Over the course of this holiday some very worrying stories surfaced about the role religion plays in politics. Two spring to mind from the Conservative Party, Eric Pickles has told atheists to, effectively, shut up and that this is a Christian country (one wonders if we will be making the same statement about Sharia courts and the Islamic free schools debacle in the coming weeks) and David Cameron has claimed divine inspiration for his Big Society scheme. Two conclusions could be drawn from here, each worrying to those who would hope for even-handed, secular government: one is that the cabinet is cynical enough to play lowest-common denominator politics and hope that through these statements they will curry favour with religious voters in 2015. The other is that those running the country want to give the wheel over to a deity who may or may not support gay marriage, may or may not support the stoning of women for adultery and who, as we have seen from one of the Easter blockbusters, drowns babies because he is angry at himself for creating such a sinful race as we are. Whether or not you believe in such a god, I would hope we can all agree that church and state should be separate. And, indeed, Mr. Pickles we are a Christian Country in the same way we are still a monarchy.
The strong Christian reaction to an increase in atheism is based on a ridiculous misunderstanding that atheists want to ban Christianity. They don’t. Secularism is about a level playing field for ideas and if we are to have that level playing field we need to remove Christianity from the privileged position it enjoys. Not ban it, but bring it back down to the same level as all the other ideas competing in the country; if it’s rational then people will choose it anyway and it doesn’t need the backing of the government it receives.
One of the areas where we can see the legacy left by our country’s Christian past is in our very University, where many colleges will have a chapel, choir, evensong, religious motto, the full package (indeed I’m quite proud of my own college’s motto “non frustra vixi: I have not lived in vain”. A godless but yet important, meaningful sentiment). Turn through pages of Student newspapers and you’ll see, next to some of the issues, the Christian take on it, from students climbing the hierarchy of the CU as though the first thing an editor thinks after a story breaks is “we need the opinion of a theist on this!” A member of the CU in my college once said “faith is fun”. I held my tongue on that occasion but found it appalling that such a sentiment can be expressed and accepted in, of all places, Oxford University. Faith is, at heart, the negation of thought, laid out in “blessed is he who believes without seeing” (John 20:29). How can that go unchallenged in an institution dedicated to academic, empirical, investigation based enquiry? Would anyone dare to say in a tutorial, “I just believe it, I don’t have evidence” and expect to be taken seriously? So why the double standard?
I believe in freedom of belief. After Nelson Mandela’s death, one of my favourite phrases said about him was “he tolerated everything except intolerance”. The fight in society against intolerance often feels like just the fight against the homophobic, sexist intolerant moralising that comes from religion. Allowing faith to come into public debate serves to do nothing but muddy to water. There is a debate to be had about abortion and assisted suicide (to name two of the issues du jour) but all that people of faith do when allowed into these debates is to give their take on what the opinion of their god might be about the fate of the souls (for which we have no evidence) of those involved and then expect to be allowed to legislate their faith onto those people who might not believe in their god. Don’t like gay marriage? Don’t have one! I get very worried when I hear about politicians turning to god for their decisions, like George Bush praying about the Iraq War before the invasion, instead of thinking about it. I want my government’s policies to be thought-based and my education to be evidence-based. Just look at the rivers of blood that belief without evidence has caused when it is allowed to become a determinant of public policy: the Muslim and Hindu violence occurring regularly in India and Pakistan since the partitioning; the cycle of violence in the Muslim world between Sunni and Shia Muslims, killing each other over different interpretations of the same religion; the sectarian violence in Ireland in which pits Protestants against Catholics; the recent increase in the persecution of homosexuals in Uganda; and to look further back in history, the Crusades, with trials, inquisitions, the list goes on. As Sam Harris says, faith “divides us in belief and unites us in slaughter”.
There are some who will point to our University’s motto “Dominus Illuminatio mea : The Lord Is My Light”. I would like those people to remember what we called the era when Europe was dominated by Christianity: The Dark Ages.
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‘The Lord is my Light’, reads the Oxford University motto. But what place should religion have in society today? Should our faith remain private? When we engage in discussions in tutorials, or when our politicians debate big issues in parliament, should belief be left outside? Influential thinkers such as John Rawls have argued that, in public political discussions, we may not argue for a moral position unless it has a secular, non-religious grounding. Religion-based positions are seen as controversial and sectarian, while secular reasoning for moral positions are seen as open to all. Therefore, public discourse should be secular, never religious.
