Sunday, 29 May 2011

BBC's the Big Questions - Thoughts on the Young People's Special, by Tulpesh Patel

I posted with some excitement a couple of weeks back (see below) about being offered the opportunity to take part in the BBC Big Questions Young People’s Panel on the future and relevance in young people’s lives. Sadly it fell through, they managed to confirm someone else to take part while I faffed about with thesis corrections and trying to arrange dentist appointments, but I was happy to see Amber Wright, President of the University of Birmingham Atheist, Secular and Humanist Society, representing a Birmingham AHS society, alongside Alison Rawlinson from (I think) the Coventry & Warwickshire Humanists.

Unfortunately, it took me too long to get round to writing this and it’s disappeared from BBC iPlayer Hopefully it will be up on Youtube soon, because it made for fascinating watching. In the meantime here are some thoughts on the program and the issues being debated.

The main question under discussion was whether religion will survive another generation, with secondary issues such as such as the recruitment of children into religion, the reaction of religion to advances in scientific understanding and the increasingly liberal attitudes of younger generations. The panellists were Shane Lynch of Boyzone and Coronation Street fame, Radio 1 DJ Nihal Arthanayake, writer and critic, Bidisha Bandyopadhyay and Joanna Jepson, reverend at the London School of Fashion and one-time mentor on Channel 4’s lamentable Make Me A Christian.

The discussion covered familiar ground.  Joanna Jepson began by basically saying that that religion was for and made by humans, thereby pretty much undermining everything she had to say on the value of religion for the rest of discussion. Debate on the religious indoctrination of children quickly turned to faith schools. Faiths schools are almost required by religions in order to keep them going; exposure of their children to other religions, and secular and/or atheist thinking in anthema to those who wish to foster the narrow minded dogmatism that maintaining religion requires. The arguments against faith schools are many any strong and don’t need to be repeated here.

The real damage is not that children in faith schools leave not ‘believing’ in evolution, but that they are not equipped with the tools of rational, reasoned thought that make an understanding and appreciation of evolution obligatory. An important point made by and RE teacher in the audience, was care needed not to conflate the academic study of religion and the indoctrination of children into a specific religion according to the dictat of the faith schools; it is just the latter that secularists and atheists have a problem with.

Nihal made two important points, that didn’t  get the attention that they deserved during the discussion. First that religion is very closely tied up with culture and community, and second that parents often use religion to constrain their children’s behaviour within cultural boundaries – making cultural issues, particularly surrounding the role of women, a matter of punishment and control by a punitive god in order maintain patriarchal hegemony.  

Members of the audience, one particularly heatedly, also cried out that atheism and science was also just a faith, when careful consideration of the definition of faith and its concomitants shows that it clearly isn’t. AC Grayling has stated it most clearly: “Faith is the negation of reason. Reason is the faculty of proportioning judgement to evidence, after first weighing the evidence. Faith is belief even in the face of contrary evidence”.  Søren Kierkegaard’s ‘leap of [or rather to] faith’, was mentioned on more than one occasion as a virtue by religious apologists in the audience (including, the guy was famous for singing this disco anthem).

Stephen Jay-Gould’s ‘Non-overlapping magisteria’ also featured, but was wonderfully shot down by an audience member who pointed out that this cannot be the case given the number of scientific claims made by religions and their texts. Where religion has anything to say about the natural state of the world, science and faith collide; faith has always been, and undoubtedly always will be, on the conceding side.

To date, religion has also claimed to the sole arbiter of issues of morality, ‘where do athieists get their morality if not from God’ was shouted from the audience more than once. Humanists have their answers based on philosophical thought, but even discussions of good and evil are falling within the realms of scientific understanding. Sam Harris argues in his latest book, the Moral Landscape that neuroimaging technologies like functional magnetic resonance imaging will be able to tell us more about not only how the brain works but also morality, what constitutes good and bad and how we ought to live. Whilst the merits of such a theory are still being discussed, the fact is that the religious fingers around the neck of moral thought are increasingly loosening.

As to whether religion can survive another generation, the answer is most certainly yes. Not even the most optimisticic militant atheist would think otherwise. The indoctrination of children before they are able to think for themselves; the comfort that religion offers to the poor that the bleakness of naturalism can apparently not; the seemingly insatiable need for people to hope of there being ‘something more than this’; that science doesn’t have, and doesn’t have to temerity to claim it has, all of the answers; that that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, whilst wiser men are full of doubts; all these reasons and hundreds more are why religion, whilst apparently in decline, is not going to away completely.

Religion can of course, in some individuals, cease to be important within one generation. I am proof of that. Both my parents were born in India, and whilst an education for my father in the UK wore away at all but the most cultural aspects of his religion, my mother is a Hindu. Just how Hindu, given that I know more about her religion than she does is a matter for another discussion. (I was an ardent supporter of the BHA’s census campaign because it’s most important effect was on people like my dad, who would have reflexively put Hindu on the form before being made to think about what he actually believe, or more accurately what he doesn’t believe). But, the significant caveat in my case is the liberal outlook of my parents, who gave me the choice and freedom to think for myself. Not all children get this freedom, especially not those who are forced to go to faith schools because of their parent’s faith. Making a break from a family and community bound in religiously culture can be very difficult. The growth of organisations such grass-root societies, particularly at university where exposure to different people and ideas is much less under parental control, is vital, as it provides a support network of  like-minded young people.

As to the future, Bidisha optimistically hoped for of a future of harmonious secular humanism. I think most would settle for Nihal’s wish that “people believe and love their faith without believing and telling me that they’re better than me”.  Surprisingly, it was born again Christian Shane Lynch who captured the essence of what it means to be religious, and the reason that religion will persist: “God gave me my life back, but I still eat lobster.”

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

BBC's The Big Questions - Young People's Special

This afternoon a wonderfully exciting email drew me from my MEG data screening slumber. It was from researcher at the BBC saying that they were looking for people to take part in a pre-recorded Young People's Special of the Big Questions being filmed in Birmingham this weekend, and that Andrew Copson, Chief Exec of the British Humanist Association, suggested that they contact me!

For those who haven't seen the Big Questions, here's a little background on the show, lifted straight from the email I got:

"'The Big Questions' is BBC1's flagship live moral and ethical debate show presented by Nicky Campbell. Each week, three topics are discussed on the show – these are ethical or moral questions connected to the week’s news headlines. Some recent topics include: Should Britain be ashamed of its arms trade? Would Jesus be a Catholic? Is it right to rent a womb? Do we have the right to uphold our religious convictions? The Big Questions is broadcast live on BBC1 between 10am and 11am on a Sunday morning."

This series they are are doing four special shows that are being pre-recorded and where the whole hour of the show will be given over to one topic. On the afternoon of the 15th of May they will be recording their young people special and will be asking the question will religion survive another generation? During the debate they will address questions including: should children be recruited into religion at a young age?; can religion survive advances in knowledge?; and is organised religion out of date?

I've got a 'phone interview' with a researcher tomorrow afternoon, after which the editorial team and producer will decide whether I'd be any good on the show.

I've already been warned that apparently an appearance on The Big Questions that infuriated Robin Ince so much he started organising the 9 Lesson and Carols for Godless People shows as therapy. I can get quite excitable, particularly when it comes to religious debate, but I'm pretty sure my fury-threshold is much higher than Robin Ince's (although I think, judging by his shows, pretty much every other human being on this planet has a higher threshold than him).

If they decide that I'm not interesting, or annoying enough to be interesting, it was still nice to be even considered. I will probably have to juice up my immediate answers to the discussion questions, which are an emphatic yes, no, no and yes.
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