Thursday, 1 March 2012

Why do faiths deny their differences in public?

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In another fine column from Julian Baggini – fast becoming our best secular commentator on matters of faith – he tells a Simon Blackburn anecdote from an interfaith event that reminds me of many such "can't we all just get along" interfaith meetings. The problem with these events, as Baggini points out, is that the faithful suppress the disputes that we all know they have with each other, in the interests of cohesion and exaggerated respect, which makes them merely exercises in smiling a lot and saying how great things are, and robs them of what could be a valuable role in actually getting to the bottom of where faiths disagree, and why, and where the faithless agree and disagree with the faithful.

Surely these very admirable interfaith efforts – many of them sponsored by deep-pocketed foundations or, until recently, the government keen to build cohesion and head off extremism – offer the chance to voice disagreement in an atmosphere of intelligent debate and creative dispute, which might then lead to a greater sense of how we can live with disagreement. Without acknowledging the deep rifts between the faiths, not to mention the apparently even deeper rifts within faiths, they are too often mere window dressing. It’s all very well banging on about being "people of the book" (to which I always respond that we rationalists are the people of a million books and counting) and all sharing the same core values, but without acknowledging deep differences these events are too often anodyne and pointless, with no traction in the schismatic world beyond.

I have an anecdote of my own: I did a "Speed Faith" event for Wandsworth council a while back. Modelled on speed dating, groups of school children would sit at a table for 10 minutes and meet a representative of one of the faiths, or, in my lone case, none. When I turned up we were told that unfortunately there were not enough tables for all the faiths, a problem resolved by a resourceful intern who had asked if the Sunni and Ahmadiyya representatives would mind sharing a table because, after all, they were both Muslims weren’t they? Turned out this plan had to be hastily abandoned when the Sunni representative refused to share the table with an "apostate". He did not consider Ahmadiyya, which emerged from a factional split in India in the 19th century, a  proper religion. Now here was the grounds of an interesting debate, but it was swept away with a hasty reshuffling of the tables. Strangely, despite the squash, no one decided to share my godless table.

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