Fact Over Faith

In the light of the Commons’ vote on marriage, JAMIE WEBB argues that religion’s influence in 21st century society is not justified.

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First, let me make a non-religious confession. I was not able to go to last week’s debate on religion’s role in the 21st century and so I was not able to appreciate first hand Richard Dawkins’s unintentional knob joke or Arif Ahmed’s ‘bring it on’ gesture to Rowan Williams as he asked whether the ex-Archbishop wanted to make a point of information. Its availability on YouTube may make me question the value of my extortionate subscription to the union, but it was fascinating to watch. Despite a spirited defence of religion, I still find myself siding with the proposition.

As a factual claim, religious belief is nonsense. No one could properly examine the
arguments for and against God’s existence, and objectively conclude that there is enough evidence to support what would be the most momentous, life altering important thing anyone could ever believe. If you do, it’s because you want to – whether because your upbringing conditioned you to, or because you think a life without God or an afterlife would be a meaningless one (I don’t by the way).

I won’t deny that the bible adds meaning to many people’s lives. But this is
irrelevant to the question of whether its claims are true. I believe we should make
judgements based on one simple maxim: believe what the evidence best supports. The value of faith in people’s lives, how it enriches them, and the good it does are all unrelated to this question.

Poseidon: an underrated religious superstar?

Suppose I replaced the word ‘Jesus’ with ‘Poseidon’, and then explained the huge sense of enrichment and value that believing in him had brought my life. Metaphysically, my claim is no more implausible. But I would never have my faith in Poseidon treated as if it was a thing to be respected. And if my religious convictions meant that it would be deeply offensive to me if Poseidon was portrayed in a cartoon, I would have no right to restrict people’s freedom of expression by demanding it not be published. If I burned down embassies in my rage, I would not be pandered to, and no one would think to spout such lunacy as to claim that the cartoonists should be held in any way responsible for my actions.

But does the good religion does outweigh its sometimes pernicious influence? And should it persuade us to accept it even though its central claim is groundless? The arguments given in the Union debate and elsewhere satisfy me that religion is not necessary as a social tool: people do just as much good in the world in the name of common human values than they do in the name of God. Rowan Williams is certainly an eloquent, deeply intelligent, and above all compassionate man. He would remain so if not religious.

However, he would also be free of commitments to the central tenets of the three main religions of the book: that man is born in sin and commanded to be free; that there is an omniscient being who is watching our every move and judging our every thought, a being that according to the Old Testament is spectacularly cruel and violent; and that death is to be looked forward to as the arrival of salvation. In the light of the progressive decision made by the Commons to vote in favour of gay marriage, it is worth acknowledging that some of the things believed in the name of religion – that refusing a blood transfusion to save your own life is wrong; that allowing women in positions of authority is wrong; that AIDS is bad but condoms are worse; that to give the love that two men or women have for each other full expression through marriage is wrong – would never be thought by any right-thinking individual, not in the 21st century.

Just as if I was an easily offended Poseidon worshiper, the fact someone may have
convictions does not mean we should bow to them when deciding civil policy for the rest of us, especially since those convictions are based on faith alone. Just because a definition of marriage has been passed down from a bronze age text, this does not mean  that it should be applied to the rest of us, especially considering that the only reason the Church of England even exists to oppose gay marriage is because Henry VIII wanted to get a divorce. So let’s applaud the government for taking a principled stance on the issue of gay marriage, and let’s welcome the fact that we live in an age and a country where the power of faith over evidence is beginning to lose its grip.