Update: This post was written before our dialogue was released. You can now enjoy it on podcast here or YouTube below.
The other week, I had the distinct pleasure of recording a radio dialogue with Justin Brierley and best-selling British author/journalist Douglas Murray for the Unbelievable? program. We were very fortunate to catch Douglas and pin him down, coming off one of his routinely long legs of travel (we last found him in Mexico, I think) and still juggling a “nightmarish” schedule that kept us on our toes up to the early morning of recording. Thankfully, all was well in the end, and with Douglas adequately tanked up on “coffee, followed by more coffee and then another cup of coffee,” we enjoyed a very fast-paced 75-90 minutes together. Our goodbyes were warm but of necessity brief, to all our regret. While my readers wait for the program to air on January 3rd, here are some after-thoughts as a preview of coming attractions.
I first discovered Douglas in the summer of 2018 when preparing to write what would become a viral hit piece about Jordan Peterson’s dialogues with Sam Harris, “Sam Harris Asks Questions Jordan Peterson Can’t Answer.” It was only the second or third thing I wrote after joining Patheos, but it would take on a life of its own and launch me into the circle of commentary on Jordan Peterson and the wider phenomenon known as the Intellectual Dark Web. Primarily famous in the UK and European pond, Douglas Murray’s name rang no bells when I first saw that he would be moderating/joining the UK leg of the dialogues. By the time I came to write the piece, I had already familiarized myself enough with Douglas to know that he was far more than a third wheel in the debate and devote some space to his contributions.
Douglas’s body of work and thought quickly proved a much richer mine of material than I expected, on an impressively wide array of topics political and non-political. In fact, while he is best known for the former, it was some of the latter that interested me most. And among his areas of political focus, it was not necessarily his signature issues of immigration and Islam that drew and kept my strongest interest. Rather, what struck me most in getting to “know” Douglas through his various books, articles, speeches, etc., was the sense that I had stumbled onto one of the world’s last old humanists. (Well, that plus the sense that this guy and I would have been thick as thieves in high school—book thieves, natch. Any man who self-confessedly “upgrades” his favorite books from soft to hard-back, only to be stuck with two copies because he made notes in the soft copy so he can’t get rid of that now, is a man after my own heart.)
Anyhow, “humanism” is a word now fraught with baggage in Christian circles, with some good reason. Many self-identified humanists proudly associate it with an aggressive rejection of the Christian faith. Nevertheless, it is a word I have argued Christians should be stealing back for themselves. I steal it back unblushingly on my own profile with the description “Christian humanist.” I’ve developed my own philosophy of Christian humanism at some length in my contribution to the forthcoming anthology Myth & Meaning in Jordan Peterson (Lexham, March 2020—the essay is entitled “The Image of Christ: Peterson as Humanist”). But if someone were to ask me for the short version, my new favorite short version is a riff on something Roger Scruton once said: I see the world, and the individual people in it, as lovable.
In context, Scruton was originally criticizing post-modern culture, specifically the way it desecrates the human person through “art” deliberately made orthogonal to beauty. This kind of “art” typifies a loveless culture, a culture that does not see the world as lovable. It is fundamentally anti-human. Thus, the task of the true humanist, to be a lover of mankind, is essentially counter-cultural. I would assert that it is also essentially Christian.
Why, then, do I find such a kindred spirit in Douglas Murray, who, despite my best efforts, didn’t leave our conversation rushing to reaffirm the lost Anglican faith of his youth? (He was, in fact, rushing to meet his publisher for a last-minute late lunch, with humblest apologies for “causing such a nuisance.”) It’s because I believe we each in our own way have taken up the humanist’s task. In a recent interview with Scotland’s The Herald, he says that he doesn’t love nations in the abstract—England in the abstract, Scotland in the abstract. Rather, “I love people. I love things about the people.”
We both of us also recognize the Christian essence of the humanist’s task, even though Douglas still does so as a self-described “Christian atheist.” He takes this moniker both as a recognition of his abiding love for Christian language/liturgy/culture and a recognition of the Judeo-Christian bedrock that makes him wonder out loud whether human life would still be sacred in an atheist world. Douglas recognizes that he can’t escape this bedrock underlying his basic instinct that while human beings are manifestly not equal in a host of outward characteristics, they are still equal in value.
As he discusses in this dialogue with Jordan Peterson (transcript here), it is this instinct that leads him to back away slowly when the odd fan asks him why he never talks about “the IQ question.” He urges anyone who shows an unhealthy curiosity in this area to join him. Agreeing together, both he and Peterson broadly condemn the “pernicious” conflation of difference in “economic worth” with difference in “intrinsic worth.” Here Douglas borrows a line from novelist Iain McEwan that he’s used more than once, which is that we most of us eventually come to realize the nicest person we know may never have read a book. (There’s something about the fondness with which Douglas always lingers on this line that makes me wonder whether perhaps, for him, it might be more than hypothetical.) He wonders uneasily whether, best-selling books by Steven Pinker notwithstanding, we haven’t really progressed so very far beyond the 20th century’s blood-stained pages.
