Philip Adams has collected a number of important honours over the years, including two Orders of Australia, the Senior Anzac Fellowship, the Australian Humanist of the Year, the Republican of the Year 2005, the Golden Lyon at Cannes, the Longford Award, the highest award for Australian film industry, a Walkley Award, the UN Media Prize, four honorary doctorates, and because we are a university I’ll list them, from Griffith University, Edith Cowan University, the University of South Australia and the University of Sydney. And the Responsibility in Journalism Award from New York University. In 2006, he received the Human Rights Medal from the Australian government Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, and in 2008 he was appointed an Honorary Fellow of the Academy of Humanities. So with all of that experience, success and recognition, it is my great pleasure to welcome to the podium Philip Adams to present the James Martineau Memorial Lecture, an Atheist Defends Religion. Philip?
First of all, I crave your forgiveness, I can’t possibly stand up for half an hour because of a crude agricultural accident. Secondly, it ain’t a lecture, it’s not a speech, I don’t yet know what I am going to say, and there are no notes. So the organisers are feeling somewhat anxious.
I fell out of bed in 1943. It was the most important event in my young life. And I remember it vividly as though it was yesterday. I was four at the time, and of course, gravity teaches all sorts of lessons. Look at the perhaps apocryphal story of the Granny Smith that hit Newton on the noggin, thus precipitating Newtonian physics. But in my case, gravity had nothing to do with it, because I didn’t wall down, I fell up. I lived on a tiny farm with my grandparents in the outskirts of Melbourne. I dwelt within, or I slept in this funny little old sleep out that people often have in their back yard, in a huge double bed that grandpa and grandma had donated to me. And I remember this night, I remember falling not down, but up. I fell up through the rusty galvanised roof, I fell up through the pine branches on the trees that surrounded the little farmhouse, I fell up through the clouds, and I started rocketing faster and faster and faster, up, up, up, until I was rushing through the stars, out of control, and absolutely overwhelmed with terror, and indeed with horror. Because I was suddenly conscious of the notion of infinite space. And nothing scares a four year old, or very few things scare a four year old as much as that prospect. The further I fell upwards, the more afraid I became. It had to end, it couldn’t be right. It couldn’t just go on, and on, and on forever, it had to end. And then suddenly, I bounced off a great rocky vault that encircled the entire universe, with a great sense of relief, and I fell down all the way back, until I clunked into the brass bed. Wow, that was close. The trouble is, next night the same, I fell out of bed again, and this time the resolution was different. I crashed through the rocky vault that I cleverly invented to dull the fear. And at that moment I realised, it couldn’t end. That it went on, and on, and on forever.
And this immediately, of course, related to one’s, to the other thoughts of something that never ended, and that was time itself. So on the one hand, there was infinite space, and on the other, the even greater dread of a terminal time. These are concepts way beyond our capacity to comprehend, and yet, they are there all the time. They are part of the subtext of our daily lives. The terror of that was overwhelming. And I had to deal with it, I must say it took me another year before I resolved it, but at the age of five, I suddenly realised, and this was my cosmology then, Hawkins and others might dispute it now, but my cosmology was, if it doesn’t end, this is space, it probably never began. It’s just always been there, just the eternal Is. And why is an eternal Is any more mysterious than an eternal Isn’t?
So I decided that wasn’t as much of an issue as eternity, wherein I was destined to dwell, albeit reluctantly. At the age of five I was full of fear of death. And I think that’s the greatest driving fear that makes the human race, for good or ill, what we are. So I am thinking about this, and I thought, well, what’s it like, what’s it going to be like to be dead forever, not just for ten years, or ten million or billion or zillion or squillion? And I tried to think what colour it would be. I was lying there in bed, what colour will death be, would it be blind in whiteness, or will it be an art of blackness, or is it some other quality that it would have that’s neither black nor white? Problems, big problems.
Now, I soon came to the point that the religious views of everyone around me, and my father was a congregational minister, but had nothing to do with this process, nothing. He was away at the Second World War trying to persuade soldiers in New Guinea fighting the Japanese that Christianity was a good thing, and I now learned from his little crab written diaries that he wasn’t getting a very good audience. I think you could almost call his audience [06:28], as I call mine. Anyway, so it had nothing to do with him. I didn’t reject God, I wanted to believe. I wanted the comfort of belief like everyone else seemed to have. And God I tried to believe, in fact I seem to remember that I used to proffer the odd prayer to God I didn’t believe in, asking him, her or it, to make me believe. I never got an answer. I left messages, he never rang back.