However, Stephen Carter of Yale responds that it is impossible to leave religious views behind when we do any kind of moral reasoning at all: “Efforts to craft a public square from which religious conversation is absent will always in the end say to those of organised religion that they alone, unlike everybody else, must enter public dialogue only after leaving behind that part of themselves that they consider most vital.”
How can Carter claim religion is so vital? Let’s start by asking what religion is. Some say it is a belief in God. But Buddhists do not believe in God at all. Some say it is belief in the supernatural. But that does not fit Hinduism, which does not believe in a supernatural realm beyond the material world, but only a spiritual reality within the empirical. What is religion then? It is a set of beliefs that explain what life is all about, who we are, and the most important things that humans should spend their time doing. For example, some think the material world is all there is, that we are here by accident and when we die we just rot, and therefore the important thing is to do what makes you happy. Notice that though this is not an explicit, ‘organised’ religion, it contains an account about the meaning of life along with a recommendation for how to live based on that account of things. Broadly understood, faith in some view of the world and human nature informs everyone’s life. All who say ‘You ought to do this’ or ‘You shouldn’t do that’ reason out of an implicit moral and religious position.
Imagine Jack argues that all welfare support for the poor should be removed, in the name of ‘survival of the fittest’. Sarah might respond, ‘The poor have the right to a decent standard of living – they are human beings like the rest of us!’ If Sarah uses a pragmatic argument that we should help the poor simply because it makes society work better, Jack could come up with many similar pragmatic arguments about why letting some of the poor die would be even more efficient. Sarah tried to find universally accessible, ‘neutral and objective’ arguments that would convince everyone that we must not starve the poor, but she fails because there are none. In the end Sarah affirms the equality and dignity of human individuals simply because she believes it is true and right. She takes an article of faith that people are more valuable than rocks or trees – though she can’t prove such beliefs scientifically. When you come out into the public square it is impossible to leave your convictions about ultimate values behind.
How then do we deal with the divisiveness of different worldviews in society? Why should Oxford, and more broadly the UK, retain its Christian heritage? I think Christianity has within itself remarkable power to explain and remove the divisive tendencies of the human heart. Christianity provides a firm basis for respecting people of other faiths: all people are made in the image of God, capable of goodness and wisdom. Christianity also leads its members to expect that many people of other faiths will live lives morally superior to their own. Most people in our culture believe that, if there is a God, we can relate to him and go to heaven through leading a good life. Christianity teaches the very opposite. Jesus does not tell us how to live so we can merit salvation. Rather, he comes to forgive us and save us through his life and death in our place. God’s grace does not come to those who morally outperform others, but to those who admit their failure to perform and who acknowledge their need for a Saviour.
The real question we need to ask is which fundamental beliefs will lead their believers to be the most loving and receptive to those with whom they differ? The Graeco-Roman world’s religious views were open and seemingly tolerant – everyone had his or her own God. The practices of the culture were quite brutal, however: the poor were despised. By contrast, Christians insisted that there was only one true God, while their lives were remarkably welcoming to the culturally marginalised. They gave generously not only to their own poor but to those of other faiths. In broader society, women had very low status, being subjected to female infanticide, forced marriages and economic inequality. Christianity afforded women much greater security and equality. Why would such an exclusive belief system lead to behaviour that was so open to others? It was because Christians had the strongest possible resource for practising sacrificial service, generosity and peace-making: a man who died for his enemies, praying for their forgiveness.
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For his Autumn/Winter 1996 collection, Alexander McQueen chose an unusual location. The show, entitled ‘Dante’ was held at Christchurch in London’s Spitalfields, and heavily featured Christian imagery, including thorn crowns and images of angels. The setting was partially chosen for the interesting paradox that the church’s architect, Nicholas Hawksmoor, had been a Satanist. After the show, guests were handed pamphlets railing against the vanities of apparel. Apart from his typical dark sense of humour, this collection exhibited McQueen’s fearlessness in the face of controversy, and a fierce dedication to provoking thought and debate in his audience, rather than merely awe-struck admiration. But was he right to do it? Many might interpret his combination of a sacred setting and theme with overtly sexual clothing which accessorized Christian imagery as disrespectful, or even deliberately attention-seeking. Yet others defend his right to use whatever imagery is available to him in the production of art; design is, after all, primarily art (I don’t know many people who would choose a thorn crown as an item to wear for comfort or practicality).
