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Matters of life and death: Rowan Williams and John Gray in conversation

Two of our greatest thinkers tackle humanity’s key questions.

Last weekend, Rowan Williams and John Gray, two of Britain’s foremost intellectuals (who are also old sparring partners and NS writers), appeared at the Cambridge Literary Festival. In front of a rapt audience at St John’s College – among whose alumni are three martyred saints and William Wordsworth – I moderated a freewheeling discussion of Christianity, atheism and ethics. These are subjects they approach from opposite poles: Williams as an Anglican clergyman, theologian and poet; Gray as an atheist, philosopher and historian of ideas. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation, which started with the results of a recent survey showing that, for the first time, more than half the population of Britain claims to have no religious adherence.

Michael Prodger

Rowan Williams: These figures don’t of course necessarily mean that people aren’t religious believers of some sort; it means the word “Christian” is not where they want to locate themselves. But I think it’s also a bit to do with the fact that we’re in a society where people don’t join things, don’t think of their identities in ongoing communal terms in a way that a couple of generations ago people would have. The other interesting statistic I found recently was that far fewer people play organised sport every week, numbers have dropped by about a third in the last six years or so. So it’s not just a question about religion; it’s also a question about where people see their identity in relation to others.

I don’t therefore see it as just a problem about Christianity or even about religious belief, but something to do with how we construct our identities and construct ourselves. And the fact that people don’t necessarily identify as religious believers doesn’t at all mean that they don’t hold to some sort of myth that gives shape to their lives and their aspirations.

John Gray: I share Rowan’s analysis of this phenomenon. What I would add is that, despite a majority no longer self-identifying as Christians, the way of thinking and the world view of the vast majority of post-Christians – whether they are out-and-out atheists or people who would describe themselves as agnostics – is still shaped by Christianity, or more generally by Western monotheism, than by anything else. And here I think an important distinction needs to be made between what religions are: they’re partly communities and they’re partly forms of life broader than that, because what goes with them is a certain way of thinking. Rejecting a list of beliefs or some core beliefs doesn’t actually take you outside of a theistic worldview.

I can’t help mentioning a great hero of mine, the best 19th-century moral philosopher, Henry Sidgwick – I hope he’s still a name in this city and this university – who resigned his position in Cambridge because he couldn’t agree with all of the articles of the Anglican Church. He took being a Christian as a matter of belief, but I think belief is less important in religion than Western Christianity has represented it as being. One can reject key beliefs of theism and go on and replicate them in some other pattern of thought.

Most of the central traditions of atheism have been a continuation of monotheism by other means. Certain beliefs are rejected but the way of thinking that monotheism embodies can still go on in other ways. For example, pretty well all contemporary atheists subscribe to a view of the world in which humankind has some of the functions of the deity that they’ve got rid of, because they imagine that there’s something you could call humanity or humankind that acts as a sort of collective moral agent.

That kind of idea was set out by one of the great 19th-century secular humanists, Auguste Comte, who had an enormous influence on thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, George Eliot and others. Comte, though mad, was a highly penetrating thinker who said that in the future, the supreme being won’t be God, it will be humankind. He called his new religion – and he thought humans couldn’t do without religion – “the religion of humanity”, and to his death, John Stuart Mill said this was a better religion than any that had existed before.

Holding forth: (l-r) John Gray, Michael Prodger and Rowan Williams at St John’s College. Credit: Charlie Forgham-Baily for New Statesman

Rowan Williams: This suggests that you see the ongoing impact of religion in general and Christianity in particular in the form of a belief that there is, so to speak, one story of humanity, and that that story gives you a kind of moral compass – history really does have a “side” to it, and you need to be on that side. But what about the other part of that picture, which is that one of the positive aspects of that inheritance is the idea that you can’t just say, “What’s good for this human being has nothing to do with what’s good for that human being?” It doesn’t mean it’s the same, but that the well-being of the other is in some way involved with mine.