So then it occurred to me that we live in a lopsided world, that Christians, they were the only religious group I knew, that Christians believed there had to be a beginning, but there couldn’t be an end. What an odd notion. And yet it just didn’t seemed to me to be completely out of whack. Why did there have to be a beginning if there was by definition an end? And there was no one to talk to about this. My young friends weren’t interested, my father was away at the war, my mother was off being a good time girl like many women were in Second World War, discovering all sorts of things about herself, and I would hardly see her for the next ten years. Or there were my ancient grandparents, they weren’t that old really, but they seemed ancient to me. No one to talk to. There were no books to read, I didn’t even hear the word atheist for another eight or nine years. I didn’t know, I never heard the word. But I was an atheist already. It wasn’t nice, it was scary. It was cold, it was drafty, it was awe inspiring. And I deeply regretted that I couldn’t acquiesce or accommodate myself to the views of others.
Mind you, once the penny dropped in my tiny mind, the religion was, well, a redundant notion. And this is my first great prospect for philosophical assertion. I said to my grandmother, if God’s the beginning, who began God? And I got a cuff on the ear. She’s a lovely lady, but she gave me quite a sharp cuff on the ear. And I think one of the reasons was because she had no idea what to say. Imagine my delight when 13 years later, at the age of 18, I read Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian, and find that he asked himself that question at the age of 18, and that was his beginning of walking away from religion. If God was the beginning, who began God? So here I was, and it seemed to me I was all alone. I didn’t know anyone else who shared my hackage, my vista of disbelief. But what puzzled me was that people around me who professed belief didn’t profess it very energetically. Oh, they might go to church on Sunday, but it was almost an afterthought, there was no great seriousness in it. This is at the time when there were only two brands of God that I knew, and that was Protty and Catholic. My best friend, Johnny Sinclair was a Catholic, and I was a Protty. Well, I wasn’t really, but I went to the state school which is where the Protties went. And we’d go to school hand in hand, skipping up the road, and he’d’ go to the Catholic school and I’d go into ours. And then it was all bets off, and we’d spend lunchtimes and playtimes chanting, Catholic dogs stink like frogs jumping out of hollow logs, to which they replied, State, state, full of hate. Because it was like Belfast back then in Australia. But it still seemed odd to me that no one took their religion, the religion they professed, very seriously. And from an early age it seemed to me that if they thought it was true, why weren’t they passionate about it? Why did they limit their churchgoing to a few, you know, annual events or… They went to church no more often than they went to the Hoyt’s to see an Esther Williams movie, really. And even at the young age I thought, well, if I believed what they believe, nothing short of aspiring to sainthood would do. You know? Good heavens, if it’s either that or that, you wouldn’t want to take any risks.
I then, of course, had to find a way of living without this belief. And a great struggle began. Which for me was resolved in the oddest way at the local library. The Issaquah branch of the municipal library. Blessed be the municipal libraries of this country, and we should fight tenaciously for their survival, because their funding is always cut, and they struggle for survival, particularly in a world where we could find anything we want on Google, that great excuse for thought. So. I’d read all the William books, twice, all the [11:24] books, all the books that were assigned to the child in the kid’s library. And there is a step, it’s about the size of that step, up to the grown-ups library, and I used to go up that step to get books for grandpa and grandma. It was always the same, one mystery and a romance. So wonderfully uncritical. One mystery and a romance. So I went up the step that day to ask for a mystery and a romance, and the woman said, you’ve read all the books in the children’s section downstairs. And I said, I guess I have, most of them three times. She said, well, I’m going to give you a grown-up book to read. And she gave me The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. And it was like being hit by a truck. Every child knows about injustice, every child feels that they are on the receiving end of profound injustice every day of their lives, from parents, in my case grandparents, to schoolyard bullies, from teachers, from the fates themselves. But when I read of the magnitude of misery and suffering of the okays as they struggled out of the dustbowl and leave for California, I realised that cruelty, that injustice was systematic, or systemic, that it was, if you like, it was politicised. And that moment sent me, sadly, on the path to perdition, because two years later I joined the Communist party. I remember my mother, now divorced from my ex-Christian father, because he got the flack from the congregational church of being the drunk in charge of a bull, but she sent him to tell me I shouldn’t join the Communist party. So I’m, I was 15, you couldn’t legally join the Communist party until you are 18, according to the Communist party rules. But they were so thrilled that someone had come knocking, it was thin pickings at the time. We are talking about the McCarthy era, we are talking about the Cold War, we are talking about the time when being a Communist wasn’t all that popular. Anyway, so my father engages me in conversation, and I am telling him why. And after a half an hour, he asked where he could join. And I had to talk him out of it, because he really wasn’t ready for it.
