‘Inter-religious’ panel discussion

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.


  1. left0ver1under says

    A group of thieves were upset that an honest man witnessed their activities, and that he was calling for the police to hold them accountable.

    When there were no honest men around, they stabbed each other in the back so that they didn’t have to share their ill-gotten gains.

  2. mnb0 says

    Two additional questions you might ask next time:
    1.”a belief in a god made them feel that they were part of a global family”
    Do christians killing doctors of abortion cliniques, muslim terrorists and rioting jews in Jerusalem feel the same? If not how come this is not a universal feeling among believers?

    2. How is their immaterial god supposed to interact with our material Universe, given that that god doesn’t have material means available by definition?
    This question stems from Herman Philipse’s God in the Age of Science. I have asked this question a few times and it tends to upset believers. The answers I had were like “energy is immaterial, language is immaterial”. For an atheist physicist this is Fundenes Fressen, as the Germans say.

  3. says

    In a similar sense to the German, English also has “windfall”, for fruit which is knocked loose from a tree by the wind, and “manna from heaven” for the Christians, I would expect. At least, I think that’s from their book, and means unexpected and miraculous food, no?

  4. Mano Singham says

    Actually, I did pose that second question as part of my response why the idea of god interacting with the world contradicted the laws of science.

  5. Mano Singham says

    The organizers said that they were very pleased with the session and were going to have more. I spoke to a few of the other students and they said that I reflected many of their feelings and concerns but articulated them better than they could have (not surprising since I am so much older than they) and so they were really pleased with what I said. Of course, the students who disliked what I said would not have told me directly.

  6. Mano Singham says

    It was not recorded.

    I don’t know that I ‘knocked it out of the park’. Afterwards, I always think of other points that I could have made or made better.

  7. Zain says

    Great post Mano. I’m glad to hear the rational viewpoints on these questions are being espoused, as it seems they are often left out and forgotten by many.

  8. physicsphdstu says

    This discussion seems like it would be helpful to many people here. Please get someone to record at least audio via a smartphone, I am sure none of the panelists or other students would object.

  9. says

    C also said that anything god did was just.

    Yep, all those nazis with belt buckles reading “gott mit uns” were part of a divine plan, apparently. As is herpes, smallpox, and the occasional tsunami. Were these educated adults saying such childlike nonsense?

  10. Mano Singham says

    Yes, he is a professor of religion at a nearby Catholic university, and also a pastor at a church.

  11. thewhollynone says

    But not a Jesuit, I take it. The Jesuits have been through these discussions so many times that they seem to have blithe answers for everything, or they are masters at redirecting the question.

  12. Simon says

    When the religious talk of abortion being the slaughter of innocents, are we to believe that at the time of the flood, there were no pregnant women?

  13. Mano Singham says

    He is an evangelical Christian but he teaches introduction to Christianity at a Jesuit school.

  14. colnago80 says

    Of course, the students who disliked what I said would not have told me directly.

    Not necessarily. There are usually those who like to engage in arguments; apparently, those individuals were notable by their absence.

  15. doublereed says

    What are they supposed to say? “God is not always just”?

    If God isn’t just, then why the bloody hell would anyone care what he thinks? He’s just a crazy dictator in the sky.

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