Constituents and debaters of the fourth debate of Michaelmas Term weighted the merits of the motion ‘This House believes religion harms society.’ Along with ample discussion of the qualities of religion, the speakers raised the weighty question in a sometimes confrontational but engaging manner.
Asking the crowd whether they had already made up their mind before listening to the debate, David Amess, a Conservative MP, instructed people who fit the criteria to raise their hands, to which a significant amount obliged. “Well, it would seem that there are some left who might be persuaded by the course of the argument,” he remarked.
Speaking first for the proposition, Michael Nugent, a Chairperson of Atheist Ireland, evoked memories of a man in Pakistan that was hung for the defamation of Muhammad, the most revered prophet of Islam. “Religion corrupts our sense of reality and corrupts our sense of morality. These corruptions confine society and cause terrible suffering,” he said.
The issue of Islam and Islamophobia weighed heavily on the debate. Mehrunissa Sajjad, a member of the Standing Committee, responded by asking people to focus on the ethos and the humanitarian core of Islam and other religion, and on how religion “provides moral guidance.”
The burden of proof, Sajjad said, “is not to defend ridiculous measures,” but “point to the majority of people who have faith, religious beings who act out their lives as productive members of a better society.”
In his rebuttal, David Silverman, President of American Atheists, pointed to instances wherein the bible condones slavery and rape, and explicitly mentions execution. He specified the infamous passage Leviticus 20:13, which states: “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”
On the longstanding role of religion in society, Silverman said, “Religion was created with yesterday’s knowledge[…]Religion took the credit of that knowledge. The problem is that the society back then knew much less than we know today.”
Yet, according to the arguments, it seemed that religion nevertheless plays a big role in modern society. “Religion is at the heart of everything here,” David Amess said.
“I was born a Catholic and I will die a Catholic. Just as if I had been born Jewish, I would have been proud to have be born a Jew,” Amess stated. “I’ve never met anyone[…]who have explained to me, in such a way that I could accept entirely, that there is no God.”
Nonie Darwish, a critic of Islam and founder of Arabs for Israel, rebutted, saying that she did not believe religion benefited society. “In the Middle East, where I come from,” she said, “I would be killed by the religion I was born into.”
Bring up the sensitivities of Islam, Darwish mentioned that Islam maintains a hardline nature. “You have a religion that has a right not to be offended under the penalty of death,” she said. “While at the same time, that religion seeks to control governments. Islam, without government enforcement, does not have any strength to survive.”
Finishing off, Professor Tariq Ramadan, a noted Islamic scholar, tried to reframe the issue. “It’s dangerous to come with a binary mind,” he said.
One of the most confrontational moments of the debate occurred as the professor, decrying the unfair nature and prompt of the proposition, was in the midst of his final remarks.
Addressing atheists, Professor Ramadan said, “You are arrogant in the way you talk to us, you are arrogant about the fact that you are reducing religions to myth and anecdote. You are treating me, who is a believer, as if I were a child who is full of dreams.”
One member responded, “Yeah, that’s exactly what it is,” to which Ramadan riposted, “You fell into my trap. I wanted to show how arrogant you are.”
“I’m arrogant because I’m right?” the member retorted.
“You are doubly arrogant,” Ramadan said, rebuking sarcastically, “I am wrong and I am humbly wrong.”