Justin Wellby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, recently criticised the use of the crucifix as a fashion statement, claiming that its ubiquity as an accessory has left it devoid of meaning. As an industry which tends to exist by rushing from scandal to scandal, the fashion world does not tend to be all that concerned with whether or not it offends people. Yet many designers might argue that they have no intention of devaluing religion, as their choice of sacred imagery is merely a reaction to their culture. We have seen several notable examples in the past few years of religion as a theme in runway shows. Versace’s Autumn/Winter 2012 show featured the crucifix as a recurring pattern; Dolce and Gabbana used the interior of a Sicilian church as inspiration for their Autumn/Winter 2013 collection, creating gorgeous mosaic dresses on which the Virgin Mary was depicted, and one of the most stunning pieces in the recent Valentino couture collection was a floor-length gown, the skirt of which was filled with an image of Adam and Eve. A connecting factor between these designers is that they are all Italian, and it is therefore fairly obvious that this religious imagery is a response to the highly Catholic country in which they all live. It would be disingenuous for Dolce and Gabbana to create a tribute to the culture of Sicily without including the rich religious imagery which is an integral part of that area.
More serious problems arise when brands and designers feel entitled to use sacred symbols from cultures which are not their own as an accessory in their products. Cultural appropriation is a messy and complex issue which is not always to do with religion, but basically if you’re not Native American it is somewhat insulting to wear a Native American headdress as a fashion statement; these are sacred symbols and integral parts of Native American culture, a culture which has been under threat because of the oppression suffered by its people. Many argue that the use of symbols from other cultures is a form of cultural appreciation, and thus justifies Lady Gaga wearing a burka or Selena Gomez sporting a bindi. While it is true that celebrating different cultures can be a beneficial thing to do, the problem here is that when the fashion industry (which is, incidentally, still very much white-dominated) chooses to incorporate these religious things into a product, it is effectively reducing an entire culture to a commodity. One might argue that this is also the case when a designer chooses to use the crucifix in their work, but there is a difference between a white Euro-American person from a Christian background (even if they do not identify as Christian themselves) featuring a Christian emblem and the same person featuring an image which is important to, say, Islam.
The truth is that all of this is very tricky territory, and is made more difficult to navigate by the fact that many designers are deliberately trying to offend, as well as amuse, their audiences. It is a sure-fire way to get attention, as well as an opportunity to make a tongue-in-cheek statement. Take, for example the work of designer Jeremy Scott. His collections have played over time with ideas of religion which, combined with his unwavering sense of humour and kitsch designs, makes for a playful but controversial aesthetic. His Autumn/Winter 2011 collection featured red dresses on which the word ‘God’ was emblazoned in the Coca-Cola font; by Spring 2013 he had moved on to using burkas in a show called ‘ Arab Spring’. While many find this sort of thing somewhat distasteful, Scott himself claims to be challenging the status quo by pointing out how the commercialism of fashion often seems to resemble an organised religion.
Fashion and religion have never exactly been bedfellows, and this relationship will continue to be a fraught one. Many of fashion’s most revered figures have made questionable decisions when it comes to wearing sacred imagery as part of their outfits; for an example of this, look no further than Isabella Blow’s hot pink burka, designed by Jon Tukahashi, which was also worn by Lady Gaga in a Philip Treacey show recently. However, as the fashion industry becomes more aware of its problematic nature – something which is being examined especially by those who want to challenge the inherent racism in the business – we may start to see a greater respect for religion in catwalk collections. This does not necessarily mean that all religious imagery will disappear, but rather that designers will think more carefully about whether they have the right to turn a religion into something which can be bought and sold. There will also, however, always be those who are simply out to shock. In many ways, fashion needs these individuals, but equally it needs others who take a more conscientious approach.
A new prayer room at St Hugh’s College is set to open next year amidst controversy over its location and security. The room’s proposed site in the Wolfson building would lead to a staircase previously accessible only by residents being open to all college members.