John Gray: Yes, but again, that wouldn’t be exclusively Christian. You would find it in the ancient world among Stoic and other thinkers, you find it in Greek thought, in Buddhist thought, in Daoist thought. We have an intuition that whatever ethics is about and however much the human species has produced not one morality but lots of them, they all have in common – unless you’re Ayn Rand – the idea of accommodating the fundamental reality of other human beings into your ethical reflections.

I think that the distinctive contribution of Christianity to morality – which is very much reflected in liberalism now – is that if you think back to the ancient Roman world, then one feature that came in with Christianity was the idea that human beings, reflecting the nature of a Christian god, had some responsibility for not being cruel or not even tolerating cruelty. And if you go back to the pagan moralities, even Stoicism, the idea that the centre of morality has to do with avoiding cruelty is not there, or is very weak.

The change was partly in the nature of the gods, or of God, because in the ancient world, the gods were as arbitrary and as whimsical and as cruel and as capable of boredom as human beings. In Homer they’re just bored, they want a spectacle, in the way that people who went to watch the gladiators wanted a spectacle. So one of the things I try to bring to the attention of secular humanists is that this aspect of modern liberal morality – don’t be cruel to people – is hardly found in pre-Christian morality. It’s a gift of Christianity and of the theistic and Jewish inheritance that Christianity continued.

Rowan Williams: I think that underlines the point that we have actually learned our morality: it didn’t come from nowhere. To me, one of the biggest problems about a lot of contemporary discussion of ethics is the idea that somewhere there is a completely self-evident morality which we’ve never had to learn. We’ve just got to find it, and when you uncover things, when you strip away all the unhappy cultural accessories, what you end up with is something that’s natural and obvious. In practice, I would want to subscribe to lots of liberal nostrums, but I’d want to ask, “Well, where do they come from? How did we learn this?” And the cruelty issue is a case in point. I think of that wonderful passage in Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, where Zhivago’s uncle is saying, “You have to remember that until the dawn of the Christian era, the Mediterranean world was a world of slave empires,” and while it doesn’t change overnight, what you can actually do with a good conscience to other people does shift.

Now, the fact that this was a bit patchy and that it took Christians a long time to learn other things, not least about slavery, is equally true: but it’s a story, it’s an ethical unfolding; it is not that we can answer our ethical questions just by looking in at our crystal essence.

John Gray: I agree entirely. William Empson, the poet and literary critic, was a tremendous atheist, a tremendous mesotheist, even: he used to say he hated the Christian God as the worst thing that the black heart of humanity had ever invented – it’s quite a strong claim, post-Second World War, especially – because it was cruel, because the Christian God condemned large parts of humanity to eternal damnation. But he also said he was a disciple of Jeremy Bentham, the 19th-century utilitarian thinker. Now Bentham, who really did try to step outside of Christian morality, said, “There’s nothing wrong with cruel pleasures.” They’re dangerous, so you’ve got to tot them up right, you put them in what he called moral arithmetic, but there’s no reason not to count them because they are pleasures.

That was a view John Stuart Mill didn’t share. He was less radical than Bentham, very high-minded: he was not only against cruel pleasures but bodily pleasures of any kind. He thought that the human race in future should be propagated solely from a sense of duty. But Bentham was a more consistent thinker.

I think the further away secular humanism is from its Christian roots, and the closer it gets to a certain kind of Enlightenment rationalism, in many ways the more illiberal it gets, because in Bentham’s calculus, it could turn out that a widespread cruelty to some small minority could by some calculations turn out to be felicifically or utilitarianally maximal, so why not do it? The only argument Bentham could give then would be to say, “Well, maybe you’d be giving too much power to the majority.” I think the revulsion of modern sensibility is not only that it’s dangerous to do this; it’s that securing pleasure from the suffering of others is in and of itself bad. I can’t think of a classical author or a classical philosopher who says that.

Rowan Williams: Neither can I, and that takes us back to the question of how we think of ethics in terms of the universal recognisability of human dignity, human worth, the claim on our attention – and again, it’s something we’ve learned. I remember reading a book by Joanna Bourke about the early debates on animal rights as well as on women’s rights, and she quoted a pamphlet written by a woman in the early 19th century saying that animals appeared to have more moral recognition in some philosophical discourse than women did. Putting that alongside the endemic racism of a lot of 18th-century thought and it was clear that for some very influential thinkers it was simply not obvious that you recognised the same humanity in people of another race. The universalist claim that there’s something recognisable in the physical humanity of another is an ethical fact of real substance.

