By Domhnall Iain MacDonald
The first OxASH Drink and Think Discussion event of 2013/14 took place in the Massey Room of Baliol College at 7.30pm on November 7th. We discussed the motion: “Are some religions worse than others?”
Berk opened the case for the proposition with the affirmation that a world without all religions would be a better one. But some religions were still worse than others. The UK, he said, is a majority Christian country but still very tolerant. Islamic nations, on the other hand, aren’t very tolerant at all. He pointed out Turkey comes lowest in the list of developed countries for levels of acceptance of evolution.
He also contrasted Jesus, whom he called “a socialist hippie,” with Mohammed, whom he said was “a warlord and a paedophile.” He argued that Mohamed’s marrying an adolescent girl had been used as justification for child marriage, citing the example of the 8 year old girl in Yemeni who had been raped to death on her wedding night to a much older man.
Berk finished by pointing out that he wasn’t making an Islam versus Christianity argument – for example, Stephen’s Fry’s ‘Out There’ tv show demonstrated that in India some Hindu communities are better at treating LGBT people than either Muslim or Christian countries. Berk’s hard-hitting speech certainly got the debate off to a controversial start, with its focus on the consequences of religion getting stuck into the politics from the start.
George began his speech by rebutting some of Berk’s points. Christian Europe is more liberal than the Islamic world, he said, not because it’s Christian, but simply because it’s richer. For example, Christianity in poor African countries like Uganda was often far worse than Islam in its treatment of gay people.
But George also seemed to want to shift the terms of the debate. He asked whether anti-theism should be based, Berk-style, on social effects or whether it was only the veracity of different religion’s truth claims that mattered. From the second perspective, all religions were as bad as each other because they were equally improbable.
Returning to his rebuttal, he said that the core of the critique of Berk’s consequentialism lay in asking the question: is all the harm really due to faith itself? That argument suggested that much of harm due to faith in the middle-east was really due to poverty or conflict or a myriad of other complicated factors. Moreover, George argued that even from this consequentialist point of view all faiths could still be equally bad because all faiths put labels on people and were thus equally capable of leading to conflict. For instance, people often see peaceful Buddhism as abetter religion than patriarchal religions like Chrsitianity or Islam, yet Buddhist were attacking the Muslim minority in Myanmar as we spoke.
George therefore finished by saying that no religions are worse than others because they tall make incorrect truth-claims, they all slap labels on people leading to conflict, and most apparent differences in religions’ political effects are really due to deeper structural inequalities between different regions of the globe.
James, the Chair, then opened the discussion to the floor. It was pointed out that what made so-called Christian countries tolerant was their separation of Church and state. Berk countered this by citing secular Turkey, which still oppressed women due to being Islamic.
Yet Jem brought up the point that Christianity was just as capable of oppressing women as Islam, citing her own Catholic upbringing and schooling, which saw women as nothing more than baby-factories. Dòmhnall Iain, another ex-Catholic, backed this up, pointing out that even in the UK, the Catholic and Presbyterian Christianity in Northern Ireland meant women there had to travel to Britain to get abortions as they were illegal in the province.
George agreed that the idea secularism somehow led to liberal Christianity was poor. He pointed out that the liberal CofE was an Established Church, while rampant fundamentalism was to be found mostly in secular America.
The group then moved on into discussing how important the doctrine of a faith was in relation to Berk’s claims about the Koran justifying murder and rape. We got stuck in a chicken and egg question, wondering whether doctrine was determined by socio-political factors, or whether doctrines determine laws and behaviours. But in the end the majority seemed to think doctrine irrelevant – it’s how religious people act that matters, not the contexts of the actual religion itself. The question even arose if it was more dangerous not to follow doctrine and just make it up as you go along!
It was time for Berk to have a go at defending himself. He took a common-sense tack, citing his Alevi background. The Alevis are a peaceful, persecuted religious minority in Turkey, who believe in gender equality. How could anyone not deny this was better than most other religions? Berk also argued that a range of different social effects stem from doctrine and that it was stupid to ignore the scriptures. He asked, given what the Koran said, how could one be Muslim and gay? The Koran was much worse than the Bible, he said.
Again, the floor argued it wasn’t helpful to compare the Koran and Bible, there were subtleties in all religions. But Berk still hadn’t had his common-sense point answered – Jainism or Alevism don’t harm anyone, how could you say they aren’t better than Islam? But it was pointed out that Zen Buddhist doesn’t advocate harm, and yet look at Imperial Japan in WWII!
There seemed to be a consensus that moderate Muslims and Christianity are more like each other than their fundamentalist coreligionists. As Misbah pointed out, Alevis are arguably a subset of Muslims, who are peaceful for whatever reason. On the other hand, take an Afghan Jihadi, raised in a wartorn and poverty-stricken country – well, no wonder his Islam turned out differently….
George added in at this point that as skeptics we should be doing our utmost to untangle the evidence, to try and understand what political and economic factors come into play to make some religions appear worse than others. He expressed regret that no one had really dealt with his point that all religions are equally able to create barriers.
But with the clock nearing half eight, and Balliol Bars and Union Debates to be going to, the discussion drew to an end. Berk made a brief summary speech arguing that the content of a faith really was important – and that by that account some religions (like Islam which advocated Death to Apostates) really were worse than others. George ended by saying that all mainstream faiths were similar in content and equally capable of being bad so we shouldn’t just campaign against one of them.
The House voted 5 for the proposition and 5 against, with one abstention. Although we didn’t get much closure, it was an interesting and enlightenting discussion enjoyed by all. Most importantly, it was agreed that next time the President should buy alcohol!