Venkat Kondragunta, JCR President at Hugh’s, stressed that the “consultation period is still ongoing. College have contacted 8 students about plans to open a prayer room in their living area. This consultation period is still ongoing, and college have made it clear that the prayer room will not be opened this year if the students in question have any objections.
“The JCR and college staff fully support the principle of freedom of religious expression; concerns are only based on privacy issues that arise from opening up a locked living area that inhabitants have chosen to live in specifically for its privacy,” he added.
Matt Handley, a third-year History student and a former resident of the Wolfson building, said the location of the room was “questionable”, stating:
“The provision of prayer rooms in college is, of course, important, but this seems to be a questionable location for that, raising concerns about the privacy of both those living on the staircase and those who wish to use the prayer room.”
He further quipped, “The underhanded way in which it appears to have been implemented is unsurprising- Wolfson staircase? More like ‘Wolfson mare-case’!’”
One second-year student, however, said they “did not see what the problem was.”
“Many colleges do not have such draconian security measures, and allow all members of the college to access most areas. This is a prayer room, not a Supermax prison.”
This controversy comes to light following another staircase incident at Hugh’s last Michaelmas, in which new residents found offensive graffiti daubed on the walls. This was described not only as “aesthetically hideous”, but as offensive after it was discovered that the graffiti included swastikas and derogatory comments directed against those suffering from AIDS.
by Domnhall Macdonald
You would be forgiven for thinking, when your post-bop hangover is disturbed on Sunday morning by the ringing of hundreds of church bells across Oxford, that we are living in a Christian city. You would be forgiven for thinking that Christianity was alive and kicking when hearing your college choir rehearse in the chapel, when walking past one of Oxford’s many beautiful churches on the way to lectures, or even when ignoring those incessant facebook invites to text-a-toastie.
But Christianity, in Oxford and the UK today, is a minority pursuit. A brief look at local authority data from the 2011 census revealed 48% of the Oxford city population consider themselves to be Christian and 33.1% to be of no religion (with Muslims making up the next-largest group at 6.8%). These figures are well below the national averages of 59.3% Christian and 25.1% non-religious.
Fair enough, Christians do constitute the largest group. But the vast majority of them are nominal Christians, identifying so for cultural reasons, not religious ones. In a 2011 YouGov poll conducted at the same time as the census, people were asked when was the last time they attended of worship for religious reasons (as opposed to family or tourist reasons). 63% of people in England and Wales hadn’t attended in the last year and only 9% of people had bothered attended a place of worship within the last week! Admittedly, this poll was commissioned by the British Humanist Association, but even so, the 1 in 10 churchgoing figure is in broad agreement with all the other polls I found online. Because the Fourth Commandment calls on Christians to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” churchgoing for prayer, scripture and sacraments is how our society defines a practising Christian.
I grew up in a place where everyone went to Church, and one particular kind of – Catholic – church at that. You could count the number of Protestants on one hand, and the number of anything else on no hands at all. I know what living Christianity looks like. And I know its problems. Where no one can come out as gay for fear for societal retribution, where shops don’t sell contraception, where saying you are an atheist brings shame on the family, and, in my case, risks estrangement.
As someone who is supposed to uphold an evidence-based way of life, it would be silly of me to say Christianity is completely dead in Oxford. But meaningful Christian faith is not part of the daily life of the vast majority of its citizens. Within our colleges, the Christian Union is a society, a hobby, like any other. Just as some eccentric individuals think getting up at 5am to row is the best start of the day, so do some students think going to Church on a Sunday is the best use of their time.
Christianity is just one of many religions in this city. I personally know Muslims, and Hindus, and Jews and Quakers. There is now even an atheist Church in the form of Oxford Sunday Assembly! The City of the Dreaming Spires was christened so because of its many churches. But Christianity is dying here, today in the 21st century. And perhaps it wouldn’t be too cheeky of me to venture that it’s a healthier Christianity for it. Better 10% of the city and our colleges are truly-believing Christians who actually get something out of going to Church, rather than 100% who go out of a sense of duty and sin.
by Joshua Peppiatt
I came up to Oxford two years ago unsure of myself and unsure of my faith. I was apprehensive: would there be any other Christians in this famous city of academia, home to Dawkins and Hitchens? Would my medical studies create doubts and weaken my convictions? Oxford of course has a famous history of Christianity. I was aware of our motto: Dominus Illuminatio Mea – The Lord is my light. I knew of the great Christians to have passed through our institution. But surely in 21st century Oxford, Christianity is dead?
