Wrestling with pigs
Is there any point in debating faith with believers, asked Caspar Melville in a recent post. Yes, says Alom Shaha, under the right conditions
[This is a response to Caspar Melville’s blog post on “When debate with the religious is pointless”]
I recently met a Muslim woman who told a hall full of teenagers that she wouldn’t let me marry her daughter. She didn’t use quite those words, but when asked by a student how she would feel if her children married a non-Muslim, she replied that she wouldn’t be too disappointed if they married a Jew or a Christian, but a non-believer, well, that would be problematic. The audience turned to see my reaction and I simply shrugged and said “Oh well, I guess I’m not going to marry her daughter”.
It got a laugh and the discussion moved on with the young people asking probing questions about the origins of Kosher regulations, the rights of children to choose whether or not to wear a hijab and whether one could lead a meaningful life without believing in an afterlife.
I was at an “interfaith” event organised by the Three Faiths Forum (which now calls itself 3FF to emphasise that fact that it is faith neutral, and welcomes not only the Abrahamic faiths), an organisation with the noble aim of “Educating young people about faiths and beliefs, challenging prejudice and creating understanding”. I’m a Humanist and the other two speakers on this occasion were a Muslim and a Jew. There was no arguing, no confrontational stances and no belittling of each others’ beliefs. The 3FF are strict in their rules about these events, which they explain to the audience at the start – it’s made clear to the audience that the event is categorically not a debate and that the speakers are only speaking for themselves, they do not represent any whole community.
I enjoy taking part in the 3FF events, they are far removed from the showcase “god debates” that pit atheists against believers, where self-proclaimed “community leaders” and wannabe “horsemen” go head to head in an attempt to prove that their particular world-view is “right”. I’ve been invited to take part in such debates myself, and I have so far declined to do so, mostly because I’ve suspected that the organisers of such events are motivated less by a genuine desire to tackle the big questions that belief or lack of it can raise than a wish to create controversy and spectacle to draw attention to their organisation or key speakers.
In short, I’m no horseman and I’ve no desire to wrestle with pigs.
However, I may be mistaken. One of the things I like about the 3FF events is that they let me put ideas about humanism in front of people who may never have considered them before. Taking part in these interfaith events gives me the opportunity to challenge the preconceptions of people who may never have met or talked to an atheist. On one occasion, a girl told the audience that she had previously had a very negative view of atheists, but that hearing me talk had helped her understand “where they’re coming from”.
However, not all students will attend a 3FF event and “debates” at universities, like the one Caspar did, may be the only place where they are exposed to different ideas about religion and belief. Sure, the majority of the audience at such events may turn up with fixed views which will never be budged, but there’s always the possibility that there are a few genuine doubters and thinkers in the audience who would benefit from hearing the humanist perspective.
Perhaps I ought to spend less time preaching to the choir here at the RA blog and giving talks at Skeptics in the Pub, and more time at Islamic Society debates.
Editor’s Note: Alom has not taken part in any live debates yet, but he recently took part in what was effectively a debate about the “problem of evil” on the “Unbelieveable" show on Premier Christian Radio. Listen to it to see how believers and non-believers can discuss the “big questions” and disagree with each other in polite but firm ways.
Alternatively, read a review of the show by a Christian listener.