Why do we need to talk about Religious Education?

Although Religious Education (RE) is a legal requirement in UK schools, it is an oft-neglected and misunderstood subject. It is important to seriously re-think this key subject at this time of low religious literacy and rising extremism, to protect communities from the consequences of hatred and misunderstanding.

We spoke to Mark Chater about his new book (co-edited with Mike Castelli) that brings together essays from prominent thought leaders in the theory and practice of RE, to promote wider discussion of what exactly is needed from a new model of RE within our education system to benefit wider society.

What were your motivations for writing We Need To Talk About Religious Education?

A creative anger that the voices of very able younger teachers are not being properly heard, that they deserve to become thought leaders for RE; also, an interest in listening to voices of experience and wisdom who can see change coming and welcome it; a desire to pump some life-giving fresh air into the old body of RE, to save it; and a professional and personal commitment to promoting the change debate in RE.

Continue reading

The Way of the Hermit – an interview with Mario I. Aguilar

 

 

Mario I. Aguilar is Professor of Religion & Politics and Director of the Centre for the Study of Religion & Politics at the University of St Andrews. He is also a poet, an eremitic Camaldolese Benedictine Oblate, and has published widely in his interests in the theology of contemplation, the history of religion and issues of interfaith dialogue. We asked him some questions about his new book – The Way of the Hermit – and his life as a hermit. 

 

A hermit’s lifestyle is one of solitude and seclusion from society. When and why did you decide to become a hermit?

As I mentioned in the opening of my book I always wanted to be a hermit. However, this wish had to wait for years as I was a missionary in Africa and then started an academic career. To become a hermit or a monk requires a long process of discernment and this process was carried out over a period of twenty years with the informal support of different spiritual directors. I would say that the decision was taken when Cardinal O’Brien encouraged me to follow this different path within the archdiocese of St. Andrews and Edinburgh. The hermitage and the daily routines developed out of an ongoing prayer life rather than out of an institutional setting. This was seven years ago in Scotland and then I opened a hermitage in Chile.

Some people might find it surprising that you are a professor of religion and a political activist, as well as a hermit. How do you balance these two different sides of your life?

There is only one single life in every human being, thus a hermit relies on a discipline of life where the day is marked by several activities. The life of a hermit, in my case in the Benedictine tradition, starts very early (3.45am) with meditation and silence until it is time to start the university day. During the day, I extend that prayer to those whom I teach and my fellow researchers. Political activism happens naturally because it is an extension of God’s action in the world, a world that should live more deeply justice, peace and understanding. I return to the hermitage happy to be left with God but with reports to be written on behalf of asylum seekers, correspondence, and my own academic studies currently related to India and Tibet.

Your book, The Way of the Hermit, documents your conversations with hermits in Scotland, Chile and India. Did the lives of these fellow pilgrims seem similar or different to your own, and in what ways?

The lives and hopes of all human beings are very similar as the Dalai Lama would reiterate. Thus, I have found a deep communion and friendship with others who seek the Absolute in India and Chile. Particularly in India I have met over the years Buddhist monks, Hindu Sadhus and Sikh scholars with whom we have shared not intellectual thoughts but our very souls, eating together, chanting, and laughing about the joys of being together. I must confess that I have found that many people who live a religious commitment tend to be sad, I do not understand that. On returning to see others at the Golden Temple or in the bathing areas of Varanasi I have always found a warm hand and a ready smile. God has given us a journey and it is great to do it with others even when in silence.

The book explores how living a life of silence and contemplation can contribute to interfaith dialogue. Could you explain how this is so?

The Western world uses too many words, too many texts and too many twitters. We try to understand something to accept its relevance. In silence the quarrels disappear because in silence and contemplation we cannot run away from who we are: human beings on a journey. The many dialogues between faith practitioners in conferences and formal meetings are very fruitful indeed. However, I have found a deeper dialogue sitting in silence with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Sikhs because it is that very silence that binds us. I cannot speak Punjabi or Hindi but I can understand our common language of silence, reverence and devotion.

What have been the toughest challenges you’ve faced while living an eremitic lifestyle?

It has always been the challenges from outsiders who want a writer and a monk to become a small celebrity. I have had to clarify many times that hermits do not need other hermits to carry on their lives and that I do not have meditation classes in my hermitage. The keeping of a daily structure and discipline gets interrupted sometimes but I return to read the lives of hermits I admire and that set a very clear example for me: Abishiktananda, Bede Griffiths, Raimon Panikkar, and those sadhus without name who have inspired me in India over many years.

