Monday, 5 August 2013

A world without religion?

THE speakers at the provocatively entitled public conversation at the Just Festival this evening (5th August), A World Without Religion, kindly agreed to a photo in an informal moment before the discussion began. 

They are Professor Richard Holloway (former Bishop of Edinburgh, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and author of Leaving Alexandria), Tim Maguire from the Humanist Society Scotland, and Sanderson Jones of the Atheist Church initiative (from left to right in the photo).

The chair is the Rev Professor Jolyon Mitchell from the University of Edinburgh and the Centre for Theology and Public Issues (far right). The panellists are asking whether the world really would be "as one", as Lennon apparently envisaged, or whether we would in fact remain divided? Indeed, is "a world without religion" a realistic possibility or a totalising dream?

OK, we're underway...

The first surprise, perhaps, is and was that all the speakers agree -- in slightly different ways -- that 'getting rid of religion' is not the issues, but re-understanding and re-inventing belief is. We are "religion creating beings", said Richard Hollway. While Sanderson Jones suggested that celebration and the search for meaning and community, which had been at the heart of religion, was an abiding need - though he disavowed the description 'atheist church'.

Tim Maguire said that religion was often used as a 'front' for destructive behaviour, but the idea that its abolition would lead to a utopia was far fetched. Humanism, he suggested, in response to a question, was about going beyond tribalism.

Jesus' most famous parable, said Holloway, was an anti-tribal, universalistic one: the story of the Good Samaritan. The greatest heroes of the transcendental religion were those who challenged narrow, tribal understandings of the transcendent, he said. "That's what keeps me on the edge of them."

However, there was a common concern about authoritarian conviction and absolutism justified in the name of (tribal) gods.

Sanderson Jones declared himself to be happy to borrow from the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, and feels that cultivating a practice of constant gratitude towards life is very important. "Cultivating a sense of awe and wonder… that's something I do quite well, he said.

A Christian respondent said that believing in Christ meant being willing and able to "think outside the box", but he still felt that God in one's heart brought a change and blessing that would not otherwise be available. "It helps me to be the kind of person I have become..."

"At the moment I think I'm totally write I find myself up against Jesus," he added.

"In us, the universe is thinking about itself... there is something very mysterious about this," declared Richard Holloway. We have packages that help us explore this, as well as 'get through the night', but "as soon as your package says that it needs to attack someone else I have an argument with it," he said.

Pugilism, bitterness and becoming the enemy we hate most are the biggest dangers, he continued. We have to learn to share, rather than prescribe.  Both religions and secularisms can fall prey to anger and rejection, Holloway suggested.

Tim Maguire pointed out that the popularity of the New Atheists (Dawkins etc.) was partly because they had pointed out the abuses of religion that many people felt wounded by. But Richard Holloway added that the 'new New Atheists' were those who wanted to get away from 'attack' as a primary mode of engagement with people they differ from.

Both religious and non-religious people are capable of developing immutable 'orthodoxies', and this was a negative thing, the panel agreed. Doubt is a legitimate feature of faith or any other belief. The shadows and the light complement one another.

But why do so many non-believers spend so much time trying to copy religion in its pursuit of ritual practices, definitive texts, a 'non-religious church'? There were and are quite different perspectives on that, bound up with issues about how you experience individuality and community.

Though he has been a sceptic and critic, former bishop Holloway said that the huge amount of positive neighbour-loving done by religion needed to be acknowledged, alongside the harm that can be done in its name.

Christianity, he said, was good at recognising how immensely flawed human animals are, in their treatment of each other and the planet. It was also, he said, a "hope against hope" - enabling people to face terror and impossibility.

The issue of 'truth' floated around the conversation, but more as the search for integrity and togetherness than the attempt to define and delimit propositions (about life, about the transcendent) which could be given ultimate weight.

One speaker spoke of the real loss of 'beyond', of the possibility of a transcendence outside our creation, in non-religious frames.

