Yesterday’s interfaith panel held at my university was interesting. The Hindu was a no-show so the first part began with the other three panelists (the Protestant campus chaplain, a Jewish rabbi, and a Muslim imam, who was the same person from Thursday’s session) each giving 15 minutes presentations. The Protestant chaplain was a minister in the United Church of Christ. This is one of the most socially enlightened and progressive of Christian denominations.
I was particularly interested in the Jewish rabbi. Normally the Jews who attend these sessions are from the more liberal Reform tradition but in this case he was Orthodox. But he broke several stereotypes about Orthodox Judaism. He was young and dressed casually in open-neck shirt and slacks, not all in black, with only a yarmulke as a sign that he was religious. He had a beard but a short, scruffy, surfer-dude type of beard, not the more common full, well-groomed ones seen on many Orthodox men. He had spent a lot of time working on Indian reservations in the US and with the Mayans. He was clearly more open and attuned to modern progressive thought and values. I had a good conversation with him while we waited in line for food and ate and would have enjoyed talking to him more, to probe his beliefs and attitudes, but unfortunately did not get the opportunity.
During the Q/A session, the Catholic chaplain and I joined the three of them and we addressed five questions. Both the Catholic and Protestant chaplains were women, which made a change from Thursday’s all-male session.
1. What are some ways to create dialogue among inter-religious groups?
Everyone said that we need to provide more opportunities and a space for such dialogue. I added that student groups that are based on religion or ethnicity or other divisions should make it a priority the engage in organizing and co-sponsoring joint events, because working cooperatively on a worthwhile project with people who are different from you can often lead to a greater respect for others than simply talking with them
2. If someone is not affiliated with any religion, can they be religious?
I passed on this one but the others all said yes, more or less. The rabbi said that it was clear that more and more young people were dissatisfied with religious institutions as evidenced by the fact that those who identified as ‘not affiliated’, popularly referred to as the ‘nones’, were the fastest growing group, and the rise of the “I’m spiritual but not religious” way of identifying oneself.
3. How can you reach someone who seems committed to a very different point of view?
My answer to this (based on my own experience as a teacher and on the research literature) was that it is not effective to try and reason such people out of their beliefs. If you simply argue against them, they are likely to dig in and reinforce their existing beliefs. Instead what one should do is let the other person articulate their views, with your role being to ask them probing questions about why they believe what they believe and, when they cite reasons and evidence, to pose counter-examples and evidence and invite them to reconcile this with their prior beliefs. In other words, get them to do the intellectual heavy lifting. As they dig down into their own minds and thoughts, they are more likely to begin the process of change.
4. Can science and religion co-exist?
This was of course the biggie. It always is. All the other panelists said that they could co-exist, which was no surprise, since religious people have no choice but to accept the existence of science. It was clear that they based their sense of compatibility on a combination of ‘god of the gaps’ (i.e., there are many things that science cannot explain and this is where god can be found) and on the idea of religion addressing questions of values and ethics while science deals with the material.
I was definitely the outlier on this. I said that there are three levels to view this question. On a broad philosophical level, they are incompatible. Science simply cannot function if it allows for any supernatural interventions, while almost all religious formulations require some supernatural intervention in the world.
On an individual level, people are quite capable of holding two contradictory ideas in their minds at the same time, if they want to. There are, after all, religious scientists. One can make science and religion seem compatible simply by not asking oneself the hard philosophical questions about compatibility.
On a social level, I said that we have to go beyond compatibility and that it is often irrelevant for important social issues. There are urgent and major issues of social justice that must be addressed in the world and we have to learn to work together if we are to seriously address them. I said that I really did not care what other people believed if they and I could work together on social justice issues.
UPDATE: I forgot to include the fifth question and response so here they are.
5. What makes you choose not to believe in god?
This question was of course addressed to me. I said that one did not need a reason to not believe in things that are invisible or which have not been incontrovertibly established. So one did not need reasons to not believe in ghosts, fairies, zombies, werewolves, vampires, and the like. If one believed in the existence of every conceivable thing, one could not function because one would be living in a demon-haunted world (to borrow Carl Sagan’s phrase), constantly terrified by the possibility of monsters lurking under one’s bed.
I said that I did not believe in a god because there was no reason to do so. God’s existence was not self-evidently true. It was people who believed in a god who had to provide reasons as to why they chose to do so.
After the session ended, people were encouraged to stay on and discuss informally and I sat at the table with the imam and about ten students and we had a lively discussion for an hour. This was the best part for me, as it usually is, and the discussion was almost entirely about science and religion.