Do you have any advice for readers who would like to apply eremitic practises to their own lives?

Set a small routine of prayer and meditation for your daily life, start and keep to it. Do not read about it, or talk too much about it, just do it! And the Absolute will be waiting for you.

The Way of the Hermit is out now. Why not join our mailing list for new books on religion and spirituality? Sign up here.

Stephen Cherry’s Three Very Positive Reasons for Exploring Theology

Three Very Positive Reasons for Exploring Theology

It’s Fascinating

Theology is fascinating even at the simply human level. It’s extraordinary that people can hold such different convictions and yet get on really well. And at the same time it’s very odd that people can hold very similar views and yet get into serious and bloody conflict over what seem to be rather minor differences to anyone outside their tradition.

One of the things that I have found interesting as I have recently re-read some of the great theologians of the Reformation era, is just how extremely rude they are to each other, and how confident they are that they themselves are right. What Martin Luther had to say to Desiderus Erasmus would make anyone blush! It is also extraordinary that people with religious convictions have put such huge amounts of energy into their controversies.  It is said of Augustine (the one who wrote Confessions) that he worked hard all day as a bishop and then worked all night as a theologian, writing books and commentaries and letters. Sometimes he was in a reflective mode, wondering about who he was and what his life meant, sometimes he was in dispute with those who understood human nature quite differently, sometimes he was sketching out (I mean writing thousands of words about) his understanding of how society should be organised.

One of the things that people easily forget when they think about theology is that people have often been prepared to die for it, that theological opinions have often been a matter of life and death.  There are different versions of this. Some people will die for their faith because they believe that martyrdom is a fast track to paradise.  But this isn’t the driver of most martyrdom down the ages and is not, in a Christian understanding, true martyrdom.  A martyr is a witness and true martyrs are those who have been so committed to their faith, their understanding of the truth, that witnessing to this truth became more important to them than their own life. True martyrs don’t want to die; but they are not prepared to lie their way out of a situation when matters of ultimate truth are at stake. True martyrdom is not about seeking any personal reward but about standing up for truth, however costly that proves to be.

Along with the idea of martyrs goes the idea of heretics. Although people don’t often make this point, it almost goes without saying that all heretics are theologians. They are people who have thought things through for themselves and come to conclusions that religious authorities have not found acceptable. A heretic is not someone who suddenly has a dodgy idea in their head. A heretic is someone who has taken a lot of trouble to come to their unpopular view and is prepared to take the flak for maintaining their position. The study of theology involves the study of heresy and heretics. And thank goodness for that, because it is potential ‘heretics’ who push the boundaries and possibilities of theology wider and wider.  The pursuit of deep wisdom involves the possibility of making major mistakes. It may seem strange, but to a theologian that is all part of the pursuit of the truth. It is fair to say that just as some mistakes in life are worse than others, so some errors in theology are worse than others and it is therefore possible to think of heresy as sometimes very negative; it does not follow that all heresy is bad or that all those branded as heretics have been in error or done a disservice to the truth.  Often, inevitably enough, heretics are castigated not because they are actually and ultimately wrong, but because what they have to say is inconvenient and awkward for the powers that be.

Fun

Theology is fun partly because it is one of the most interdisciplinary of subjects. To study it properly you have to engage with philosophy, history, anthropology, psychology and sociology.  But that’s not all. Recognising that people express religious, spiritual and theological ideas indirectly, theology very often involves the study of literature. Novels, poetry and drama often include or allude to theological themes and discussions.  Theologians also try to progress their understanding by looking at historic works of art. The pictures, buildings and music of religious communities can teach us a great deal about their beliefs and values, and in today’s world you are as likely to find theological questions addressed in films as you are anywhere else. So yes, theologians go to the movies and try to ‘read’ or interpret them in a theological way.

One of the observations that I have made in life, not least in my ministry as a pastor, is that many people will be happy letting life go by, enjoying the good times and not asking many questions until something goes seriously wrong for them or someone they love. It’s for this reason that theology is often borne out of suffering or catastrophe. Good, interesting, lively compelling theology doesn’t often grow on happy trees in jolly gardens. It tends to spring up from the ruins of some kind of lost hope or shattered vision, or if not that then some genuine puzzlement and dissatisfaction with existing answers. Theology never grows out of smugness, but comes out of perplexity and the need to find answers to questions that keep us awake at night or which occur to us when life (or death) stops us in our tracks.