Well, I soon found out how wrong I was. By the end of Freshers’ week I had met Christians in college who weren’t embarrassed about Jesus; in fact they loved speaking about him. Christianity wasn’t a hobby or something they did because of parental pressure, but was what they were most passionate about. They were part of the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (OICCU), a group of students from every college who want to give other students the chance to hear the message of Jesus.
I was immediately struck by the size and activity of the OICCU: there are hundreds of active members who give up a substantial part of their time in all that goes on. There are weekly Friday Lunchtime Talks addressing common objections to Christianity, last term attended by 150-200 people, many of whom aren’t Christians. A week of talks in 4th week of Hilary term each year sees thousands of students come to find out more about Jesus. Most importantly, each day students talk with their Christian friends about life’s big questions; I’ve been delighted to see two close friends in Oxford come to personally know Jesus this way.
You might also be surprised to know that there are many vibrant churches in Oxford full of all sorts of ages, races and backgrounds. I’ve taken great encouragement from being part of a local church, St. Ebbes, which not only is a place where I am cared for, but has challenged me to think seriously about whether Christianity makes sense and examine who the historical Jesus was.
You may be thinking this has no relevance to you. But what if I said Christianity is alive in Oxford today because Jesus is alive? I’d like to challenge you that Jesus, the historical man that lived and died, doesn’t leave you the option to ignoring him or dismissing him as just a good teacher. He makes outrageous claims, saying that he is not just the only way to know God, but also that he is God himself! C. S Lewis, the famous fellow of Magdalen, after looking into it himself, said: ‘We are faced then with a frightening alternative. This man we are talking about either was (and is) just what he said, or else a lunatic, or something worse. Now it seems to me obvious that he was neither a lunatic nor a fiend; and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that he is God.’ What do you make of that?
Socrates said that ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ Use your time here to examine the claims of Christianity: that there is a God who you can know, and who loves you so much that he died for you. Where can you start? Talk to a Christian friend, ask them your questions. Come to the weekly Friday Lunchtime Talk or the Carol Service in the Sheldonian Theatre near the end of term. Christianity isn’t only alive in Oxford, it’s thriving, and it’s worth investigating too.
Constituents and debaters of the fourth debate of Michaelmas Term weighted the merits of the motion ‘This House believes religion harms society.’ Along with ample discussion of the qualities of religion, the speakers raised the weighty question in a sometimes confrontational but engaging manner.
Asking the crowd whether they had already made up their mind before listening to the debate, David Amess, a Conservative MP, instructed people who fit the criteria to raise their hands, to which a significant amount obliged. “Well, it would seem that there are some left who might be persuaded by the course of the argument,” he remarked.
Speaking first for the proposition, Michael Nugent, a Chairperson of Atheist Ireland, evoked memories of a man in Pakistan that was hung for the defamation of Muhammad, the most revered prophet of Islam. “Religion corrupts our sense of reality and corrupts our sense of morality. These corruptions confine society and cause terrible suffering,” he said.
The issue of Islam and Islamophobia weighed heavily on the debate. Mehrunissa Sajjad, a member of the Standing Committee, responded by asking people to focus on the ethos and the humanitarian core of Islam and other religion, and on how religion “provides moral guidance.”
The burden of proof, Sajjad said, “is not to defend ridiculous measures,” but “point to the majority of people who have faith, religious beings who act out their lives as productive members of a better society.”
In his rebuttal, David Silverman, President of American Atheists, pointed to instances wherein the bible condones slavery and rape, and explicitly mentions execution. He specified the infamous passage Leviticus 20:13, which states: “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”
On the longstanding role of religion in society, Silverman said, “Religion was created with yesterday’s knowledge[…]Religion took the credit of that knowledge. The problem is that the society back then knew much less than we know today.”
Yet, according to the arguments, it seemed that religion nevertheless plays a big role in modern society. “Religion is at the heart of everything here,” David Amess said.
“I was born a Catholic and I will die a Catholic. Just as if I had been born Jewish, I would have been proud to have be born a Jew,” Amess stated. “I’ve never met anyone[…]who have explained to me, in such a way that I could accept entirely, that there is no God.”