Part of the typical secularist narrative is that there is a steady advance in liberality of spirit, in inclusiveness of sympathy, which has something to do with the liberation of individuals from the slavery of dogmatic belief. The Christian response would be, I guess, to say the idea that belief in God is a slavery really assumes a very powerful, very persistent and pervasive version of the religious story in which God is a very large version of what we are, and therefore is in competition with us: because he’s very big and very powerful, he will, on the whole, win such competitions, and therefore we’d better be on our best behaviour. Whereas if certain aspects of the Christian story are foregrounded more obviously, what you end up with, I believe, is the notion that because God has no interests to defend and is in no sense in competition with us, then the dignity of humanity is something we can affirm without any trouble, and without any offence or diminution to the honour of God. And my own liberalism, such as it is, would, I think, be rooted in that sort of conviction: there is something about humanity as endowed by God with the dignity, the beauty, the creativity that we see which again becomes a significant factor in our moral thinking.

So there is, I think, an argument to be had here about, once again, the story we tell of how we learned our principles. John and others would say the Christian legacy is at least two-faced, and possibly multi-faceted, in that it has very often delivered this sense of the oppressive, threatening other up there who can only be honoured if we are dishonoured, while at the same time, a strand woven through that is that God can only be honoured if human beings are honoured. Christianity is in that sense no more monolithic, no more simple, than atheism or any other system. It has a complex historical human legacy, and the believing Christian, at some point, has to make a choice as to what bits of that tradition seem most coherent, most consistent, and that’s where I start my own thinking about religious ethics.

John Gray: The complexity of Judaeo-Christian belief is mirrored in the complexity of different types of atheism and particularly in different atheist moralities. When I say that nearly all atheists today think of themselves as liberals, it is a way of pointing to the fact that, historically speaking, most modern atheists haven’t been liberals. They may have believed in some form of historical or moral progress, but they haven’t been liberals. Marx wasn’t a liberal, Bakunin wasn’t a liberal, Auguste Comte wasn’t a liberal. The turn of the century atheists who set up the Rationalist Press Association in London and had writers such as HG Wells and Julian Huxley, were not liberals in any sense: they were explicitly racist in many ways; they were explicit critics of what they regarded as the Christian roots of liberalism. And on the Continent, Nietzsche and Hegel were very much similar.

Historically speaking, atheists have generally imbibed the values of their own society, which is often what’s said against Christianity. They say Christianity changes over time; it used to be pro-slavery, then it stopped being pro-slavery; it used to be homophobic, now, at least sections of it are more open and tolerant on sexuality: it just changes with the times. Well, I think that is largely true, but it’s also true of atheism. It’s only now, when there is a predominantly liberal consensus among educated people, that pretty well all atheists take liberal values for granted.

But you’ve got to then ask, how do you get from atheism to a particular morality? There are atheists – Sam Harris in America, for example – who think there can be a science of good and evil; a science of ethics. There have been many sciences of ethics in the last 100 years, and what you find is that they have different contents. So if you’re inventing a science of ethics in 1890, it will include the cultural and biological superiority of Europeans over other people in the world. That’s just a fact that practically everybody believed – except some traditional Christians who actually attacked that view at that time. If you go into the 1930s, you have people defending Soviet communism and either rejecting news about what it had done to hundreds, thousands or millions of people or saying well, maybe that’s worth doing if it brings about a new society which is more rational, and it can be condoned or forgiven or even justified if it brings about a new world.

There is no single Christian morality, nor an atheist one. Comte thought that a humanist morality was necessarily altruistic: indeed, he invented the word altruism. Ayn Rand, the most widely read atheist thinker in the world at the moment, thought that an atheist had to be an egoist: so here, they become opposites. It’s not just that there are different atheist moralities; there are incompatible, inconsistent and rival atheist moralities and there always have been.