So, I lumber on, trying to find… Because atheism isn’t a belief system, it’s simply a disbelief. Atheism doesn’t mean you are going to be a better, wiser, smarter person, it just means that you don’t believe in that wonderful, all those wonderful fairy stories. You have a scepticism, to say the least, about them. And I nutted this out, and for a while the Communist party sort of worked for me. But then I realised that the Communist party, it was another religion. It was uncannily like the Roman Catholic church, and in fact one of my most unpleasant memories was that I used to have lunch. We sang as, in St. Patrick’s cathedral, and there was a great column surrounded by books published by the Catholic Evidence Guild, of which the upturned face of Jesus could be seen. And there were books like, Why Not Be a Nun? And, How to Avoid Sin and Temptation. There was an awful lot of them. And I noticed the pamphlets down at the International Bookshop, the Communist bookshop, were visually identical, with the same crap printing, with the upturned face of Lenin. And very similar texts, and arguing at about the same level. So I used to swap them over. And I wonder to this day how many innocent Catholics took home one of my Communist tracts and had their faith destroyed forever, or conversely, how many Communists would belatedly accept Jesus as their own personal saviour, and sat there riffling through the rosary beads. So I left. There were so many other parallels, I’ve got to tell you. There was both an index of approved and disapproved, both had a form of excommunication, both had a form of confession, both had, I mean, the list went on and on and on. And they were just the same with each other. Mind you, I met many wonderful people in the Communist party, people that to this day, although a lot of them are dying off, well, most of them are almost gone, but they were wonderful, they were quite philosophical, they actually fantasized that Australia was going to become a Communist nation, not by violence, but by some magical process, as I suppose an extension of a popular domino theory. But after Hungary, and after the Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, and after the truth came out about what had been going on in Russia, I left that religion.
Now, I opened the Great Atheist Jamboree in Melbourne a couple of months ago, wherein the star turn was going to be Dawkins [16:24]. I don’t think Christopher Frampton, I think he was a bit busy that week. But I remember being astonished to read in the Sydney Morning Herald that in republishing Adams vs. God, I was jumping on the bandwagon. God help us, I was on that bandwagon before Dawkins or Higgins [16:44] were born. I was the only person in Australia publicly discussing atheism forever in newspapers. But I warned the atheists there that they were deluded if they thought that they were a significant factor in the great wars with religion. I said, you are not, we are marginal at best, we are minor, minor players. The great crises for religion are not caused by the odd bestseller by Higgins or Dawkins. And look at the sales for every one of Chris’ books. There would be a hundred books, Christian books, published by that immense American Christian publishing industry, leading with the sales of the Bible. So we are not involved. I said, the great enemy of the religion is not the atheist, it is religion.
So the only reason religion is in something of a spiral down, and it’s only in that spiral in Western Europe and a few sensible societies like that. The only reason for it is because of squabbling, not so much between them as within them. In other words, it isn’t the struggle to the death between Islam and Christianity, so much as Islam tearing itself apart with internal faction fighting. Christianity, Christianities plural. How many of them are there, for heaven’s sake? Fight and struggle to destroy themselves. We are simply sitting on the side, in some sense, enjoying the spectacle.
But I also made the point that I was sick to death of what seemed to me was a sort of an atheistic triumphalism, which tended to denigrate the religious and treat them all as idiots. Because of the way I became an atheist, I will never forget the pile of emotions and issues that were driving my desire to believe. Nothing to do with my father, nothing to do with school, nothing to do with anyone propagandising, it was just a need within, which people have had since they were people. And that need is first of all to solve the mysteries of the heavens above. Like today I went and looked at this great classics exhibition, and just, here in the building, reminding me how long this struggle has been going on, and most of that stuff is post-Roman, post-Egyptian, and it was going on for a long time before then. And it was people trying to nut out what the hell was going on, and why were they here, if there was a why, and what was their destiny, if there was a destiny. And of course, added to that, and becoming more and more and more important with the passing of time was the individual’s dread of death. The individual’s profound fear of mortality. I knew it from childhood, it was the most terrifying experience that I’ve ever known, that I’ve ever known in my life. And I knew that everyone else was having it. And Woody Allen, the great philosopher, there should be a Woody Allen chair here in this university, in fact I’m sure he’d probably endow it, Woody says wonderful things about religion and death, wittier than almost anybody else. But what he also recognises is what I recognise, is that it’s too easy to mock it, it’s too easy to blow raspberries at it, it’s too easy to talk it into oblivion – it’s not going to happen. It will perhaps, very, very slowly fade away. This may be the storm before the lull, hard to say. But what I do know is that, when I was a kid, when I was growing up in Victoria, I thought that by the end of the century all the cathedrals, all the synagogues, all the temples would be museums. That religion would have simply given up. The advance of science was so immense, that with the advance of science faith recedes. Well, that didn’t happen. To some extent, the opposite has happened, or is happening. But