Recently The Observer newspaper conducted an interesting debate on the role of religion in today's world. Under the heading 'Is religion a force for good... or would we be happier without God?', the publication asked five leading figures in the fields of academia, politics and religion for their opinions about an issue that has become highly polarising in recent years.
Based on this - at times very emotional - exchange, I am intending to open up my blog for a similar exercise. But before I lay down the terms and conditions (or the T&Cs, as they're usually spelled out nowadays) for the next public debate I would like to put in my twopence worth. I don't agree with the title of the article.
First of all, religion is an abstract noun that comprises the set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe and very often includes the role of a superhuman force. This is the force tasked with the creation of the aforementioned universe. Religion also involves a set of devotional and ritual observances and a moral code by which all believers must abide. To ask the question of whether religion is a force for good or not, is like wondering if the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 was caused by football. Religion has no material form other than the one given to it by humans. The only way I can see it becoming reality is through public worship, ritual, prayer, recitation, meditation; namely, liturgy. My choice of heading would have been, 'Is the use of religion by human beings a force for good?'. But obviously, that long title wouldn't have 'sold' the debate. Which is why I'm not a sub-editor. In my opinion, though, the sub who thought up the heading left the human factor out.
However, he or she tried to include that human element in the second part of the heading with the hypothetical question '... or would we be happier without God?'. Again, in my opinion the phrasing is wrong even if I can understand the intention. We won't be happier without a God because there will always be a God. Let's break that statement down to the bare essentials.
According to the latest figures (The New Statesman, 5-18 April, 2010 issue), in the world today there are 2.1 billion Christians, 1.5 billion Muslims, 900 million Hindus, 376 million Buddhists, 23 million Sikhs and 14 million Jews. I've excluded other religions on purpose due to lack of space, but I guess you get the point. There are an awful lot of people who worship. To contemplate a future where these many believers will suddenly stop practising is ridiculous to say the least.
The other reason why the phrasing of that question is wrong, methinks, is that there was a time when almost every person - if not every person - had religious beliefs. Whether it was an Abrahamic faith or a pagan one, up until the end of the 1700s and the beginning of the 19th century the word atheist (which we now use for someone who neither believes in God nor in evidence of its existence) referred to people who denied pagan notions of divinity, i.e., Jews and Muslims were atheists as they had faith in just one God.
Therefore the idea of a Godless future is as naïve as the notion of science solving all of life's mysteries. Religion, whether we like it or not, taps into parts of the human brain that are connected to, amongst other functions, language, understanding and emotion and its effects can be felt both externally and internally. The same person who weeps at the thought of Christ's virgin birth is not any different from the individual who tries to become aware of his/her inner world through yoga techniques.
Why am I organising this debate now, then, besides the prompt from The Observer? Because we live in interesting times as far as religion is concerned. Secularists and religious believers are at loggerheads over the role religion should play in contemporary societies and whether there's space for mythos in representative democracies. Personally speaking, as an atheist, I would like to see a modicum of decency when discussing religion. It's true that I don't think that a religious body, whether it be the Church of England, the Board of Deputies of British Jews or the Muslim Council of Britain, should be making executive and/or legislative decisions on behalf of the whole country. At the same time, I wouldn't lobby to end R.E. (Religious Education) in schools either.
The other reason for this debate is that when talking about religion, we, atheists, secularists and humanists, sometimes behave in ways that are better suited to religious fundamentalists. For instance, we look at the reaction in Pakistan to the assassination of Salmaan Taseer as an example of Muslim bigotry, but overlook the role played by Islamic parties in Indonesia and Malaysia in ushering in much-needed democratic change to societies plagued by corruption and dictatorship. We like to think of born-again Christians as people with narrow-minded views (and former US president George W Bush perfectly conforms to that stereotype), but ignore the many followers of Jesus and his teachings who go about their business daily without showing off their faith. Recently the journalist Victoria Coren, a must-read for me on Sundays, 'came out of the religious closet' as a Christian. So what if she worships? Does that diminish her intelligence? She still cracks me up everytime she goes on 'Have I Got News For You', the BBC's flagship, satirical, light-hearted, political-themed news quiz.
I hope I have been clear as to why I'm opening the (virtual) doors of my blog to believers and non-believers; people who hold politheistic beliefs and people for whom there's only one God; individuals who think there can be a divine being as long as its existence can be proved and others who don't think there can ever be a deity nor evidence to support such claim. All are welcome.
The terms and conditions are the same as the two previous debates I conducted on my blog. First, you need to read the article that apppeared in The Observer (the link is included in the opening sentence of this post). If you're interested in participating in this debate, please, send me an e-mail to the address on my profile and I will reply to your message with three questions. Please, enclose a short bio and a photo of you or let me know whether I can use your blog byline image. I am intending to post questions and answers at 10am on Sunday 30th January, that is, next week, so, please, be prompt and send me your responses as soon as possible. In an ideal world, I would like to have a variety of contributors, both religious believers and non-believers. But we don't live in an ideal world, so first come, first served. That also means that previous participants are more than welcome to take part. There's no need for ground rules, as I trust fellow bloggers and readers to treat each other with respect. However, any derogatory remark(s) will be removed and the person(s) addressed by e-mail. If you wish to reproduce the debate on your blogs, you're more than welcome to do it.
I look forward to your contributions. Many thanks.
Next post, ‘Living In A Bilingual World’, to be published on Wednesday 26th January at 11:59pm (GMT)