Douglas also has an instinct which he described to me as “not just an instinct, but a drive” to affirm the essential meaningfulness of life. Like Whitman, he replies to the question “Oh me, oh life of the questions of these recurring, what good amid these oh me, oh life?” with the answer “That you are here. That life exists.” Or, to quote one of his favorite lines from Rainer Maria Rilke in translation, “Being here means so much.” In a testy, must-read Easter debate about euthanasia with a far more calloused colleague at The Spectator, Douglas unapologetically embraces and repeats that simplest, least ironic of catch-phrases: “Choose life.”
This affirmation capped what I believe listeners will find to be the most moving section of our dialogue, the middle third, where I was invited to direct the flow and happily chose to pivot us to the sanctity of life. We discussed our culture’s growing obsession with having complete control over the end of life (even to the point that much-touted “choice” has repeatedly devoured itself in cases where people are killed against their reflexive instincts because their younger selves had signed a form). We discussed the state-sponsored killing of people who are simply “tired of life,” a point on our culture’s slide down the slippery slope that, by Douglas’s recollection, we were never supposed to reach.
I highlighted a case study from his latest book, The Madness of Crowds, about a young Belgian woman who first mutilated and then killed herself as she tried to “become” a man and only found that she had unlocked new depths of misery. The Belgian state was by her side the whole way, holding her hand even to the grave. It’s impossible to read Murray’s account of this case and not sense from him a deep sadness, an instinctive protective motion of the heart towards a soul who needed help to live and found only help to die. It’s an instinct that quietly suffuses much of his commentary, inspiring me to give him the honorary title “equal opportunity humanist” in my review of the book. When we talked, he shared his particular burden for the “listless and depressed,” whom he constantly wants to encourage like Edgar encourages his blind father Gloucester in King Lear as the old man falls to what he thinks is his death. Despite the fact that he has only a few more minutes of life, it is in those last few minutes that, as Douglas puts it, “he discovers everything.” If Douglas could leave people with one message, it would be the message that “that’s worth hanging around for,” if you would only just hold on—for a few minutes more, hold on.
What, then, does it mean, this instinct, this drive? Douglas sees and accepts it by the natural light, like Auden in “Precious Five” accepts that he must “bless what there is for being.” What else are we made for, agreeing or disagreeing? But the question remains, to what might this point? To what, to be Augustinian about things, might this tend?
I had far too little time to discuss with Douglas where I think it tends. (For this dialogue at least, though he has graciously left his door open for more in the future.) The final third of our conversation turned to questions around Christianity, as he briefly reviewed his archetypally Victorian crisis of faith while I briefly encapsulated how I was raised to view faith and reason—as dancing partners, not enemies. When our host asked Douglas “what it would take” for him to make his way back, he told us only half-jokingly that he “would need to hear a voice.”
This challenge was a left turn, to say the least. But Douglas took pains to explain that he doesn’t intend to trap Christians with it. He is quite serious: If you have heard a voice, he would very much like to know about it. To the milquetoast politically correct Anglican who responds to the challenge with a “Come come, my dear fellow, don’t tell me you’re actually asking about an actual voice from heaven,” Douglas would say “Why not?” He would like to know. He would like to listen. Even if you honestly can’t fake it and say you’ve heard a voice, at least put something down on the table. At least put some damn skin in the game, like the persecuted Christians in Africa and the Middle East, or the Christians in the American black church who dare to forgive their killers, whom Douglas regards with reverent awe. Otherwise, what’s the point of it all?
There was limited time to convey that I understand what he means. I understand, I think, what he’s looking for. I hope I began to nudge him towards it. I had the foresight to bring along a few of my dead friends in glorious 19th-century binding and briefly wave them at Douglas as we said our goodbyes, and to remind him of C. S. Lewis’s warning that a young atheist can’t be too careful of his reading material. (It amused me to realize that I’ve been a Christian for over 20 years, longer than Douglas has been an atheist.) He seemed quite touched.
I have called Douglas “the gay humanist” in the title of this piece for purposes of clickbait (you did click, didn’t you?) but I’m afraid now that I’ve got you all to click and read to the end I have no great reward in store. This is because it turns out I actually don’t particularly care, and neither does Douglas. This was a source of some slight hilarity at one point in our dialogue, in which I waved about the woman card I never use while Douglas reflected on The Guardian’s mysterious reluctance to say “Hey, let’s give Douglas a good write-up, he’s gay!”
In fact, I do like to think of Douglas as a gay humanist in another and older sense—that is, the sense of men who go “gayly in the dark.” With such men, I will gladly walk arms linked, for only by such men is darkness pushed back one day more.
The week I recorded our dialogue, I went with a few friends to sing carols at an out-of-the-way country nursing home where an old neighbor friend of ours is spending her last days. I still had Douglas’s voice in my head as we walked around with our tidings of comfort and joy while the residents listened, some more responsive than others. A friend’s daughter walked around distributing candy canes. At one point, she came to one woman lost in Limbo. The girl wasn’t sure what to do, so my father helped her. The woman eventually did take the candy.
Douglas, of course, was not there in person. Still, I shouldn’t have thought it strange to turn and find him smiling over my shoulder, leaning forward to whisper, “That’s worth hanging around for.”
C. S. Lewis said that friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another “What? You too? I thought I was the only one!” Like Rick Blaine at the end of Casablanca, I believe this is only the beginning of a beautiful friendship.