it is also a truth that as I said, atheism does not guarantee you integrity, it doesn’t guarantee you wisdom, it doesn’t even guarantee that you are going to be a decent human being. It perhaps increases the odds fractionally. But again and again I have to face the fact that whenever I man the barricades or ask people to join me at the barricades in the manning of, there beside me will be Josephine nuns and Jesuit intellectuals. I think for example of the refugee crisis, which absolutely filled my every waking hour before and after Tampa. And for a while there, I must admit the major faith branches were a bit sluggish in their response, but not Christians of the coal face. And I soon realised that I was working with, attracting to the causes that I was setting up through newspaper columns and fundraisers, that I was working with people whose fundamental view of the universe could not have been more different than mine. But they were great people. There are atheists who rejected them all. There’s a French atheist, his name escapes me, who I had on the program once, he’s probably the hardest liner of them all, who believes that every contribution to the common well by a Christian is invalid and inauthentic, because they are doing it for frequent flyer points, they are doing it because after they kick the bucket, off they go. And he is venomous, vituperative about this. And he’s a dickhead. And the fact that he says it in French doesn’t improve it at all. I don’t believe that. In fact, the opposite may be true, and maybe that some people who develop or have, and I don’t know to what extent it’s innate and to what extent it’s inherited, but who have profound social conscience, may, may, in some cases, be drawn to the church as a place where they can find the like-minded, just as I was drawn to the Communist party on that assumption.
One of the most moving experiences I’ve had in recent years, we do, sometimes we’ll take the program somewhere and dwell on a place, I’ve just come back from New Orleans after five years, and looking at the oil spill, or we go to Germany when the war comes down, or whatever, but we spend a week or so in Broome. How that place could be a tourist attraction when it’s one of the saddest place on earth, the horror stories, the back story of Broome is simply beyond belief. And the worst of them involves a stolen generation of young Irish nuns. These were girls living in poverty in Irish villages, who were rounded up by the church and sent to Australia to look after Aborigines suffering leprosy around Kimberley. The arrived in large boats, were loaded into rowing boats, rowed close to shore, climbed out, waded to shore, in the massive nuns costume designed for Ireland, and they wore them for the rest of their lives. And they dealt, they tried to do something for this huge problem of leprosy. The treatment they were offering didn’t work. But they didn’t know that. They hoped it worked. It also happened to be agonisingly painful to the recipients. But they didn’t mind it either, because they were so affected, so touched that someone was trying to help them. Now I agree with almost every objection that Dawkins makes about religion, page by page, paragraph by paragraph. Ditto for [24:49]. My complaints about what religion does at its worst go on and on and on. But that’s different than condemning people who hold to those beliefs, often because they’ve got absolutely no choice. Dawkins goes on and on about what an outrage it is that children are born into religious families and are force-fed religion. For god’s sake Richard, how could it be any other way? I find it very hard to think that children born into a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist family are going to be given Bertrand Russell to read. You know, it comes with the territory, it comes with your foot… I remember when you were born in Victoria, where you were born defined your football code, defined the beer, you know, defined every aspect of living. And Dawkins thinks it shouldn’t define religion? Of course it’s going to define it. But people struggle against it.
I’ve got four daughters, three grown up, and one who just this week went off to Edinburgh University for the next four years, the ungrateful little brat. Instead of sticking around and looking after her rapidly disintegrating father. The first of my daughters is a shrink. What did she do after she passed medicine? She went rushing off to America, started working for an ultra left wing radical Jewish journal called Tecoma [26:14] and converted to Judaism to marry a rabbi. And it didn’t happen finally, not the marriage. And she rang me up to say, dad, I converted to Judaism, how do you feel about it? And I said, well, a lot better than if you had rung up and said you have become a Methodist. My second daughter, Megan… So, Rebecca is a carer, she cares for people who’ve got a few problems. Lots of problems. She agonises over them, she suffers for them. She’s a good, good woman. She’s virtually a secular Jew, the first thing she did was rush off to Israel when it was against the law to talk to Palestinians, and get thrown out of Israel for talking to Palestinians. She is good, I am proud of her. My second daughter, Megan, became a hard line Christian briefly, I think she only did it to annoy me. And it passed away, passed over, and she also works as a carer in an NGA concerned with people with mental difficulties. My third daughter, Saskia, I don’t think she was ever sucked into one of the pre-existing faiths, she now devotes her life to caring for dogs. I wrote a column the other day about the puppy farms, one of the most obnoxious phenomena in the country, and she has decided to leave her publishing job in England to look after dogs, the vast number of dogs that we send to these [27:42] and then kill while people are rushing off buying other dogs instead of getting them out of those pounds. Anyway, all of my kids are carers, except they have taken different religious views. I don’t give a damn, to be honest, I really don’t. What I care about is that they are carers. What I care about is that they have this feeling for humans, for animals, what have you. And that to me is the test.
