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Religion, Politics, and Truth: An Interview with Simon Blackburn

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Simon Blackburn is one of the world’s leading academic philosophers. Over the course of his extensive career, Mr. Blackburn has taught at Oxford University, the University of Cambridge, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has published countless books and essays on topics ranging from the philosophy of language to the nature of truth to atheism. Additionally, Mr. Blackburn is known for his numerous appearances in the British media (such as on the BBC’s The Moral Maze), along with his efforts to make philosophy accessible to the broader public. He is currently the Bertrand Russell Professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge, a Fellow of Trinity College, and a Visiting Professor at both UNC-Chapel Hill and the New College of the Humanities in London.

Alex Fasseas: You coined the phrase “respect creep” as a criticism of religious tolerance. Is respect for one’s religious or political beliefs a moral necessity on the part of the non-believer?

Simon Blackburn: The word “respect” is very elastic. Respect, as I see it, falls on a spectrum which ranges from simple toleration all the way up to sharing someone’s beliefs. So I don’t “respect” your Catholicism to the extent that my respect is predicated on my willingness to become a Catholic. And I think that a lot of the aggression and hot air surrounding current political discussions—such as the cancelling of speakers—betrays the danger of respect creep. We’ve conflated disagreement with disrespect. So if I disagree with your views, I simultaneously disrespect your views.

And that’s, of course, a very unfortunate decline in the liberal ethos of free speech, and it’s one that the universities especially have to resist. But I think its genesis does lie in respect creep. That is, in the days when free speech was paramount, I could respect your views sufficiently just by letting you express them. I didn’t have to read them or listen to them, and I didn’t try to shut you up. Now, however, the “woke” generation demands that unless I actively share your views, I am to be regarded as beyond the pale. It’s a very disturbing progression, and I think it’s a great shame.

In terms of religion, provided your beliefs don’t impinge on me, I can just let you get on with it. I don’t care whether you go to a synagogue or a mosque or a temple or a church. But of course as soon as you start insisting that I agree with you, then I think you’re trespassing on my own space, on my own autonomy.

AF: Is it easier to lose faith as a devout theist, or to find it as a staunch atheist? What sort of conceptual change does such a dramatic transition, in either case, require?

SB: I wouldn’t like to quantify it. I mean, there are lots of stories of deathbed conversions in which the person who’s been an infidel all their lives suddenly sees the light, but these are stories told by the church or by church spokesmen. There is, of course, one famous case of someone who thought the reverse, that is when Jesus was on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

But any major reorientation of your view is going to be stimulated by external causes. If you’re a devout Christian, and you lose a child, you’re going to ask yourself, “Well, has God forsaken me?” This is going to shake your faith. If you’re a devout atheist—if there’s such a thing—it would take something really quite remarkable. Maybe if I won the lottery, I’d start to believe in God… I didn’t think so [laughs].

I myself doubt that a lot of people actually believe in God, although they say and think they do. Many of them like the words, music, rituals, and dances, which is fine. They can like those things. But to describe it as a belief… I’d want to interrogate that a bit. After all, if you really believed everything that Christianity tells you—or most versions of it—then you’d be happy when your child dies, whereas in fact, people are not happy when their children die. They may say, “He’s in the hands of the Lord. He’s gone to Heaven, joined the choir of angels,” but they still mourn, they still feel grief. So it’s not obvious that this is a real belief, which has the same effect as a belief that your child has immigrated somewhere really nice, which would make you rather chuffed.

AF: In recent years, secularists such as Sam Harris have put forth their own meta-ethical theories centered around “the science of morality.” Do you find any of these arguments to be particularly convincing?

SB: The idea that morality can be founded on science is, I think, deeply flawed. 

It’s perfectly true that morality should take account of the way of the world. So if science tells us something about the way the world works, then a good moral code—which will inevitably give instructions for living in said world—better take account of that fact. So, for example, if science tells us that if we go on living the way we do in the West there’s going to be catastrophic global warming which will undoubtedly fall on our descendants, then I think that’s a fact we should take into account when we ponder how to live. We might find ourselves not buying an SUV, or taking more flights then we have to, and so on. So science has its role in that it gives us information about the environment and enables us to predict the future somewhat better. But by itself, it doesn’t tell us what our duties or rights are, or what counts as a virtuous or improper life.

And just as I don’t think religious people behave better than non-religious people, the same can be said for scientists. There were some quite amusing cases during the pandemic where scientists involved with the COVID-19 response—experts in the field— broke the very lockdown rules they had helped to put into place! And that doesn’t surprise me in the least. I don’t think their science gave them any reason to behave better in that respect than the rest of us.

