Colin McGinn

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Philosopher Colin McGinn sits down with Bill Moyers to talk about atheism, religion and politics.



BILL MOYERS: In her talk at the festival of writers Mary Gordon spoke of the writer’s privilege of following a thought or an argument through all its twists and turns, wrestling paradox and contradiction to a conclusion. I thought to myself: that sounds a lot like the philosophers privilege too. And sure enough, sitting behind Mary Gordon at a PEN event was one of our most provocative philosophers, Colin McGinn. He too is one of those people whose impulse is to question what is given. He, too, stalked the arguments for and against God, but came down on the other side from Mary Gordon. Reasoning himself to atheism, he became a scholar and philosopher. His best known book charts his intellectual journey, from his boyhood in a poor mining family of Catholics in England — to his studies at Oxford and beyond. An earlier groundbreaking work argued that although the mind is fundamentally incapable of comprehending itself fully, we humans can explore with joy the mystery of intelligence. He’s written a philosophical study of how movies work on our minds — and will soon publish a study of Shakespeare. As everyone knows, atheists don’t win popularity contests in a country where 80% of the people profess to believe in God. To counter “Godless Communism” in the Cold War, Americans put God – who is not mentioned in the constitution – in the Pledge of Allegiance and on the money.

[Pledge of Allegiance recited]

BILL MOYERS: Nevertheless, Colin McGinn remains, unconvinced.

BILL MOYERS: Colin McGinn, have you really settled the argument, have you proven to your own satisfaction that there is no God?

COLIN MCGINN: Well, it’s difficult to prove that anything doesn’t exist at all. It’s hard to prove that a unicorn doesn’t exist, especially hard to prove that God doesn’t exist, because God, just by definition, is outside of space and time. So you couldn’t prove he doesn’t exist by going through space and time and finding him not to be there.

BILL MOYERS: But what comes to mind is that people don’t believe in the unicorn. I don’t know anybody who believes in the unicorn.


BILL MOYERS: But I know a lot of people who believe in God.

COLIN MCGINN: Oh yes, well, there are lots of good reasons to believe in God; psychological reasons to believe in God which don’t apply to unicorns.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean “psychological”?

COLIN MCGINN: Well, reasons having to do with your wishes and hopes for the future. And your fear of death and so forth. You know, if unicorns will save you from death, maybe more people would believe in unicorns. But that’s not the story.

BILL MOYERS: The story of the unicorns died out a long time ago.


BILL MOYERS: The story of God didn’t die out. What do you make of that?

COLIN MCGINN: Well, it’s a very interesting question whether it has or is dying out or has died out or which gods have died out. I mean, different types of gods have existed at different times. The Old Testament God has died out, especially in Christian tradition. We don’t any longer believe in the vengeful God of the Old Testament. So that God has died out. We now have a God who’s etiolated compared to previous conceptions of God. You know, and in some religious people, God turns out to be nothing more than a rather abstract intelligence that lies behind things. It doesn’t have very many personal characteristics. He’s not vengeful. He doesn’t punish you and so on. So, some of the myths of Gods have died out, but we still have, of course, a notion of God around.

BILL MOYERS: We do seem to come with this longing.

COLIN MCGINN: Absolutely, we do come with that longing. What is an interesting question I think is how much of the longing is part of human nature or how much is culturally determined. I found I was a little concerned when I was dropping religion that somehow I’d find my life emptier and I’d have a longing which would never be assuaged. I didn’t find it. And I was surprised as my life went on. I didn’t feel the lack of God in my life.

BILL MOYERS: What is it like to be a godless man, an atheist, in a society where God is everywhere? On our money, you know? In God We Trust.

COLIN MCGINN: Yeah, yeah.

BILL MOYERS: On our public buildings.


BILL MOYERS: On television, on radio.

COLIN MCGINN: Yeah, yeah.

BILL MOYERS: On the lips of preachers, politicians and pundits. Do you ever feel that you are an alien?

