Sunday 23 January 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

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.

© 2011

Next post, ‘Living In A Bilingual World’, to be published on Wednesday 26th January at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Perhaps the question should be: 'would we be happier without religion'...religion and god, to me, are no neccesarily tied. So much ill occurs in the name of religion...the jews vs the gentiles, the protestents vs the catholics etc...

  2. Agree with Maxine... happier without religion, but not necessarily without God.

    Buen domingo Cubano!

  3. Congratulations on a well-written post.You are a brave person indeed to wade into this alligator-infested swamp. :) I am usually one of the ones wading in there and have more than a few nicks to show for it. Now, on to read the link you provided.

  4. Well this promises to be a deep one. You explained your points very well and I think this topic definitely needs to be discussed here. Personally, I've never had that much interest in organized religion and all of its petty requirements, (especially since I was a questioning child raised as catholic) I think God exists regardless of the religion you follow and it's faith in God, not religion, that makes us happy.

  5. You are indeed a brave man! Religion has been a force for both good and evil in the world - good when it practices compassion and good works, bad when it's bigoted, practices hatred, violence, oppression against other men and women. I think that religion came from our need to understand and organize the chaos of existence. Science now does that for some but it can leave out the gasp of delight, the hand of gentleness, rules of ethical behavior and right living. The world would be better if the followers of many religions would actually follow their founder's principles; Christianity is a main example of that. Other religions didn't have such a compassionate founder and the worlds that they have created are often harsh toward many, especially women. But I suspect that the debate will last as long as human kind for there is a part of us that is always longing for the stars, to understand the deepest reaches in the human heart or the darkest aspects of human behavior.

  6. Many thanks for your feedback. I've yet to check my e-mail, so I hope to find some of the posters amongst the would-be participants in the debate.

    It's funny how some of you mentioned getting rid of religion, but not of God. It's interesting because that probably matches my experience of being acquainted with people who hold religious beliefs. To them, God is a personal and private affair. Paradoxically, they all belong to one of the three Abrahamic faiths, which means that they're part of the same organised religion on which we blame some of the ills visited on society today.

    Off to check my e-mail. Already looking forward to this debate! :-)

    Greetings from London.

  7. This is a timely debate, indeed. I like the way you framed it, and invited people who'd want to spend some time on this topic. My husband spends hours in chat rooms, debating this and other issues. As a scientist, he takes a very hard line on organized religion. I'm not that brave to get involved in a full-fledged debate because unlike him, I was raised in a Catholic country where religion was taught in school, where everyone had a nun or a priest in their family, and where morning mass and church bells punctuated the day.

  8. Seems to me that if the Buddhist numbers were on the top of the scale, the world would be much better off. If I had to choose a religion, that would be the one.

    I'll be interested to read the debate, Cuban, but won't be applying to participate this time. Just for lack of time rather than an avoidance issues!

    I'm inclined to agree with a remark I read a while back when the topic of religion was on the table elsewhere - that some people have a God gene and some just don't. There's no other way I can account for why rational, intelligent people believe in a supreme being and all that goes along with that.
    It's pretty simplistic, but it helps me to be tolerant.

  9. I look forward to hearing what your readers have to say on this subject, Cuban. Thank you for the link to Victoria Coren -- I look forward to reading her!

  10. I think this is an interesting topic, but probably comes down to an argument about experienced.
    Though I was raised an agnostic because my father preferred not to ague with anyone about what he considered the absurdity of the notion of a god, and he thought any religion co-opted and oppressed the believers...I think religion is fairly organic to the condition of humankind...that life is dangerous, that humans need comfort, that the notion of an all-seeing being is useful. On the other hand, I've seen how nicely people who believe deeply use their experiences as important lessons, seemingly taking the time to learn from them...
    Though I'm an agnostic and forego the comfort I might have through a religion, I have respect for people I've met who are believers who use their faith as a reason for generous acts. I try my best to manage some generous acts, but I image (and this may not be true) that I'm not quite as steady as they are...anyway, we all haul along in this confusing life, trying to make the best of this.
    None of this is to condone repressive religions, repression of women, of gay folks, but progress in those areas is slow...and I count myself lucky to have been born in this region, in this time, or I would have been long dead of childbirth or illness...
    I would have liked to join the debate, but I can't reach you by e-mail. You'd have to contact me through my website...
    damn, that article was long and I must confess that I got annoyed in some parts and here's to confessions

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Sorry, typo.