Of course there have been many previous attempts to think that science tells us something very specific and special about morality. Utilitarians like Bentham and Mill thought of themselves as being scientific in a way that other conceptions of morality weren’t. In the 19th century, there was a nasty aberration where people thought that the moral to be drawn from Darwin’s theory of evolution was survival of the fittest, and that therefore the correct way to behave was to go around with your elbows out, trying to shove others out of your way. So biology has a very checkered record of getting involved in questions of human nature and morality.

AF: How do you define or gauge progress in the political sense?

SB: With negative numbers. I think politics plumbed new depths during the Trump administration. I think it was already heading for the depths before that with the rise of radio shock jocks like Rush Limbaugh, who realized the potential commercial gain that could be made from controversy, from ranting, from demonizing opponents, and so on. And I’m not sure that was all that new because the “gutter press” had done that since the invention of printing, certainly since the 19th and 20th centuries. But newspapers didn’t have the reach of television, let alone the web. So I think politics did go into a nasty phase and I’m very much hoping President Biden manages to do something to reverse that trend. Whether he’ll succeed or not is in the lap of the gods, but that’s my hope.

AF: In Perpetual Peace, Kant argues that “all politics must bend its knee before right.” Do you agree with Kant—that the moral supersedes the political?

SB: The difficulty with Kant’s remark lies in the word “must.” If politics must obey the sovereignty of the good, why must it? Machiavelli thought that in practical terms, politics can’t obey the sovereignty of the good, because the politician who does so will always be overcome by politicians who don’t. So as a matter of practical necessity, I don’t think Kant could be right. But suppose he says, “No, my must is a moral must.” Well, then there’s a danger that we’ve just got a tautology—that you ought to do what you ought to do. And where does that get us? So I think that I’d be suspicious of Kant’s remark. It’s presented as obvious, but it’s only obvious in the sense in which it’s a tautology. And if it’s presented as a piece of practical wisdom, then I think the exigencies of politics suggest that it’s not very good advice.

AF: Many people believe that we are now living in a “post-truth” era. You’ve described the political buzzword as “fake news.” Why is that? Are we “post-” something else?

SB: I don’t like the phrase “post-truth” because we’ve been very happy with truth and falsity for most of our existence. I mean, it’s true that I’m sitting in a room and I can see you sitting in a room—these are judgments I’m sure of. We’re very good at interpreting the world around us, and we’re very good at calling out people who get it wrong. So truth and falsity aren’t going home anytime soon. What I think people are more worried about is indirect sources of information, where we can’t immediately see for ourselves whether something’s true or false, where we have to rely on other people’s testimony, particularly in the domain of politics. Everyone who’s grown into adulthood learns that you can’t always rely on what other people tell you. So fake news is just part of the human world, and you have to be on your guard against it. 

Again, for the vast majority of daily interactions, you can rely on people quite well. If I were to forget my watch and ask someone in the street for the time, and they told me that it was 3:30 pm, then I can expect it to be 3:30 pm. And 99% of the time I’d be right. So we rely on each other’s testimony quite naturally when other people have no motive for deceiving us. Now, politics is almost essentially an area where people have a motive for deceiving us because it is a domain where individuals can have drastically differing views; the answer is never as simple as “3:30 pm.” So politics is an area where trust is much more fragile than in other cases, specifically when we try to distinguish trustworthy information from untrustworthy information.

But politicians have always been untrustworthy. Machiavelli in The Prince talks about how the prince, that is the government, has to be prepared to deceive people, and that princes or governments that aren’t prepared to deceive people do not survive in the rat races of politics. So he thought, in a sense, that the weapons of deception were essential. And I think a lot of people would say that about war, for example. If you’re conducting a war, you need to conceal some information, to distort other information, to keep up the morale of the troops, to keep people believing they’re on the winning side, right up to final defeat. When Russian and American troops were closing in on Berlin in the last stages of the Second World War, Berliners truly believed that Germany was winning right up until Hitler killed himself. Against all the evidence, they still believed that Germany was winning. So getting that kind of public reaction gives all the more reason for politicians to lie. 

Ultimately, I think what you’ve got in a post-truth world is not the disappearance of the notion of truth, but rather the diminution of trust. And in order to improve on that, we have to do something about social media, and we have to improve our children’s education, so they get a little practice in distinguishing who’s trustworthy from who’s not.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.