Nonie Darwish, a critic of Islam and founder of Arabs for Israel, rebutted, saying that she did not believe religion benefited society. “In the Middle East, where I come from,” she said, “I would be killed by the religion I was born into.”
Bring up the sensitivities of Islam, Darwish mentioned that Islam maintains a hardline nature. “You have a religion that has a right not to be offended under the penalty of death,” she said. “While at the same time, that religion seeks to control governments. Islam, without government enforcement, does not have any strength to survive.”
Finishing off, Professor Tariq Ramadan, a noted Islamic scholar, tried to reframe the issue. “It’s dangerous to come with a binary mind,” he said.
One of the most confrontational moments of the debate occurred as the professor, decrying the unfair nature and prompt of the proposition, was in the midst of his final remarks.
Addressing atheists, Professor Ramadan said, “You are arrogant in the way you talk to us, you are arrogant about the fact that you are reducing religions to myth and anecdote. You are treating me, who is a believer, as if I were a child who is full of dreams.”
One member responded, “Yeah, that’s exactly what it is,” to which Ramadan riposted, “You fell into my trap. I wanted to show how arrogant you are.”
“I’m arrogant because I’m right?” the member retorted.
“You are doubly arrogant,” Ramadan said, rebuking sarcastically, “I am wrong and I am humbly wrong.”
[caption id="attachment_44128" align="alignnone" width="300"] The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: New Atheism’s contemporary cornerstones[/caption]
It was pleasing to read Owen Jones’ recent article in The Independent, denouncing, from an atheist’s perspective, Richard Dawkins’ hostility towards religion (albeit almost entirely confined to his various attacks on Islam). It is a rare early example of a public disassociation that must be undertaken by serious-thinking nonbelievers as quickly and emphatically as possible.
Pieces on this topic customarily begin with a personal disclaimer in some agonising form, and I feel as though it would be rude to buck the trend. I cannot attest to the same secular security as Jones, to say nothing of Dawkins, but suffice to say that I live under the assumption that the commonly conceived, anthropomorphised deity of the popular monotheistic religions – a god that I might be tempted to petition with self-interested requests, or to whom I would turn in times of strife or despair – does not exist. Nor do I disagree that the diverse list of moral indiscretions (to phrase the thing politely) – continual subjugation of women, child rape, homophobia, genital mutilation, stigmatisation and condemnation of contraception, of alternative reproductive methods, and of pre-marital sex, to cite a small handful – facilitated and justified by numerous religions can possibly be regarded as anything but repugnant. Moreover, I consider Jones’ assertion that holding critical opinions about followers of certain religions is an act of discrimination comparable to racism (“it is beyond unrealistic to regard religious belief as a ‘choice’”) to be completely ridiculous; if we cannot judge people based on the set of beliefs they hold, we might as well give up judging anyone at all. With this point, Jones is, I fear, unwittingly dabbling in a debate of nature vs nurture that is complex and distracts from the issue at hand.
So far so good. Dawkins would welcome me with open arms. Regrettably, however, I could not return the embrace. Rather, I would seek to distance myself from a movement which, I have slowly and reluctantly become persuaded in recent years, is irredeemably sullied by a vice from which no serious cultural or social revolution has ever emerged; the desire to look clever (often confused with the desire to be right). This relatively young faction of non-belief, of which Dawkins is unanimously regarded the figurehead, is usually referred to as New Atheism (Christopher Hitchens, gloriously accurate about so much, was wrong to claim that “there is nothing new about the New Atheists”), and retains an impressive army of supporters and propagators, including A. C. Grayling, Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and even the dependably controversial, fidgeting figure of Ricky Gervais.
The fundamental problem with New Atheism in its present form is, ironically, a deficiency of pragmatism. Ironic because Dawkins’ favoured method of cognition – the governing principle of Dawkinsism, if you like – exercises an arbitrary prioritisation of pragmatism above all other considerations. The pragmatist has no time to think about metaphysics, or entertain the notion of a reality that he cannot perceive but must infer or imagine. Indeed, the diehard pragmatist mightn’t consider a world beyond sense experience to qualify as “reality” at all.
