The MWS Podcast 34: Andrew Brown on Religion

This week’s guest is the journalist and author of the award-winning book ‘Fishing in Utopia’. He writes a regular column in the Guardian on themes concerned with religion and this is the topic of the conversation today.

MWS Podcast 34: Andrew Brown as audio only:
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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

10 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast 34: Andrew Brown on Religion

  1. This sounded like quite hard work, Barry, though you might feel that it was worthwhile hard work: trying to get across the basic concepts of the Middle Way in the context of an interview to someone who has little idea of it. In this sense Andrew Brown is rather different from any of your other interviewees so far, all of whom had some idea to start with. For me it’s an open question as to how useful recording and sharing this kind of process is, so I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts as well as yours. Was it useful to work through the basics in relation to Andrew’s particular concerns and preconceptions, or should the podcasts be focusing more on people with a bit more prior understanding, who might help us to refine our understanding a bit further down the line?

    Where Andrew Brown does seem to have some interesting perspectives (though expressed rather crudely at the beginning using words like ‘bollocks’) is on the new atheists. I would have been quite interested to hear more about his view of new atheist dogma, which he is obviously sensitive to, and it might then have been easier to generalise from that to dogma in general. Though I suppose that there was also a danger that if you had got onto that it might just have led into polarised atheist-bashing, and his language might have been a warning of that.

  2. Hi Barry,
    Thank you for another excellent podcast, your interviewing skills were taxed to the hllt and you defended your corner superbly well with probing questions, Andrew Brown provided some thought – provoking lines for thought. Those more qualified to debate the issues than I, will have much to discuss I imagine on their impression the talk made on them and I look forward to reading the forthcoming comments.

  3. A further thought on Andrew Brown’s language at the beginning. Describing the position of someone you disagree with as ‘bollocks’ is clearly against the rules of internet communication agreed for this site (see point 4 on I don’t think such language should be tolerated from an interviewee any more than it should be on comments. If someone had expressed themselves like this in a comment I would block the comment and ask them to change it. Perhaps it would be an over-reaction to ask Barry to remove the podcast because of this (so I’m not going to go that far), but I think it needs to be clearly stated here that this is not acceptable as a model for communication on this site.

    1. Hi Robert,
      I agree that Andrew Brown’s language was uncalled for and not what we have come to expect on this site. Perhaps as a result of this interview he may consider the meaning of the middle way in more depth and even modify some of his opinions. I like to hear differing views and so would not consider banning future interviews that had another way of looking at the subject.

  4. Hi,

    I haven’t heard the interview yet but it certainly sounds interesting.
    As I have said before, I am quite liberal with words that many people find unacceptable – even if I do not use them all that much myself. For me it is not the word but the intent with which it is used. I personally find the word bollocks pretty mild, but that is just me – I am reminded of the attempted legal action against the Sex Pistols in the 70 ‘s, where attempts to ban the album name ‘never mind the bollocks here’s the sex pistols’ were made. The defence demonstrated that the word bollocks is an old English word that means ‘priest’ and the obscenity charge was, reluctantly, dropped. Admittedly, that is not really how the Sex Pistols or Andrew Brown meant it, but it is an interesting fact nonetheless.


  5. I was a little disappointed, that Andrew Brown seemed unwilling, or unable, to offer a working definition of religion at the beginning. This rather negated the thrust of the interview, I thought. I think that, however provisional or tentative his definition, it might have provided a reference point for me, and perhaps others, to understand his often-voiced ‘difficulty’ or ‘problem’ over responding Barry’s interesting and helpful questions. As it was, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the impression I began to form of Andrew’s apparent evasiveness under challenge, although my impression may be wrong, or uncharitable.

    I would have thought that, after studying and writing about religion for several years, Andrew might have a broad understanding of what others understand by the term, or what commonalities of meaning, purpose, belief, practice or culture he has encountered that generally cohere to suggest a working definition. And I would be surprised if the word religion doesn’t have some personal meaning that he could share, however stumblingly. Maybe it’s his profession as a jobbing journalist that inhibits his being frank with others, if that doesn’t betray my own cynicism. We all work to make a living, after all, even if that isn’t our only motivator.

