It’s amazing how little you know the people you think you know. I’ve been friends with the novelist Salley Vickers for decades. I thought I was pretty familiar with her life, her children, her writing. But it wasn’t until she came into the studio to record a podcast with me that I heard an extraordinary story about her childhood – and how it had affected the rest of her life.
The anecdote was like a window opening on my old friend. I never really understood Salley Vickers until I heard that story. And how interesting that it took the formal occasion of a podcast interview to find this out about someone I thought I knew.
The interview was for a new series of podcasts we are launching at UnHerd. And what an absolute privilege it has been to sit down with some of the most interesting thinkers around today and just talk, listen and learn. It’s called Confessions and is intended as a contribution to a gentler form of public discourse about politics, philosophy, science, religion and the arts.
It isn’t inquisitorial. It isn’t hostile or angry. It’s me at the microphone with a guest having the sort of conversation you might want to have down the pub: big issues discussed in an atmosphere of friendly and respectful exchange. Because there’s a lot more you can find out about people when you don’t give them the John Humphrys treatment.
The series is not called Confessions because we want people to give us the gossip on their darkest or most embarrassing secrets. Forget all that. It is Confession as in a confession of faith – an account of what it is that people believe in, what their core values are, whether they be religious or not, left or right, liberal or communitarian.
St Augustine wrote his Confessions at the end of the fourth century AD. And with this book, not only did he invent what we now call the autobiography, he also proposed the idea that what you believe about life, the universe and everything has to be understood within the context of personal and lived experience. Augustine’s subject is God, of course. But in order to talk about God he needs also to talk about himself – about stealing pears when he was a kid, about his mother, about his out-of-marriage love affair – all these are required to be understood in order for Augustine to explain his theory of human brokenness and why it is only God that can fix us. For Augustine, writing about himself and writing about belief, about the truth, are impossible to distinguish.
This is not a series about God – though because I have an interest in God, that does come up quite a bit. It’s a series that works on the Augustinian principal that what people believe has to be set in the context of their wider lives, their background. So it is that I begin every conversation by asking people to say a little about their family background, their parents, the atmosphere and values of the home they grew up in.
This is often very revealing – not in any sort of intrusive, nosey way, rather as an emotionally persuasive way of situating people’s beliefs. Some of these conversations are more academic, but many are surprisingly personal. And with thinkers as diverse as Roger Scruton and Maurice Glasman, Tom Holland and Martin Rees, Melanie Phillips and Helena Kennedy, no conversation goes the same way. I have worked on the principle that if I am not enjoying the conversation, nobody else will. And George, who produced the recordings, said that I laughed so much he can now instantly recognize the digital wave shape of my laughter.
When people start to explain how they came by the beliefs that they have, it is much less easy to dismiss them as being “on the other side”. For a number of years now I have been a panelist on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze, a notoriously inquisitorial programme that attempts to test an argument to destruction. I love doing it.
But often even more, I love the meal we have afterwards. There we go through what was said, but without our weapons raised or our armour on. And in this series I have tried to reproduce something of that feel. Because you often learn a great deal more in this sort of environment.
I don’t, for example, agree with very much that is said by my co-panelist, Melanie – but I hope that people, after listening to her being remarkably candid about where her values come from, will come away with a richer understanding of what makes her tick. And I suspect that quite a number of people will meet a very different person from the one they think they know.
Throughout his adult life, one of Augustine’s major targets was the Manichaeism of his youth, a quasi-philosophical quasi-religious idea that the world is a battleground between good vs evil, and that good people must take on evil people and win. Social media has one again revived this nasty and pernicious doctrine, and turned our digital communal spaces into places of hatred and oversimplification.
News editors like the drama of Manichaeism as it allows them to cast the pyrotechnics of heated and binary debate, the clash of ideas, as the epitome of engagement – whereas it is mostly just click baiting. But the relationship between good and evil is much more complicated than culture warriors suppose. As Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
Confessions is a project of listening, of intellectual empathy and re-complication. It is undertaken in the spirit of open and friendly exchange because this way of talking often seems to be in such short supply these days. And because the world is a much more complicated place than the dualists suppose.
We kick off, on Monday, with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the philosopher Mary Warnock and the lawyer Philippe Sands.
I hope you enjoy listening to their confessions as much as I did.