Religion is an immense danger. In the USA the entire nation has gone stark raving bonkers. And that, if anything is an understatement. Any country that thinks of putting Sara Palin in the White House must be as insane as anyone in Australia who voted for Pauline Hanson. America is circling down the toilet of religious fundamentalism. Here’s a country where the science advances go overseas, 80% or something, 60% still think that evolution is a dangerous and toxic notion. This is a society that’s got a few problems. But America of course is still the best, as well as the worst of countries. It’s one of the highest examples as well as the worst in almost every aspect of human activity. And there are many people in America whom I regard as friends, who are God-brothers. I supported Kevin Rudd’s, oh, forgive me, I was the only person to support Kevin Rudd’s plans to become the lead of the Labour party, for years I wrote column after column about him, I pushed his banner, I became his unpaid campaign manager, so you can imagine how thrilled I was with recent events. But one of the reasons, oddly enough, was that we’d argue endlessly about religion. Kevin is a very serious God brother. But in the context of the Labour party doing a deal with the devil on refugees, I was so appalled by what Beasley did, by the way the party rolled over and became a coward like Howard. But one of the reasons I backed Rudd was because we had these long discussions about Bonhoff [30:00], and I took the view that he might in fact, that Bonhoff might kick in the next time we had a huge e-crisis. Well, one never knows, because these Scots are mean old jobs, I think he’s a foreign minister, which at least will keep me out of the country for about 60% of the time, which I’m sure is one of the principal motivations in Julia Gillard.
But look, there may be one or two of you here tonight who believe in God. That’s okay, I reach out to you. I reach out to you because we are all stuck with the same problems, we are all stuck on a planet which is getting very, very hot. We are all stuck on a planet where we are running out of time on almost every issue. We are all stuck on a planet where at any minute now some ultra-fundamentalist ratbag group is going to get a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb and wipe out an American city, one hopes it’s not an Australian city. We live in the most dangerous of times. And religious volatility is certainly a part of it. But the only way that Islam is going to deal with these issues is through Islam reforming itself. And one of my great joys was to interview progressive Muslims. The same thing in the Catholic church. It’s an immense ongoing struggle to deal with it, its nonsensical obsession about human sexuality, and we all know where they lead. But these are titanic struggles within the church. The Anglicans, they’re all nuts. But I say that with great affection. I believe I’ve got to shut up now. And when I say something like this at the atheist conference, they didn’t actually hiss or boo, but they didn’t like it. Because they are out for blood. They have this sort of scent of triumph to the nostrils, they were doing it, they were the ones that were overthrowing the horrors and errors of a few thousand years of religion.
I will end with another story from childhood which sums up why I am such a bad atheist. The scene is the Hawthorne West State School. I hate the place. The headmaster was a sadist. I used to retch before going to school every day because he was such a bully, and I was living down there with my mother’s second husband who was a sociopath, he used to try and murder me quite often, literally, not metaphorically. So I go from that terrible home to that terrible school. And one of the things I was forced to endure was religious instruction class. There were no options, you had to go. And so I am sitting there, the only atheist in the class, everyone else professing a Christian belief. And up on the stage was this dear old fellow, shabby old bloke, he reminded me a bit of my dad, I think. My dad was by then out of the church. And he was trying to make everyone feel very wonderful about Jesus. And we’d sing these silly hymns like, Jesus wants me for sunbeam, and the only popular hymn was Onward Christian Soldiers, because it was martial and testosteronish. Then there was the silliest of them all, which was All Things Bright and Beautiful, to which one can only write parodies about cancer. And here was this poor bloke up there every week trying to convince us that religion was the best thing going. And as far as I knew, the whole room was copping it. The last day of the term he came in and I could see that he was sick. I had this sense that we wouldn’t be seeing him again. And indeed he explained that he wasn’t well and wouldn’t be back next year. And all he asked on this final day was to know whether his efforts reaped any fruit and whether any one had responded. And he asked, he said, is there anyone in the room who has accepted Jesus as his or her personal saviour? The tension was terrible. Those few seconds stretched and stretched, until finally one kid stood up. It was me. And no one was more surprised than I was. But the pity I felt for him was so overwhelming, and the rubbish I copped in the playground as a consequence, but in a way, it’s metaphoric of my attitude, the same ambivalence I have towards religion. I think we would be better off without it, but that’s not going to happen, not for some hundreds of years. We will all have to share the planet, share the problems, and many of us, I know, despite our differing cosmologies or theologies, share the same convictions for social justice and for making things better. So for any recalcitrant Christians who are here this evening, I forgive you.
