What happens when a humanist, a Jew turned atheist and a Muslim walk into the a theatre? Well, it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but that’s what happened on Thursday when scientist and humanist Professor Jim Al-Khalili was joined by Jewish atheist author and journalist Antony Loewenstein and scientist and Muslim Associate Professor Reza Aslan to discuss faith and religion.
The intention of the session, An Unconventional Faith, was to explore humanity’s need for religion and its strong connection with faith of many different kinds. And it did challenge many ideas that have been thrown around by the scientific community over the last 100 years, the main one being whether religion is on the decline.
As Dr Aslan pointed out, in 2012, two-thirds of the world’s population believed in some form of religion; in fact, religion has survived in some form or another over the last 2000 years. “There a good reason why religions have lasted for so long. They are based on not just ideas, but positive ideas,” he said. Religion has the power to adapt to its environment and take on new characteristics. Dr Aslan maintained that God not dead.
Religion and faith have become very important issues in a post 9/11 world, according to Reza Aslan, religion is far more about identity than it is with faith. As the walls of nationalism collapse, countries turn to other forms of nationalism to fill that space – ethnicity and religion have become very powerful tools. Evidence of this may be found in Iraq, according to the panel, with the civil war between the Shiite and Sunnis. And in the West, new gods have been created, Antony Loewenstein said. “The market is worshipped,” he suggested. “It’s no wonder that not a single person involved in the global financial crisis has been charged.”
The panel looked at the power of religious symbolism. Antony Loewenstein pointed to the manner in which politicians use their religious faith for their own political agendas. He said, “Zionism has become the new religion of the Jews, especially in the United States. They are supportive of the Jews’ occupation of Palestine.” However, he said that while he could fly to Israel tomorrow, stay there six months and become a citizen, Palestinians who are more in touch with the land are unable to do the same thing.
Ultimately, the discussion lead to the question: can science and religion ever get along. Jim Al-Kalili believes all it takes is mutual respect. “Being a humanist, it’s not so much about taking religion seriously but taking the idea that people believe in it seriously. The conversation needs to take place eventually and it needs to be one of equal respect.”