytime TV and wackier reality shows – and by Trump’s wife, Melania, and four of his children. The risks of that approach were evident on Monday night, after Melania’s speech bore more than a passing resemblance to a convention address by another prospective first lady, Michelle Obama, in 2008. The plagiarism controversy will reinforce existing concerns about the Trumps playing fast and loose with the rules.

Others in the audience saw another problem with relying on relatives rather than heavy-hitting conservatives. “I know he’s selected them to reflect the different facets of his personality,” said Theodore Golubrinski, a member of the Michigan delegation, “but this looks like a coronation.”

The suspicion is that Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention would also look like Donald Trump’s White House, with low-rent celebrities, fringe Republicans and naive family members making up the numbers.