JR'S Free Thought Pages
A. C. Grayling – On War
From Life, Sex and Ideas (2003)
War, always an evil, is sometimes the lesser of two evils. Even then it needs additional justification, from the degree of evil it opposes. The war against Nazism was a justified war, although not everything done in it by the opponents of Nazism was justified. This consideration prompts the inescapable question about the conduct of war: what should be its limits? Should ethics tie one’s hands when faced with an implacable enemy, whose victory would be a disaster for the world? Churchill said, ‘There is no middle course in wartime.’ This hard truth forces one to recognize another: that every war, however justified, reduces the stock of human good, and diminishes civilization - sometimes destroying in seconds what centuries built.
War prompted by religion, even indirectly, is never justified. Whatever the proximate excuse for such wars, the basis of each one is exactly the same, namely, suspicion and hostility engendered by differences of belief and associated culture. Christian armies mounted crusades against ‘infidels’ to capture the holy places of the Middle East, and against ‘heretics’ such as the Cathars to rebut their falsehoods by exterminating those who believed them. These are entirely matters of ideology. None of the major faiths is bloodless; history reeks with the gore of their wars and persecutions, all the more disgusting a spectacle for being, in essence, as simple as this: A kills B because B does not agree with A that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden.
People should be left to believe what they like, so long as they harm no one else. Apart from normal expectations of politeness, it is not however clear why people should require their personal beliefs to be treated with special sensitivity by others, to the point that if others fail to tip-toe respectfully around them they will start throwing bombs. From a secular point of view, religious beliefs are at best absurd and at worst dangerous, and the amount of free play they are given in the public domain is a menace. Believed-in fairies should be kept at home as an entirely private matter, and their votaries encouraged to cease taking themselves so seriously that, when irritated by those who differ, they resort to Kalashnikovs. Apart from anything else, such reactions speak little confidence in their own violently-held certainties.
When differences of belief and religion-based culture are the ultimate source of conflict, the real war that needs to be fought is the war of ideas. A secularist might hope that liberal scientific education would at last free the human spirit from its thraldom to ancient superstitions and practices. Realism prompts the more modest hope that people can learn to accept that others differ, that belief is a private matter, and that no one has the right to impose beliefs on others or to punish their non-acceptance.
This aspiration has a practical dimension. In order to accommodate a variety of religious and cultural differences in a single society, society itself needs to be wholly secular, most especially its educational institutions. ‘Faith-based’ schools entrench and perpetuate the differences which too often lead to conflict - by educating children from all backgrounds together there is a far greater chance of mutual understanding and personal friendships. Enthusiasts of all faiths oppose secular education because exposure to other traditions has the effect of loosening the grip of their own. That, from a secular standpoint, is of course the consummation devoutly to be wished.
The war of ideas today is what makes a difference to the occurrence or otherwise of shooting wars tomorrow. But the murderous grip of humanity’s various immemorial belief systems is unavoidably here now, sprouting its bitter fruit. It is as hard for the innocents of one side to defend against the frenzy of fanatics as for those of the other to protect themselves against technological might. But the survivors, if there are any, can try to defend the future by winning the longer and greater war against the intolerance, bigotry, zealotry and hatred which so brutally divides humankind against itself.
From Life, Sex and Ideas (2003)
A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford - and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com
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