Herein lies the inconsistency. From a pragmatist’s point of view, the overwhelming problem with religion is the vast number of ignominies and injustices it continues to perpetrate in almost every country – and New Atheism has great potential to address and work against such abominations. Instead, however, Dawkins, Maher, Gervais and too many others would rather attempt to prove the intellectual tenability of their position in a debate wherein neither side is able to offer a conclusive argument. Addressing Howard University in Washington D.C., Dawkins admitted: “My interest is that I care passionately about the truth. I’m actually rather less interested in the role of religion in society and all that stuff… Is there, as a matter of fact, a Supreme Being who created the universe or not?” Whilst one might be tempted to smile at the philosophical naivety in his words, they are unhappily symptomatic of a wider tendency, to polarise in an extremely unhelpful way – to group forward-thinking Christians together with creationists, or bracket someone like me with Jones and Hitchens; the discriminating criterion is no more precise or nuanced than “belief in God”, and all theistic belief consequently becomes synonymous and equivalent. The National Secular Society’s Kate Smurthwaite encapsulated this attitude on ‘The Big Questions‘ a couple of years ago, when she explained that “faith, by definition, is believing in things without evidence – and personally I don’t do that, because I’m not an idiot”. Perhaps she was aware of Dawkins’ declaration in Edinburgh, nearly twenty years earlier, that “faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think”, or indeed, his judgement in ‘The Selfish Gene’: “…faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness”.
Constructing a tension between those who believe in a deity and those who do not is polarisation at its laziest, indulging the same predisposition for eradicating nuance (now ubiquitous) that sees divorced parents become “broken families” or New Feminists “misandrists”. It is stupid to believe that any debate concerning the existence a transcendental, supernatural entity could reach a satisfactory conclusion – reasonable, defensible theism is wise enough to refrain from appealing to evidence in the physical world, and cannot therefore be validated by scientific verification. The hackneyed notion that theism and science are as air and seawater in a sinking boat – the latter steadily pushing the former out of each diminishing alcove – is a fallacy, deriving once again from the same erroneous tension of which the New Atheists are so fond. This tension is favoured because it helps to formulate a caricaturised version of theism that may be easily challenged or ridiculed, but it is likely to offer little comfort to those non-believers who would rather not score intellectual points at the expense of pursuing essential cultural progress. When it comes to God, presence of belief matters far less than the manifestation of that belief, and it is this new conflict that needs to replace the old; a distinction between rational, moral theists (of which there are many) who recognise the enormity of the problems caused by religion, and those who perpetrate those problems.
In its current artless form, New Atheism needlessly estranges all believers, merging the reasonable with the idiotic, and thereby alienating many of those with whom it needs to work in order to change the function and influence of religion. Atheism, similarly, no longer interesting of its own accord, has implications and concerns – the viability of a meaningful life without a deity, for instance, or the source of secular morality – which invite further controversy and debate. In order to engage in these discussions, however, the unsophisticated approach of Dawkins and his fellow New Atheists must be abandoned immediately, and a more nuanced style of atheism adopted in its wake.
[caption id="attachment_38060" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Sanal Edamaruku is a wanted man.[/caption]
Persecuted under India’s blasphemy laws for proving last year that the water trickling down a Crucifix in a Catholic church in Mumbai was not a miracle, but bad plumbing, he faces a three-year prison sentence. The Catholic Church, which filed the case, say they will drop the charges if he apologises for the “offence” he has caused.
Edamaruku, who is well known in India for debunking religious myths as the President of the Indian Rationalist Association, refuses to do so. This makes him even more unpopular with Indian Catholics, who have already clashed swords with him previously when he publicly criticised Mother Teresa’s legacy in Kolkata. He has been in exile in Finland since he was refused bail in July 2012, and now travels in European cities campaigning in defence of free speech and rationalism, and against blasphemy laws. He has generated much interest and support, in quarters as varied as Richard Dawkins and Tim Minchin.
Yet, for a man who has ruffled as many feathers as he has, he appears remarkably unruffled and calm when I met him in Oxford (he was here for an event organised by ‘Oxford Skeptics in the Pub’). He begins by enthusiastically describing the work that the Indian Rationalist Association (IRA) does: they travel to Indian villages and replicate and explain the ‘miracles’ of local charlatans and ‘god-men’. The aim, he says, is to move people from a traditional superstitious way of thinking to a modern one. For a country where 75 per cent of the population are superstitious, this is a mammoth task.
