Have we lost faith in faith?

By Virginia Moffatt
November 19, 2017

I recently had the privilege and pleasure of being invited to the Cambridge Union to debate the motion: ‘This House has lost faith in faith’. The speakers proposing the motion were Ken Follett, (author) Sadia Hameed (ex Muslim Council of Great Britain),Ajahn Brahm, Buddhist monk. Those opposing were His Holiness Radhanath Swami (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), myself, and Asad Dhunna (Board member for Imaan, charity supporting LGBQTI Muslims).

The question itself is a very nuanced one as it hinges on what we mean by faith, and what aspects of it might have been lost. So I was pleased to see the debate itself was also nuanced, there being many points in common between the two sides. This was particularly enhanced by the Union’s debating rules (also used by Oxford and many other universities) which give each side an opportunity to speak in turn. While points of information and challenge are allowed from the floor, they are time-limited and the speaker is allowed to respond and move on. This makes for a very thoughtful and helpful environment in which all sides of the argument gain equal attention, and the issue debated is not reduced to a shouting match.

Ken opened the debate with a powerful speech on the problems caused by faith. He shared his experience of growing up in a strict faith community, which he rejected due to its many failings and in favour of a more rational approach to life. Interestingly, he noted that even so, he still attends church because the beautiful music and the community life have some value for him.

In response, Radhanath Swami, spoke of his spiritual journey in the opposite direction, finding a fulfilling life within the Krishna faith, one that is based on love. He received a couple of challenges, the most significant of which was that while there are good people of faith, they cannot separate themselves from the organisations of faith which sometimes promote harm. This was a valid point, I felt. He countered this with an acknowledgement that people of faith can do bad things, citing how he witnessed violent riots between Muslims and Hindus in India. However, he also noted how people of faith can also put this right, as he described the work done by religious leaders afterwards to work together for reconciliation and healing in these communities .

Like Ken, Sadia grew up in a strict faith community which she rejected for similar reasons. She focused her argument on the need for evidence based and rational thinking. She cited many instances of faith groups denying medical treatment and suggested faith and science did not mix.

I was kicking myself slightly at this point as I had not included science in my argument. As someone who has a degree in Biology, there was a fair bit I could have said on the subject. Not least that my favourite scientist, Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, was a monk . So I was glad there were some interventions on the floor on higlighting the scientific discoveries made by Muslims and also that theology, science, and philosophy are all different intellectual disciplines so cannot be judged on the same terms.

As the fourth speaker, I made three points in defence of faith. The first is that though people who have a faith are now in a minority, it is still a significant minority, and remains important to people because of the community connection, helpful rituals and support it can offer. My second was that the nature of faith has changed. We no long have a white monocultural faith dominating our landscape, but live in a country where there are a range of belief systems and none, and this diversity is to be welcomed. Finally I argued that faith in institutions is not the same as faith itself. And that if faith is no longer central it can operate in the margins where it belongs, allowing people of faith to speak with and for people who are oppressed or damaged by society.

The final speaker for the opposition, Ajahn Brahm, is a Buddhist monk, so it was interesting that he chose to argue against faith. He too focused on the importance of evidence based thinking, and suggested that Buddhism is not a faith because it does not worship a God, but sets out of a way of living. I’d not heard that argument before, and was challenged from the floor by a speaker who had earlier spoken in favour of the motion, who suggested that most people would consider Buddhism a faith. There were other challenges too, mainly around the topic of evidence-based thinking, with one challenger providing an eloquent argument that faith and science are compatible, and who quite rightly criticised our side for not having discussed this.

Our last speaker, Asad Dhunna, brought the debate to a close with a warm and witty speech that laid out why we shouldn’t give up on faith. He picked up on my points about the positive contributions faith could make with a beautiful illustration of how gay, straight, Muslims and people of other faiths and none, celebrated the Big Gay Iftar meal in response to the Orlando bombings, an event that was repeated at this year’s London Pride. His conclusion that giving up on faith meant giving up on people was well received, and I suspect it swung the debate in our favour.

Though it seemed a shame that one side had to win, it was gratifying to hear at the end of the evening that this house had not 'lost faith in faith'. Because, despite its many limitations, I truly believe, the world is better off because there are people of faith working alongside those who have none.

You can see the full debate here (I speak at about 43 minutes)

© Virginia Moffatt  is the editor of Reclaiming the Common Good which includes essays from Ekklesia Director, Simon Barrow, and Ekklesia associates Bernadette Meaden, Vaughan Jones, Savitri Hensman and Simon Woodman. Her novel Echo Hall will be published later this month.

* Books recently published by Ekklesia:

Sexuality, Struggle and Saintliness: Same-Sex Love and the Church by Savitri Hensman

Foxes have their holes: Christian reflections on Britain’s housing need. Edited by Andrew Francis.

The Jesus Candidate: Political religion in a secular age, by James Paul Lusk

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