Wednesday 4 April 2012

Encouraging the Sceptics

The Gospel of Matthew opens the New Testament with words not nearly as memorable as those at the start of Genesis. One would not expect every Christian to know these words, though one would expect them to be aware that it is Matthew that comes in the beginning.

However according to a recent survey by Richard Dawkins 65% of the UK’s self-labelled Christians were unable to name the first book of the New Testament. Even more incredibly 48% stated that they ‘do not have strong religious beliefs’ at all.

Dawkins terms these people ‘Cultural Christians’; those who do not believe in or practice Christianity but still have an affinity towards a religion that they cannot escape. These people have affection for the village church, will sing raucously along to ‘All things Bright and Beautiful’ and could probably rattle of a few lines of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’. But this as far as their religion goes.

Today it is seen as more controversial to be a person of faith than not, with books such as The Chronicles of Narnia no longer written but instead Philip Pullman’s atheistic His Dark Materials and The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Religion appears to be very firmly on the back foot, the Church of England alone having seen church attendance decline by just under 200 000 over the last decade. However in his new book Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton proclaims that religion is too important to be left to believers. One doesn’t have to join the ranks of the militant neo-Atheists to be a non-believer, but does one have to believe to find the worth in faith? And in terms of university life, what do the faith societies offer the sceptical student?

Over the course of a few weeks I attended an assortment of events put on by the faith societies at the University of Liverpool. These events were well organised but despite the heavy promotion there was often a lack of attendees there who weren’t a member of that society. This meant that occasionally I felt like a lost lamb (or black sheep) who had stumbled into the wrong room and been mistaken for part of the choir. At one of the Islam Society’s (ISOC) events there were a few stray students who peered in but kept their feet firmly out, admitting that that they were daunted to venture any further.

An ignorance of a religion can lead to a feeling of intimidation of that religion. In her talk for ISOC’s Awareness Week, Lauren Booth, former journalist and sister-in-law to Tony Blair, described her gradual conversion to Islam and the consternation it caused many of those who knew her. Her conservative Catholic mother had appeared surprisingly calm over the phone, and only when she saw Booth wearing the hijab did she exclaim ‘Muslim! I thought you said Budhism!’

Booth emphasised the importance of educating people about the realities of different religions, supporting what these faith societies are doing. I found an intellectual gratification at these events devoid of the moralizing aggression of a street preacher or the heavy drones of a Religious Education lesson.

One of the weekly workshops put on by the university’s National Hindu Students Forum (NHSF) discussed the common preconceptions of Hinduism; the meaning behind the supposed multiple gods, and their relationship with the cow, for instance. I came to see how each conclusion made was a personal one, contingent on that individual’s relationship with Hinduism.

‘What one person may like may be the complete opposite of another person’s opinion,’ the Vice President Trusha Kothari was to say to me. ‘Hinduism accepts the basic differences in every person in taste, temperament and capacity.’

I found a similar lack of rules and regulations at the Christian Union (CU) events. I spoke with Andy Taylor, a former member of the CU who emphasised the importance of the society cutting back to the heart of Christianity. ‘If it’s not about Jesus, it’s not worth it,’ he repeatedly said.

Andy went on to say that the CU brought up ‘life’s big questions’. Though this may be the case, more often than not I found that these questions weren’t answered. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It has been said that trying to explain religion in practical terms would be like launching a scientific investigation into literature. I may never understand what made some of the Sisters cry as Lauren Booth described the first time she felt Allah’s presence in a mosque, or the feeling of the girl who told me, unabashed and beaming of her conversion to Christianity from a life of drugs, anger and rebellion. The lack of answers doesn’t detract from the worth of the questions.

Whether it’s a debate on those questions, learning Bollywood dance or attending one of the charity projects that these societies arrange, there is much a student of ‘no faith’ can find in engaging with these societies. Trusha was effusive in her encouragement for all to join in with the Hindu festivals: ‘From exploding fireworks together on Diwali or smearing colour on each other in Holi, our festivals have religious stories behind them, but the morals are universal; whether it be the triumph of good over evil, or starting a new year afresh!’

In his book De Botton goes on to argue that religion is the ‘most successful educational and intellectual movements the planet has ever witnessed.’ Whether or not this is the case there is certainly a value in the faith societies for students not of that faith even it if is simply the pleasure of learning and meeting strangers. University is about nothing if not about that.

Bertie Digby Alexander
London 2012

Originally published in Ellipsis Issue 5 Spring 2012 -

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