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?
Posted on February 4, 2013, in News, Thoughts and tagged Andrew Copson, Arif Ahmed, Cambridge University, Douglas Murray, Evangelical Atheism, New Atheism, Religion, Richard Dawkins, Rowan Williams, Secularism, Tariq Ramadan. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.