Catriona Robertson

journeys at home and abroad

How important to religion is belief?

If you’re religious, do you suffer reputational damage from attending a humanist or secularist event?  Or, if you’re atheist, from going to religious events?  Compared to the huge number of multifaith events, we don’t often get together (intentionally) and that’s a shame.  I like Rory Fenton’s recent piece on this.

Arriving at the RSA‘s event on New Atheism last year, I thought I might be the only person there who wasn’t totally dismissive of religion.  Chatting to the person next to me, I found he was thinking exactly the same (only much later did I clock he was a famous comedian).

Last month the British Humanist Association held a panel event – Islam in a Secular Europe.  The panellists were atheist/humanist and Muslim.

Panellists Sir David Blatherwick, Dr Humeira Iqtidar, Rashad Ali, Maryam Namazie, Yahya Birt & Prof Maleiha Malik at Conway Hall.

Good for the BHA – and top marks for having as many women on the panel as men, including two Muslim academics (Humeira Iqtidar and Maleiha Malik) who went to some trouble to re-frame questions from the floor so that they could be answered with integrity.

Questions (the applause pattern suggested minimal enthusiasm for Islam) included, “Which bits of the Qur’an do you reject?”  Views from the panel included, “Children don’t have a religion.”  There were exchanges on Shari’a in Europe, freedom, faith schools and what Muslim women are doing when they wear the niqab/burqa.  Panellists’ views ranged from advocating a ban on Shari’a courts in Europe to explaining that the value of the Qur’an is lost if it is read simply as a rule book.

A Muslim member of the panel said she didn’t know a great deal about the Qur’an – many Muslims do not – it’s not all about belief.

The same evening, John Gray‘s A Point of View was going out on BBC Radio 4.   He talked about myth, science, art and poetry and said that “too many atheists miss the point of religion, it’s about how we live and not what we believe.”

“In most religions – polytheism, Hinduism and Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto, many strands of Judaism and some Christian and Muslim traditions – belief has never been particularly important.  Practice – ritual, meditation, a way of life – is what counts.  What practitioners believe is secondary, if it matters at all.

The idea that religions are essentially creeds, lists of propositions that you have to accept, doesn’t come from religion.  It’s an inheritance from Greek philosophy, which shaped much of western Christianity and led to practitioners trying to defend their way of life as an expression of what they believe.”

Feeling a need to brush up on the history of humanism and philosophy, I found my copy of Understand Humanism, which I bought at Greenbelt during the summer.  The author, Birkbeck’s Mark Vernon, was one of the speakers this year.

The comedian I failed to recognise at the RSA happened to be in public conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury the very same evening.

Frank Skinner and Archbishop Rowan Williams in conversation in Canterbury Cathedral.

Frank Skinner talked about coming back to Catholicism after years away, “I went for communion and I wanted to punch the air after. I felt more than back home. I felt I was in my right context.”  The Archbishop said: “Coming back to church is not about the difference an argument makes, but it is about the sense of welcome, absolution and acceptance.”

The hardest thing about (any) religion is actually living it – not talking about it or fussing about how to do it.  Is it the same for humanists and atheists?  Or is it all about belief – or unbelief – for you guys?

My atheist and humanist friends divide roughly into

  • those who concentrate on the ‘living it’ bit – drawing on inherited values and ones they’ve developed over the years, and
  • those who argue that their beliefs/non-beliefs make a lot more sense than others’ – for instance, mine

My multifaith life includes a lot of folk from the ‘living it’ category – people from a wide spectrum of religious, philosophical & political thought who want to make the world a better place.  We talk (passionately) about our values and our different traditions, but we don’t try to win each other over.

For the ‘arguers’, the often unspoken assumption is that if a religion’s beliefs are shown to fall short (of the current ideal), how can people associate themselves with it while maintaining their intellectual and moral self-respect?  Hence the questions to religious people about particular bits of scripture, women, faith schools, human rights.  And the seemingly unsatisfactory responses.

Sometimes it doesn’t really add up: people with apparently bizarre beliefs live coherent and admirable lives; people who reject all religious belief nevertheless manage the same.

A Sukkah - not my friends' one (from

I called in on Jewish friends yesterday who were taking down their sukkah – a temporary hut in the garden – where they’ve been living for the last week.  Doing this reminds them of ancient times and of living with vulnerability, insecurity, uncertainty.

Re-pitching the Tent (by Richard Giles) is rooted in the same ancient stories and brought life to the church I belonged to in the 90s – how do we arrange sacred space for  ‘regeneration, creativity and transformation’?

Jewish families keep patterns of activities, Christians order their churches in meaningful ways.  In the process, we relinquish some freedom to do what we like, when we like – but most of us develop practices, individual or communal, which help us live the kind of lives we want to live, even if we struggle to do so.

Is John Gray right?  Is identity, tradition and practice more important in religion than belief?  And how do humanists and atheists develop a pattern of life which helps them keep true to their principles?

One comment on “How important to religion is belief?

  1. Personal Concerns
    22 October 2011

    thanks for this really thought provoking post!

Comments are closed.


This entry was posted on 22 October 2011 by in London and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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