Now, what that tells you is that there is a problem – which I recognise myself, being an atheist – about where you get your values from. I think ultimately one peels back to something like Wittgenstein’s “form of life” and that’s what we all, in the end, endorse. Of course, many people would include some element of Christian theism, even if they were brought up in a secular family, but the idea that you can move seamlessly from atheism to a liberal morality is, I think, a complete illusion.

Rowan Williams: And one of the instances which various people, including yourself, have picked up on is the almost universal consensus in the interwar period about eugenics – that the scientific breeding of human beings is perfectly reputable. It is coming back now and we’re stuck with the same round of issues, I think, because insofar as we have greater control over our genetic profile, we are faced with a choice which we’ve not had before: what kind of human beings do we want to generate, to nurture? What worries me most is that we have the capacity, but an alarmingly deficient imagination of what that might be. We have tools for the “enhancement” of our human experience which, at the far end of the spectrum, takes us to post-humanism, the idea that there’s something of our humanity which could survive in non-organic form. So, will you breed out certain kinds of human experience and existence? If you know that you are able to select against X, Y and Z, how far does that extend? And I think that’s where we do face a real imaginative challenge which we’re very ill-equipped to manage, because people speak, again, as if the answers were obvious, somehow.

John Gray: I think most people who support eugenic engineering now have a very simple view about who the good people are: people like themselves, but more so. If only the world was filled with people all like me, but even more like me than I am! Well, I find that a completely horrifying prospect. No Gypsies, no poets, no one disabled. Everyone would be somewhat thinner, I suppose. We’d all live a bit longer, we’d all be more virtuous. My god! It’s not the kind of world that I would want to live in.

Of course, it begins with what might very well be legitimate concerns, because people can say, “Well, don’t we all want to eliminate very bad inheritable illnesses or disorders which can cause great pain in a human life or shorten it needlessly and so on?” Well, yes, perhaps we do, but it’s very easy to move on from there to having a particular conception of human wellbeing which you then feel able to universalise. And that seems to me one of the great challenges coming up: it’ll be a practical challenge, if science continues to develop. It’s not just a science fiction challenge; it’s not just the kind of thing that Aldous Huxley discussed in another form with Brave New World when it wasn’t really possible. There were attempts by the Nazis, even in the Stalinist period of the Soviet Union, to tinker about with human genetics, but there was no real theory; there weren’t adequate technologies. When Stalin got involved in it, it is said that the person he consulted was a Tsarist horse-breeder. Stalin said, “I want a new type of soldier that can eat less, sleep less and be less prone to human sympathy than regular human soldiers are.” So he had a very functional account of the sort of human being that he wanted.

I find the idea of one human generation deciding on a narrower range of human possibilities than those that actually come up naturally – which include a wide range of talents, abilities, good and bad lives, people who are abled in some ways and not abled in other ways – horrific, even disgusting. And yet, the question remains: what kind of imaginative grip are we going to have on these possibilities and where do we get them from? It’s not necessarily harder for atheists, but it’s a more acute and obvious difficulty.

Rowan Williams: I think that the Christian perspective – and religious perspective in general – does have somewhere in it the idea that there are aspects of our world that we simply do not own: they’re not just there to be manipulated, to be the tools of power. And it’s the power question which worries me more than almost anything else here. On the whole, technological developments are in the hands of those who habitually seize and operate power over others, and the Christian view is that nobody can be trusted with power over the human race, the environment and so forth.

There is something given about the ecology, the balance, the interdependence of the world that we’re in which we have to learn, painfully slowly, to work with.That doesn’t mean we make no difference to the world: it’s not a recommendation of passivism, just saying, “Oh, well, that’s how things go,” because part of our being human is that we interact creatively with our environment and with one another.

We do, rightly, concentrate on the possibility of minimising suffering where we can; but it’s as if somewhere over the horizon there’s a seduction beckoning where you know you could be completely independent of all this; you could finally cut the umbilical cord with your bodiliness, with your limits, your mortality, your location in a world which has certain constraints to it. And, to me, the Christian faith says, actually that is tantamount to thinking the world is something that can be owned, that can be controlled.