Maybe that idea doesn’t quite belong under the heading of theology as fun, but there is in fact a kind of fun to be had in looking difficulty and despair in the face and letting that reality challenge complacent and easy believing. And there is a huge amount of fun to be had (though ‘fun’ is too light a word now – joy would be better) in seeing hope rise again in the once despairing, in seeing the liberation of the oppressed, the forgiveness of those who have made great mistakes and the reconciliation of sworn enemies.  No theologian would claim that the study of theology will make these things happen, but for theology to be complete it must be interested in the upside of life, even if it often begins in the downside.

Important

Thirdly, theology is important. There was a time not very long ago when it was common for people to think that religion would die out.  ‘Imagine there’s no heaven’ wrote John Lennon, ‘and no religion too’. This line of thinking didn’t start in the 1960s with the Beatles however, but in the nineteenth century.

In 1882 the philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche declared that ‘God is dead’ (adding that ‘we have killed him’). Previously, in 1867, one of the big name English literati of the Victorian era, Matthew Arnold, wrote a poem called ‘Dover Beach’ in which he referred to ‘the long withdrawing roar of the sea of faith’.  Arnold was connected with the strong-minded and eminent Victorian Leslie Stephen, whose father and grandfather were leading evangelical clergy, very much involved in social campaigns such as anti-slavery. They were members of the so-called Clapham Sect alongside social reformers like William Wilberforce and John Newton (the former slave-ship captain who wrote the hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’) and missionaries such as Henry and John Venn.

As the twentieth century dawned the advance of atheism continued. Thomas Hardy wrote a poem called ‘God’s Funeral’ between 1908 and 1910 and the First World War put an end to any easy idea that ‘God is in his heaven and all is right with the world’.  This was the era in which Leslie Stephen’s daughters, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, found themselves at the heart of an elite London group that was as different as it is possible to be to the Clapham Sect of their grandparents.  This was the ‘Bloomsbury Group’, which was famous for its artistic and progressive values. After the First World War religious authority figures were no longer trusted as they had been and it became increasingly common for people to think that what was taught or thought about God was essentially what people made up about God.  This approach was given a huge boost by the work of Sigmund Freud who developed the idea that the human mind was dominated by thought processes of which we were not aware, and that ‘God’ was essentially an idea conjured up in the recesses of our ‘unconscious’ to help us feel better and cope with life’s more difficult challenges.

But the end of faith wasn’t only prophesied by philosophers, poets and psychologists. Sociologists came up with the idea of ‘secularization’ almost as soon as their subject was invented. Studying the number of people who attended church from year to year they soon saw that the numbers were declining and, plotting graphs of the decline, proved to their own satisfaction that church-going should be over and done with by the early years of this century.  The sociologists were both right and wrong. Church going has declined in many places, especially in the north of England, but there are also places where it has increased, and the actual ultimate decline of religion, the death not only of God of which Nietzsche spoke, but of believing in God, has not yet happened. In fact, the reverse is the case. The spin-doctors of the ‘New Labour’ government of Tony Blair famously announced in 2003 that they didn’t ‘do God’. But that didn’t matter, plenty of other people were busy doing God, although the equally ‘new Atheists’ were becoming increasingly vociferous, annoyed perhaps that their predecessors had not managed to put an end to faith and that, if anything, the tide of the sea of faith seemed to have turned and was coming back in again.

There are many reasons for this, and not all of them are based on the better aspects of religious thought and practice, but that’s not the point.  The point is that religious beliefs and religious organisations are today having an enormous impact on the lives of people all over the world. Religion has not died out and it isn’t going to die out anytime soon.  It had a very serious wobble in Europe and Britain, but the edifice of organised religion has not toppled, and the whole new phenomenon of people calling themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’ has exploded. It is evidence of ‘faith’, the sort of thing that a theologian out to try to understand. And if you have the cast of mind that is theological you may be thinking ‘hmmm, there is interesting and important stuff here. I wonder whether anyone understands all this. Let me try to find out’.

____

From Chapter 3 of God Curious.

If this extract has made you feel a little God curious, why not follow this link to find out more about Stephen Cherry’s book.

Stephen is the Dean at King’s College Cambridge, and tweets here.

