As you know, we have been thinking of and praying for the people of Sri Lanka in the last few days, those killed and their loved ones left behind with their grief. Fr Macnab spoke movingly to you on this last Friday, and we prayed then and yesterday at Mass.
I don’t tend to read the comments below social media posts – they are often too depressing – but were I a betting man I would be fairly confident of winning a bet that in the last week several commentators will have said something along the lines of “the world would be a much better and happier place without religion”. The perpetrators of these terrible terrorist attacks – be it Sri Lanka, Christchurch, Paris, Pittsburgh or, going back a few more years, 9/11 – tend to claim religious motivations for their actions.
But is it as simple as this? Or do we perhaps need to think a bit harder than this as to whether or not it is actually true that religion does more harm than good? I read a very interesting article last week, entitled “Does religion do more harm than good?” The article was written before the Sri Lanka attack, but I didn’t get round to reading it until afterwards. The writer was Rupert Shortt, who is the religion editor of the Times Literary Supplement, and who has just published a book entitled “Does religion do more harm than good?”
In his article Shortt argues that, far from being self-evident – what we call a truism - that faith is at the root of most conflicts, in fact faith is often politicised and in reality “the notionally ‘religious’ roots of a given conflict are often really social problems in disguise”. He also suggests that any mature discussion of this issue needs to include consideration of the extent to which “faith has encouraged widely recognised goods such as scientific enquiry or freedom of conscience or democracy and the rule of law”.
The other problem he identifies is that, when we discuss religion, it is very hard – yet as with all debate essential – to agree exactly what we are arguing about. To make a comparison, if you and I debate the benefits of veganism, we may disagree about it – you may feel that it is excellent and I may not – but at least we can agree what it is that we’re arguing about. The problem with debates of faith, in contrast, is that atheists – such as Richard Dawkins, whom I’m sure you’ve heard of – have a tendency to set up for debate a version of God that no sensible, intelligent Christian would ever seriously put forward as the deity, an easy target to be knocked down, what we call an “Aunt Sally”.
However, the way out of this problem isn’t to ignore the debate or those who hold different opinions from our own, but rather to give them the benefit of the doubt by engaging in debate with a more robust and sensible counter-position than they might actually have presented. Shortt makes this point very well in his article: “To win an argument convincingly, you need the backbone to confront a robust version of the contrary position”. Whatever we are debating – and perhaps the Windhover or Adelphi Societies might decide to run with this topic - I think we can helpfully adopt this approach of ennobling our opponents and their arguments, rather than dismissing them. After all, that is the Christian thing to do.
Joe Smith - Head Master