Holywell Music Room, Thu 21st February 2008.
Participants as diverse as a young anthropologist, the Bishop of Oxford, and major figures from what we might term the mass of non-religious public intellectuals including A. C. Grayling met to discuss the matter of religious freedom, and the freedom to believe what we will.
Emma Cohen, the anthropologist, whose major work to date has been on the subject of spiritual possession, sought to establish that as the meaning of the term ‘religion’ is so diverse, attempting to understand what faiths understand by the term alone can be a losing battle.
Professor Anthony Grayling asked us as an audience to make sure that we maintained in our minds the separation between atheism, humanism, and secularism. England, he maintained, is a fundamentally unsecular society due to the continued presence of the bishops in the House of Lords, and public funding for faith schools. With just three percent of the population regularly attending Church of England services, Grayling argued, there can be no defense for twenty-six seats for bishops in the upper house of parliament, nor can there be an argument for the funding of faith schools while groups that have much more influence in the ‘town square’ of civil society are funded from methods other than the tax base. The funding of any group, he maintained, must be proportionate to its societal footprint.
Imam Monawar Hussain, Muslim tutor at Eton College, demonstrated that the very openness of Islam to conversion and apostasy should mean that it is a faith open to the expression of religious freedom.
For the Rt. Rev. John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford, religious freedom is an indivisible human right which can only be enjoyed by all of the population, and all religions, or none of them; without this, it cannot exist.
Andrew Brown, former religious affairs correspondent for The Independent, pointed out in stark terms the potential for human rights abuses that can be linked to atheistic beliefs. Freedom of religion for Brown rests in the fact that adherence to any religion, or to none, should be voluntary. The value of ‘sacredness’, he went on to argue, is a social reality, best understood by examining what numerical values we might add to chess pieces in order to understand their importance in the game. The King might be assigned a value a thousand times greater than the pawn, he contends, but it is still only a piece of wood or ivory when seen outside of the context of the game.
The evening’s great benefit was that it showed many diverse paths to integrating religion and human rights, all of which stressed that the paramount path to ensuring this could be nothing other than ensuring religious freedom and freedom of religion. The question and answer session helped to bring together many of the positions of the participants and made the debate remarkably edifying to attend.