For more exclusive content from our authors, follow us on Facebook – @JKPReligion – or join our mailing list here. You can unsubscribe from the mailing list at any time. 

Stephen Cherry’s Five Not Very Good Reasons for Not Engaging with Theology

What is theology? And why should we be interested in it?

Stephen Cherry tackles five ‘not very good’ reasons for not engaging with theology, in his new book, God Curious. Here in this exclusive extract, he shares them with us.

Five Not Very Good Reasons for Not Engaging with Theology

The first reason that might be suggested is this: I don’t believe in God therefore I can’t possibly study God.

If theology were limited to questions about the nature of God then you might have a point. That which doesn’t exist can’t have a nature … However, theology and religion have been important in history and philosophy. They continue to impact hugely on current affairs and inform the ways in which people respond to realities as different as beauty and tragedy. In other words, what goes on when people are motivated by religious faith and theological conviction is a matter of significance well beyond the community of believers. Indeed, an atheist may feel that theology is too important a subject to be left to those who believe in God. And certainly, theology and religion aren’t going to go away just because atheists are dismissive of believers.

The second reason is the opposite of the first. I not only believe in God but I know God very well, and for this reason I don’t want to study God any more than I would want to study my parents or my partner. 

I agree that if you are completely confident that you know all there is to know about God then theology is not for you.  Theology is only worth exploring if you think that other people’s views about God are at least as interesting as your own.

The third reason why you may not want to study theology is because you think it is not a real subject of study but just a professional training programme for ministers of religion.

It is true that this used to be the case, and that there are places where people study theology only for this reason. It is also true that if you study theology at university you may well come across people who are studying for this reason, and you will almost certainly read books by people who are trained and ordained ministers and you may well be taught by some.  But theology stopped being the province of the clergy alone a long time ago, and it has become a much more lively subject since – so don’t let that one worry you.

The fourth reason you may not wish to study theology is because it’s just about learning what the Bible says or what people of different religions do.

If you think this you may be muddling up theology, the most exciting subject imaginable, with what has all too often passed for ‘religious education’ at school; which is all too often dominated not by the pursuit of life’s deepest questions but by learning superficial details about religious traditions.

The fifth reason is a bit like the fourth in that you may think that theology is entirely concerned with ancient and irrelevant philosophical problems of the ‘how many angels can dance on a pin-head’ variety

I can guarantee that you won’t be discussing that question, or anything like it, if you engage with theology today! The agenda has moved on. Theologians today seek to learn from the past and to understand why theologians of previous eras posed and answered certain questions in the way they did, but they also seek to learn from theologians of other faiths and to respond to the problems and predicaments that occur in today’s world as well as to the classic questions such as the existence of God and the consequences of believing specific doctrines.

____

From Chapter 3 of God Curious by Stephen Cherry.

Stephen Cherry is the Dean of King’s College Cambridge, and the author of many books. He tweets here.

For more information on God Curious, or to buy a copy of the book, please follow this link.

For more exclusive content from our authors, why not follow us on Facebook – @JKPReligion – or join our mailing list here. You can unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. 

Join our mailing list – Studies in Religion and Theology series

monographs-join-our-mailing-list-nf

 

 

 

 

Studies in Religion and Theology is a series of monographs and edited collections of creative and innovative research and debate in areas such as practical theology, chaplaincy studies and interfaith dialogue. It offers the best of critical and constructive thinking that seeks to engage with and make a difference to the impact of religion in the modern world.

To receive information by post or email about JKP’s new Studies in Religion and Theology series, please fill in your details below and tick the ‘Religious Studies & Theology’ box. To receive information on other related titles, please tick the ‘Chaplaincy’ box.

By completing this form you are signing up to our mailing list. You may unsubscribe from the mailing list at any time.














An interview with Marian Partington – author of If You Sit Very Still

partington-cant_if-you-sit-very_978-1-78592-140-7_colourjpg-print

Marian Partington’s sister Lucy was kidnapped by Fred and Rose West in 1973. In 1994, 21 years later, her remains were found in their basement. If You Sit Very Still is Marian’s response to this most traumatic of losses and her journey away from resentment, towards forgivness. 

We spoke to Marian about the process of writing such a unique and intensely emotional book. 

Marian, you wrote an essay on Lucy’s disappearance called Salvaging the Sacred in 1996. What motivated you to build on this, and to write If You Sit Very Still?