COLIN MCGINN: Yes. Oh yeah. It wasn’t so bad in England because England was a much more secular society than the U.S. is. But I certainly find myself here puzzled and disturbed. You know, all the opposition to Darwin’s theory of evolution to me is absolutely absurd and the dominance of certain kinds of religious beliefs especially when religion turns into a conservative, political agenda which doesn’t seem to have much basis in the Bible anyway. So, yes, it’s strange. And most of the people I know, most of my colleagues are the same as me. I know very few philosophers who are religious at all.

BILL MOYERS: The rise of the Christian Right in the last 25 years is in no small part, because they said they felt besieged by secular humanism. Do you have any sympathy for their sense of besiegement?

COLIN MCGINN: I suppose so. I mean if I believed that they were under threat by other members of society. And when I say “under threat,” I mean threat. I don’t mean under persuasion by other members of society. You know, if they were to say we don’t like the fact that people publicly argue for a non-religious point of view, I wouldn’t have any sympathy for that. They can publicly argue for their views. That’s absolutely fine. We must have free speech. If they felt there was an application of power to prevent them from carrying out their religion, then they’d be justified. And I would deplore that exercise of power. They should be allowed to be religious.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think people understand that the Bill of Rights protects the right to be irreligious?



COLIN MCGINN: I think they do understand it. I think American society very deeply understands the freedom of speech. Now there are local cases where it’s not always held up, but I think basically people understand that it’s extremely important. And it is one of the most fundamental values of democracy. And that’s why I would defend to the death people’s right to be religious and to express their religious beliefs.

BILL MOYERS: What brought this festival of writers together on faith and reason is the growing chorus of voices that are calling for the protection of religious sensibilities and sensitivities against offense, against the insult. There’s something going on here. How do you see it?

COLIN MCGINN: Well, the notion of insult is a slippery one, isn’t it? And does it include criticism? I mean, are you insulting somebody’s religious beliefs if you criticize them?

BILL MOYERS: Well, the people think that you are.

COLIN MCGINN: They do think that you are.

BILL MOYERS: And they want protection for their beliefs.

COLIN MCGINN: Yeah, that, I think, is wrong. Nobody can have their beliefs protected from rational criticism. If insulting people includes shouting at them and calling them names, that’s very bad behavior. But should it be prohibited by law? Maybe, if it’s very extreme. But if people just want to have their belief system protected from every form of rational scrutiny, I don’t have any sympathy for that. I think there’s got to be a very firm distinction between criticism and persecution. And I think people misunderstand the idea of tolerance often. They think that tolerance is the same thing as lack of criticism. But to me, tolerating somebody else’s beliefs is not failing to criticize them. It’s not persecuting them for having those beliefs. That is absolutely important. You should not persecute people for their beliefs. It doesn’t mean you can’t criticize their beliefs. Those are not the same thing. I think people have tended to sort of run these two things together, and they perceive criticism as if it was persecution. But it isn’t.

BILL MOYERS: You know, there was a time when you could die for being on the wrong side of this equation. You could be on the wrong side of God and that was it.

COLIN MCGINN: You could die for not just being on the wrong side in the sense of not believing in God, but also for believing in God in the wrong way. You know, Elizabethan England, if you believed in God in the Catholic way when there was a Protestant in power or vice versa, you could not just die, but you could be tortured to death because of it.

BILL MOYERS: When you came to this country, what was your understanding of the separation of church and state? And how do you see that issue now?

COLIN MCGINN: What is very interesting about this is in England there was no separation of church and state, because in our schools, we had religion every single day. And it was taken for granted. Nobody worried about it. I didn’t even think about that when I was a child, of course. Now I look back at it and I say it was an outrage that they imposed religion on everybody. So I admired the way in America there’s this separation of the two things.

I think that people should be taught about religions in schools. They should be taught the content of Christianity. They should be taught the content of Islam. They should be taught the content of atheism. All these things should be objects of education. They just shouldn’t be indoctrinated in any of them, in any one of those opposed to the others. So, it’s not that I think we should keep religion out of schools in the sense that nobody’s ever allowed to discuss God in schools. They should. In fact, it’s one of the best ways to think about the meaning of life, the importance of virtue and so on.

