Forum for Debate

SCT’s Forum for Debate provides protagonists on either side of an issue or public debate  –  including think tanks, commentators, academics and campaigners – with an opportunity to set out their well-considered, rational arguments and then allow a limited number of exchanges between them. Rather than then hosting an open forum or blog, the debates are designed to encourage visitors, guided by links provided by the British Library, to seek out further information about the issues and engage in face-to-face debate themselves. The  debates could also provide material around which Speakers’ Corner Committees can organise their own local events.

The latest in the series appears below. Previous debates can be found in the archive.


A Good Life – Is Faith a Help or Hindrance?

In a complex and often dangerous world, we need to know how best to conduct ourselves both in our personal lives and as societies. But what are the objects of the codes we should adopt and what is their source?

For most of recorded history, faith in a supreme being and submission to the authority of organised religion have provided the answers for most people. But with the dawning of the Age of Enlightenment in the seventeenth century and the growing influence of science over the last three centuries, a more rational and secular view of the world has challenged old certainties.

How is it possible to know and live a ‘good’ life without a sense of divine purpose? Does religious faith inevitably lead to discord and division? Is the world a better place with or without God?

Andrew Copson

British Humanist Association

Andrew Copson was appointed Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association in 2010 after five years coordinating its education and public affairs work.

He is President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union and a trustee of the International Humanist Trust.

Andrew has served as head of the European Humanist Federation delegation to the Council of Europe and represented humanist organisations to the United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has also advised a wide range of organisations on humanism, including the BBC and a number of Government departments and agencies.

Andrew co-edited the Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Humanism with A C Grayling and is a regular contributor to press and media.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity.

Founded in 1896, the BHA campaigns for a secular state, challenges religious privilege and promotes equal treatment in law and policy regardless of religion or belief.

The BHA has over 55,000 members and supporters, including 150 of the UK’s most prominent philosophers and scientists who help inform its policies.

The BHA’s trained and accredited celebrants conduct funerals and other non-religious ceremonies attended by over one million people each year.

Nick Spencer

Theos

Nick Spencer is the acting director of Theos and its director of research.

Before joining Theos, he worked as a researcher and consultant for Research International, The Henley Centre, the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity and the Jubilee Centre.

Nick is the author of a number of Theos reports and books, most recently The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014).

He is also Visiting Research Fellow at the Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London.

Theos is the UK’s leading religion and society think tank. It was launched with the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster but is an ecumenical Christian organisation, committed to the belief that religion in general and Christianity in particular has much to offer for the common good of society as a whole.

Theos seeks to recognise and analyse the ethical ideas and commitments that underlie public life and to engage in open and honest public debate, bringing the tradition of Christian social and political thought to bear on current issues.

It conducts research, publishes reports and holds debates, seminars and lectures on the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world. It also provides regular comment for print and broadcast media and briefing and analysis to parliamentarians and policy makers.

Proposition

We Don't Need God to Live Meaningful Lives

Here we find ourselves, the humanist observes, apparently the products of the same physical processes that produce stars and planets and the same biological processes that produce dandelions and cats and elephants. Unlike other animals on earth, however, we have come to consciousness of our surroundings and ourselves.

What do we know? We can see from our own observations and the evidence of our senses that we live in a universe that lacks any discernible purpose. We are undoubtedly the products of this earth and this can give us a sense of rootedness. This world moulded us, it is our home, and as we hurtle through space it nourishes and sustains us.

What else? Well, we have been born into a vast human family. Its members stretch back into time, as we can tell from the traces they have left, and today spread all around us across the globe. We also know that no member of this family lives forever. One of the earliest things that the conscious human realises is that every person at some point will die.

This is our only world; this is our only life. Before we were born and came to consciousness, our personalities did not exist; when we die they will cease to exist. These are the basic facts of existence that every humanist accepts and they are the reality upon which a humanist approach to life is to be built.

What comes next? Once the basic survival needs of shelter, warmth and nutrition have been met, it is the idea of the ‘good life’ - the life well-lived - that recurs throughout humanist thought from ancient China, India and Europe to the Enlightenment and post-Christian cultures of the modern world.

Since the universe has no deliberate creator, it can provide no ‘meaning of life’. Meaning is instead something with which we ourselves endow our lives. We attribute meaning to our experiences as we move through the years, telling the story of our lives to ourselves in our own heads. We adopt goals that give us a sense of purpose and something to look forward to. We develop connections and relationships with other people, with the natural world that we engage with in wonder, with the stories and art we respond to, with ourselves as we grow and change.

This beautiful and dynamic process of personal development can bring a conscious sense of satisfaction - and the development of our full potential is also a benefit to others. We can enrich the lives of those we love and those with whom we connect. We should be the best we can not just because it will make us happy but because that way we can best help others too.

Because other people matter – and we are all mutually dependent. Like other social animals, the normal human being has altruistic instincts. By giving full rein to this compassion and thinking carefully about the effects of our actions on others, we can make – and take responsibility for - our choices the way best calculated to bring happiness to others as well as to ourselves.