The essay was published in the Guardian Weekend and there was a huge, generous unexpected response which somehow changed me and honoured my continuing purpose. There was a hunger for meaning and wholeness that resonated within me, surprised me. It felt urgent and vital. There was no turning back. I felt heard and understood and realised the necessity of continuing to grapple with questions that wouldn’t go away; to stay true to this unravelling, wherever it may lead, however long it would take and to continue to write. The question of how to live with less harm, how to deepen our compassion in the wake of human atrocity, continues to challenge me to the core. It is upon this that I build.

Your language throughout the book is both lyrical and unflinching in its description of the events of Lucy’s disappearance. It’s a very powerful narrative. How did you feel while writing it? 

Finding words, finding a voice was almost impossible at times, yet remaining silent was not an option. If I had tried to carry on with no words, trapped in the frozen silence, I would have allowed death. The words that arose within me came from an instinctive need for a terrible truth to survive, a bearing of witness, a speaking by proxy in the face of unspeakable demolition. So writing became a way of allowing myself time and solitude to experience my grief and to face the unbearable pain of what had happened to Lucy.  Each word felt like a rung on a ladder leading from a deep pit. It felt empowering and honouring of our shared love and study of English literature to write. It felt as if we were raising the register through the grace of the words that arrived. It felt as if we shared a sacred realm. I felt blessed and guided.

Lucy converted to Catholicism before her disappearance. Years later, you joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and spent time in Buddhist retreats. What part has faith played in your journey to forgiveness?

It felt significant and hugely challenging in a way that was ‘beyond’ any formal religious faith. Lucy ‘disappeared’ five weeks after she was received into the Catholic church and we found out five weeks after I had joined the Quakers, twenty years later. I remember thinking that if there was anything of value in a religious faith it needed to show up now. Shared silence was important. To allow what lies within to surface and to be transformed.

I made the vow to forgive the Wests after a seven day silent Buddhist retreat. I realised that this would be the most creative, imaginative way forward, but I had no idea what it would involve and how it might come about. My faith was to trust that I would be shown a way. I call the religious words around this inner work ‘barnacled’. ‘God’, ‘sin’, ‘repentance’, ‘redemption’,’ forgiveness’- these words feel encrusted and clogged up with ‘aeons of piety’. But to travel within religious communities informed by teachings that aspire towards deepening our capacity to love and feel compassion and to know and live with wisdom has been essential to becoming less self-centred and more open to a greater whole. I have grown towards knowing our interdependence and our connectedness and the need to remain open to whatever arises and to learn from that. I feel deeply grateful for all that travel with me, for those who unpick their deluded selves and work towards our ‘true nature’ which is at the heart of ‘this great matter of life and death’.

You comment in the book that our society ‘suffers badly from a fear of the reality of death’. Do you feel as though you’ve come to terms with the reality of death?

When I cradled and wrapped Lucy’s bones I faced mortality in a profound way. It was unavoidable and awakening. I felt deeply grateful to be alive. As I grow older and was recently seriously ill it has become more important to reflect upon this reality every day. I feel that there is a gentle, tender, vast, subtle energy that is truly where ‘time intersects with eternity’. Recently I was convinced of this and knew that it didn’t matter if I lived or died. I am exploring the reality of radical helplessness (my next book!) and the need to surrender in the face of death and to embrace every moment.

Dreams play a very important part in your journey. The structure of the book is based on the medieval dream poem, Pearl, and you highlight five major dreams as signposts towards the act of forgiveness. How did you interpret these dreams as particularly significant?

All I can say is that the dreams felt ‘real’, almost more real than everyday life. They needed to be faced, heeded and integrated. They led me to reflect and act with confidence. I knew there was a truth in them that could not be ‘thought’. Maybe they came from ‘the collective unconscious’. They were compelling and profound, as if they were drawn from a deep well of creative imagination. To finally realise that the book that Lucy had in her bag the night that she was abducted from the bus stop was the ‘shape’ that I needed for this book (after sixteen years of writing!) – this fills me with pleasure and gratitude.

In many cases, it is the perpetrators who are remembered, more so than the victims. How does that make you feel, and why do you think that is?