What of secularism, asked another? Was the panel not really advocating a pluralism of belief? Yes and no. "Religions aren't good when they run things, when they impose, when they claim to be a universal ethic" said Richard Holloway. "It is good for religion to have been weakened... One of the good things about living in a secular culture is that bullying religion has been challenged."

"Secularity that wants to purge religion is a different thing, but that is not my point of view or Tim's point of view," he added.

However, Tim Maguire responded that there was a strong if small scale reaction against religion's entrapments and impositions in public life, and that this needed to be recognised.

"In my view secularism is the only way to guarantee a level-playing field and freedom of expression and belief for all, with religion being free but not privileged," he said.

Holloway said he thought that "some untidiness", including perhaps faith schools and royalty, could be worked with in a plural environment. There was some difference on this, but it was not explored very far.

Another discussion was about the possible tensions  between compassion and reason for atheists, or truth and compassion for religious people.

Interestingly, the majority of the speakers from the floor have been women. That's good news. Often, conversations about 'religion or not' get overrun by outspoken men. However, this highlighted the fact that only men were on the panel!

More to follow...


  1. Thanks for this Simon - as you say here it is a bit one-sided, and I think you might at least have acknowledged my take on secularism, that it's not only the best guarantee of freedom of belief and the freedom from the domination of a single belief, but also the active acceptance of the idea that religion should have a public voice but not a privileged one.

  2. Thanks, Tim. I have included your comment above. No intention to miss it - but an awful lot was said and it was hard to get all of it 'live'. Do let me know if you'd like to write a follow-up article. That would be great. :)

  3. Thanks for the invitation Simon, but as I was busy thinking and talking, I wasn't taking notes, so I'll pass this time.

  4. I meant 'follow up' in the sense of anything you want to say after the event, Tim, not a report... :) Happy to give you a platform, in other words. Maybe we could run something past New Humanist, too? Just a thought.

  5. Thanks, Simon, for this incredible summary! It'll serve as a very useful supplement to my own notes of the event.

  6. Hamishw1
    I've read through the report above and find a great deal of good sense in the remarks made, but since I believe that from the moment our DNA appeared in nature, there was an inherent, unconscious aspiration to transcend the need for religion grounded in theology, the remarks were all too wedded to the preservation of traditional conceptions. A few points may be added.

    My remarks are meant to note the identification of religion with Christianity one of the more benign of the the traditional forms, and unfortunately therefore, there was more agreement than if other, less benign forms had come in for consideration. But do bear in mind, the very meaning of 'benign' is highly conditioned by the tradition that formed your basic ideas about the world, and this underscores in my view (an ex-Christian by birth but now an utterly concrete atheist) the special pleading that in civilized surroundings is endemic.

    As soon at the surroundings become less than comfortably homogenous, differences begin to intensify until deep, insurmountable divisions become the realistic basis.

    I do not believe these doctrinal differences can ever be overcome, and in the sort of world we live in they become the justification for the worst possible human atrocities; Rwanda through ex-Yugoslavia Srilanka, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Burma today and conflicts in a thousand registers elsewhere. These atrocities are usually grounded in economic issues, but the defining response is most usually mediated through ideologies derived from religious loyalties, there is no prospect whatsoever that as peaceful world can emerge into effect.

    All ideologies are grounded ultimately in theology and the rituals that follow from them, and although I cannot take sides with Dawkin, there will never be a peaceful world until the unconscious aspiration to surpass traditional religion has succeeded. I believe I have provided the outline of how the overcoming was etched into the pre-civilized paganism that has finally emerged into its modern, non-mystical version, through the medium of Hegel's speculative idealism. I would be happy to forward some of the material to any interested parties who'd wish to engage the possibility of "A world without Religion !!! "

    Finally one should not confuse 'religion' the tendency to communality with traditional religion.

    Best wishes,
    Hamish Watson See