I took part in a panel discussion on religion on Wednesday. It was organized by the students living in the dorm of the Cleveland Institute of Music, so about twenty students of classical music attended. The panel consisted of professors of Christianity and Islam from another university, a professor of Judaic studies from my university, and me. I will refer to the others as C, M, and J respectively.
We were asked to begin with a brief statement of our main religious holiday. I had raised that question in this blog before and got a whole lot of answers and so, making it clear that it was meant humorously, went through the list as possibilities (even including Talk Like a Pirate day) but ended up saying that the religious holidays of others were good for us because we got to have time off without having the tedious obligations such as saying prayers, attending worship services, etc. M said that the main ones for Mulsims were the feasts commemorating the end of Ramadan and the Feast of Sacrifice (which was associated with the story of Abraham being willing to kill his son on god’s command). C said that Easter was the most significant with Christmas second, and J said that the Sabbath was the most significant holiday for Jews liturgically with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur popularly being considered the most important.
Then we opened up for questions and there were some really good ones. One asked each of us what made us come to our present beliefs. The other three had all been born into their religions, which is the usual situation and should give religious people pause but doesn’t. I was the only one who had switched from my childhood beliefs (in fact I had been an ordained lay minister of my church) and I explained why, that basically belief in a god had stopped making any sense at all and that it blatantly conflicted with science.
In the course of the discussion following other questions, M gave long-winded and rambling obfuscating answers to questions and made the usual preposterous claims of religion, that without a god we could not explain the order of the universe, that there would be no purpose and morality, and so on. I of course promptly challenged these assumptions using science to say that we no longer needed a god hypothesis for any of these things.
In response to a question of why religion caused so much violent and conflict, the three of them answered that the causes of the conflicts were not religious but were usually economic or ethnic but that religion was used as a weapon. I said that even if that were true, and it is partially true, this raised the immediate question of why religion was such a powerful divisive force that people immediately seized on it when one group of people wanted to attack another. I said that it was because each religion claimed to be right and the others wrong and that this was an irreconcilable fact that obstructed political solutions.
I got push back from all three on this, that they did not believe the other religions were wrong but that all religions were manifestations of a single truth. This is a common ‘kumbaya’ argument that one finds in such inter-religious panels and it usually goes unchallenged because no atheists are usually on them. But I was not going to let it slide. Each religion clearly has major and minor tenets that the others cannot accept. C had said earlier that the resurrection of Jesus was a fundamental belief and there is no way that any Jew or Muslim will accept that. M believes that the Koran was divinely dictated and no Christian or Jew will accept that. Jews tend not to be as doctrinally uniform so I could not pick on a single one but the fact that no Christian or Muslim feels obliged to follow the umpteen supposedly god-given rules for living and food suggests the same disagreement.
C also said that anything god did was just. Since they had previously spoken about Noah’s flood and all three religions accept that as either historical fact or a metaphor signifying an important truth about god, I seized on that and said that that story revealed a genocidal god that no one in their right mind should worship. When C responded that all the people who died must have deserved it, I challenged it by saying that it was a bit much to think that even newborn infants deserved to die. And even accepting that preposterous idea, why didn’t god kill them painlessly but instead chose death by drowning, which is one of the most agonizing forms, which is why waterboarding is considered torture?
J tried to argue that the Noah story was a metaphor and that the fact that god repented of that act showed that god was not perfect and was capable of learning from his mistakes. I responded that it was a bit much to kill off every single living thing on the planet except eight humans (and fish for some reason) and then say “Oops, my bad!” because you discovered that it was not such a good idea after all. That meant that up to that point god had been a moral monster who did not realize that genocide was a bad thing.
Another question asked how our beliefs had influenced our lives. C, J, and M said in various ways that a belief in a god made them feel that they were part of a global family. I said that while feeling a kinship with everyone was a good thing, you did not need to postulate a god to have a sense of kinship. Science tells us that we are all related in a real and tangible way, not only in the fact that we all have a common ancestor way back in the midst of time but that all us shared a common set of ancestors that lived as recently as 5,000 years ago. Furthermore, I said that knowing that this is the one life we have and that we are extremely fortunate to have it means that we should make full use of it. Furthermore, it puts on us the greater responsibility to try and make sure that everyone has the chance for a good life here and now, not in the non-existent hereafter, because that is all we have.
After the event, I stayed around to chat informally with the students, which is usually one of the best things about such events. And as is usually the case, such discussions give me a lot of hope for the future.