I ask him how people react to this assault on their traditional beliefs, expecting anger and disbelief as a response. Surprisingly, he maintains that they are friendly and grateful for “showing them the truth”. The explanation lies in the Association’s unique strategy – they do not confront believers, they merely show them facts and provoke them to reach their own conclusions. They believe a life without religion is advisable, but they don’t try to convert people to atheism.
But why does he recommend a life without religion so strongly? Most people in India subscribe to religion (less than 0.5% of Indians identified as without religion in the 2011 census), and on a daily basis, this doesn’t really hurt anyone. Many would go so far as to say that faith gives people hope, and a moral code on which to base their decisions.
Edamaruku is quick to dismiss this idea – he calls Hindu mythology “Machiavellian”, and says that it does not provide a moral code. He uses an example from Hinduism’s most holy book, the Bhagvad Gita. In it, Krishna, an incarnation of God, tells his colleagues that the ends justify the means, especially in war, and encourages them to lie and undermine the accepted code for ‘honour’ in battle. He is sceptical even of karma, saying that it is dangerous because it leads to the idea that your caste is a product of your actions in a previous life. It compels people to accept their place in society, and encourages the dominance of the Brahmins, the highest Hindu caste. He says that the concept of karma essentially leads to “mental slavery”.
Edamaruku has a personal reason for dismissing religion as well. He was fifteen when he watched his neighbour, a famous Indian athlete, succumb to leukaemia. Convinced by faith healing, her family had refused blood transfusions and instead asked a local ‘healer’ to cure her. The senselessness of how her life was lost, he says, is what convinced him that “people need to be liberated” from a life of religion and superstition.
I ask him about the theme of his recent lecture tour – the clash between traditionalism and modernism in India. Why does he think rationality is the most important means by which to achieve modernity? The answer is simple: there are two Indias that exist next to each other and are in permanent conflict – one is medieval and the other progressive. The only way to ensure that progressive India wins is to get rid of a culture that is based on traditional religion; according to him, it is these traditional religious ideals that promote gender injustice, and stifle India’s potential for economic growth. Moreover, the way this conflict is settled will determine how the rest of the world will look at India, and this is of crucial importance in a globalized world.
Many Indians who view the ‘progressive’ India as a mere reflection of Western values find his views unappealing. They argue that these times of globalization are exactly when India should hold on to its traditional roots, to ensure that interaction with the West does not create a vacuum of Indian values and culture. Edamaruku thinks this is a false dichotomy, and argues for cosmopolitanism. Increasing cultural interactions are an opportunity for Indian culture, not a threat. They allow for a cultural give and take, and give Indians a chance to get rid of the negative aspects of their culture.
But who decides what is negative and what is positive about a culture? Edamaruku believes the power lies with the people, but that they are only equipped to make this choice in a “free marketplace of ideas”. Everyone has the right to promote what they think correct, allowing individuals to eventually make informed decisions. Indian culture can be developed by incorporating new values of human rights, without losing its original precepts. A classic example of this cultural conflict is evident in the blasphemy laws that he is persecuted under. They date back to colonial times (they are part of the Indian Penal Code written in 1860) and are directly at odds with the fundamental rights to free speech that are enshrined in the Indian Constitution of 1950.
Edamaruku strongly believes the laws should be scrapped and even laughs at the idea they can prevent religious conflict. India, according to him, does also have a strong history of cooperation between religions; he cites the cooperation of Hindus and Muslims in the early days of the Indian independence movement. In any case, when violent and aggressive statements have been made, as in the aftermath of the 1947 Partition of the country into India and Pakistan, these laws were never used. He maintains that they have only ever been used against rationalists, and by upholding them the Indian courts serve only to keep India from being a modern nation.
But then how can India draw the line between freedom of speech and preventing religious riots? Who decides that if not the courts? Edamaruku claims that this is not a tough line to draw – freedom of speech is only useful if it is unbridled and absolute, there can be no ifs or buts. As long as someone isn’t actively inciting violence or calling on people to kill and persecute practitioners of another faith, they are allowed to say what they like. According to him, both the rational and the religious have a right to criticize each other’s views – correction is only possible if criticism is permitted. Without freedom of speech, he believes that there can be no intellectual or cultural growth.