John Gray: It’s not an entirely speculative possibility. The current director of engineering at Google is a man called Ray Kurzweil, an American futurist and battler against death. He wants to abolish death by technological means, and he’s living his own life according to that. He’s been able by some calculations I don’t fully understand to work out that if he can hang on till 2042, he’ll be in a position where he can upload his mind into a virtual universe where it will be bodiless and he’ll be free of the curse of death, he can live forever. Indeed there was a demonstration at one point outside the Google headquarters in California where people had big placards saying, “Dear Google, please solve death.”

The idea that a technology could solve death in that way is fanciful, it seems to me – not because new technologies will not come along which do things which we now think are impossible, but because even if it’s possible to project some kind of element of oneself into a virtual world, it will ultimately depend on a material infrastructure. What if anything changes in that – if there’s another world war, or climate change, another stock market crash which leaves most of the firms involved in this superstructure to go bust? What if Kurzweil is run over by a bus or the postman doesn’t deliver the $1,000 a week delivery of vitamins which he says he’s gotten down to in a kind of austerity drive to really survive…? And that’s another question: even if these technologies were workable, who gets to enjoy them? Everybody? Or just a small elite?

Rowan Williams: It’s the power question again.

John Gray: It’s the power. CS Lewis wrote in a wartime lecture – which was turned into a little book, The Abolition of Man – that when people talk about the power of humanity over nature, what they really mean is the power of some human beings over other human beings. And as an atheist, my objection to this kind of eugenics is that it reposes far too much trust in the people who either regard themselves or are regarded by others as the cleverest people around at the time: far too much trust. And I don’t share the ambition that they have to reproduce themselves.

So the idea that there could be a technological solution to death seems to me to really be an absurdity. And it’s a way of avoiding or even denying one of the routes towards a need or reason that theism satisfies – to the extent that it can – which is to reconcile human beings not only to their own mortality, but even more, to the mortality of whatever it is that they love.

Rowan Williams: The word you used there, love, is of course crucial, in that love – when we’re not using it sentimentally and as a shortcut – means attention to what is there that’s not you, not under your control, not following your agenda. The problem, I think, with a lot of these apocalyptic and utopian visions is that they do not love the self, the world, the human race, but something that might be on the other side of the next hill. And I’m with Shakespeare on this: “Love that well which thou must leave ere long.” To love what’s mortal as mortal. Saint Augustine says something like that, Simone Weil, one of the great thinkers of the 20th century – almost as mad as Comte in some respects, but nevertheless worth reading – says something similar. And that’s difficult, because instinctively, it seems, we want to love what we’re sure of and can be in charge of and can manage, and we find it very difficult to love what’s not at our disposal in that way. Which is why it’s quite hard work to love God, for a start!

John Gray: Can I just return to Henry Sidgwick, who spent 30 years of his life looking for what he called empirical evidence of the human personality surviving bodily death. Towards the end of his life, he told a friend: “In all those years I looked everywhere, I looked at everything, I examined, I took apart: I found absolutely nothing. I wasted my time.” But he didn’t give up completely because he left an envelope to be opened at a certain point after his death. And he said that if he did, against his expectations, survive, he would somehow communicate the contents of that envelope to a medium – preferably one in Cambridge. And he died, the envelope was there, it was opened later: nothing came through.

But that’s not the end of the story. A little bit later, texts began to appear signed “H Sidgwick”, and these were produced by what are called automatic writers – mediums who write as if from another person. One of them concluded with a very uncharacteristic aphorism: it said, “Just as the mystery of life is not solved by being born, the mystery of death is not solved by dying, yours, Henry Sidgwick.”

It looks as if the people who produced these texts somehow created a virtual Sidgwick in their minds. But that’s rather beautiful. I can sort of imagine turning up in the afterlife and meeting someone in a celestial combination room and saying, “How long have you been here?” “Well, about 600 years in human terms.” “Does anyone know what we’re waiting for?” “No!” 

Rowan Williams’s “Being Human” is published by SPCK. John Gray’s “Seven Types of Atheism” is published by Allen Lane. The New Statesman is media partner to the Cambridge Literary Festival

This article appears in the 28 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexit fantasy died