What They Believe

I attended the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) earlier this month. FODI is an annual event hosted by the Sydney Opera House where leading thinkers around the world are invited to discuss and debate important ideas in the areas of politics, society, technology, philosophy, and more. In this post I want to share my thoughts on one of the panels I saw, “What I Believe”.

The format was a little weird, in that it wasn’t a discussion between participants on stage. Rather, the participants came in one at a time to give a ~10 minute talk on what they believe. Clearly this threw off Peter Doherty (Australian medical researcher and Nobel prize winner), who gave an entertaining but off-topic diatribe against anti-science sentiments. In any case, I came in to this panel with high expectations. Belief—that is, acceptance, trust, faith, confidence—carries special significance for how we live, and I was particularly interested to hear the perspectives of those who are non-religious. For the most part, I came out fairly disappointed.

Frank Brennan, Australian Jesuit priest and human rights lawyer, went first. He was the only speaker who was clearly associated with a religious denomination. However, Brennan was less overt about his own faith, which was a letdown. He mostly played it safe and stuck to moderate talking points. Listening to him talk about the dignity of human people, of Australia’s greatest moral challenge being how we govern our borders, and how notions of common good are as important as self-determination, I’m reminded again of how Christianity speaks to ideas that most secular people would assent to. These ideas got polite applauses from the educated, left-leaning, well-to-do audience.

Adrienne Truscott, a multi-talented American entertainer, was next. Her talk on what she believed was more like anti-belief, as she spent the bulk of it talking about her problems with organised religion. Fair enough. The general position of the audience was made very clear to me by their enthusiastic applause. What I found fascinating was the audience reaction to another speaker, Indigenous journalist and former politician Malarndirri McCarthy. At the beginning of her talk McCarthy recognised Aboriginal custodianship of the land and how the “spirits” of past Aboriginal women were with her at that moment. The audience once again applauded energetically. Just 10 minutes ago they were treated to an acerbic (and what must have been satisfying) takedown of the irrationality and ridiculousness of religion. Now they were clapping for spirits. What gives?

I think the answer lies in the qualifier organised. Truscott, and I suspect the audience (excepting the rabid atheists), does not have antipathy to the particular claims of any belief system. After all, that’s the secular way: “You can believe in whatever you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.” Rather, I think they have a problem with power, and the real and perceived abuses of that power. Christianity has been an institution for approximately two thousand years. In a nutshell, people and groups associated with Christianity have done really good things and also really bad things. These people and groups often have and sometimes still do exert influence over societies. For secular, educated people today, I think this could influence their thinking in the following non-exhaustive ways:

  • People tend to remember bad stuff more than good stuff, so they tend to view “the church” in a negative light.
  • For left-leaning people who are more sensitive to groups with relatively less power (e.g., minorities, women, etc.), institutions who seemingly have more power are viewed with suspicion
  • For people who just want to live however they want and don’t want to change, it’s useful to justify themselves by pointing to the bad stuff with organised religion.

For Christians I think this is both encouraging and discouraging. It is encouraging because I think people can still be receptive to the gospel message, untethered from the politics and practices of imperfect institutions. It is discouraging because secular people have been so engrained to think of Christianity as at best neutral, and frequently some shade of bad, that it is an uphill battle to shift their thinking.

Next up was AC Grayling, a British philosopher and one of the leaders of the New Atheism movement. I had high hopes that he would explain what he believes in an intelligent manner befitting a person of his standing. It would not be an overstatement to say that his talk was a profound disappointment.

Grayling starts off by rehashing what philosophy is about (1. What is the nature of reality, 2. What should we value). He then makes a logical jump (given his time constraints, I’ll give him a pass) that if there is only physical reality, then it is up to us (humans) to determine meaning and purpose. From there, he trots out stock standard utilitarianism, dressed up in fancy cosmic garb: Human consciousness is but a flicker in the history of the universe. If the totality of suffering outweighs the totality of pleasure, then the existence of the universe would have been a bad thing. If vice versa, then it is good. And therefore—and I’m not kidding, this is a direct quote—”It is our responsibility to be nice to one another.”

Really? That’s the best that he could do? OK, I understand he had limited time. But this was frankly so vapid I had to double check that he wasn’t trying to be humorous or ironic (I don’t think he was). “Being nice” is essentially a non-answer. How should I be kind? By what standard? Are there other worthy pursuits for humans other than being kind? If conflicts arise between these other pursuits and being kind, how should we resolve them?

Grayling’s formulation of utilitarianism is also problematic. Put aside the issue of how we measure pleasure and suffering. I think it is enormously unhelpful to think in aggregate terms of total pleasure versus total suffering over human existence. What if 51% had more pleasure on average and 49% had more suffering? Would you really say that this is a good outcome for humanity? What if there was 1% who had super-charged pleasure that outweighed the 99% who had fairly bad suffering on average? By Grayling’s standard this would be a good outcome. However, if we are to use utilitarianism, then I think it is more meaningful and worthwhile to take into account the pleasures and sufferings of individuals. I really expected more from this distinguished philosopher.

Up to this point I was quite unimpressed, with the exception of the entertaining Peter Doherty and his meandering but passionate defence of science. Helen Razer, Australian radio presenter and writer, was up next. She provided a welcome and refreshing change to the stolid fare before her. Razer’s sharp insights matched her strident tone and forceful delivery. She made two main points in her talk:

  1. Doubt is more valuable than any belief. She was careful to distinguish it from denial. Rather, for her doubt means to always question her beliefs, and to aspire to strip herself of beliefs.
  2. The optimistic belief that humans can change the world for the better is useless without action.

The second point in particular stood in marked contrast to previous speakers who, generally speaking, gave sugary platitudes about how they believed in the power of humans to overcome challenges, change the world, etc. It felt good to hear someone call them out on it. All the solidarity and sentimentality in the world will not bring back Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body had been recently reprinted and retweeted a million times for all to see. Razer was a contrarian, but not just for its own sake. She aimed to expose the shallowness and laziness of our “good” beliefs, which can disarm and satisfy us even when there is so much good that needs to be done.

Razer also made a point about the banality of good I had never considered before. First coined by Hannah Arendt, the banality of evil is now commonly understood to mean how evil can become normalised and be perpetrated in seemingly unremarkable, ordinary conditions. Razer posits that “the real terror of good is that it is also banal.” As I understand her, she means that doing good is quite unremarkable and does not match the lofty rhetoric of optimistic belief-peddlers—it is hard, repetitive, uninspiring, and difficult to notice. However, if we really want to make the world a better place, we should stop resting on our beliefs and start doing, one small action at a time.

Even for all the disappointment I endured, this was a worthy message to take home.*

* Jon Ronson was the final speaker, but his talk was so different that it’s worth addressing in a separate post.