No, it’s not the start of a cheesy joke, rather the way quite an interesting day began…
Just to give a bit of background, a few months ago I attended a course run by the British Humanist Association (BHA) designed to train humanists to assist schools with a revised religious education curriculum that requires teachers to include secular points of view as well as those of the mainstream religions. There are about a hundred of us registered so far and R.E teachers can request assistance via the Humanism for Schools website from BHA volunteers who will help by supplying classroom materials, participating in classrooms directly or speaking at assemblies. We have a range of year group appropriate resources we can draw on.
Anyway, recently I received an email from the Humanism for Schools coordinator asking if I was able to be the humanist representative on a diversity panel for a year 9 group (13 to 14 yrs) alongside a Muslim Imam and an Anglican Vicar. Of course I was happy to oblige.
The event involved half a dozen or so forty-five minute sessions as a series of classes rotated between us and other cultural diversity events. The pupils had an interesting range of questions which each of us answered in turn according to our particular worldview.
The Imam was a particularly interesting person; an affable retired G.P originally from India and without a rational notion in his head. He fielded a question on evolution by insisting “nobody ever saw a human hand appear on a monkey’s arm” and was very insistent that it was impossible to be a moral person without Allah. However in a conversation I had with him during a break he made a very interesting point about the radicalisation of British Asian Muslims which he illustrated by referring to his own “embracing” of Islam. He had been brought up in a traditional Muslim family while in India and learned the Qur’an by rote in Arabic which is apparently the norm despite being unable to speak or understand the language. Consequently until the age of forty, when he finally read it in translation, he had no idea what the Qur’an actually said other than what was told to him. If this is typical of Asian Muslims it becomes easy to see how a hard line interpretation of Islam could be imposed on them without having any other frame of reference. By the time any of them read a translation they can understand (if they ever do as some Imams teach that all translations are corrupt) their minds are already primed for Jihad.
The Vicar was of the “trendy” variety, one of your followers of Jesus types with a naïve pick and mix liberal theology. He had the utmost conviction in the historicity of Jesus claiming it was “better documented than any event in history” (me pointing out that one primary source doesn’t count fell on deaf ears) and, to his credit, insisted in every session that Christianity was the one true religion which is far more honest in my opinion than mealy-mouthed ecumenicalism.
He fielded the first of the “do you believe in evolution” questions with, wait for it… “It’s only a theory” and… “It’s like a whirlwind in a junkyard accidentally making a Jumbo Jet”…Yep! He actually went there. After I was forced to make a small diversion into the actual predictions made by Darwinian natural selection he confined subsequent answers to saying it must still be “God guided”. But, I suppose that’s the best you can expect.
Throughout the day we fielded perceptive questions on; the existence of God, miracles, evolution, contraception, homosexuality and abortion. We all gave answers from our own perspective and for the most part did not pursue the arguments between us but left the different worldviews to hang there for the pupils to absorb.
It’s difficult to know whether any converts were made by anyone that day, which really was not the objective from my point of view (the Imam however came loaded with Islamic literature so maybe he had a different agenda), but several of the classes said they had never knowingly met a humanist or even heard of humanism before so for that alone I considered the day fully worthwhile.
"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"