My friend and colleague Roy Brown has just sent me the draft of a statement he will submit to the UN Human Rights Council this spring, on behalf of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. This is a group to which we both belong, which campaigns on freedom of thought and expression, women’s and children’s rights, education and much besides. Roy’s draft concerns discrimination against people who do not have a religious faith. It is extraordinary how many countries discriminate by law against nonbelievers, in violation of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects freedom of conscience. Most of the offenders are Muslim-majority countries, in some of which apostasy, ‘insulting’ the religion or its prophet, and blasphemy, are punishable by death.
Here in the United Kingdom it is (mainly Christian) believers who think they are discriminated against, not because — as in those sunny climes — they suffer as nonbelievers do there, but because they no longer command automatic respect or enjoy immunity from criticism. This they now receive in full measure, and react accordingly. As a result the debate between religious and nonreligious votaries is frequently acerbic. Reviews of books on the matter, as my own experience currently attests, tend to follow party lines: thus, all heat and no light.
A look at my diary for the week shows that, among numerous other things, I must prepare lectures, finish writing several articles including this one, chair college meetings at the rate of two or three a day, fulfil broadcasting engagements, and finalise plans for a book tour in Australia and the US. Life therefore has a slight resemblance to preparations for military manoeuvres in challenging terrain. In the midst of it I make time to continue research for a new book, and to read for review purposes. These solitary moments, the silence disturbed only by turning pages and a scratching pen, are a refreshment.
Most of the education I’m currently getting comes from my students, a bright and engaged crew: avid readers, questioners, challengers, sceptics, intellectual experimenters. As the saying has it: docendo disco. University teaching is an exhilarating process. I might have taught some of these topics dozens of times, but they feel new, because of the response of receptive minds learning about them for the first time; there are always surprises and insights on offer.
We have a faculty club that meets fortnightly, at which a member of academic staff reads a paper. In honour of the interdisciplinary ethos of the college it is called the Ottoline Club, because Lady Ottoline Morrell — who once lived on the other side of Bedford Square — drew her usually simultaneous lovers from across the arts and humanities in equally interdisciplinary fashion. At the latest meeting Dr Suzannah Lipscomb explored the L.P. Hartley proposition that the past is a foreign country; at the preceding one Dr Catherine Brown discussed whether fiction can do in its own way what science and philosophy each attempt: to get at ‘the thing in itself’. Conclusions matter, yet far less than what else is discovered on the way.
From my window I see the plane trees in the square’s garden, magnificent trees naked in the winter sunshine, more than half the height again of the buildings ranged about them. They could be 200 years old, and if so they saw William Hazlitt visit a friend just a few doors from here in the 1820s, and the great editor of his collected works, P.P. Howe, cross to his offices on the east side in the 1920s, when the square was the heart of London publishing. Lady Ottoline’s lovers came and went to her house on the south side before the first world war, Bertrand Russell among them. His portrait hangs in the front hall of the college now, maintaining the continuities that Bedford Square represents, making it a place where philosophy, history, literature and the other humanities flourish.
I was asked again this week whether, in view of the college’s personnel and associations, not least those relating to the International Humanist and Ethical Union, the college is by design some sort of secular fifth column. I answer as I always do, that an institution of higher education exists to teach people how to think, not what to think. I have a simple faith in the outcome of the process — generally, a critical and reflective mind finds its way towards sensible views in most things. If it can be imaginative, creative, insightful and generous in its sympathies for others too, the task of educating it will have been worthwhile.
A.C. Grayling is master of the New College of the Humanities. His latest book is The God Argument.