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Interview: Roger Trigg, philosopher

03 August 2011

You ask if I’m a theologian, philo­sophy, or ethicist: my background is absolutely in philosophy; so I regard myself as a philosopher. My work, though, is more interdisciplinary at the moment, because I’ve got to take into account law and politics — the philosophy of law and human rights in particular.

I wouldn’t separate faith and philo­sophy. It’s always faith in something; so you have to have an understanding of what it is. Then reason comes in at various levels. I don’t agree that faith is subjective and philosophy is ob­jective.

Faith claims truth for everybody, and philosophy does the same thing. Philosophy encourages us to examine our presuppositions more deeply than many have the time or inclination to do, but they make those presuppositions. The more people link faith with subjectivity and a sort of magic ingredient which can’t be touched from outside and is im­pervious to reason … well, that is just wrong.

Faith is always faith in something. The moment you specify it, it is open to reason. If the person doesn’t exist, the faith is misplaced. Faith in God implies that there is a God, and immediately you have to bring your reason to bear.

Religious freedom is a burning issue at the moment. I’m directing the Centre for the Study of Religion in Public Life in Kellogg College, Oxford. One of our projects is co-operation with the Berkley Center in Georgetown University, Washington DC, on international religious free­dom; so I’m particularly preoccupied with it. This follows on from my work in the past: I wrote a book in 2007 called Religion in Public Life; and my new book, which will come out later this year, is called Equality, Freedom and Religion.

I have written a lot on general philosophy, 12 books now, and a lot were on topics such as human nature and reality. A theme running through a lot of it is an opposition to relativ­ism. I’ve been against that for 40 years. I’m glad the Pope is now coming in on my side.

I’ve tried to uphold the role of reason. I’ve been very opposed to narrowing that conception so that it becomes only scientific reason.

A very negative influence on me was Professor A. J. Ayer, a noted atheist in the middle of the last century. A very, very acute mind, and I admired the way he did philosophy, but I was dead sure that what he said was wrong. He wanted to say that all reli­gious statements were meaningless.

Faith should be rational. I get very concerned when faith is thought to be subjective, irrational, and private. On the contrary, I think that faith should be claiming truth, should take its place in public life.

A very real influence on me was my father. He was a Methodist minister, and he stimulated my interest in the philosophy of religion and philo­sophy in general. From a very early age, I sat listening to him preach every Sunday.

There are very considerable threats to religious freedom in many countries. The way Copts are being treated in Egypt. . . But I am par­ticularly concerned with things nearer home, because I think there is an increasing secular attitude in Europe, particularly coming from the Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe. Religion is seen more and more as a marginal thing — a private thing. It’s thought that it’s important that the state is neutral.

Freedom of religion is an absolutely fundamental human right. In the United States, many people think it’s the first freedom, not just because it’s in the First Amendment, but because they think it’s basic to democracy. I mean, if you can’t be free to say what’s most important in life. . . At the moment, though, it does get trumped sometimes by demands for equality and non-discrimination.

I’m not saying that other rights don’t matter, but there should be a balance. At the moment, religion comes off worst.

The test is people we quite seriously disagree with: if we don’t allow them freedom of conscience, within reason, I think that’s the end of free­dom.

My new book is about the tussle between the demands of equality and the demands of freedom. This doesn’t just affect Christians. In the Supreme Court, the year before last, they stopped a Jewish school having strict rules about who counts as a Jew, because of racial discrimination. It didn’t matter that it went against millennia of theological understand­ing of what makes a Jew.

What I’m putting forward shouldn’t be controversial: there is a list of human rights that everybody has signed up to. One of the main ones is the right to religious freedom and to manifest it. That’s as important as the right to equality or not to be discriminated against.

One or two judges recently have said religion shouldn’t be playing a big part in public life because it is basically subjective, irrational, and not based on evidence — and that, as a philosopher of religion, I utterly reject.

In the past 20 or 30 years, there’s been great pressure on philosophers to write only for philosophers. This is largely due to the Government’s research-assessment exercises. It has become too professionalised, and they don’t write for a wider audience. I firmly believe philosophy under­pins all intellectual activity, and examines the assumptions of society.

Philosophy is taught in British schools. A-level philosophy is very popular, as is A-level religious studies, which is generally very much the philosophy of religion. I find students in schools are very enthu­siastic. Sometimes they’re disappointed when they go to study it at university and find it’s much more sterile.

I was the first chairman of the British Philosophical Association, representing all British philosophers. Before that, I was chairman of its predecessor; so I’ve had quite a bit to do with philosophy in British uni­versities, and also philosophy in education.

Philosophy is very cheap to teach — you just need a person, perhaps a room, and perhaps some books. As long as there’s a market for it, there’s no reason why it can’t flourish in universities.

My wife and I have three grand­children, and another one is due in September. Although they live outside Washington DC, we’re lucky to be able to see them quite often.

My biggest regret is that my son, aged 17, died of leukaemia, and didn’t live to fulfil his ambitions. It was a terrible, shattering thing, but, for a philosopher, the problem of suffer­ing is the same. It shouldn’t matter more because it happens to me than because it happens to others.

I’d just like my family to remember me, but I’d like to think that some of my writings have helped people.

When I was a child, one of things I would quite like to have become was a judge. I did become a magistrate, for ten years, and I do a lot of philosophy of law; so, I suppose, in a way I’m not a million miles away.

Undoubtedly, the most important choice in my life was to marry Julia. She’s a violinist, and teaches now. Yes, I do like music. I do mostly choral singing.

I do dislike the tendency church leaders have for making pro­nouncements about politics and economics when they have little expertise in those subjects. They do lose credibility. I believe they should be involved in public life and issues, but it’s a mistake to get involved in partisan arguments about reducing the deficit or whatever.

The other side is that there isn’t enough emphasis on pressing social evils — the breakdown of family structures and the erosion of the institution of marriage. When I was a magistrate, I was very struck by the connection between crime and family breakdown. It’s terribly im­port­ant that there’s a mediating structure between the individual and the state. The Church is one, but the family is crucial. If they aren’t there, the state has to become more and more author­itarian.

The Chief Rabbi speaks firmly on these things, but Anglican bishops tend not to. When the Church doesn’t really stand for anything, it becomes irrelevant.

I can actually remember a sermon from when I was a boy of about ten, at our annual charter-day service (I was at Bristol Grammar School). The preacher was Canon C. E. Raven: “If you boys can’t remember anything else, I want you to remember one thing I’ve said today. Jesus is what God means by man and what man means by God.”

My favourite part of the Bible, which I see as going to the heart of the Christian faith, is 1 Corinthians 15: “if Christ be not risen . . . your faith is also vain.” The message of the resurrection is absolutely essential for the Christian faith. I think some­times the Church forgets it. There’s a great tendency to narrow faith to the concerns of this world.

Apart from personal concerns, I most consistently pray for the unity of the Church. The forces of disunity within the Anglican Communion are very distressing at the moment. And by unity I also mean the way or­dinary Christians treat each other at the local level — just the way people treat their neighbours. If we as Christians are not sent to be reconciled with each other, we cannot preach the gospel of peace and reconciliation to the world.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Julia. I don’t think anyone else would be able to put up with me.

Professor Trigg was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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