Is Religion Futile? (Perhaps it is in London)

On March 26, in the Westminster Central Methodist Hall, the Times of London co-hosted a public debate. The proposition to be argued was “we’d all be better off without religion.”  The run-up to this event had taken on such a life of its own that by early March the British press had begun heralding the 26th as “Futility of Faith Day. “ The nickname stuck. The event sold out.

The team debating “for” the proposition featured celebrity atheists, Richard Dawkins (author of the bestselling “The God Delusion”) and Christopher Hitchens (Vanity Fair correspondent and author of the forthcoming rant, “God is Not Great.”) Their point man was a lesser-known but witty philosopher named A.C. Grayling.
The team debating “against” the proposition (which is to say for religion) comprised a female Rabbi and two professors, neither of whom were theologians and both of whom owned up to being lapsed Methodists.  Not exactly an all-star God squad.

Curiously (or not), neither team had a representative from the Muslim faith. One presumes The Times did not want to take that risk.  Upon reflection in her post debate coverage, the religion reporter for the Times, Ruth Gledhill, also mused that no one had been tasked with providing a definition of “religion” before the debate ensued. The devil is in the details.

Christopher Hitchens opened the case against religion using what he termed  “the Sesame Street System.”  Naming a bevy of world locations all beginning with a “B” (Baghdad, Beirut, Bosnia, etc.),  Hitchens immodestly noted that he’d been to every one of them and that faith-based conflicts, genocides, racial cleansing, and wars had ruined them all.  Religion, in the form of cultural identity, Hitchens asserted, leads people to kill one another and one another’s children based on the kind of Christian or Muslim one was.  Hence the troubles in Northern Ireland and now, he fumed, one saw that Sunnis and Shiites were engaged in retaliatory torchings of one another’s mosques in Iraq.  The warring parties of God have replaced the totalitarian regime of Saddam, he lamented.  When would we learn , he bemoaned, that religions were not divine revelations sent down from heaven, rather man-created and thus prone to human failures. Reminding any  “God botherers” in the audience that humans were one half of a chromosome away from chimps, what business did they have forming these destructive philosophical systems, Hitchens demanded?  “People who tell you they know what God’s will is are your enemies,” he concluded and sat down to generous applause.  He obviously has an evangelical fervor which moves the masses.

Nigel Spivey loosed the first salvo from the “against” team.  Spivey makes his living in the academic worlds of archaeology and anthropology.  As his best-known BBC documentary program was entitled “Digging For Jesus,” it was no surprise that Spivey took the long view.  Religion, Spivey put it to the audience, began with the onset of ritualistic burials and cave paintings 40,000 years ago.  Then he made a mad dash up to the present, citing cultural achievements throughout the ages as proof that humanity was hard-wired for transcendent expressions. Not following strict Cambridge rules for such events, Spivey’s summing up point was that debating the futility of faith was a waste of time. The “the sea of faith would roll on,” he waxed poetically, “providing a force by which humans could survive.”   This may have been a coded message since most Brits would recognize the sea of faith as an association of “progressive Christians,” founded in part by Anglican priests who confessed to not believing in God at all, but still kept their jobs.

Next up was Richard Dawkins, literary darling and smug atheist icon. Dawkins began by lashing out at any notion of a “gene” for faith and characterized adults who needed to believe in religion as grown-ups “sucking on dummies” (that’s Brit-speak for a baby pacifier).  After this outburst of pure petulance, in a revealing aside, Dawkins boasted that religion was not a part of his nature, nor that of any of his friends in universities.  Dawkins had his own metaphor on offer.  He spent the rest of his allotted time comparing religion to a computer firewall.  It blocked out the flow of ideas and thus was no friend of science and progress.  As for inspiring the arts, what kind of ceiling would Michelangelo have painted on the cathedral of science if his patrons had been scientists and not Popes, he wondered, a query often asked by the wholly enlightened.

Rabbi Julia Neuberger, credited in the program as a broadcaster and a “social reformer,” began by sharing her bona fides.  She aligned herself with the audience by telling them that she was liberal to the point of nearly falling off the (left) edge.  Portraying Jewish theology as “inconsistent,” the Rabbi depicted Jews as a religious people who lived their lives through the observance of sacred holidays and rituals.  Dependence on a personal God was not a criterion for being neither a good Jew. What mattered was how a life was lived. It all had to do with inspiration, with modesty, and with humility.  Religion was, therefore, a universal because it under girded social justice and was therefore was to be tolerated –even by the most rabid anti-religionist — the activist Rabbi instructed.

Closing arguments on behalf of the “for” team were handled by A.C. Grayling. In a newspaper interview published before the debate, Grayling described believers as  “being away with the fairies.”  But rather than being dismissive when on stage, Grayling turned out to have the best allegory of the night.  He asked the audience to imagine a martian scholar who had spent lifetime studying the Earth’s religions, with a specialist degree in Christianity.  The martian decides he needs to do some field work and has “a sort of Scotty person” beam him down to our planet, but not without first taking care to pinpoint his place of arrival.  The martian was keen not be beamed into any of those “B” places, mentioned earlier by Hitchens, because he did not want to end up being tortured or shot as a part of his research.  Once he was settled at a coffee shop in London’s Waterloo Station, the martian started to engage (clueless) travelers in Q and A.  His basic inquiry involved what these individuals would want for their children. The answers included personal happiness, social status, job fulfillment, and love.  The martian professed amazement because he had read the New Testament and it said things like blessed are those who mourn, and don’t worry about tomorrow, and give away your possessions because a rich man can’t get into heaven.  How could Christianity be a real religion if its practitioners didn’t want their children to become… well? Christians.  The audience seemed to enjoy Grayling’s fairy tale approach; fairy tales being a description of Bible-based faith employed by many a non-believer.

Batting clean-up for the A-team was Professor and philosopher Roger Scruton, an eloquent and respected gentleman.  Perhaps prejudicing anyone in the audience not familiar with his serious writings, the evening’s handout program described Scruton as running  “an experimental farm in Wiltshire which turns grass into ideas and ideas into feelings.”  Hmm…  In the end, Scruton placed the blame for people who didn’t see the need for religion on Plato’s lofty idealism.  Although he earnestly believed that humankind could exist on a diet of pure philosophy and reason, that just wasn’t so, said the grass farmer.  Humans yearn in their lives. The yearnings are not always rational, but they are often spiritual in nature.  Therefore, religion can’t be done away with because the victims of that crime would be our inspirations and aspirations.

And so the arguments ended, but the audience had lots of comments after the formal debate.  When the circus was ready to leave the hall, a second and final vote was taken (there was a pre-debate vote which is required by strict debating procedure.) Not surprisingly, the motion carried by 427 votes.

Here are the numbers:

  • 1205 or  57.6%   for the motion (better off without religion)
  • 778   or  37.4%   against the motion (better off with religion)
  • 100   or   5.0%   undecided

Talk is now underway about another debate in which heavyweight Christians can be brought in for the pro-faith platform to balance the atheist fundamentalism of Dawkins and Hitchens.

How would you have voted?   In days of yore, what was said and by whom at such events was a closed circle. Thanks to the Internet, one can download the audio and listen to the banter, slings, and arrows of this debate for one’s self.  In addition to the pod cast option, there are over 40 pages of blog entries posted to the original Ruth Gledhill/Times article on The Futility of Faith Debate. Click on the toolbar option “Comment.”  When that page comes up, look to the right and click on “Faith.” 


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