Yes, I think that this was and continues to be something that drives me to speak for Lucy (Primo Levi called it ‘speaking by proxy’) and to reclaim her as my sister from the labels ‘missing person’ and ‘West victim’. The need to find the words, carefully, so that Lucy can live in people’s minds in all her complex, fiercely intelligent beauty and aspirations was involuntary. I couldn’t just leave her ‘out there’, sticky and stained by the media representations.  I felt sad that my energy could not extend to doing that for all of the ‘West victims’, but I try to at least name them when I can. Eventually I realised, through painful self-confrontation on long Buddhist retreats, that the perpetrators and their family were also victims, and that I am also a perpetrator and a bystander. I think it is easier for the public to demonise perpetrators than to try and connect with the suffering of those who are labelled ‘victims’. This is deeply unhealthy for our society. It makes me feel frustrated and sad that this is the case. It seems that we need to dig deeper, look within and learn something more about what it means to be human in response to human brutality and violence.

You have shared your story (and Lucy’s poetry) with inmates in male adult prisons to encourage them to experience victim empathy. How was that process for you?

I feel very privileged to have worked in 15 or so different prisons over the years (since 2001) in Restorative Justice settings. It has given me an opportunity to know that there is ‘that of God’ in everyone I have met and that sharing this story has brought healing in its wake. Meeting people who have committed serious crimes (rape, murder, sexual abuse) and listening to them respond to us with their own heart breaking stories has helped me to deepen my trust and to know that Lucy’s suffering is bringing something good into the world, despite the terrible loss and horror of it all. My work in prisons with the Forgiveness Project (www.theforgivenessproject.com)  since 2005, with a 3 day programme called RESTORE, as a speaker and a facilitator has been even more amazing because it involves two speakers, one ‘victim’ and one ‘perpetrator’. The labels drop away and the prisoners begin to thaw and tell their own stories. Our work in a women’s prison with creative writing, as a follow up to RESTORE has led to a sharing of Lucy’s poems and a great harvest of poetry from the women. This has all helped with my healing enormously. It lives up to the meaning of Lucy’s name: light. I feel her gentle spirit is at work in the world.

You mention that your work as a homeopath has informed your work in male prisons. How so?

In my work as a homeopath for the last thirty years I have listened to many stories of traumatic loss and witnessed the serious dis-ease that can come from unresolved mental/emotional pain. As a homeopath I have learnt much about the path towards healing (moving from dis-ease towards becoming whole) with its unexpected twists and turns. I have had to apply this knowledge and experience to my own life and then to those I have encountered in prisons. I have tried to use words and the little woven bag that Lucy made for me when she was 8 years old as ‘remedies’ in the prisons and to listen as an ‘unprejudiced observer’. First I have had to face what needs to be healed within me. It seems to come back to developing a for-giving, compassionate heart: to face, accept and let go. I have known my own murderous rage and that it is easier to delude oneself and remain in denial than to begin to thaw. I work with ‘similar suffering’, growing into the truth that an old Chan master gave to me: just know that your suffering is helping to relieve the suffering of others. I feel grateful to all those I have worked with and met in prisons. This work generates cycles of compassion.

What would you like readers to take away from the book?

I hope that readers may learn more about the journey from the frozen silence towards the shining silence, from cruelty towards compassion, from harm to healing, and that carefully chosen words can initiate change. I hope that this book will help to confront and dissolve the roots of fear and prejudice that lie within and without, and that it will help to nourish and allow a more generous and loving world. I hope that people will come to know Lucy, my sister and feel something of the love that I feel for her, that seems to deepen.

For more information or to buy the book, please follow the link.

 

 

An interview with Paul Hedges – author of Towards Better Disagreement

hedges_towards-better_978-1-78592-057-8_colourjpg-print

Are atheists immoral? Does religion cause conflict? Is religion always opposed to science? Paul Hedges considers common topics of disagreement between religious believers and atheists, in his new book Towards Better Disagreement. We caught up with him to find out more.

What motivated you to write Towards Better Disagreement?

I think the main thing would be in response to what are often called the New Atheist debates. There is a very polemical and antagonistic stance which exists between religion and atheism, or more correctly between a number of prominent and influential spokespeople on each side. This colours a lot of the current discussion and perception, but I think a lot of people are not clearly in one camp or the other. A lot of the debate tends to be either very polarised, or quite simply wrong, and ignores the very real common ground that exists.

The book encourages readers to explore their stance on religion vs atheism. Did you find that you questioned your own position while researching for and writing it?

