Religion’s Role in the 21st Century


A recent debate held at Cambridge University, has been making headlines, at least within the religion community.  Set upon determining the motion “religion has no place in the 21st Century,” the debate drove to the heart of many of the modern concerns regarding religion and secularism.   On the one side stood Andrew Copson and Arif Ahmed, led by the prominent new-atheist Richard Dawkins.  On the other, Tariq Ramadan and Douglas Murray, led by Rowan Williams, who recently stepped down as Archbishop of Canterbury.  Many news outlets have taken to calling this a defeat, if not rout, of Dawkins by Williams, as the vote proceeding the debate was 324 to 136 in Williams’ favor.  Such a clear margin does beg the question, if Dawkins’ position appears to have great favor in much of the West, and his book sales surely seem to indicate so, why such a failure?  The answer, I argue, stems from the very ambiguity of the debate motion itself. What exactly is meant by the claim that “religion has no place in the 21st Century”?

In it’s strongest form, this assertion may call for the total abandonment or deconstruction of all religious organization (both sides of the debate were explicit that they were concerned solely with “organized” religion).  At many points, this appeared to be precisely what Dawkins and crew were calling for, at one point simply asserting that, were religions to disappear completely, and everything else to stay the same, “the world would be a better place.”  Yet, this approach has a troubling flaw in the face of realism.  Religions are here.  Many of them are growing.  This is simply not something that can be avoided.  One might build arguments that this should not be so, but this argumentation relies upon a strong  idealism and an unprovable hypothesis (that the world minus religion would be better; what possible empirical evidence could be brought to defend such a claim if no such world (in recorded history) has existed?).  A weaker approach might simply argue that religion should have no place in public policy, that it should be a matter of individual conviction outside of the public sphere.  But Williams and his crew were particularly resistant to this argument.  In fact, they were most clearly positioned against this weaker form of the argument, insisting that religions, as aspects of the real world, must be included as members in public debate.  Simply, that a religion-less public debate is an incomplete debate.

Dawkins and his side were therefore left with little option.  Either they must take the weaker approach, essentially arguing that a massive portion of the human population should be excluded from debates of policy and ethics (a totalitarian position to be sure), or they must make an argument based entirely upon the unverifiable hypothesis that a religion-free world would be a better world.  Neither offers a particularly strong position, and their eventual choice to dabble in both resulted in a strong victory for Williams, Ramadan, and Murray.

What are your thoughts?



About jleavittpearl

Philosopher and Theologian out of Pittsburgh PA.

Posted on February 4, 2013, in News, Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Yes indeed the question was rather loaded as to invite falling into a trap. For me as a revolutionary-humanist a better line of approach would have been to accept the reality that religion exists for many people and be represented but insist they should disavow, and remove all the cruel, antagonistic sectarian and destructive passages from their respective scriptures. For there are many. See for example ‘Religion versus Women’s rights’; Totalitarianism; Religious and Political’ and ‘Clinging onto Patriarchy’ at my blog



  2. I would suggest, not that the debate was a “trap” for I think that suggests disingenuity on the part of Cambridge U. that I think is quite is inaccurate. On the contrary, I think that the event revealed a fundamental weakness (and I might even suggest shallowness) in the new-Atheist position itself.

    As for “editing” the scriptures, this has been done in small part by such editions as the NRSV which have removed much of the patriarchal language. But overall, I think this is an extremely problematic approach. Should we edit racist language out of Huck Fin? The misogyny from Shakespeare? Of course not. It is completely absurd to expect old, or particularly ancient, texts to read with a modern moral/ethical sensibility. Rather, it is absolutely fundamental to a healthy community that it not “white-wash” its past, that it recognize where it where it has failed, in order that it not fail again.

    Of course, not “editing” these texts can lead to problems with fundamentalism. But the problems of fundamentalism are much deeper than a simple edit could fix.

    Lastly, this argument falls into the exact same idealism as the religion-less world argument. First, it’s not going to happen. It’s simply out of the question in reality. Second, its very argument relies upon an unproven hypothesis, that the problems of religion are generated by the text (and that removal of problematic texts would fix the problems).

    Is it not equally possible, and if hermeneutics has anything to say, more probable, that rather than arising out of the text itself, the fundamentalist reading of the text is the product of a prior fundamentalist lens or hermeneutic which is brought to the text? I would certainly suggest this is the case. Otherwise, the origin of liberal/leftist readings of the same text would be somewhat mysterious.

    • Hi There!
      !. In my comment I did not suggest the title was a deliberate trap – that’s twisting my words as well as my meaning.
      2. I would suggest religious ideological sectarianism is not the same as Huck Fin or Shakespeare. As far as I am aware there are no ‘Fin-demtalist’ terrorists or Shakespearian assasinators of women running around the planet.
      3.Disavowing the numerous aspects of religious sectarian textual and practical nastiness does happen in practice so it is not idealist to encourage or expect this.
      4. In my view there is nothing wrong at all with an unproven hypothesis. In fact all hypothesis are unproven until they are proven and then re-catagorised. And there is sufficient evidence to suggest it is a useful hypothesis to consider.
      5. If the fundamentalist reading of texts comes from a prior fundamentalist lens what else in human societies provides such a prior lens.
      6. The religious text were in contradiction to ancient moral and ethical sensibilities at the time of writing – as the texts themselves make clear.

      Regards, Roy

  3. Of course, it is certainly true that an unproven hypothesis is not a problem. I rather misspoke, and meant instead an unprovable hypothesis. I think there is a significant difference there.

    As for evidence, I am unsure. While there is certainly many cases in which proof-texting has been enacted as defense of crimes (slavery for instance comes to mind), I’m not sure that this can be established as causation (as I already indicated, I actually think the opposite).

    Rather, I would argue that there is a prior ideological commitments (e.g. economic in the slavery example) which determine the hermeneutical position. Simply, one reads the text in order to fit their own world. While such a fundamentalist approach might be altered by such an editing, I strongly suspect that much of the ideology would remain intact.

    If we consider the New Atheists (by which I primarily mean, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and their followers) for instance, very significant correlation between the ideology of religious fundamentalism (particularly the Christian variety) and their perspective can be found. That is to say, although they substituted “God does not exists,” for “God does exist,” their ideology, hermeneutic, and in general, worldview, is essentially unchanged. This seems to indicate, I suspect, that their pre-conversion ideology was never challenged by their turn to atheism.

    I think such a position can be strongly supported with Marx who seems to place religion as a product of both material conditions and prevalent ideology.

    And yes, in many ways the texts were in contradiction to the society of their day (e.g. the explicit ban upon human sacrifice), but, I think it is extremely clear that they are also products of their time. The role of women, for instance, is completely in line with other ancient near-east cultures.

  4. Nice to know, the much awaited debate has started. My best wishes

    Suresh Kumar Soni

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