Though I don't live there all the time, Oxford is a great place to be. Last night I had a choice of lectures: one by Steven Pinker (prolific author), one by a lady who has rowed herself around the world, and one by A C Grayling the philosopher, They were all free and, fortunately, I chose the latter.
One thing about Grayling - he looks like his name. He has a splendid mane of graying hair. He is also a kindly looking bloke (a word that he uses a lot, good man) and a wonderful presenter. The lecture was in a church, a fact that he, an ardent atheist, made great fun of as he introduced himself.
This man is more than a philosopher. He has started his own university: a private one charging fees of £18K per annum and offering one-to-one tutorials (like Oxford) together with generous grants for those unable to pay the fees.
His talk was about myths and he cleared up something that has interested me for many years: why do nearly all societies have religion? He made it sound quite simple. The idea revolves around agency. From the moment of self-awareness, humans have been well aware of cause and effect. When a stone hits the water we want to know who threw it. Perhaps we threw it ourself - then we are the agent. We caused the effect. When lightning strikes, or a rainstorm begins, or a volcano erupts then primitive man believed that some agency must have caused it. It could not have been another person, the effect is too massive - therefore it must have been a mysterious agent - a god. The next stage is to personify the gods, and perhaps to appease them by worship.
Where did the gods live? Usually on high inaccessible mountains. However, as time went by that was disproven, the heights were scaled, there were no gods. And so the gods had to be moved up, up into the sky, yet still doing their stuff. Now that we have explored the sky and there is no god there, god has become ineffable ('too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words' - a convenient cop out).
That's a brief summary, there was more. Then, in question time, a local Muslim Mullah came forward in his black robes and white hat. He proceeded to preach and was booed, "Where's the question?" shouted members of the audience. He aquitted himself well, asking: "Where does all this come from? Why are we here? Where are we going afterwards?"
Good questions, replied the philosopher politely, and then went on to explain. Religion can answer those questions in about half an hour. Remarkable! Using logic, analysis and reasoning, the scientific method takes a little longer. It requires years to truly understand cosmology, or particle physics, or genetics. Yet religion can answer those really big questions in just thirty minutes! There is something wrong here. Scientifically, we are still investigating those three basic questions, and the work will go on and on. Yet people of religion already have the answers. Or do they?
I found Grayling very convincing in almost everything that he talked about, but particularly his statement that there is a middle way between religion and utter disbelief. It is humanism. Today I am going to join the Oxford Humanists and I am also going to leave the Oxford Civic Society. The two are not directly connected. I am simply cheesed off with the latter for its pathetic response to those awful flats that the University has built on our beautiful Port Meadow and I therefore think that my money would be better spent on something more fundamentally enriching.
(The talk was organised by the Richard Dawkins Foundation)