In embarking on this adventure, we are not alone. We have family, we have friends, we have colleagues and companions on the journey of our lives. We also have the accumulated wisdom and opinions of the people who have lived before us: a rich human tradition of reflection that is global, to be found in millions of stories, plays, pictures, sculptures, buildings, philosophies, poems, histories, laws and songs.

One thing we do not need is gods or goddesses or reasons beyond this world. Humanity can be self-sufficient. The rich humanist traditions of east and west, responsible for so much progress in human welfare and fulfilment, are testament to that. The many millions of non-religious people living happy and meaningful lives today are testament to it.

Proposition

Faith - the Basis for Meaning and Love

The question in the title of this debate invites two more – indeed, demands them. What is “a good life”? And “faith” in what?

Whatever a good life is, it is not self-evident. For many cultures it has been characterised by power or strength or a certain strategic munificence. For many contemporary liberal capitalist societies, it is a life of relative comfort and ease; about having enough and knowing “where to spend it” as the Financial Times tells us each week. The Christian idea that a good life is the life lived for the ‘Other’, without regard for return favours, is rarer than we might imagine.

Similarly, “faith” covers a multitude of sins. In one regard, humans can’t live without faith – in people, in things, in ideas. (We often prefer to call this trust but the two are pretty much interchangeable.) Even if we choose to narrow it down to “religious faith”, the differences are vast. The faith of Pope Francis or former Archbishop Rowan Williams is not really the same faith of American televangelist Pat Robertson or, er, Donald Trump, let alone Daesh or Al-Shabaab.

So, it depends - but as that’s not a particularly satisfactory answer, let’s try to be a little more specific - and a little more provocative.

If we are talking about a ‘good life’ in the sense of one lived for the Other, a life marked by the kind of virtues that saturate the pages of the New Testament, a life of generosity, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness and gentleness – a life ultimately marked by love – then the Christian faith is a help. And it is a help for three reasons.

First, it offers grounds for moral realism, the idea that what is good is real and objective, rather than a matter of opinion. That may seem theoretical but the more one is told that ultimate reality is blind, amoral, pitiless, indifferent, harsh and brutal – as a thoroughgoing Darwinian world is supposed to be – the less theoretical it becomes. Faith’s moral realism stops the good life from being one long attempt to haul yourself up by your moral bootstraps.

Second, it offers encouragement. Ultimately, people tend to be good because of other people. Hang about with Donald Trump’s “bad dudes” and you are liable to become one yourself. Hang about with a bunch of saints and they may just drag you upwards. Christianity is, self-evidently, communal: the idea(l) of going to church is about a bunch of different people who gather together to honour Christ’s supreme act of self-sacrifice and encourage one another in their own self-giving. The fact that it doesn’t always feel like that doesn't mean it isn’t so.

Finally, it offers forgiveness. No matter how much we are moral realists, we should also be morally realistic. Humans are plagued by inadequacies and faults that Christians call sin (not a word to be used in polite company). Our best efforts notwithstanding, we fail and in failing we hurt ourselves and others. What avoids this pain becoming a vicious circle, in which we pay back hurt with interest, is forgiveness, and forgiveness is foundational to Christianity.

So, here’s one clear answer to the question of whether faith is a help or hindrance to a good life. It’s a help, as long as we are talking about faith grounded honestly in Christ, and a good life predicated on self-giving love.

But here’s also one caveat, an attempt to fish out an all-too-familiar red herring. None of this means others not motivated by this kind of Christian life are incapable of living this kind of good life. Saying faith is a help is not to say that nothing else is.

Rather, it underlines the fact that if you seek to live a life marked by meaning and love, it helps if you believe you live in a reality that is also ultimately marked by meaning and love.

Response

Both my humanist view of the good life and Nick’s Christian view give high importance to our relationships with and obligations to others. Our disagreement is whether humanity itself offers sufficient resources for the good life. Nick believes the Christian faith helps in three respects. I think that while they may help some people, they may also do damage – and in any case are not unique to Christianity.

I agree that forgiveness and the peace that comes from it is important. But I’ve met many humanists who have forgiven great wrongdoers and, contrariwise, Christians who have been excessively vengeful - and history is of course littered with examples. Moreover, sometimes to turn the other cheek makes us an accessory to great injustice and is the wrong course.

I agree that much moral development comes from the company you keep. But since Christians are no more moral than others, I can’t accept that congregating with them is uniquely instructive. Moral exemplars can be found in many traditions and to limit ourselves to those from one religion seems unnecessary especially when it has been represented by Church of England bishops who supported slavery, crusaders who waged holy war and morality campaigners who persecuted gay people.

Nick says that if you believe that morality is written into reality you are more likely to view it as not just a matter of opinion. But for those of us who believe that morality is built on resources provided by our nature and our experience of living in communities, it’s not just a matter of opinion. Many people have used the contrast between the morality of humans and the amoral indifference of the universe as a spur to greater virtue. If morality is an effort of the human will in defiance of the universe, could it not be yet more magnificent and praiseworthy than if it just exists in the world to be read a la carte?

Response

There is much to affirm in Andrew’s lyrical description of the “journey of our lives”, even if his straightforward association of humanism with atheism is needlessly blunt and narrow (there are other rich traditions of humanism that are alert to humanity’s spiritual nature).

