Anthony Clifford Grayling, a British philosopher and proponent of the new atheism movement, argues that religion and religious believers should be relegated to the private sphere,
“It is time to demand of believers that they take their personal choices and preferences in these non-rational and too often dangerous matters into the private sphere, like their sexual proclivities. Everyone is free to believe what they want, providing they do not bother (or coerce, or kill) others . . . it is time to demand and apply a right for the rest of us to non-interference by religious persons and organizations – a right to be free of proselytisation and the efforts of self-selected minority groups to impose their own choice of morality and practice on those who do not share their outlook” (1).
Grayling’s statement is an interesting one but is also one that requires some deeper reflection.
One of the issues a reader might pick up is that there is a sort of double standard at play. For example, Grayling believes that certain people (in this case religious believers) should relegate their beliefs to the private sphere. However, where does that leave Grayling? Grayling seems to suggest that he has the right to advance his own views. But why his views and not those of the religious? An answer would seem come down to a matter of who possesses the truth. Grayling believes that he knows the truth. As an atheist, no God exists. But others believe that they have the truth, namely, that a God or gods exist. Might they then be in the right to say that Grayling’s own views should be relegated to the private sphere? Many would probably say no because although they disagree with an atheistic-naturalistic narrative they understand the necessity of the freedom of expression, both religious and non-religious alike.
Perhaps one way to resolve this is to allow everyone who believes that they have the truth to share their beliefs with others, but to do so in a way that does not “coerce, or kill.” With that many religious people would agree with Grayling. However, Grayling’s proposition that one should relegate religion to the private sphere because it bothers him is simply weak and unacceptable. Many people experience ideas that bother them daily, but that is not grounds to push them away from view.
It would also be understandable why some would take issue with Grayling’s claim that religious beliefs or believing in a religion is a “non-rational and too often dangerous matter.” Many religious believers do not believe their religious beliefs are non-rational or dangerous. Many of the world’s brightest intellects have been (and often still are) religious believers, and so have been many of the most morally upright human beings. As such, this is only Grayling’s personal view. What would strike one (perhaps of which touches on the double standard observed above) is that this is also a form of proselytization, not of the religious type, but of the skeptical and atheistic. As such, Grayling objects to proselytization but them engages in proselytization himself.
But is Grayling not perhaps in some way being unfair in the process of intellectual discussion himself? Grayling has penned a book, Against All Gods, in which he argues against religious belief, stating that belief in God or gods is irrational. But how would he expect religions believers to respond to his claims if their ideas and views are relegated to the private sphere? It would only be fair, should someone critique their views, that they be allowed to respond to the arguments. After all, Grayling himself would surely like to respond to those who criticize his views, and so the same should be afforded to his ideological opponents. But this can only happen if the views and beliefs of the religious are allowed to be expressed within the public via books, articles, conferences, and gatherings.
It will also always be problematic to “return religious commitment to the private sphere.” Why? Because many religious beliefs are essentially public orientated. Many religions haven’t geared themselves to be private and isolationist affairs. Christianity, for instance, is by nature a missionary religion and one that takes serving others seriously. Thus, evangelical and relief efforts will in many instances be public outreaches, and as such cannot be relegated to the private sphere. To outlaw the public proclamation of the a religion would essentially be to ban a religion as a whole, and one has witnessed how this can turn very quickly into a nasty case of human rights abuse.
1. Grayling, A. 2007. Against All Gods. p. 16.