    Listening to this rather sterile exchange has increased my own commitment to the Middle Way, as a way of working ‘in the messy middle’. I shall learn from my making mistakes, and gradually learning from them, and I hope some of that may have rubbed off on Andrew during his conversation with Barry.

  6. Hi Robert
    I’ve been away for a few days hence my delay in replying to your question. It was quite hard work. It’s by far the most I’ve spoken in an interview for one thing. We differed quite widely on several issues but I also found some of his viewpoints interesting, especially the ones about history and socialisation. I felt I managed to convey some points about the Middle Way quite well (as I understand them) but struggled at times to articulate other points clearly, for example the difference between meaning and belief. However, I enjoyed it, benefited from the experience and feel I would do a bit better the next time, when questioned in a similar way.

    I do thing the majority of the interviews should be with people who have some idea of the Middle Way or are involved with practices that are conducive with it. However, I think there is a place for the occasional interview like the one with Andrew just from an antifragile perspective if nothing else. By the way, how do you feel about putting the term antifragile in the glossary? it seems such a useful term and in this small way could try to bring into more common usage.

    As for the ‘bollocks’ issue, I’m slightly conflicted on this one so a bit more debate would be helpful. Like Rich, I also find the term quite mild. This might be partly due to finding expletives (or crudity), if used sensitively, often a very useful form of expression to convey meaning, generally combined with humour or as an emotional release valve. I find the line between ‘crude’ and ‘rude’ fairly blurred in this particular instance with it maybe being more towards crude than rude and I think we should be mindful about not being too puritanical. I don’t think the occasional ‘fuck’ or ‘shit’ etc which have been used thoughtfully in the ways I mentioned above on this site have been problematic. I think there’s a difference being dismissive about a person and the ideas that person holds. However, when you say someone’s an idiot and their ideas are idiotic, there does seem an implication that the holder of the ideas is then by default an idiot! So I agree maybe some of that is going on with the term ‘bollocks here’.

    I remember being quite comfortable with clause 4 of our agreed rules for internet communication but I suppose this is the first time they’ve been put to the test:

    Please do not use unnecessarily emotive language of any kind to express disagreement. There are always more neutral-sounding alternatives that make the same point. For example, write “I disagree with that” rather than “That’s nonsense”.

    I think the interview with Andy West on transformative mediation and its emphasis in conflict situations in allowing people to communicate freely rather than attempting to use idealised forms of communication is maybe what has mostly given me pause for thought. If I had responded in kind it would have been very different but I simply chose not to respond to Andrew’s comment. I feel it’s important to be on our guard for abusive behaviour. As I have expressed on a number of occasions, I often feel we express the Middle Way more in how we converse on the site than in the actual content. That gives me a lot of satisfaction. However, my feeling is that in this particular instance, my choosing to ignore his comment was in accordance with the Middle Way and was maybe enough.

  7. On reflection it might have been more appropriate for me to have asked Andrew why he chose to use an emotive word like ‘bollocks’ as opposed to something like “I strongly disagree”. Then after he had given his reason(s) I could have then explained that we prefer not to use such language about other people’s opinions on the site as we feel it stifles debate.

  8. I’ve just finished listening to this one, looking back over the comments above they seem to show that it was worth recording the interview and making it available as it stimulated some helpful discussion without anyone getting ‘personal’ about it. Agree particularly with Barry’s “On reflection” comment above.

    I was looking forward to listening to this one, I’d read some of Andrew Brown’s Guardian columns a few years ago, and he was a bit of a curiosity in being so annoyed by the “new atheists” but not himself coming from a particular religious standpoint. So it was helpful to hear his background story, how he ended up with the Guardian “belief” job. Was it this kind of middle ground that led to him being interviewed for the Middle Way Podcast?

    1. Hi Jim
      I seem to remember that Robert had posted an article he had written whereby he argued that Richard Dawkins while applying appropriate sceptical arguments for the existence of God, he was not even handed in applying similar sceptical arguments for the non existence of God.

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