Guardian podcast: is religion a force for good?

November 22, 2010 • 3:16 pm

The Observer/Guardian has a 55-minute podcast in which five thinkers debate the topic “Is religion a force for good in the world?”

In anticipation of the coming debate between Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair on the value of religion, we gathered a selection of thinkers on the subject to discuss the topic.

AC Grayling is professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Evan Harris is a former MP and Liberal Democrat science spokesman.

Cristina Odone was editor of the Catholic Herald and deputy editor of the New Statesman.

Jon Cruddas is Labour MP for Dagenham. He’s also a Roman Catholic.

Samia Rahman is a freelance journalist living in London and a muslim.

The panel debates the value of religion to society, its impact on policymaking, its contribution to culture and what a world without religion would be like.

The atheists are awesome and calm, but the religious folk get quite exercised! Check out the accusations of atheist “intolerance and fundamentalism” (and “metropolitanism”—what’s that?) starting at  28:00, and the vigorous pushback by Grayling.  Other Grayling highlights (the man is eloquent!):  at 34:34 he outlines humanistic ethics and why it has nothing to do with religion, and at 36:12 he dilates on why the overall effect of religion is negative.

The final summary of the participants’ positions begins at 48:22.

At the very end, everyone debates whether the Gnus—and Dawkins in particular—are “militant and fundamentalist.”  Grayling pwns them all.

Curiously, there is NO discussion of whether there’s any basis for the epistemic underpinnings of religion.  It’s amazing that one can discuss whether or not something is a force for good without even alluding to whether it’s true.  But what’s good is that this debate is being held in a popular venue. That’s the success of Gnu Atheism.

27 thoughts on “Guardian podcast: is religion a force for good?

  1. I love the Gnu atheist symbol, it looks just like a gnu!
    I will listen to the podcast when my interwebs are sorted out.

  2. Interesting that they’re designating Salman Rushdie as a Muslim. While he does consider himself ‘culturally’ Muslim, he has identified himself as an atheist on a number of occasions.

    1. I assumed he was but I’ve never heard him claim to be an atheist. Do you have an examples of this (just for my curiosity)?

  3. The actual title for the discussion is not a good topic of debate as it is too open ended. The phrase “Is religion a force for good?” allows cherry-picking by its nature; there are elements of religion that do force good on people, but not always. It is not possible to give a yes/no answer. To say “no” means the good things that religions have built into them are dismissed and to say “yes” means that the reason for the goodness is assumed into the religion. As Prof Grayling pointed out, the good bits of modern Christianity, ethics etc, are adaptations of Greek philosophy that pre-date Christianity.

    The discussion winds up talking past each other, which makes for good filling in of time and gives rise to conflict which is, in turn, good for ratings. The religious can easily address “Is religion a force for good” by pointing out that it has been in things like charity and advocating for the poor. The secularists actually address a different question, which is “Is religion necessarily the only force for good?” to which the answer is “no.” The secular societies that we live in that have representative democracy, separation of powers and the concepts of social goods are all good things that have arisen from the Enlightenment.

    It is funny that at 48:32 the Catholic Herald editor Cristina Odone is actually stating the secularist line “the challenge for our society is to take the good that religion offers, and excise the bad.” This is a good example of the sort of cognitive dissonance that is required to be able to assert that religion is a powerful and correct way to be a force for good in the world. I thought that the contents of religions were the undeniable truths that are given by revelation to god’s chosen transcribers. If we have to excise the bits of religion that are bad in the 21st century, then the word of god is not immutable, so does that mean that god got it wrong? Or we have it wrong from the beginning due to a transcription error. If that is the case, shouldn’t god send us a clarification? Oh, that’s right; he does through god’s current representatives on Earth, who just happen to benefit quite nicely from whatever the voices in their heads tell them to do.

    It’s amazing that one can discuss whether or not something is a force for good without even alluding to whether it’s true.

    I don’t see why this would be particularly amazing. Lies (non-truths) that are unquestioningly believed are some of the easiest ways to control people. It is one of the assumptions that the religious particularly use; the truth of the basis for religion is immaterial, so long as the utility of it (ie: controlling peoples behavior) is successful. It is only when the desire for truth is greater than the need for the utility that religions will be truly challenged.

    BTW: Liberal metropolitanism is the Labour politician’s way of saying “urban elite” or “wealthy urban elite” ie; the set of people that are not working class.

    1. It’s the same tactic used in America. Appeal to the “every man” or the “folks” by asserting that secularism is some sort of elitism.

  4. Curiously, there is NO discussion of whether there’s any basis for the epistemic underpinnings of religion. It’s amazing that one can discuss whether or not something is a force for good without even alluding to whether it’s true.

    Damn, that is so intolerant and fundamentalist.

  5. Read part of the transcript this morning and it looked like Grayling was doing well… Look forward to hearing the whole thing. Especially for the, um, tone</b?