More troubling, however, is his insistence that “meaning is something with which we ourselves endow our lives”. This sounds noble at first, particularly if you focus on our “altruistic instincts”. But on closer inspection, it becomes clear that “endowing” our lives with meaning actually means creating it, because there is no objective “meaning of life”.

This is problematic and begs questions. What if people are wrong about the meaning they endow upon themselves? If you have ever spoken to a severely depressed friend who is convinced their life has no meaning, you don't take their word for it. You tell them that they are wrong.

Similarly, when you meet people who do not indulge their “altruistic instincts” but endow their lives with a meaning that is ethically ugly – if, for example, they come to the conclusion that some other people don’t matter – you don’t accept it. You tell them their chosen meaning is wrong.

This is hardly a dystopian fantasy. Humans have as many selfish instincts as altruistic ones, and encouraging personal agency and development is not enough. Meaning has to be more than simply what we choose it to be.

In reality, most people have the nagging sense that they are discovering meaning rather than just inventing it. The good life, about which we are debating, resides not simply in being able to choose the life you like, the life that is good for me, but in working towards the life that is truly and objectively good.

Conclusion

There is nothing to say to Nick’s assertion that ‘meaning has to be more than simply what we choose it to be’. He believes the universe to have been created by an entity which gave it meaning and purpose. I do not. As a result, we run aground pretty quickly in our discussion on that point: we simply have entirely different conceptions of what ‘meaning’ is.

There is one area, however, where our disagreement might be more illuminating, if still not fruitful

Nick takes issue with my saying that meaning only exists because we create it, ascribing it to the experiences we have as part of an ongoing process of meaning-making. He objects that, although this ‘sounds noble’, it is not, because, first, some may ascribe meaning to experience which we think will harm them and, second, the goals some pursue in giving their lives meaning may harm others.

It is not my aim to make the process of meaning-making sound noble or ignoble. I simply believe it is the way that a sense of meaning is produced in us, whether we like it or not.

Certainly people may ascribe meanings to their lives that we would not ascribe to ours and may think harmful to them. Some may find meaning in harming others. But when a humanist considers these two true statements, we move to a different subject from that of meaning - we are now on the terrain of morality.

Religions link (i) the nature of the universe to (ii) meaning in human lives and (iii) questions of right and wrong. But humanists do not tie these three things together in the same inextricable and interdependent way. For the humanist, the fact that the universe has no ultimate purpose or meaning is not an existential crisis. It is just a fact - and a cosmic fact that has scant implications if any for how we live our short and relatively small lives. Perhaps if this debate has uncovered little else, it has usefully exposed this contrast between a humanist approach and most religious ones.

People who want one ready-made and simple answer to all the questions of life, the universe and everything will not find it in the humanist approach.  A humanist conception of the good life - the life well lived - is one of maximum personal development combined with a concern for others. But this isn’t because the universe has mandated such a conception. It is because starting from our biology as social animals, and after millennia of shared life in building societies, we have learned that it is the best way to be happy and fulfilled.

Conclusion

Andrew’s response to my opener was, I fear, a little bit disingenuous. To be clear: I didn’t claim that there weren’t examples of atheist humanists living well. Nor did I claim that there weren’t plentiful examples of Christians behaving appallingly. Nor did I claim that Christians are more moral than other people.

I had hoped we might avoid such lines of arguments, just as I hoped we’d avoid the “just look at slavery and the Crusades” line. The record of atheist regimes in the 20th century is not a happy one. The argument soon descends into who’s got the biggest charnel house.

Our key argument, that Andrew does come to in his final paragraph, is whether faith is a help or a hindrance to a ‘good life’. But here his remarks are also a little bit evasive. Morality, he argues, “is built on resources provided by our nature”. But what does that actually mean? Is it that humans create meaning and choose morality? In which case, we are back where we started in my first contribution: whose meaning, which morality - and what do you say to people who choose wrong?

Does it, conversely, mean that our nature is capable of honing in on Meaning and Morality with a capital M? This is a key Christian claim. It is not that faith somehow bolts on ethical resources to our lives like the spoiler on a car that might make it look better but is really no more than cosmetic.

Rather, it is that faith in God orients us towards a conviction that human life is Meaningful (irrespective of whether we believe it to be or not), and Morality is more than a matter of choice and opinion. There is such a thing as a good life. There is, of course, an attendant Christian claim that we all – Christians included – fall short of it, but that is a different and admittedly somewhat unfashionable claim.

Andrew sets out the alternative well. Would it not be “more magnificent and praiseworthy”, he asks, “if morality is an effort of the human will in defiance of the universe”? Would it? It sounds "magnificent" until you realise that it is a bit like an invitation to defy gravity. Humans are part of the universe; an invitation to act in defiance of the universe sounds like one enormous leap of faith.

On the contrary, it is when humans touch good in their lives that we often sense we are also touching something real – something more substantial than the ephemera of life – rather than living “in defiance of” reality. It is this that keeps so many people going, not some kind of Nietzschean howling into the pitiless darkness.

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