I have been called “a militant atheist” in the past, which seems to mean no more than I am happy to say I’m an atheist if asked. The militant comes with it as a package whether you want it or not. After being involved in the odd debate show and occasional fracas on radio, I increasingly felt that “religious people are at loggerheads with the atheists” – one burning down cathedrals and urinating in fonts, the other thinking that man was made from clay a few years back –was not very representative of the reality I experienced.
Just as atheists get stereotyped as furious suckers of joy wishing everyone to dwell in a valley of existential angst, so the religious can be imagined by some of the godless as nonthinking halfwits, petrified into action only through fear of their deity. Increasingly, I find the common ground is not as clearly delineated as we might think – so I asked representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths where they felt the boundaries between science and religion lay.
The media seem to encourage the idea of tension between atheists and religious people. What truth do you see in that idea?
James A Garfield said the truth will set you free but first it will make you miserable. And so it’s important to recognise the reality that the jarring exists. However, it doesn’t have to define the path of engagement or the manner of discourse for the future.
My weekly standing-room-only sessions as a multi-faith chaplain in one of the country’s largest sixth-form colleges were open to students of all faiths or none. The most outspoken attendees were often sceptical and atheist students, many of whom were studying science or philosophy. Their near-“evangelical” zeal was premised on a monopoly on intelligence with a mission to save others from a life of delusion.
Religions have no monopoly on extremism and fundamentalism, though – and it is very difficult to assign blame for the tone of youthful discourse when so often we see those who we consider high-profile leaders taking a similar approach. It’s perhaps entirely rational to think some young people will manifest the approaches they observe, so that they end up engaging with the terseness of Hitchens or the condescension of Dawkins.
Stephen Jay Gould talked of the non-overlapping magisteria – the idea that as long as science and religion remain separate they can exist together. Is that possible?
“L’enfer est plein de bonnes volontés et désirs”, or as most of us will know it, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. The NOMA provides a prima facie reasonable approach to a settlement for faith and science in a secular world, with neither “in it to win it”.
Despite this, the limitations and unintended consequences of the NOMA are significant. First, it’s counterintuitive and marginalises [religion]. I’m not convinced people of faith consider the created garden and the science that blossoms within it to be discrete matters.
In your daily life, do you see a delineation between evidence-based decisions and faithbased decisions? Is there a blurred area?
I struggle to think of any aspect of my life that is based on faith alone – it is always supported by logic, reasoning and evidence. Islam provides absolute clarity over decision-making: eating halal food, prayer, fasting, the social conditions and manners of modesty, the interaction of men and women, human rights, social justice, and so forth.
Islam is open to questioning and to a critical appraisal. The Quran tells Muslims to put things to the test if they are in doubt, to bring forth evidence and to use what we now consider the scientific method. It’s not merely by faith, or by scholarly injunction, that Muslims are the most teetotal people on the planet, for as we’re told on alcohol, the “harms outweigh the benefits” (Surah 2:219). In 2012, alcohol is estimated to cost the UK around £30bn against a revenue of £15bn, with countless social and health harms.
Where do you stand on evolution by natural selection? And if human beings are just part of the tree of life, does that change your faith?
Islam is entirely open to the ideas of evolution. In fact, a five-billion-year-old expanding universe, multiverse theory and dinosaur bones all pose no problem. The early Muslim scientists would have largely recognised much of what Darwin postulates.l
Mohammed Ansar is a broadcaster and social commentator
Rabbi Laura Janner Klausner
How do you reconcile your faith with science?
Judaism, across the board – possibly apart from Ultra- Orthodoxy – does not define you in and out. Belief is changing all the time, and should be, particularly in a post-Holocaust world. If you’re not questioning the different experiences of belief, then I think you’re not switched on properly. But if you are, that does not count you out of being Jewish.
The word “faith” is a very Christian word – the word “Israel” means to struggle with God. I think struggling is what it’s about, struggling with who we are, the meaning of what we do. That’s what I love about Judaism.
So it becomes a broad philosophy of existence?
The way that the Talmud works, it is debates between different philosophical schools.
You once debated an atheist, who I won’t name, and found it an unpleasant experience.
I can understand completely, and empathise and agree in many ways, why people are furious, outraged by certain manifestations of organised religion, but the level of anger and lack of empathy, and the patronising, belittling and derogatory attitude towards what a philosophy brings to people’s lives, is quite shocking. I wouldn’t do it to someone else.
So the “you are an idiot, because you believe in a religious system” stance, that is immoral because it lacks empathy. I object to the dehumanising element of certain atheist language.
What does it mean to have God in your life?
I have no idea what’s out there. Thank God I don’t, because I think if I really thought I did, it would be really frightening. So what are the positive images of godliness that I can aspire to? Feeding the poor, being enough for my daughter, enough for my guests; it’s about values and action.l
Laura Janner Klausner is the movement rabbi of the Movement for Reform Judaism
Do you feel the Church is oppressed at the moment?
How can you feel oppressed when you’re in the House of Lords? [Laughs] It’s quite an extraordinary form of oppression when you have the weight of the state behind you. It’s nonsense, it’s clearly nonsense. No, I don’t feel that at all. In fact, in a lot of the debates that are supposed to be raging between Christianity and the secular world, I seem to side with the secular world, over things such as gay marriage. I’m irritated by the culture-war approach to religion.
Some church leaders think secularism is taking away the rights of the Church.
I’m a secularist . . . you can believe in the separation of church and state but also be a Christian.
What do you think about the idea of nonoverlapping magisteria – that as long as science and religion remain separate, they can coexist, and you can get through life on the shoulders of evidence-based thinking but also have faith to get you through life?
I’m not sure that faith gets you through life. Sometimes, it can be less of a support and more of a challenge. Let’s talk about a parallel instance – whether poetry and science are nonoverlapping magisteria. So Wordsworth can write about the natural world and so his subject matter is the same subject matter [as science], and that doesn’t seem to cause too many problems. I have heard some hard-nosed scientists say “poetry can tell us nothing about the world”; that’s just nonsense to me. Poetry and religion are very similar things.
Psychoanalysis does this as well – it’s about creating a space in which I understand myself, understand myself in relation to the world, morally and existentially.
Is the best way to use religion as a journey, rather than “here are the answers”?
But it doesn’t progress. This is the difference – there isn’t an obvious form of progression; while science builds on itself. So, science today is better, demonstrably better than the science of 200 years ago.
Giles Fraser is priest-in-charge at St Mary, Newington in south London and the former canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral