Report on the interfaith panel

I thought the panel yesterday went off pretty well. I benefitted a lot from the two discussions (see here and here) we had on this blog about these questions. I will give the responses to each question below.

I tried to take notes of what the others said but was hampered by the acoustics. The event was held in a large central public common area in the main building on the campus and was part of something they called ‘Culture Shock’. They had set up a stage and seats for the audience at one end of this long room but there were other things that were going on in other parts and so there was a lot of traffic and background chatter. The panelists had microphones and there were large speakers but the organizers had made the error of placing those speakers in front of the panelists and facing the audience. So while audience members said they could hear, paradoxically the panelists found it hard to hear each other. I was at one end of the stage and found it hard to hear the Buddhist and Hindu at the other end, even though I was most interested in hearing from them because their perspective is not heard much. The Hindu especially was soft-spoken and his words were almost completely inaudible to me. He also seemed to ramble and consistently ran well over his allotted response time of two minutes.

The Buddhist is from the Zen school and thus it should not be surprising that his views were closer to mine than any of the religious panelists and I had a nice conversation with him before and after the panel. He and I were the only two people who now believed something different from the religious families that we were born into. His family is Roman Catholic.

The Jewish speaker was a Reform rabbi and thus much more open-minded than an Ultra-Orthodox Jew would have been. The Christian was a Roman Catholic priest who tended (I thought) to equivocate, trying to balance to need to be accepting of other views that these kinds of panels expect while not deviating from the party line. The Muslim was an imam whom I have known for many years because he was an adjunct faculty member in the religious department at my university and we have been at meetings and panels before.

I will give my own responses to my each question at some length while that of the others will be brief because I could not really take good notes because of the acoustics. Recall that we each had only two minutes. The order of people on the stage was atheist (A), Jew (J), Christian (C), Muslim (M), Hindu (H), Buddhist (B) and the people answered in that sequence, with me going first for the first question, the Jew going first for the second, the Christian for the third, and so on.

So here goes.

Why is there something rather than nothing?

I had to go first and said that this question presupposes two things. One is that nothingness is the default state that does not need explanation and that somethingness is an aberration that must be explained. But there is no reason to assume that to be true. After all, in a multiverse situation where there could be a vast numbers of universes being created, some will have nothing and others will have something and of course we could only come into being in the latter case.

The other presupposition is that if there is a universe that there has to be a creator of the universe. I said that this had two problems. One is that the laws of cause and effect that exist among objects within the universe cannot be assumed to be the same as those that apply to the universe itself. The other is that even within the universe, there are things that are ‘uncaused’ in that they are truly random and unpredictable, such as radioactive decay. We do not know what ’causes’ a nucleus to decay at one particular time.

J, C, M all pretty much said that the existence of the universe implied the existence of a creator, ergo god. H said that one had to start with the assumption that god exists and thus he must have created the universe. B said that the Buddha was silent on the issue of creation saying that such speculations served no purpose.

Are the gods of all the religions the same?

J, C, and M went into the expected ecumenical song-and-dance, saying that there was only one god and trying to suggest that they were all worshipping that same god but in different manifestations. I could not hear the H response but B said that this question was not a concern for Buddhism but that the idea of gods is used to derive meaning.

I was the last respondent for this and I said that I could not understand how people of different religions could say that they all worship the same god given all the irreconcilable differences among religions. Christians say that Jesus is the son of god, something that no Jew or Muslim will accept. Muslims say that the Koran was divinely dictated by god, something that no non-Muslim accepts, and so on. If there is only one god, then he had to be a Machiavellian character who delighted in pretending to different groups of people at different times that they were the true believers and thus set the stage for endless conflicts.

On the other hand, as the writer Delos McKown said, “The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike”. Since all gods are invisible, they can be assumed to be non-existent and so in that sense they are all the same since one non-existent god looks any other non-existent god.

What happens to us when we die, i.e., is there a heaven?

C: Yes, there is and death is a doorway to it.
M: Yes, there is and whether we get to it depends on how we live.
H: Our souls live on.
B: I think he said that there are an infinite number of heavens and hells and all are impermanent.
A: I said that when we die, we simply cease to be, and we become like the ex-parrot in the Monty Python sketch. I also said that the concept of heaven, and thinking of ways to get there, is not a harmless fantasy but is a harmful one because it can drive people to think that strictly following the rules written down in texts thousands of years old is the correct way to get there. This can lead to all manner of awful actions as we well know. I pointed out to cases like Muslims who think they are doing god’s will by murdering random people and the Christian who was proud to have gunned down abortion and believed that he would encounter grateful fetuses in heaven. These kinds of examples could be given for every religion. (There was an aside to this response that I will address in a separate post.)

I also said that the idea of heaven distracts people from their responsibilities in this life. Realizing that this life is the only life we have means that we have to not only live this life to the fullest but that we ensure that everyone has the opportunity to find happiness here and now, not in the hereafter. This means that we all have to strive to ensure that those who are poor and minorities and gays and transsexual people and anyone else currently marginalized not be denied the opportunity for a good life and love and happiness and not fob them off with promises of a better afterlife

Our goal should be to leave the world better for our having been alive, not to seek some reward in the next life.

J: Yes, there is an afterlife but we don’t know what it will be like.

Why do bad things happen to good people, i.e., what is the nature of evil?

M: Things, good and bad, happen to everyone, good and bad
H: It is people who do evil
B: It is due to karma but that concept is more indirect and subtle than what people commonly believe when they say ‘what goes around comes around’.
A: This presupposes that there is some kind of cosmic justice that determines rewards and punishments. The fact is that there is no cosmic justice. Things, both good and bad, happen to people because of the actions of others or the laws of nature or because of chance.

Tennis great Arthur Ashe in his book Days of Grace said: “Quite often, people who mean well inquire of me whether I ever ask myself, in the face of my diseases, ‘Why me?’ I never do. If I ask, ‘Why me?’ as I am assaulted by heart disease and Aids I must ask, ‘Why me?’ about my blessings, and question my right to enjoy them. The morning after I won Wimbledon in 1975 I should have asked, ‘Why me’?

Even the Bible argues against the idea of cosmic justice in Ecclesiastes 9:11: “I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

Evil is not some external entity that takes over people and makes them act in bad ways. I don’t think it is helpful to talk of good and evil as entities or even as adjectives in the form of ‘good people’ and ‘evil people’. It only makes sense to talk of good and evil actions.
J: While he believes in good and evil, what is important is how we respond to others.
C: No coherent answer

How does your religion address others from different faiths?

There was pretty much agreement with B who spoke second (H spoke first but was inaudible to me) that we should treat everyone with dignity and respect. C said that he felt that he should also offer his belief to others while the M said his only concern was with his own salvation.

After the formal session, there were some questions from the audience such as whether any of us had doubts about our beliefs. B and I said no, J said yes but that it was a sign of strength, C said that things like the pedophilia scandal caused pain but not real doubt, while M and H were not clear in their responses.

Another question was why religions seemed to not care that much about animals. All the religious speakers said that they were opposed to causing suffering to animals but that they did not feel it wrong to use them for the benefit of humans. H mentioned the Jains who are opposed to the use of animals. I said that I thought that as humanity progressed and we included more and more formerly marginalized groups within our circle of compassion, that one day animals would also be fully included and we would look back in dismay at how we treat them now. I also conceded that I was a hypocrite on this issue since I ate meat though I have greatly reduced my consumption in an attempt to partly assuage my sense of guilt.

So that was it. It was fun.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    there are things that are ‘uncaused’ in that they are truly random and unpredictable, such as radioactive decay.

    To put it mildly, I’m not a fan of this formulation. Causation requires a sequence of events/states. In decays, there are sequences of states. Predictability entails determinism, which is something extra. So you are merely replacing ‘indeterministic’ with ‘uncaused’, which strikes me as misleading. How is beta decay not caused by the weak interaction? How is alpha decay not caused by quantum tunneling?

  2. says

    Rob Grigjanis@#1
    Thank you. I agree with you but seldom encounter another who appears to think that.

    My view is that radioactive decay -is- caused by the presence of an atom that can decay. In fact we -know- it will decay but we don’t know exactly when. So we’d have to say something like “we don’t know the proximal cause of some individual decay event” but that doesn’t mean we don’t know the cause.

    The oft cited argument Krauss uses -- that nothingness is unstable -- is basically the same as the one I offered: decay is caused by the presence of something that will inevitably decay.

  3. says

    My point @#2 illustrates problems inherent in aristotelian ideas of cause and effect, which often get dragged in to kalam inspired discussions of causality. Aristotle was trying to come up with a way of being able to point to an event and argue that it depended entirely on another event (necessary and sufficient conditions and all that) and then point to a single cause in the sequence of events imagined in that analysis and announce that this one of or the other was the “cause”

    That is clearly bullshittic, though, when you realize that humans evolved in an environment where being able to quickly imagine causal chains and evaluate them had survival value. Why did the antelope that I am eating come to the watering hole? It was thirsty, of course. But it is an equally accurate answer to imagine that the antelope was there because of population pressure on antelopes. Or maybe it woke up early that fateful morning. Or because my spear flew straight. Or simply it was there because there are antelopes. Or because of the big bang. In truth each and all of those “causes” may be true and I would not be eating that particular antelope right now. We accept an imagined causal chain that is the simplest that lets us convince ourselves that we understand why we are eating that particular antelope, but in fact causality is a completely interconnected mesh in which every event impacts and determines every other. We eat eat the antelope because (there’s that word again!) we shared the same tiny region of spacetime with it. (Antelope thinks: “oh, yay!”)

    I don’t think humans are very good at talking about cause and effect and have trained myself to immediately reject imagined causal chains that other people offer me as “explanations” It’s difficult but sometimes it helps me see things differently. (For example it’s part of why I regularly reject SteveOr’s tendency to assign cause/effect for what is happening in the middle east on an imagined causal chain that is rooted at a point convenient to his agenda) (yes the palestinians are getting fucked by the big bang. They are also getting fucked by the israelis)

  4. says

    “May be true and I”
    Should be
    “Must be true or I”

    I’m typing this on an iphone at an airport and it’s hard to write/review on this little screen. Or I am making mistakes because I have autocorrect off. But mostly it’s because of the big bang.

  5. invivoMark says

    Regarding animals, it may be worth noting that most animal ethics legislation is secular in nature and derives from non-religious concepts of morality. Specifically, animal ethics laws almost always stem from utilitarian morality. Although the US Animal Welfare Act preceded his influence, Peter Singer, an atheist, was effective at driving the conversation about how we should treat animals in the 1970s and later.

    To this day, Singer’s utilitarian approach to animal ethics remains dominant. The only things people tend to disagree on from a philosophical perspective are how much animals suffer in farming or laboratory conditions and much relative moral weight should be placed on the suffering of different animal species.

  6. DonDueed says

    C: No coherent answer

    From my (atheist) perspective, this could have been your summary of most of the other panelists’ answers.

  7. doublereed says

    Just curious: was the panel was all men?

    Wait, the Buddhist said no to having doubts? That’s surprising, I would expect him to have a similar answer to the Reform Jew who said yes but that’s fine. That answer (I have doubts but that’s a strength) makes the most sense to me only because it at least grants a veneer of skepticism and consideration. Sounds more ecumenical, which of course is encouraged at such an interfaith panel. Unfortunate that the others didn’t give clear answers though.

    Regarding animals, it may be worth noting that most animal ethics legislation is secular in nature and derives from non-religious concepts of morality.

    That’s not really true. There are animal ethics in the bible, like slitting livestock throats so that they die quicker. Of course like most things in religion, they are horribly outdated by modern standards and seem barbaric.

  8. Mano Singham says


    Yes, we were all men, as has always been the case in my own experience on such panels. In tomorrow’s session, though, both Protestant and Catholic chaplains will be women.

    At the lunch we had together afterwards, the Reform Jew asked the Buddhist about his ‘no doubts’ comment and the latter seemed to give him a more nuanced answer but I could not catch it because he was at the other end of the table.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Rob @#1,

    That is an interesting point as to the distinction between uncaused and indeterministic. The weak interaction gives a mechanism by which the nucleus can decay but is that the same thing as saying that it caused the decay? after all, it is possible that the nucleus may not decay at all, a cause without an effect, so to speak.

    And what about the direction in which the electron emerges? It is completely unpredictable. Is there a cause for that?

    Another example is the orientation of electron polarization when measured. Is there a cause for when it ends up and a different cause when it ends down?

    A similar example is spontaneous symmetry breaking such as in (say) ferromagnets where the randomly oriented atomic dipoles lock themselves into a domain where all are parallel when cooled below the critical temperature. The orientation of that domain could be in any direction. Is the direction of the final orientation said to have a cause?

    This distinction we are discussing may be largely semantic but interesting nonetheless.

  10. John Morales says


    How is beta decay not caused by the weak interaction? How is alpha decay not caused by quantum tunneling?


    This distinction we are discussing may be largely semantic but interesting nonetheless.

    Philosophically, the weak interaction supposedly accounts for beta decay, and similarly alpha decay accounts for quantum tunneling.

    (In Aristotelian terms, they are the the explanans for the explanandum)

  11. John Morales says

    [… miswrote]

    Um, the weak interaction supposedly accounts for beta decay, and similarly quantum tunneling accounts for alpha decay.

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    Mano, the problem with this view, I think, is that ’cause’ becomes meaningless at the quantum level, since any particle interaction is fundamentally probabilistic; particle decays, atomic emission, scattering processes, etc. But there is no question that causal structure is there even in quantum physics, in the sense that there are initial states and final states, with calculable probabilities.

    And what about the direction in which the electron emerges? It is completely unpredictable. Is there a cause for that?

    The probability per unit solid angle, for scattering, is calculable. Decay lifetimes are calculable. That is what you get from a probabilistic theory. “When will it decay?” or “which direction will the electron go?” simply do not translate into the language of the theory. So asking “what caused a particular decay time/direction?” is meaningless in the context of the theory.

    I get the impression that this usage (‘uncaused’ effects) came about solely as a response to theological arguments. If so, it’s unfortunate. It bothers me that laypeople (re physics) might read ‘particle decays are uncaused’ and think something weird is going on. It’s not weird. Just not deterministic.

  13. John Morales says


    Might as well claim life causes death.

    (It’s predictable, but not deterministic 😉 )

  14. moarscienceplz says

    … nothingness is the default state that does not need explanation and that somethingness is an aberration that must be explained.

    When you think about it, it is really weird that this is what most people assume. In our experience, there is never any situation which starts from absolutely nothing. To start a business to make money, one must first have money (or equivalent assets). To eat and digest food to add energy to our bodies, we must first have energy in our bodies.
    I wonder if maybe it is mathematics education that causes us to think that a tabula rasa is the natural starting point for all situations.

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