It’s rather hard to see how people can think about those questions which are sort of philosophical and moral questions, without having religion as part of that discussion. So, I don’t have such a black and white view that we must keep any tincture of religion out of our educational system. It can be there. It just should be there as another object of education among others.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think is missing in our conversation between faith and reason? You’ve been at this festival of writers for several days now. What’s missing in our conversation between faith and reason?

COLIN MCGINN: Well, I think there’s too much tolerance of faith, and there’s not enough respect for reason. I think there are two sides to what’s happening in contemporary culture. Let’s talk about the reason side first. For the last 30-50 years, reason has been under attack. Subjectivism, relativism, multi-culturalism have been brought in to undermine the enlightenment values of the disinterested search for truth, the belief in objective justification, the belief in objective reality, the belief in science, the belief in history. And so intellectuals and academics have told the world that these are all illusions, these ideas of truth and objectivity and justification, and we ought to accept that people just have different systems and they have their different cultures with different views. So you get an attack on reason. So reason isn’t taken very seriously.

At the same time, faith is flourishing because if there’s no such thing as reason, how will faith ever be criticized. So we get the idea, well, people have different faiths, and since everything’s relative anyway, there’s no point in trying to criticize other people’s faith and point out there’s no evidence for it. It’s internally incoherent. So, you’ve got a sort of resurgence of faith after what seemed to be a gradual wearing away of faith. And then you’ve got this way in which reason seems to be sinking in people’s estimation. So I think those two things are going on. I think we need to reaffirm the values of reason.

BILL MOYERS: And what do you mean by reason?

COLIN MCGINN: I mean by reason simply the faculty whereby we acquire knowledge, and by knowledge I mean true, justified belief, beliefs that we have which are true and have justifications which we can produce to other people and convince them. So in the case of science, we have empirical justifications, experiments, observations.

BILL MOYERS: Trial and error, tests, re-test.

COLIN MCGINN: Trial and error. We carry out a test. We statistically analyze it. We observe what’s happening to come up with theories. And we arrive at our scientific beliefs. And there’s a consensus because the evidence is publicly available. It can be cited. It’s not personal. Nobody says I know by revelations that the earth goes around the sun. No, observations have supported that. So you’ve got science, you know, a paradigm of reason. But I don’t like to limit reason to science. I think that’s scientism. I think that reason applies to morality, for example. I think reason applies to history.

BILL MOYERS: How does it apply to morality then?

COLIN MCGINN: Well, I think that morality is also a rational belief system. We can justify our moral beliefs. We can have intelligent arguments about moral questions. If we’re discussing capital punishment, we can have an argument about it. We can discuss that rationally. We don’t just say, “Well, I believe that capital punishment is wrong and you don’t believe it’s wrong.” And that’s the end of it.

We can have a conversation. We can say, “Well, why do we think that capital punishment is wrong?” We might say, “Well, it deters people.” Now we can make observations. Does it deter people? It turns out of course it doesn’t really deter people. You know, we can have a discussion about many subjects, and so it’s part of reason. It’s part of the ability to have a rational argument where you can resolve it and so on. That’s what I mean by reason. It’s nothing very spectacular. It’s just the idea of arriving at objective opinions.

BILL MOYERS: Is it possible in a democracy of so many different kinds of beliefs and people, that we can ever have a truth we can all agree on?

COLIN MCGINN: People will probably never agree about large questions of life. And they can agree about simple things. But they can’t agree about those large questions. What’s important, I think, is that they hold their beliefs with the right kind of doubt and qualifications. And they’re aware that other people have different beliefs which they can also believe in to the same degree. So, they can respect other people’s point of view.

So, I think it’s okay for people to have their different sets of beliefs. What’s unhealthy, I think, is the decision on the part of any one group to prevent anybody from outside ever coming into that group, and ever expressing their opinions to that group. That’s very unhealthy. But if a group has its own set of beliefs but is able to talk to others and welcomes others in with different views, and listens to their criticisms, that’s absolutely fine.