There are questions. So who will cast the first stone?
There is a microphone. So if you would please identify yourself as you come to…
Is there one up in heaven as well as down here? Right. Good on you, Natasha. You never told me that story about the 70s. Fancy that.
Thank you for your entertaining speech. But I have to say it fills me with despair. Because this is a James Martineau Memorial Lecture, and I think it was George Santayana following Edmond Burke who said, those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it, or something very similar. I mean, James Martineau was a theologian who in the end of the 19th century was saying, cosmological religion is redundant. We need to be thinking about a different kind of religion.
I agree with him 100%.
And if I may finish, he also said, the religion should not be about the fear of death. In fact many people who embrace traditional religion are embracing it because they are afraid to live. So I think in a James Martineau Memorial Lecture, it would have been nice to have had a nod in his direction, and to recognise it. If we go on and on and on talking about cosmological religion, we are talking about history that is past for many people who attend church every week.
Good on you. Well, that’s fine. I used to go to the Unitarian church as a young Communist, incidentally, because one of the influences in my life was a Martineau type called Reverend Victor James, and I think the Unitarians are probably the least damaging of all organised religions. But the fact that, I make no apologies for anything I said, he might have said that, he might have hoped that it was true. It manifestly is not. The world is full of religious fundamentalism across the spectrum of religion, and it is tenacious, it is dangerous, and it ain’t going away any time soon. Now you can join the group that is enraged by this, it’s a very small group as a percentage of humankind, or you can try and negotiate better outcomes. It’s my attitude to drugs. I don’t take drugs. But I happen to think that all the drug wars we have are nonsensical and counter-productive. One goes for harm reduction as a policy on drugs. I go for harm reduction as a policy on religion.
Philip, I have no bile to offer, I’m sorry. I would like to challenge my children when they ask about you and about John Howard, by telling them that you and John Howard are the same age.
Three cheers for astrology.
And I often try and explain in my own way that John Howard’s problem is that he seemed to have missed out completely on the teen age. I wonder what your experience of the teen age was?
Well, I didn’t really have one, to be honest, I was always intensely alone as a child. That solitude that I was describing in the brass bed was echoed in school, we were regarded as lowering the tone of the neighbourhood with this sort of shabby little farm, and so we were poor, and I didn’t have a mother and father in a conventional sense, I left school when I was 15, and here I am at 15 having a sort of education as the youngest recruit to the Communist party for some considerable time. So my teen age was, I sort of dipped into bohemians a bit, because I also lived at Elfin [39:34], which was seething with artistic types, many of whom have no doubt practiced nudity and witchcraft within their mud brick houses. But no, I didn’t really have a childhood at all in that sense. And I’m still a hermit. My social relationships happen with the monks over at the radio studio. There’s hardly ever anyone there. And then I go back to the farm, where I keep company with my rapidly shrinking family and the dogs. So my social connections are, if you like, through the media rather than in reality. I haven’t been to a party in 20 years, I don’t accept invitations. What a pathetic picture. But I’m quite happy.
Thank you, Mr. Adams. I am Dr. Marion from school of history and classics here at the university. I have always wanted to ask you, you don’t seem to have any faith in the future of religion. But you interviewed many famous people. Do you have any faith in the future for spirituality in the world, and do you see a distinction between the two?
