In Conversation with Dr. Stephen Law – Philosopher and Author

by | April 1, 2018


By Dr. Stephen Law and Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Dr. Stephen Law is Reader in Philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London. He is also editor of THINK: Philosophy for Everyone, a journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy (published by Cambridge University Press). Stephen has published numerous books on philosophy, including The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking (on which an Oxford University online course has since been based) and The Philosophy Files (aimed at children 12+). Stephen is a Fellow of The Royal Society of Arts. He was previously a Junior Research Fellow at The Queen’s College, Oxford, and holds B.Phil. and D.Phil. degrees in Philosophy from the University of Oxford. He has a blog at Stephen Law was Provost of CFI UK from July 2008-January 2017 taking on overall responsibility for the organisation, and particular responsibility for putting on talks and other educational events and programmes.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Since the audience for Canadian Atheist amount to the general public of the non-religious, this can frame some of the discussion. You spent decades in philosophical pursuits. We have been writing together on-and-off for over a year now, much more than that if I remember right (I will have to ask Professor Elizabeth Loftus about that one.).

To start, I want to converse on the nature of the non-religious and the skeptic movements – even the super-minority of self-identified zetetics – and the public representation of them. In the United Kingdom, the non-religious became a larger movement than Canada, especially America and many European countries as well.

What seems like the future of the non-religious in the laity of North America and Europe over the incoming decades?

Dr. Stephen Law: Well the ‘nones’ are on the rise across the West, certainly. In Iceland, the proportion of young people identifying as nones is now 0%. That’s a pretty dramatic figure. However, those who are ‘no religion’ (nones) are not necessarily atheist, remember. However, atheism is also on the rise.

As religiousity declines, it will be harder and harder for e.g. The Church of England in the UK, to appear relevant or significant. It’s the established Church here, of course. It runs very many schools, including a school my daughters attended (I had little choice). It has 26 bishops automatically seated in the House of Lords, where they can block legislation they don’t like. Quite how this can continue to be justified when members fall to single digits is a good question..

Jacobsen: What seems to convince the laity, the general public, of non-religious viewpoints, in part or whole?

Law: Anecdotally, reason appears important. Those who become atheist, for example, often self-report that reason – subjecting their beliefs to critical scrutiny – played a critical role.

Mind you, that’s self-reporting. US Christians self-report that they go to church regularly far more than they actually do (we know this because there are not enough pews physically to contain all those claiming to be there). So self-reporting is not always reliable. It may be that the explanation for a person’s loss of religious belief is not what that person supposes.

Of course, that the real reason for rejection of religion/theism is something other than critical thinking is often maintained by the religious, of course, who insist the real reason people reject religion and embrace atheism is they want to engage in immorality, etc.

Interestingly, there is evidence to suggest people go into religion quite fast (about 3 months on average) whereas come out much more slowly (it usually takes years). I am particularly interested in the psychology involved going in each direction. C.S.Lewis famously wrote his The Screwtape Letters which explored the psychology of Christian/atheist belief from the standpoint of devils who are trying to lead us astray. I wrote The Tapescrew Letters to explore the psychology of religious/atheist belief from the standpoint of gurus trying to seduce new recruits. You can find my Letters from a Senior to a Junior Guru here:

Or listen to them here:

The difficulty with trying to persuade folks their religious beliefs are wrong head one, as it were, is that they will likely have developed quite a range of immunising moves. Take Young Earth Creationism (YEC), for example. It’s a ludicrous belief system. But try persuading an intelligent YEC-ist that they are mistaken and you will find they can tie you up in knots by employing a whole raft of strategies. Being a clued-up scientist is often of little use. Indeed, the scientific experts regularly fail badly in debates with YEC-ists.

A better strategy, I think, is to get those employing such immunising strategies to recognise that these strategies are very dodgy, by getting them to look at analogous cases. That’s one the things I did with my book Believing Bullshit. It’s also exactly the approach I take with my Evil God Challenge. Christians are very well prepared for the problem of evil – they have a whole range of theodicies to employ, plus skeptical theism. Come at them head on with the problem of evil and they’ll tie you up in knots. But get them to compare an analogous belief defended (belief in an evil god) using the very same immunising tactics that they are employing, and suddenly they may get a glimpse of how ridiculous and irrational they’re being. I produced a short video on the Evil God Challenge (suitable for kids and adults) here:

The paper is here:

Jacobsen: What role do theologians perform for the religious public? Why don’t the non-religious have this developed to a similar extent – in proportion to the non-religious lay public population (per capita, so to speak)?

Law: There have been attempts to provide similar roles in a secular context – e.g. The Sunday Assembly in the UK. I can see that having an opportunity to come together, engaging in some community bonding, think about bigger issues, mark the great rites of passage in the year and in life – these things are good things that religions have traditionally provided, even if along with a lot of toxic religious baggage. I can understand why some would like to see those good things offered in a secular context. Personally, I don’t really need it, though. I enjoyed my visit to Oxford’s Sunday Assembly, but feel no need to go back.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Law.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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