Yes, absolutely, I’m glad you asked that question. I was pretty clear when I started that the area of dialogue and exchange between atheism and religion needed to be covered. As such, I was pretty sure that some common ground existed, without ignoring very real differences and disagreements. But as I read and researched around these topics, and also started putting things down in writing, it raised a lot of questions for me.

Some of these things were perhaps issues I had had in my mind for sometime but never really fully worked through. I would always tend to put myself in the religious box if asked, rather than the atheist one, but on so many grounds I often found myself agreeing with a lot of what the atheist arguments seemed to say. Of course, there are lots of bad atheists arguments out there too, but I don’t think that agreeing with atheism that typical religious arguments don’t add up is something religious people need to be defensive about. Likewise, I think atheists can realise that lots of stuff they label as “religious” isn’t simply backward or crazy but based in very rational or natural human behaviour. I would say that as a result of writing this book I have a sense of having a foot in both camps in terms of having strong sympathies with some of the arguments and positions of both atheists and those who typically call themselves religious.

You cover a wide range of topics in a comparatively short book (less than 200 pages). Was it a challenge to do so, and how did you decide which were the most vital issues to explore?

That is a good question. Partly the areas I covered are those which interest me, but also I looked into quite a few areas that just seemed to keep coming up in the debates, and so I think they are things which people are either interested in or are just hot topics in the discussion. To some degree too I draw from things I have taught at universities, and if things seem new, important, or interesting to my students then it suggests to me that perhaps a wider audience will want to know about it too.

I actually also asked a group of my friends, former students, and other people to read and comment on bits of the manuscript as I went along as well so this provided some good feedback as I was writing in terms of what fascinated people, what they felt could be cut out, or areas they thought were of interest. It’s always good being able to run some things past part of your audience first.

Was there anything that you discovered while researching for the book that particularly surprised you?

The research for this book is something that went over quite a few years, and so there were a number of surprises. For instance, I was aware that the medieval development of science involved many Christian and Islamic thinkers who believed that the universe was built by a creator and so it would be ordered and coherent. This provided a foundation for actually starting to explore many areas that would lead to modern day science. However, I hadn’t realised how this influence went well beyond the medieval period and that the areas of life which we today call science and religion were so intertwined up until very recently. Indeed, the whole idea that there is a conflict between them, and that this has always existed, is very much a very recent myth founded in the nineteenth century for polemical reasons and not based on any solid evidence. However, it is such a natural part of our worldview and assumptions that I was shocked at how wrong it was.

I was also challenged on some of my assumptions about Islam, and this is something I go into within the book. Especially as I have had to teach about this at university, I have needed to really read up and fact check lots of assumptions, and also my own existing assumptions and prejudices – as Islam was not one of my main areas of expertise.

You argue that there is no natural antagonism between religion and science (atheism) and yet it is more commonly thought (in Western society at least) that atheism is the direct antithesis to religion. Why do you think this is?

There are quite a few reasons for this, and I will just mention a few here as well as some reasons there are problems with them. One is the polarisation of debate of recent decades especially in a Western context. On the one hand, the so-called New Atheist approach has received a lot of publicity. One reason it is termed “new” is new because it is more directly hostile and antagonistic to religion than many atheists have traditionally been. Whereas in the past atheists have often viewed religion as maybe a harmless superstition, it is been portrayed by figures like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris as a positive evil, and a menace to human society and well being. So, on the atheist side we have seen a marked dichotomy of reason, science and atheism against religion and faith. Meanwhile, on the religious side, spreading especially from the United States of America, we have seen an often anti-intellectual and anti-science brand of what we can call fundamentalist Christianity. Prominent and influential voices on both sides of the debate have a stake in promoting this stark dichotomy. Indeed, while certain forms of religion and certain forms of atheism do make an antithesis, and science gets dragged into this, it is not the only way to look at things.

As I discuss in the book, the Protestant forbears of today’s anti-science fundamentalist Christians supported the heliocentric worldview of Galileo and others (that is the belief that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than the other way round) which some people see as an assault on a biblical worldview. Indeed, one of the most important early Protestant leaders, John Calvin, developed a theory known as “accommodationism” which meant that the Bible was accommodated to the worldview of those who first heard it. As such we shouldn’t assume it is a scientific textbook. This we need to remember is long before anybody ever assumed that religion and science could be in conflict, and his theory wasn’t really designed to deal with this but other matters about the cultural knowledge and understanding found in the Bible. So this shows that here no natural antagonism exists in areas which often seem controversial today.