I think spirituality is such a loathed and corrupted word that covers such a multitude of nonsenses, that it’s a word that I try not to use. On the other hand, I embrace the word ‘numenus’, which also comes out of theological matters, that sense of awe and dread and wonderment that you get if you wander out into the back garden and look up at the skies. And I think that’s got nothing to do with religion or science, it’s just a reaction of any intelligent, or half-intelligent person, to the awesome, awesome scale of the enterprise, and of course it goes down the other way, almost as far as it gets big it gets little. And we are just touching the edge of it. So I’m not sure about spirituality. But I am concerned, I do believe that humans are by and large getting a little tiny bit kinder. You know, at the moment the world is a terrible mess. We acknowledge that the dangers are enormous, but we’ve now got terms like ‘human rights’. And these are words, notions that are really quite modern, quite fresh. I remember during the great Ethiopian famine, the one where Geldof hopped in. And I remember someone describing on television about the Ethiopian famine in a way which I thought was quite extraordinary, because I have always been disparaging about the medium. He said, television has become the meeting place for strangers. And what this person meant was, because we now see and know each other in a way that we didn’t… You know, Shakespeare never saw the sea. Never saw the ocean, never travelled overseas. He wrote about it, but he never saw the sea. We live in a world where we see everything. And we know a lot, and we know a lot more objectively, factually, than most people have ever known. And some of it is rubbing off in our sense of mutual responsibility. I saw the other day, and I was quite chaffed by it, that Australians are now regarded as one of the most generous nations on Earth in terms of donations to good causes. This is happening. And to some extent it’s been technologically driven. I was disparaging about Google, and although I always pretend that the computer is the devil’s tool, I tell people they should smash them with axes, but I am reconciled to the fact that they can also work wonders. And we are developing therefore a consciousness which goes beyond tribalism. Dawkins would acknowledge that we are not simply selfish and violent, that we are also, if you like, spiritual, though he would use the word empathetic. That there is within the human behaviour patterns sympathy for others. But that never got beyond the tribe. It was within the definition of that small group, and had nothing to do with ‘them over there’. Well, now, that sense of empathy, and Peter Singers is good on that as well, grows and grows and grows, and it does unite people. Probably billions of people, at least from time to time, which gives us hope. My problem, my great fear is that the democracies aren’t really ever any good at dealing with crises, and the biggest crisis in human history is upon us. And I very much doubt whether we’ve got the will, the capacity to do enough about it. So. But I don’t think we are innately bad, I don’t think we are innately good, but we are in fact now becoming more empathetic, more sympathetic to others.
My question is at the Melbourne atheist convention, were you disquieted by atheism being shown perhaps as kind of a new religion, and if so…
I am sorry, say that again?
Did you feel disquieted by the atheist convention showing radical disbelief to the point of being a new religion, and did you feel perhaps like starting a new denomination?
When I thought about atheism, as I was getting older, I realised that we were in a closet, those of us that were around, and we didn’t identify ourselves any more than gay people in the closet. And there are some quite a moving accounts where homosexuals discovered that there were other homosexuals and that they were not isolated freaks. You know, so you start to get a collegiate feeling as a sense of political and cultural unity. I felt the same thing about the atheist convention. At last, there was a very large gathering of people who are at least superficially like-minded. And I got a huge amount of correspondence when it was on. Both hostile and pleasant. And I realised that there are people all over the country who would never feel emboldened before to identify themselves with their belief system which will still get you tarred and feathered up the road in the United States of America. America might have elected a black president. When will they elect an atheist? We don’t care. Australians had dozens of atheists, we had three gay prime ministers to my knowledge, and we are very relaxed about that. Anyway. So I was pleased with the atheist convention, but I was also, as I said earlier, I am concerned that the hyper aggression of Dawkins and Hitchens [47:08], and I know them both well, and Christopher is always in a rage, that’s his permanent mental state. Sometimes I’m glad he is because I agree with him that Kissinger is a war criminal, you know, there’s a whole lot of things I agree with him about. But I just wish, I want to have atheism as what, as modulated, more modulated, more careful, more selective, less hostile and judgmental, because, you know why, I’ve told you this evening. Can I just ask a question? How many people here tonight would regard themselves as believers in a religious view of one sort of or another? Okay. How many people would be atheists of one sort or another? Well, that’s a majority, but it’s not an overwhelming one, is it? Okay. I was just curious about that.
Well, it’s interesting that you should say that, because I remember, we did a month in India with the program, and I met Hindu holy men who told me they were atheists. And being an atheist in India, that’s a hell of an undertaking. Think of all the gods there are not to believe in?
Well, your talk was entitled an Atheist Defends Religion. Now, what, you seem to be equating religion with theistic religion, particularly…
Say that again?
You seem to be equating religion with theistic religion, particularly Christianity. Of course religion covers more than, and Buddhism is certainly a religion, but it’s not theistic. Now my question is, do you think that the harm, I am not denying it, the harm that religion has done is because of theism?
Or would it have occurred anyway under a different brand name?
That’s it exactly.
