There’s more coming on the 2010 Global Atheism Convention … lots to report yet. But we’re taking a break this evening, post the Convention’s closing. Back shortly.
So atheist folk and religious folk are complaining about each misrepresenting the other to themselves. Ho hum, welcome to my world. As a Muslim Australian, I am thoroughly used to having my beliefs and practices regularly misrepresented not just by atheists and followers of other religions, but even some fellow Muslims. Here’s one: 72 virgins in paradise is a fake tradition peoples!
It seems to me that once you get past the strawman arguments, the reality of living in a culturally and religiously pluralistic world filled with atheists, agnostics and believers of every different stripe, throws up some exciting and intellectually refreshing questions about how do human beings–who think, believe and do many different things–build the good society?
I’m particularly attracted to a Neo-Mu‘tazili-cum-Rawlsian position on how we govern ourselves when our societies are made up of people who hold to diverse religious beliefs and none, and thus we cannot use the simplistic “because God says so” appeal to authority. For those of you who need a little refresher on your history of Islamic theology and philosophy, the Mu‘tazilah were Islam’s first organised group of rationalists who held that rationality trumps revelation. (Surprised that Islam has rationalists? Just remember what I was saying about misrepresentation before.)
So, this position says that on tricky ethical and moral questions, such as a woman’s right to abortion, gay marriage, stem-cell research etc., no-one can make the “God says so” argument and legislate on that basis. Instead, a believer must be able to rationally defend their position to the reasonable non-believer in order to legislate it. This means that religion is not entirely removed from the public realm–as aggressive anti-religious secularism attempts–but the benign secular state does not privilege any one religion because any piece of legislation has to be rationally defensible to the reasonable non-believer.
For example, on the question of abortion, scholars from different religions define the establishment of the foetus’s humanity through its ensoulment as occurring at different temporal points in its existence. Catholics hold this to be at conception. Muslims, somewhere between 40 and 120 days after conception. However neither Catholics, nor Muslims can empirically prove the time of ensoulment, or even the soul’s very existence, because it belongs to the supernatural realm. Hence, neither Catholics nor Muslims can appeal to ensoulment to legislate against abortion in a secular, plural society either anytime after conception (if you’re Catholic) or after 120 days (if you’re Muslim). The recourse they have, is to a rational defence against abortion on scientific grounds that can be accepted by Catholic, Muslim and atheist alike. Hence, the religious and the atheist are on equal footing to engage in discussion with each other over the difficult questions of how we build and govern the good society. This does not prevent the individual Catholic or Muslim refusing an abortion themselves on religious grounds, but it means that their specific religious beliefs about something that is not empirically provable cannot be forced on others.
Does this give atheism–or more correctly rationalism–a higher court of appeal than God, something the religious decry? For me as a Muslim, I locate my answer within my own religious tradition, namely the principle underlined in the Qur’anic passage: “There is no compulsion in religion” (Q2:256). That is, whilst I recognise that God is the source of all truth and wisdom, how human beings understand Him is a completely different kettle of fish. Over the course of human history we’ve made mistakes a plenty (flat earth anyone?) So, I must have the humility to adopt the great Imam Shafi‘i’s caveat: “I am right, but there is a possibility that I may be wrong. You are wrong, but there is a possibility that you may be right”.
Rachel Woodlock is a doctoral candidate and researcher at the Centre for Islam and the Modern World, Monash University and has a blog at: http://blog.rachelwoodlock.com/