BILL MOYERS: You said a moment ago that when you let slip the bonds or the tether of religion, you anticipated that you might find a big hole in your heart.


BILL MOYERS: Or, in your soul.

COLIN MCGINN: Yeah, yeah.

BILL MOYERS: But you didn’t.

COLIN MCGINN: I didn’t, yeah.

BILL MOYERS: What filled it?

COLIN MCGINN: In fact, I felt the contrary. It felt to me a better world I was living in without God. I mean one of the things about God is everything you as a moral being do is under the scrutiny of this being who’s gonna reward you or not as the case may be. I think it compromises people’s moral sense, because they feel as if everything they do which is good, they’re doing it because God will approve of them and reward them for it. And once you jettison that idea, you do what you should, because you should, because it’s the right thing to do and that you don’t feel that there’s always some sense of self-interest involved in any moral action that you perform.

I think it’s an oppressive idea that God is always looking into your soul at every moment of the day and weighing you up. It makes people too introspective. So, I found it was sort of liberating to not have that oppressive, Big Brother surveillance from God all the time. And I found the universe more interesting and more stimulating without gods. I thought, you know, investigating the universe without a religious impulse or religious perspective on it was to me a more interesting and stimulating thing to do.

BILL MOYERS: Have you heard any contemporary argument for God that impresses you?

COLIN MCGINN: No. No, I can’t think of any. There are no arguments for God that are impressive. You know, you can point to the fact that death is the end of a person. And you can say, “Isn’t that awful that people die and they’re gone?” And I sort of agree with that. It’s awful. And immortality would be good. But that’s not an argument for God, of course. That’s just wishful thinking. It would be good if we didn’t die. It would be good if the just were rewarded in heaven and the evil were punished. That would be good. But those aren’t arguments for the existence of God. Wouldn’t it be nice if that were the case? But there are no intellectual arguments for the existence of God at all.

The whole history of 20th century theology of course has conceded that point, because the whole history of it is the necessity of faith. You don’t need faith if you’ve got reason. If God can be proved by reason, by the ontological argument or the cosmological argument or the argument from design, faith is not necessary to underpin the belief in God. But 20th century theologians realizing that you’re not going to prove the existence of God by reason have said, “Well, you’re going to believe in God by faith” which is another kind of belief. And of course, anybody who doesn’t think that you should be organizing your beliefs according to your wishes won’t be very impressed by that.

BILL MOYERS: You said that faith is another kind of?


BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

COLIN MCGINN: Well, in faith, you believe something. So you’re meant to believe, for example, that God exists as a matter of faith. You’re meant to believe in an existential proposition: God exists. And you believe it on faith. That is independent of evidence or argument. To anybody who’s devoted to rationality, that’s got to sound very strange, because it’s saying: We want you to believe in something, but there is no reason to be given for that belief. You’re just meant to believe it. Just the leap of faith. You’re just meant to believe it.

So people get into a very strange state of mind where they believe in something, and they know that there’s no reason they can give. Sometimes they’ll half-heartedly give a reason which I think shows that they are still respecting the point that belief is guided by truth and justification. So they’ll give some kind of argument, but very quickly when you point out what’s wrong with the arguments, they’ll say, “Well, you know, it would be an awful world if there were no God.” Now maybe it would be an awful world if there’s no God. That’s not a reason to believe in God. It’s just not. It’d be an awful world if all sorts of things were so. But it’s not a reason to think it’s so.

BILL MOYERS: How do you account for the fact that the Christian story is now 2000 years old and unlike the myths of Rome and the myths of Greeks and even the myths of your native England, Arthur, Camelot, this story continues to play itself out in human affairs?

COLIN MCGINN: I think the story of Jesus is a powerful story. It’s got many important ingredients about justice, suffering, bravery. The content of Jesus’ teachings still have a lot of relevance. The Sermon on the Mount still seems to me to have a lot of good things in it. So, there’s a lot to be said for it in terms of just the religion itself.