      1. Its actually representative of a christian invoking a universe creator to admonish an opponent about tone. That’s some arrogant tone christians bring to the tone table.


  6. “God, Satan, Paradise, and Hell all vanished one day in my fifteenth year, when I quite abruptly lost my faith. ..and afterwards, to prove my new-found atheism, I bought myself a rather tasteless ham sandwich, and so partook for the first time of the forbidden flesh of the swine. No thunderbolt arrived to strike me down. […] From that day to this I have thought of myself as a wholly secular person.” — from In God We Trust (1985)

  7. I get so sick of the word ‘other’ used in the context the theists use it here. Its a catch-all to deflect criticism of any kind.

  8. They really danced around the topic didn’t they? When the secular side brought up all the examples of either actual hatred in the religious texts or hatred brought on the church institution they insisted that those weren’t their religions. Which ignores the topic of the podcast (Is religion a force for good). In this case it doesn’t matter what you personally believe. What matters is if the things that are done in the name of religion are a force for good.

    What’s even more annoying is when they start talking about how our society is so awful and then don’t specify what they are talking about. I can imagine things like “Happy Holidays” or non-faith based schools, videogames, or even secularism being what they consider the evils of our world.

    1. Oh and I really really want to know what these people believe about hell and the nature of God. They didn’t specifically say that non-believers or people of other faiths are not going to go to hell. I find it fascinating what people actually believe in comparison to others, to what their holy book actually says, and of course to reality.

  9. It all seemed to come down to the atheists saying “religion is divisive and shouldn’t be able to discriminate while it has state privilege” and the religious saying “religion builds and maintains community, and offers moral guidance to some people who wouldn’t have it otherwise”, with neither side offering much evidence, addressing the other side’s points, or even answering the moderator’s questions. (None of the atheists answered the question of what could replace religion in its community-building role and none of the religious people really addressed religion’s role in oppressing women and gays or facilitating divisiveness.)

    Still enjoyable, but not really worth losing an hour of sleep. 😉

    1. Christians don’t build inclusive communities they build christian communities. Christians are a subset within the greater community into which the christians force themselves and their communities. Only within a christian theocracy would it be necessary to worry about not building christian communities. Its just more christian nonsense. What places are you thinking rely on christianity to build communities? There are lots of community building events in most cities that owe nothing to christianity. The communities are likely to get along better without christians.

      1. I just discovered Stieg Larsson. One of the things I thoroughly enjoy about him is how unabashedly Swedish his writing is. Fascinating.

        I get the distinct impression from him that Christianity is frowned upon in polite Swedish society, much like urinating in public.

        So much for religion being necessary for “building communities”.

        Besides which, it’s a strawman argument. We’re not talking about “building” communities. We’re talking about maintaining civilization. Seems to me there’s only one answer to that more-important question.

        1. I get the distinct impression from him that Christianity is frowned upon in polite Swedish society, much like urinating in public.


          So much for religion being necessary for “building communities”

          It seems that even some atheists wonder if religion is needed for that purpose. Are there enough books that describe life in happily unchurched communities to warrant Dr. Coyne doing a post to collect recommendation? Something to show that even christians could conceivably find happiness if they would just shelve their various and sundry gods.

          Larsson has several books, do you have a specific recommendation Kevin?

  10. My favorite part was probably when Grayling asked, “why should all of the rest of us, with our tax dollars going into the public, pay for religious education? Why don’t you do this religious education in the family setting and in your church?” And the response was “why do you want to oppress us?!” Apparently not giving you money = oppression.
    I also found it very strange that there were both claims that “individualism is destroying our society” and yet every religion should be allowed public funding for its school in order to teach their own different set of morals/beliefs. Does that mean any set of morals, values and beliefs are fine so long as you arrive at them upon instruction?

  11. JC: “I agree with an awful lot of that actually. You see there is, once you reach beyond caricature, once you reach beyond the absolutism within which this new atheism is framed, there’s a lot that can be respected across this whole divide.”

    Irony. Pure unalderated, meter-busting irony. This is from the guy who said “I want to get past the caricature and deal with nuance.”

    I wonder if some people ever listen to themselves, let alone to others.

  12. Society is made of people, so the impact of religion is not on society but on people. Religion is an intimate affair which belongs to the innermost sphere of the human person. Obviously there are many people who misuse religion and take advantage of it for personal aims. In this case we cannot talk religion. In my Blog I broach the theme religion, money, power.
    Great is the contribute religion gives to human consortium. In Italy, maybe in the world, the first University was established by Catholic Church, it was the University of Canon Law of Bologna. I think cannot exist a person without religion at least his or her intimate aspiration to the betterment of human nature.
    My book contains many data and it is a must for people who want to open their mind. It describes many religions and rites. The title is Travels of the Mind. My website is
    If you have any questions, I am most willing to offer my views on this topic.
    Ettore Grillo

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