    I agree with you that the title of the debate seems simplistic. It's almost a lazy assumption of what 'religion' means to people. And what about people of faith who don't call what they practice 'religion'?

    I'm going to sit out the debate here (it's has been a longstanding decision of mine to not get into debates of 'religion' vs science etc etc) but I'll be reading and keeping tabs on the whole thing. I bet it's going to be really interesting.


  13. I have always wondered why good words like religion, fundamentalist, God have bad connotations to them. Maybe it is time we debate on words like democracy, freedom, economy; since we have killed and gone to war in their names.

  14. Thanks for your comments.

    Melissa, I left the questions on your blog. Sorry about the slip.

    Maria, muy valiosas tus palabras.

    Aishah, I don't think the words you included in your comment have a negative connotation per se. It's what humans make of them that makes the difference in the end. In terms of democracy, economy and freedom, I don't think, either, that they're bywords for annihilation, but again, it's what us, humans, use them for. Was it right to fight against Hitler? Yes, 100%. Was it right to invade Iraq? No, in my opinion.

    Greetings from London.

  15. I vote for your title,"Is the use of religion by human beings a force for good"?
    I can only quote Monty Python at this point,"Well, I certainly didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition!"

  16. Well, my goodness, you are a brave person to wade into this topic. It's risky. I like that. For this topic, for me, I like what Madeleine L'Engle says, "I do not think that I will ever reach a stage when I will say, "This is what I believe. Finished." What I believe is alive ... and open to growth."

    However, I think I will email you and see what these three questions are. I am always up to a challenge. ;-)

  17. Wow, a deep one today. I have to agree with Maxine about so much ill will in the name of religion. I personally look internally for my rights and wrongs and try to be true to myself without outside influences.

  18. I'm not so much for organized religion, but I do consider myself spiritual. Having said that, I am grateful for my Lutheran/Catholic upbringing. The Bible contains many tried and true stories that teach important lessons.

  19. Wow! Only an English journalist (and a Cuban in London blogger!) would dare to question the good of God. In the US, that would never make it to print in a mainstream newspaper. An appropriate question, nonetheless, to ask on a Sunday.

    It was interesting to see the stats on religion. I’m not surprised to see Christians first, Muslims second and Jews last but didn’t have a sense of the other figures. I agree that we should still study religion because it’s such a part of our world now and in the past.

    I like how you balanced religious extremism with progressivism. They are two sides of the same coin. I don’t believe that personal faith has caused problems, but too often organized religion has led to bloodshed, as others have said above. However, churches and temples feed the poor, create community and encourage charity.

    I’m half Jewish and half Christian married to an Anglican. We have raised our children with a bit of both. It’s important cultural heritage. Looking forward to reading more on your debate, although as policy I dodge participating in religious debates myself.

    Appropriate song too – I love that one from REM as does the audience clearly. It was fun to hear it again and really listen to the lyrics. You are so good at finding just the right music to accompany your posts. What kind of instrument is that tiny guitar? I always wondered what made that lovely sound in the track.

  20. I've come to a place in my life where I have stashed my religion on the shelf. This is not to say I'm not spiritual, nor does it say I don't look to God has my higher power. Thought provoking post, as always, Mr. Cuban.

  21. Well said, Cuban!

    I learn as much from comments on blogs (both on mine and others) as from the articles I read and the research I do to put each post together. So, this is one debate I'm definitely tuning into!

  22. A good post as always. I am unsure about religion in many ways. i am not a believer and have no intention of being one. I cannot imagine anything remotely like a god and find it quite baffling that people do. But I work on the no harm principle, as long as no-one uses religion or god to destroy someone else, I'm content. Leave that to proper things, like oil and power and land...

  23. Many thanks for your thoughtful comments. And thanks, too, to the bloggers who contacted me by e-mail to answer my questions. I'm already looking forward to this Sunday's post, which rhymes perfectly with "Sunday's roast" :-).

    Greetings from London.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...