But also I would say there’s a huge institutional structure behind religion. There has been for a long time. That’s why the best predictor of what people believe in matters of religion is where they were born and their families. I mean, why is it that most people in America believe in Christianity, not in Islam? The answer’s not because of the intrinsic content of the two views. It’s because they were born in a country where Christianity is what they’re taught. If you were born in a country where Islam is taught, you believe Islam. It’s to do with what people are taught and that’s why it hangs on. It’s just a huge, powerful, institutional structure.

BILL MOYERS: How do you account for this resurgence of fundamentalism?

COLIN MCGINN: I don’t know what the reason is for it. Because especially as you say it’s a worldwide phenomenon, so if we just considered say America and Europe, we might say, “Well, look, we’ve had the scientific viewpoint.” And the scientific viewpoint is too narrow to encompass everything about human values. It doesn’t encompass art. It doesn’t encompass morality. It doesn’t encompass emotion in many ways. And so there’s a sort of backlash and I sympathize with that. I think having a view of the world which is solely dominated by science is a limited view of the world. I think everything in science is good, just not that science is the only way to think about things, as that’s why I think philosophy is a valuable subject. It’s not science.

But the trouble with that is it doesn’t seem to apply very well to the Muslim world. It’s hard to see it as a backlash against science, because science never gained a strong ideological hold there. So it’s very difficult to see. It seems almost like a coincidence where this religious fervor is coming up in different parts of the world. I think some of it has to do with the ordinary as disappointing. The ordinary world is disappointing to people. It may have something to do with the kinds of lives they live in the ordinary world.

For example, they don’t have the spiritual connection with nature anymore. That doesn’t seem to exist in the way it did. An old pagan idea is fading away, and so people need religion to get them away from the boringness, the dullness of ordinary life. And it’s true of course. And it’s the same with myth. If you’ve been plowing the field all day in the rain and you come home at night and you’re eating gruel and life is not very enjoyable and somebody starts telling you a story about these magnificent creatures doing all these wonderful things in myth or in religion, the human imagination can conjure up another world, and it gives you an escape from the ordinary world. So, part of it I think is a difficulty of living in the ordinary, humdrum world. The ordinary, humdrum world is often just that.

BILL MOYERS: You seem to revel in the life around you. I mean you write, you go to the movies. You write books about movies.

COLIN MCGINN: I do. Yes. There are things I like to do which I proselytize people to get them to try and do it. I like to wind-surf. I started wind-surfing when I was fifty. I wish I’d started wind-surfing when I was twenty. And so I say to younger people, you know, when they find out I wind-surf, and I say, “Wind-surfing is really an enjoyable thing to do. You really should give it a try.” Because I find it so enjoyable. It’s contact with nature. It involves skill. So many good things about it. So I try to get people to wind-surf, for example.

BILL MOYERS: That’s exactly why people I know proselytize for religion, for God. Why they go out as evangelists. Why they go forth as missionaries. They discovered something that they want you to share.

COLIN MCGINN: It’s true. And it’s a creditable motive, isn’t it? You find something that you’ve found valuable, and you want other people to share it. It’s absolutely fine. They may not like it. They may go wind-surfing, and they just don’t like it. Okay. They may not like religion. Fine. They may like it. That’s all fine. I mean I’m sure that there was a time in going to church at the weekend and singing the hymns and the wonderful stained glass windows and the music and the stories, it takes you out of the humdrum, boring world, and that must be a part of the appeal.

BILL MOYERS: I will tell you that when it comes to wind-surfing, I am not only agnostic, I’m atheist.

COLIN MCGINN: I wouldn’t recommend it for everybody.

BILL MOYERS: Anymore than you recommend religion.

COLIN MCGINN: No, I certainly wouldn’t recommend religion. But you’ve got to find ways to derive from life what life has to offer obviously. I mean, you’ve got to pursue that, and it can take a lifetime to find out in life what you find enjoyable.

BILL MOYERS: Colin McGinn, thank you very much for joining me.

COLIN MCGINN: Thank you.

This transcript was entered on April 6, 2015.

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