Fraternising with the enemy

June 22, 2009

The latest edition of Humanitie is out. This is my contribution, which as always should be read alongside Tim’s contribution from The Friendly Humanist.

I was invited by a friend of mine in the Christian Union (yes, I do have friends) to an Alpha Course group. For the first few weeks we followed the structure of the course guide, but we increasingly noticed that Nicky Gumbel, the incredibly well-spoken man behind the course, assumes he’s managed to turn everyone into a Christian after week three. Unsurprisingly, he’ll have to try again with me. So we did away with the course guides and instead we’d just have a discussion about some aspect of Christianity like the power of prayer, final judgement or the unlikelihood of life or something. Then after a few weeks of that we watched some short films as a stimulus and have a discussion afterwards, and we kind of fizzled out from there. All in all we met for about 10 weeks.

There were several points when I realised some differences between many theists and many atheists. For me and most other people, the reason for debate and discussion is a healthy respect for the truth. But that didn’t always seem to be the case there. Sometimes it seemed that the only reason they were engaging in the discussion was in the hope that I’d change my mind, with no possibility that they might too. Often I would make a point that they couldn’t answer (like for example that you could never justify eternal punishment), but instead of taking it on board, they just changed tack and used another argument to try and convince me. I didn’t expect that from relatively liberal Christians at university (although I’m still shocked that several members of the CU don’t believe in evolution).

So is it worth doing? Definitely! Interactions of this type between humanists and faith groups mean that next time someone at church refers to the demon atheist wallowing in sin and obstinate hatred of the innocent baby Jesus, the believer knows at least one example where that isn’t true, and similarly we don’t fall into the lazy trap of generalising religionists as idiots (we should only call them idiots if they ARE idiots). Humanists should constantly be challenging their own positions, and discussion with a group of people who don’t share those positions is the perfect opportunity to do so! I found that I came out of such encounters more sceptical of religious belief than when I went in, with my arguments and opinions honed (and my patience more durable). I have an appreciation for evidence that I didn’t have before. But most importantly of all, these interactions with faith groups mean that now, everyone at the Chaplaincy includes non-believers in their thoughts and actions from the offset. They no longer speak of ‘faith groups’ but of ‘beliefs and traditions’ or ‘backgrounds’. The humanists at the university have become part of a wider community based at the Chaplaincy. Of course many might see that as an excellent reason not to interact, but I think those people are missing out.


November 28, 2008

Just a quick one today. Work is really piling on so I’m not getting much chance to blog, hopefully after exams I’ll have more time.

I had an interesting conversation with Stuart (President of the Student Humanist Society) about Interfaith. I’ve been very much involved in this kind of thing, much to the surprise of the religionists at the Chaplaincy, as I think the society has in the past come across as very ‘militant’, as much as I hate the expression.

Stuart’s position was that it’s a very useless, facile, wishy washy excercise to have people with totally contradicting beliefs sitting around a table together pretending to be friends, what’s the point? I replied that you don’t have to hold the same beliefs to partake in the exchange of information, and in the meantime we can coordinate joint events together (such as a joint application for funding which we tried a few weeks ago), and learn about religions and cultures we otherwise wouldn’t know about. That’s pretty cool!

Stuart then said that it’s hypocritical to have people working together when each of them believes the others are going to hell! I agree it would be much easier to bash religion if people did think and act that way, but that idea of hell is totally outdated, noone I know thinks of hell as fire and brimstone, it’s a separation from God and all that’s good. The point I pushed most, though is that when religious people look a “heathen”, they don’t think “you’re going to hell”. First and foremost they see another human being, and in that sense they share common ground with humanists. It’s where scripture and practice differ, even if the text says you should be killing people of other faiths, doesn’t mean that’s what you do.

It’s becoming something of a problem, all this interfaith stuff. I’m really mellowing out. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not succumbing to any religious belief, I’m just becoming less outspoken on matters of religion and atheism. I may soon be undeserving of the title “not-so-friendly humanist”.


October 7, 2008

I’ve just returned from the Chaplaincy’s Multi-faith Public Conversation on the subject ‘The Richness of Diversity’. As a humanist and an atheist it can be difficult to go to such events, especially when they’re entitled ‘Multi-Faith’, but it’s often an interesting experience and it’s important that as a society we build up relations with other societies based at the Chaplaincy. That’s something we don’t do nearly enough, in fact I was sitting next to a couple of the Vedics who said they noticed we weren’t there at the interfaith dialogue (although I’m sure Greg went along – Stuart and I were both working). I do intend to go to a couple of the CU meetings when I’m not working in the next few weeks but I’ll have to see what’s happening.

In any case I was a little disappointed. Of course with such a short space of time to discuss such a vague and in many ways diverse topic, it’s difficult to come up with a satisfying response, and I’m not sure that was the intention, to get a response, that is. For some time the three speakers (whose names I’m afraid I don’t remember – it was a Rabbi, a Bishop and a representative from the British Muslim Council) spoke about why diversity was important and what kinds of diversity there are, which I think is something we all know. In many ways it was something of a ramble. The Bishop made some attempt to explain why there is so often an intolerance of diversity, stemming from a fear of losing their religious identity, as well as economic fears like “they’re taking our jobs and our benefits”, which made the conversation a bit more dynamic, and only the Rabbi had the balls to come out and say that at the end of the day if you believe your particular faith position is correct and someone else’s isn’t, you cannot embrace diversity in the way that people had been talking about.

Reflecting back, the opinions expressed were so watered down that they were in their lowest common form which sounded essentially like humanism. Several comments were passed like “flowers are each beautiful in their own way, but they’re most beautiful when they’re put together”, and even a saying used by the HSS, “we’re a’ Jock Tamson’s Bairns” (the Bishop said in that case, Jock has been doing a bit of globetrotting), and the last sentiment on the issue came from a woman sitting at the back who said that if we want to be truly tolerant, we have to approach the table as human beings. We’re people first above all. I think that’s a truly admirable sentiment and one I’ve used before, but mainly when talking about the Scout movement.

Anyway, frustrating but intriguing, I’m glad I went.