Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Agreeing to disagree: is dialogue between believers and non-believers worthwhile?

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Last night, I attended a meeting between representatives of Catholic Voices and members of the Central London Humanist Group (CLHG), which took place in the hall of St Saviour's Church in Pimlico. It was the second such event, the first having taken place in central London last October – the point, as I explained in a piece in the current issue of New Humanist, is to experiment with the idea of humanists and Catholics sitting down and engaging with each other on contentious issues in a cordial manner. At least that's how I see it, and I would imagine others who have attended the meetings would agree – the aim isn't to change each other's minds, or to speak on behalf of humanists or Catholics beyond those in the room, but rather to gain an understanding of each other's perspectives in a way that sidesteps the adversarial tone that often pervades the public debate over religion and its related issues.

There are, of course, questions over what exactly can be achieved by such discussions, and I will come to those later in this post. But first I'd like to run through the details of last night's meeting – there's not really an established method for conducting discussions such as these, so I think providing an account of the format and the contents, along with some of my own personal impressions, will serve as a useful basis for assessing whether such meetings are worthwhile. It'd be very interesting to hear what people make of it all, so please do take some time to read what follows and offer up your critiques in the comment thread.

The format

At last night's meeting we had 14 humanists and 7 Catholics, which was a little less balanced than the first in October (apparently a few of the Catholics didn't make it). In contrast to the last meeting, which had a good gender balance, only three women attended, which as you will see below was unfortunate given some of the subject matter we were discussing. The meeting was chaired by Jack Valero, one of the founders of Catholic Voices and press officer for Opus Dei in the UK, the previous meeting having been chaired by Alan Palmer of the CLHG. The agenda consisted of three main topics – "doubts about the miraculous in the scientific age", "abortion", and "you can be good without God" – which had been chosen in advance by members of the CLHG and agreed with the Catholics. Each topic was be introduced by a member of the CLHG, with the chair then opening it out to a discussion for around 25 minutes. After all three topics had been discussed, one of the humanists was tasked with summarising the Catholic arguments, as he understood them, with a Catholic doing the same for the humanist arguments.

Doubts about the miraculous in the scientific age

The CLHG member introducing this topic did so with some simple questions. Have the Catholic Church's teachings been affected by science? And do Catholics have doubts over miracles, and if so how are they dealt with? The specific miracles she had in mind included transubstantiation, the virgin birth, the resurrection and the miracles cited to support beatification and sainthood.

This was a topic where the humanist and Catholic positions were clearly at odds, and as you may expect there was little scope for agreement. The discussion, perhaps inevitably, became one over theology and metaphysics, which was most obvious when the subject of transubstantiation came up. The Catholics explained that the change that they believe takes place in the communion bread and wine involves a change in substance. However, this does not involve a change in molecular structure. The change is in the "metaphysical reality", which exists outside of physical reality. It is not something that is empirically verifiable or falsifiable. Such a statement is, of course, practically meaningless to rationalists, who would reject the notion of something changing "substance" in a way that can't be empirically verified.

In my view, this is an example of where faith and reason are entirely incompatible – while humanists might take an interest in why the religious believe in something like miracles, the leap of faith that such beliefs entail makes it very difficult to empathise with those that hold them. However, my feeling during this part of the discussion was that miracles are an area where humanists and Catholics can safely agree to disagree, and that there are more important issues, such as the next topic, around which constructive debate is required.


The humanist proposer began this section of the discussion with an account of what happened at St Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, in November 2009. A pregnant woman was admitted to the Catholic hospital with pulmonary hypertension and, on the basis that her chance of death was considered close to 100% if an abortion was not carried out, a decision was made by her family, doctors and the hospital ethics team to proceed with a terminating her 11-week pregnancy. The diocese of Phoenix, led by Bishop Thomas Olmsted, subsequently stripped the hospital of its Catholic affiliation and excommunicated the member of the ethics team who had permitted the abortion. How, asked the humanist at last night's discussion, could anyone hold that allowing the mother and foetus to die was preferable to saving the mother's life? Did this not highlight the dangers of allowing inflexible religious organisations to provide vital public services?

