Last night we kicked off the new season of RSA events, and a pretty good start it was too. My old boss, Tony Blair, was the first speaker in a series of events on faith that we are hosting along with partners Oxfam, Islamic Relief, DFID and World Vision. We even had the internationally acclaimed writer on religion and inter faith activist, Karen Armstrong, in the chair.
I have been questioned by a couple of people on why an organisation like the RSA, founding on enlightenment principles of humanism and rationalism, should be hosting debates on faith. I have three answers:
First, whether non believers such as myself like it or not, faith is an incredibly powerful force in the world; a force for good as TB underlined with his many examples of faith organisations’ role in tackling poverty and disease in Africa and a force for evil as we were vividly reminded yesterday by the conviction of Muslim extremists who had presumably been taught that killing thousands of innocent civilians was a guaranteed path to paradise. At the heart of the inter faith project pursued by Blair and Armstrong is the attempt through practical action to underline a principle common to all world religions, the so-called golden rule of reciprocity: ‘do to others what you would like to be done to you’.
Second, just because one might question the rational basis for faith doesn’t mean one shouldn’t respect it as a source of inspiration. After all, most of us accept the idea of romantic love even though this too could be portrayed as an incoherent and overblown rationalisation for a set of biological needs and urges. Or as the post structuralist French philosopher, Jacques Lacan, memorably put it: ‘love is the term we use to describe the historical delusion that we are no longer alone in the world’.
Third, the nature of human agency is an important area of research and debate for the RSA. It is clear that not just the capacity but also the predisposition to believe in a power or logic beyond human comprehension is hard–wired in human beings. What is more, participation in faith communities reflects a deep seated human need for connectedness based on shared meaning making. This is one of the conclusions of the work which will feature in tonight’s second new season event, in which Professor John Cacioppo will reflect on what he argues is an epidemic of loneliness. Cacioppo’s book - called simply ‘Loneliness’ and co-authored with William Patrick - ends with a quote from the scientist and Darwinian E.O Wilson:
‘We are obliged by the deepest drives of the human spirit to make ourselves more than animated dust. We must have a story to tell about where we came from and why we are here’.
For myself, I have never found a satisfactory account of religious belief which lies between the incredible notion of a supernatural being overseeing human affairs or a generalised sense of the possibility of good in the world (which I can endorse without needing to believe in God). But instead of using this dichotomy to close down my engagement I find myself increasingly interested in understanding why people I respect and admire see faith as so powerful in their lives.
Fabian Wallace-Stephens Emma Morgante
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Al Mathers, former RSA Director of Research and Learning, explores the importance of introducing reciprocity into the work of social change organisations like the RSA.