Again, another way a distinction is drawn is the argument that religion is responsible for a lot of violence in the world today. A lot of media reporting can lend credence to this. But once you start analysing the situation with a bit of depth and stepping back from the heated rhetoric it is not so clear. Lots of the so-called religious violence is happening in places which are extremely politically unstable, and not for reasons to do with religion. Of course, for the actors involved calling on religion is a powerful tool to help build their narrative and credibility, just as at various times over the last century people used nationalism, Communism, or many other powerful tools to build their justification for war and violence. Again, if we look at many people drawn to the so-called Islamic State it has been observed that many of them don’t really have any background knowledge or understanding of Islam. Indeed, a background of petty crime and an escalation of that is a far more likely route to terrorist radicalisation than devout attendance at a mosque.

However, it seems to suit the media to portray a story of Islamic terrorism against a secular West, which helps build into a sense that religion is dangerous, if not pathological, while being secular and atheist is rational and peaceful. Most people are not aware that the world’s largest Muslim organisation has condemned Islamic State and terrorism in the name of Islam, that the vast majority of Islamic scholars and many leading Islamic organisations in most Western countries have likewise issued condemnations, and that across the Middle East many meetings of religious leaders and scholars have done similar things. This simply does not make the headlines, and in most cases not even the middle pages of papers or small stories on TV. As such, a common narrative is allowed to develop in the mainstream discourse which is not based on facts, analysis, or understanding.

Again, we need to see that a lot of the discussion is based around what are often Western assumptions about monotheism. So, religious people believe in a big creator God, while atheists deny such a deity. But what about Buddhists who also deny that any creator God exists? Or traditional Confucianism which can look to some type of force in the world, sometimes termed Tian, which means both “sky” and something like the Western term “heaven”, but does not see this as a personal deity, and which sometimes seems to imply some sort of natural force or power in the universe, like the forces of nature. Here, we do not see the stark antithesis between belief in a personal creator God and the denial of this. So again, it is a particular historical, philosophical, and social context which can make the differences between religion and atheism, or religion and science, seem natural or inherently antagonistic, when it is not necessarily so.

Why do you think there is a need for a book that presents a neutral overview of the religion-atheism debate?

I think my answers to some of your previous questions will have addressed this to some degree, but I will emphasise some specific points. First, there is so much misinformation out there. Even very intelligent and well qualified people, on both sides of the debate simply get the facts wrong, distort them, or really don’t care what the facts are because they already know that they are right. On the atheist side many people seem to take ignorance of religion as a kind of badge of honour to show how little regard they have for it. Meanwhile, on the religious side we see people, maybe with PhDs in certain kinds of theology, but who haven’t studied religion from a really academic point of view spouting their views. As such, when it comes to facts and the truth, there is precious little of it in sight when high profile debates take place or books get written. Certainly there is some good work out there, but more often than not people stand in one corner or the other and use whatever evidence they find to try and make their case. As such, for somebody to try and stand in the middle and present two sides is unusual. How often do we stop and think: well, on this side they think this and they have some good points, and on that side they have this opinion and it is pretty solid.

I discuss something in the book called Confirmation Bias which is the tendency we have to fit any new information into what we already know or think. As such, we tend to ignore ideas or evidence which doesn’t fit our worldview, or slant new information to fit into our preconceived ideas. Everybody does this, atheists, Christians, Buddhist, agnostics, it doesn’t matter who you are, or how clever you are, it is a simple facet of the human mind and how we process information. Learning normally only really happens when we are ready to try and overcome this, and challenge our existing ideas. I hope that a book which tries to take both sides, and look at the different viewpoints and assess the information as impartially as possible can help out here.

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

At the risk of sounding somewhat corny, and simply repeating my title, the ability to disagree better. I am hoping that my readers are ready to stand back from their built-in prejudices – we all have them – and say: “Well, let me see what the other side has got to say about this”, or “I think this is right, but do I really know it is”. Once people stop mudslinging and start listening then real dialogue can take place. Also, when people are prepared to question what they think they already know, or what they think should be the case, then they can appreciate what merits the other side may have. I discussed this in relation to Confirmation Bias in answering your last question, and I think that holds good here. So, if people are prepared to think again about what they think that will be a good take away.

Thanks very much for asking me these questions, and I hope the readers of your website will find it interesting and useful.

For more information, or to buy the book, please follow the link.