Katherine MacAlister talks to one of this summer's more unlikely festival stars - AC Grayling, who appears at Latitude

"Contesting religion is like engaging in a boxing match with jelly.”

That’s what AC Grayling concludes in his new book The God Argument, and this is the perfect way to summarise not only the noted ethicist and philosopher’s humanist ruminations but also the undertaking itself.

That “Britain’s thinking man” has made a career of summing up our era’s moral dilemmas so acutely, eloquently and — some would say — relentlessly is incontestable. And far be it for me to condense his 270 pages of debate, but not only has AC Grayling taken on the Herculean task of attacking the vast and enormously controversial global topic of religion, but he’s aimed it at the everyman, which is presumably why he’s appearing at Waterstones to discuss his new work.

And yet, having read The God Argument, the questions came thick and fast — not about his views, but about him. The same queries he raises — where, why, how, because religion couldn’t be more topical, so is he cashing in or is this just another topic he hasn’t wrapped his famously assiduous brain around yet? And where do you start with a beast like this? Plus is he concerned about his safety or utterly unfazed by tackling such a hot potato.

In short, is he being controversial for controversy’s sake?

Although fully fired up for the interview, I’m not hugely surprised to find him AWOL when the time comes to it, although his staff finally find him in London’s New College of Humanities, “dangling a new baby a colleague has just brought in. Sorry I lost all track of time”.

Softly spoken, considered and gentle, AC Grayling is nothing like the man I had conjured up in my mind. Born in Zambia, his schooling was harsh. He also suffered the personal traumas of his sister being murdered and his mother dying of a heart attack as a result.

“It made me realise that life was hard and had a dark side to it, that everyone must experience loss, because if you love someone loss is inevitable and you will lose them in the end."

Presumably his Humanist stance stems from then? “No, I was an atheist before that, and as a teen I found the idea of religion deeply implausible. I just lived in a place and time where canes were used and I got the thick end of it, literally. It did not make for a happy part of my education.

“But then if you think about the horrors going on in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, terrible conflicts, your response should be to try to do something positive and bring out the good side of things. Not in a conventional, moralistic, Mary Whitehouse, goody-two-shoes way, but to try to add something — affection, kindness and encouragement, so people enjoy things from the nature around us to a fuller understanding of art, science and literature – to bring about a good response in the world.

“So the best answer to tragedy and grief is to try to do something worthwhile because we are all neighbours in this human story in a modest way and I think it’s a good way of dealing with grief in your personal life.”

He says this as a 64-year-old man who has made his peace with the world, but for a traumatised teenager things must have been very different so it’s incredible that he persevered in the face of such adversity.

“Well I’m an autodidact, did my own reading out of school, and had conversations with like-minded friends. The hope was that if I persisted and was patient there was a life where I could live by teaching, writing and researching, that there would be opportunities for people interested in these things.”

Oxford University was his salvation. Magdalen, to be more accurate, which is where he flourished like a plant starved of water. “It was wonderful, like coming out of a cave into the daylight,” Grayling says.

Once let loose, Professor Grayling’s enthusiasm knew no bounds. “The debates of human society have always been central to life, and I knew that to contribute to that in some small way would be a great thing. Even from an early age that excited me. That’s why teaching is one of most rewarding careers you can have in life and why teachers are so important,” he says earnestly.

Not content with teaching at Oxford and London Universities, Grayling now imparts most of his knowledge in book form. “You can write in a way that’s engaging without telling people they are wrong. It’s just part of the conversation of humankind — essentially who and what we are as human beings.

Everything else is just a continuation of that. So I never underestimate how smart people are.”

As he speaks, all my how, why and when questions suddenly seem less important. For what it’s worth, Grayling (Anthony Clifford by the way) says the ‘topic’ was on the list, “so when the opportunity arose to get it down it seemed appropriate”.

He writes early in the morning and late at night, and no, he’s not worried about his own safety, having just returned from a US tour “and always got a warm reception.”

He loves Oxford, is still a supernumerary at St Anne’s, visits whenever possible, “fairly infrequently at the moment though I’m afraid — I’m a bit busy,” and misses living here. He’s a “bit of a workaholic”, but finds it “a great comfort to get deeply immersed in work”. When not writing he enjoys his family (he has four children) and loves travelling, music and friends. And yet one suspects A C Grayling never really switches off.

“When you consider life is only 1,000 months long and a third is spent asleep and a third doing things like shopping in Tesco, it doesn’t leave you much time so you need to get stuck in,” he argues.

Even stuck on a beach though I suspect his mind would be elsewhere. “It’s very hard to turn off the philosophy tap in one’s head,” he accedes, “and I’m conscious of that aspect of my mind because it’s important that it doesn’t get in the way. “But being lost in my head is something that happens all the time.” And then he laughs, before adding: “Although a beach holiday is not at all my thing, the library is too far away.”

  • AC Grayling appears at the Latitude Festival, Henham park, Southwold, Suffolk. The festival runs from July 18-21. Go to latitudefestival.com for full line-up and tickets