Behind the headlines created by Baroness Warsi's talk at the University of Leicester recently was a basic concern which many, religious or not, might agree with: the need for a better understanding of religion in society.
It is widely accepted by people across the political spectrum, and with widely differing views about religion, that you don't really understand British culture without grasping religion's place within it.
Even if you think religion's a bad influence, and the Church should be kept well apart from the state, it is vital to know something about Britain's Christian past, and about the many different religions which feature in British society.
But how do we develop our knowledge of faith traditions? Where do we discuss openly and honestly the role that religions play in society? In Leicester, we have ample opportunity for informal interaction with people of many faiths and none. We just need to talk to neighbours, or with those with whom we work or spend our leisure time. This is the benefit of living in a "multi-cultural" society, though it's rightly been said that "multi-cultural" often means in practice that we live alongside those of different cultures and faiths. "Inter-culturalism" should be what we aim for, where there is genuine interaction between people.
We might, though, want something more formal. We have in Leicester two faith-based training institutions (the Markfield Institute of Higher Education and the St Philip's Centre) both of which offer courses open to the public to assist in the development of the understanding of religion. The work of Leicester Council of Faiths is also well-known.
But where might the "faith-suspicious" meet the "faith-based" in a constructive, respectful way? Two days before Baroness Warsi's speech I attended "Skeptics in the Pub" which meets monthly at Square Bar in the centre of Leicester. I didn't find the discussion quite as rational and evidence-based as the group might like to think. But I'd love to see the people there meeting up with the many religious people I know to have a serious conversation. It would help the literacy of all.
A university is not a "neutral" space, despite its own quest for scientific methods which are as objective as possible. But it is a place where this longed-for conversation might happen. It is not to be claimed by any single religious group. The Institute of Lifelong Learning's part-time Certificate in the Study of Religion could entice people to study at university level for the first time. And by studying religion, those of any faith or none could understand themselves and their society better, and gain useful critical skills at the same time.Emma responded with this letter:
I agree with Dr Marsh that a better understanding of religion and its place in British society is desperately needed (First Person, January 27) – particularly the influence of religion within the wider historical and social context.
British history is heavily steeped in religious conflict, and British culture is brimming with antiquated notions of religious morality, especially in attitudes to women and sexuality. It seems to me that religious groups tend to embrace inter-cultural initiatives while conveniently overlooking the negative impact of organised religion on history and wider society.
It can be uncomfortable for people of faith to acknowledge the atrocities and fallibility of religion, but I feel this is a necessary step in finding better solutions for a peaceful society.
If we promote "religious literacy" this not only needs to involve gaining an understanding of other religions, we also need to encourage faith communities to understand their own religions better, and foster a "social literacy" that encourages religious groups to accept some responsibility for the influence of religion on communities as a whole. All too often, arguments supporting better interactions between faiths are marshalled to promote understanding of other faith groups rather than a critical analysis of one's own faith, or faith in general.
The long history of rationalist free thought in the UK and Leicester shows that it is possible to reconcile a rational dialogue and healthy scepticism of religion, while embracing discussion with faith-based groups, and actively supporting freedom of religion and belief.
Leicester Secular Society and its long-standing lecture programme on religion, science and philosophy is a local and national institution which more than stands the test of time alongside the religionist "training institutions" that are mentioned in Dr Marsh's article.Her letter produced a "prayer" from Harry:
Amen to that Emma. It would also be good if people took a little more trouble to find out what secularism really is and how a secular state would protect the rights of all people whether religious or not. One thing that always seems to be missing from 'inter-faith' and 'cross-cultural understanding' initiatives is the huge number of people who are non-religious. In Leicester they are the biggest group of people after Christians yet you would never know it to read the Mercury or listen to politicians who seem always so keen to get the religious vote. Prayers for this or that at churches get reported but never the proceedings of the Secular Society!
It can be equally uncomfortable for secularists to acknowledge the atrocities and fallibilities of their own atheistic faith. We all believe something - and those with an atheistic worldview have been directly responsible for many, MANY times more deaths than can possibly be attributed to any other faith. Hitler justified his murder of the millions of 'undeserving' Jews, Poles and disabled, on the Darwinian 'logic' of 'survival of the fittest'. He named his 'better solution for a peaceful society' the 'Ultimate Solution'. Pol Pot and others have acted similarly. Not much of a recommendation for secularist atheism!I then responded:
I'd point out that atheists are simply people who don't believe in any god(s). That's it. There is no doctrine of "atheism".This provoked these posts:
Atheists can be secularists, humanists, communists, fascists, socialists, non theist christians, stamp collectors, humanitarians, train spotters etc.etc. The label tell you nothing apart from a lack of belief in the supernatural.
Hitler was not an atheist. He was officially a catholic and unofficially a nutter who appears to have believed in some aryan spirits.
Stalin and Pol Pot were communists who happened to be atheists. It was communist ideology that led them to do what they did.
Some secular atheists had a hand in the universal declaration of human rights. But that was not because they were atheists, but because they were human beings who wanted to try and improve the human condition.
That's exactly it, John. Your faith, as you yourself say, is that there are 'no gods'. Whether you deny it or not, that 'faith' inevitably and unavoidably has an impact upon your worldview, and therefore directly influences your behaviours. In exactly the same way, my own belief in a supreme God inevitably impacts and influences my behaviour. Like it or not I must acknowledge, for example, that I am accountable to a higher authority for the way that I use the life he has given me. The atheist mind that chooses to reject God is entirely free from these restraints, which is exactly why Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot have been free to create a world of their own choosing. This is the world of Darwin - the survival of the fittest. If you don't like where it takes you, then think again.
"Stalin and Pol Pot were communists who happened to be atheists."My response was:
This argument does not stand up when you consider that Stalin forced all of USSR to abandon all religion in public, closing or demolishing the churches.
This indicates he was primarily an atheist who adopted communism.
But the leaders of Religion need to combat the increasingly selfish nature of society if they are to be taken seriously.
Re. Stalin (extracts from Wikipedia).
At ten, he began attending church school where the Georgian children were forced to speak Russian.
At sixteen, he received a scholarship to a Georgian Orthodox seminary, where he rebelled against the imperialist and religious order. Though he performed well there, he was expelled in 1899 after missing his final exams. The seminary's records suggest he was unable to pay his tuition fees.
Shortly after leaving the seminary, Stalin discovered the writings of Vladimir Lenin and decided to become a Marxist revolutionary, eventually joining Lenin's Bolsheviks in 1903.
Communism is anti-religious, seeing religions as rival ideologies. Hence the need to restrict and oppose religion.
Atheism is not a ideology, it is simply the lack of belief in supernatural beings. It has no creed and requires no kind of behaviour either good or bad.
"With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. " Steven Weinberg