Well, it’s a very profound question. Very often the things that I blame religion for, and you must remember, I’ve been attacking it, saying these nasty things about it all my adult life. 150 million people died in the last century in wars and genocides. Religion exacerbated that immense death toll, and you’ve got to put the Holocaust on the Christian side of horror stories, even though many of the people that carried it out had embraced the sort of pornographic mysticism of Nazism. But Hitler himself died a Roman Catholic. He never, he was never excommunicated, which I find so extraordinary. The things that seem to me absolutely overwhelmingly simply the fault of religion, if you really look at them, there is often a subtext or another story; there’s often a story of class, as much as faith, there’s often a story of poverty and wealth, you know, even Northern Island, there’s another text going on there, isn’t there? But I would still like it to dissolve with the far right [50:34] that it is. And you’ve got to ask yourself, how is it that it has shown this remarkable tenacity? Wiser people than me insist that as the world gets scarier, faster, more alienating, people rush back to simple faiths, as they rush back to simple slogans at times of political complexity. I think it is the job of anyone who claims to be involved in social processes to ask the question you are asking, and to encourage discussion about it, and perhaps to, how do I say this? Look, I’m sorry, I’ve lost the thread. But I think religion has a huge burden of guilt. What’s happening today in the Muslim world arguably was detonated in the Crusades. You know, things go back and back and back, and loving archaeology as I do, I watch religions more for merge and change. I’ve got a houseful of Virgin Maries with the infant Jesus, but it isn’t it’s Isis with the infant Horus. You know, it’s this Egyptian goddess, mother of God, holding the Christ child. And we now know that the cult of Isis persisted in Rome long after Christianity has got the nod. Because women wanted a goddess of intercession, and finally the Vatican said, if you can’t beat it, join it, so they promoted Mary. So one faith evolves into another, and you can’t just pick at it. You can’t cherry pick. This is an immense ancient tradition, and it’s going to slowly fade. But it’s not going to be in my lifetime, or yours, or our grandchildren’s. It will remain tenacious and it will remain dangerous. Perhaps it will become even more dangerous towards its end, as people often are.
I’ll answer it around another way. One of the things that terrifies me about the computer generation is that you can live in an intellectual bubble. You can choose a planet, a parallel universe of prejudice or bigotry or attitude, and you can dwell within it. You can look at Fox News for example, and turn every other voice off. And you have the websites you can feed on the Glen Becks or the Rush Limbaugh or whatever it is, they are across the board. And you can block off every other argument. And that’s what’s happening in fundamentalist religion. They’ve now got the new technologies of communication which intensifies their ability to coordinate and intensify and stir and brew their belief systems. I wish there was a God, and I wish he’d reach out from heaven and say, all bets are off, stop doing it. But I don’t think that’s going to happen either. I must say that the God that we, the God, we are not talking about Hindus, there are so many gods, even within our culture that we think we believe in. They are all mutually exclusive. It always fascinates me. I’ve done two television interviews with Paul Davies, the scientist who says he can see the face of God. But his God is a cruel God, an absolutely unconcerned God above the implosion or explosion of entire galaxies. To hell with Sodom and Gomorrah, his God wouldn’t care a jot if we cook ourselves to death with climate change. That’s one God. But then there are all the others, where God is like Santa Claus, and God that’s worried about you. Well, he’s worried about you, madam. I happen to know that.
One last question.
I’m going to go and ask [54:43] these questions tonight. Tell them what you’ve said.
My name is Paul Williams, and I am former atheist student and minister of a local church.
Where are you now on that spectrum?
At the latter point.
What I’d like to ask you is, I’m sure you’d rather have good food rather than no food as an alternative to bad food, or good music as an alternative to no music, rather than bad music, and good writing rather than bad writing as an alternative to… What I would like to ask is, what is it about the nature of religion at its essence that you would rather there would be no religion?
Sorry, what is it about?
The essence of religion that you are describing as being so dangerous, that the world would be better with no religion, rather than with good religion?
Well, first of all, my criticism of the dangers of religion have to be extended to non-religious structures and organisations like the Communist party of the Soviet Union, or the insanity that swept over Maoist China. Or the form of strange sort of pseudo atheism that consumed the Nazi party. Any group which sets itself apart, and which sees itself as having the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is by definition dangerous. Because every group that has that mind set can then dehumanise anyone who doesn’t agree with it. So this is why the greatest hatreds, as I said, are between Christian groups. Between Muslim groups, not between the major religions. And I think it’s a very dangerous thing. And as I’ve got older, the one thing that I’ve learned is that everything gets more and more complex, not more and more simple. And it’s the job of all of us to remind people that nothing is simple, and that everything requires an endless discussion going on to infinity and eternity. That is the human condition.
Thanks for having me.
Good evening. My name is Lucy Tatman [57:42] and I am the Head of the School of Philosophy. I am here to say a very few brief words in conclusion before I also have the immense pleasure of inviting you to join us for some refreshments. But those very few brief words have to do [57:59] bring it back to James Martineau. A good friend of his who was in fact an Anglican Vicar once said of Martineau, “of all deep thinkers whom I have ever known, he was the most free from the depressing modern malady of pessimism” And it was in fact in the spirit channelled straight from Martineau of provoking great thought, of presenting us with challenging questions, and above all, of not being inflicted with the depressing modern malady of utter pessimism that we did indeed invite Philip Adams to be the 2010 James Martineau Memorial Lecturer, and I would ask you to join me in thanking him one more time.End of recording
Authorised by the Director of Marketing
13 October, 2010