As you might imagine, the discussion that ensued was a difficult one. Several Catholics explained their belief that life has to be considered to begin at conception – in their view there can be no meaningful definition of the human person that doesn't begin at conception, as any other line you can draw would be arbitrary. Therefore, according to that view, abortion has to be considered murder. Among the humanists there was exasperation at the fact that some (not all) of the Catholics were willing to side with the Bishop of Phoenix on the St Joseph's hospital case, and one CLHG member, who as she noted was one of only three women in the room, explained several of the key pro-choice arguments, including the notion that an embryo in the zygotic stage does not resemble a human in any way we would recognise, and the fact that 50 per cent of pregnancies end naturally. The Catholics were also asked to consider the case of a woman who becomes pregnant as a result of rape – for a religion controlled by men to forbid abortion in such cases is, it was suggested, evil. The Catholic who responded to this acknowledged the difficulty of empathising with someone who has been through this, but insisted that such a case would still not justify abortion.

The debate over abortion became quite heated at certain moments, although it never quite spilled over into an outright argument. This, I think, was helped by the nature of the meeting – the fact that it consisted of just 21 people sat around a table provided a check on it descending into a shouting match, and encouraged people to listen to the points being made. There was, of course, no prospect of full agreement on this most contentious of issues, but I do think we reached a degree of understanding in certain respects – it was pointed out to the Catholics that abortion is not taken lightly by people who are pro-choice, which they acknowledged, and we were able to agree that a reduction in the number of abortions would be a good thing (we didn't, however, get on to the issue of how to achieve this, which from the humanist perspective would, of course, involve improved awareness of contraception). The one thing we all agreed on was the importance of the debate around abortion in Britain remaining a mature one – the tone of the debate in America was not seen as something anyone would like to see here.

"You can be good without God"

For the final area of discussion, one of the humanists opened up the question of whether morality necessitates holding a religious belief. He suggested that while there is some wisdom in all religions, many aspects can not be considered moral, and therefore human empathy and common well being provide a firmer basis for morality.

As with the discussion over miracles, this was a tough subject to debate, as the Catholic arguments were founded on a metaphysics that has little meaning for humanists. One of the Catholics, a former atheist who is now studying theology, explained that, from the Christian perspective, in order to be able to say that things are intrinsically right or wrong, you need to believe in an transcendent, objective morality, i.e. God. There was, unsurprisingly, some outrage among the humanists over this, although things did calm down when the Catholics clarified what they were saying – humanists could, they agreed, be "good without God", but, by believing in a godless universe, they could not have an objective sense of what is right and wrong.

It's a debate that philosophers have grappled with for centuries, so there was hardly much prospect of agreement at last night's meeting. In my view discussions over concrete issues such as abortion or, to take the topics we covered at the previous meeting, gay rights, schools and condoms, are likely to prove more constructive, but  it was nevertheless interesting to hear Catholics point out that humanists can be good people, as this is something that does not always come across properly in the more vituperative debates over religion.

Summing up

As at the first meeting, the discussions were concluded by a humanist summing up the Catholic arguments and a Catholic summing up the humanist arguments. This, I think, has been a very constructive element of the two meetings, as each time the summarisers have presented the other side's arguments in a satisfactory manner. It demonstrates that both sides are capable of listening to, understanding and articulating what the others have had to say, even if they haven't necessarily agreed with most of what they have heard.

My conclusions

Having attended two of these meetings now, I'm left to consider whether they are worthwhile. I've certainly found both sessions interesting – as someone who works for a humanist magazine, I'm used to criticising religion and arguing about the issues that arise from it, but it's rare that I do so in person with people who hold religious beliefs. I find religion interesting (I wouldn't be doing this job if I didn't) and therefore I welcome the opportunity to debate it with believers.

But aside from personal interest, is there any point? I think that there is, although it could be considered rather limited in nature. As I wrote in my original piece in the magazine, by meeting face-to-face and engaging in discussion, those involved have a chance of developing a better understanding of where the other side is coming from. Having conducted these smaller debates in a cordial manner, any participants who go on to debate the issues elsewhere, in person or in writing, will hopefully retain the moderate tone and perhaps avoid presenting a caricatured image of their opponents' positions.

Whether there is any wider benefit beyond this is something I am undecided on. For me these meetings have been about learning to disagree in a polite and constructive manner, and I would be interested to see if the civil tone could be retained at a larger public debate. I'm also intrigued by the idea of holding similar discussions with followers of other religions. The notion of civility is, I think, an important one, and the debate over religion is an area that, in my view, could benefit from improved engagement between those holding opposing views. On balance I think that meetings such as the two I have attended could make a contribution to that, albeit a small one.

I'm very interested to hear what people make of all this. Do you think holding these kinds of discussions between believers and non-believers is a worthwhile exercise? If so, why do you think it is worthwhile, and how do you think such meetings should work? What kinds of topics should be discussed? If you don't think such meetings are worthwhile, why not?

Please do share your views in the comments.
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