Editorial: Value in the questions for believers and atheists alike – The Sunday Age

15th April, 2012
via The Age

It is a mark of our civility that we are free to believe in God – or not.

IT IS not the place of this newspaper to adjudicate on the existence of God. That is a question beyond the remit of even the most ambitious investigative reporting. We can, however, endorse with a clear conscience the presence in Melbourne of the 2012 Global Atheist Convention, which opened on Friday night.

This is not, as some might have it, because it furthers a perceived secular agenda of this organisation. Nor is it that the convention will tip some tourist dollars into the state’s coffers (although we note approvingly that it comes at considerably less cost to the taxpayer than the formula one grand prix). No, the major benefit of this ”Celebration of Reason” is the injection of intellectual capital it has provided.

The past week, since the much touted, albeit slightly underwhelming, encounter between Cardinal George Pell and leading atheist Richard Dawkins on the ABC’s Q&A program, has been alive with debate as both sides put their case. And while not all of it has been as polite as one could hope, with one commentator describing Mr Dawkins as a C-list celebrity boxing above his weight, it all has value.

Said value is not that we might, by process of argument, prove or disprove one case or another, but that it focuses attention on the question. Australians as a whole are casual about the matter of faith: in the 2006 census, 18.7 per cent of us said they had no religion, but only 0.16 per cent labelled themselves atheists.
Similarly, a 2009 Australian National University survey found that 47 per cent of Australians believed in God, but only 16 per cent believed there was no God. That suggests that a lot of people are slouching on the fence, uninterested in being identified as part of a church but at the same time unwilling to take the next step and say definitively that nobody’s home upstairs.

It’s the sort of relaxed and comfortable approach you might expect in a country where there have long been few, if any, consequences for choosing a given faith, or even for rejecting them all. Those who grew up from the 1970s to the early 2000s had lives free of religious discrimination and intolerance in a way inconceivable in many parts of the world, or even in the Australia of 60 years ago. Even now, when the rise of radical Islam, the resurgence of fundamentalist Christianity and even the arrival of the so-called New Atheism have sharpened awareness of religious difference, there is an admirable willingness to live and let live.

Not caring about the answer to the question of faith and not asking it are two different things, however. Belief or non-belief are fundamental to an individual’s world view. On one side, there is the offer of an answer to the age-old question of ”why are we here?”. On the other, as articulated by Mr Dawkins, there is the view that ”the question why is not necessarily a question that deserves to be answered. ‘What is the purpose of the universe?’ is a silly question.” A robust public debate on such intangibles is good for the mental health, and hopefully inspires people to think more deeply about their own personal beliefs and why they hold them.

Knowing where one stands on these issues, and why, is important, and becoming more so. Religion is anything but a spent force in the world: whether in the Middle East, the Deep South of the US or the mountains of Kashmir, it is a potent driver of both personal actions and international politics.
Locally, churches still occupy a favoured and powerful place in public life, while issues such as gay marriage and the teaching of religion in schools show that for all this county’s relaxed secularism, faith matters.

It is admirable, though, that our society can host an event as potentially provocative as a conference on atheism. It speaks well of our civility and tolerance, as well as our right to freedom of religion. For that reason alone, we are glad to have the godless among us.

4 Responses to Editorial: Value in the questions for believers and atheists alike – The Sunday Age

  1. Ian Foster says:

    One of the problems with the Atheist construct of reality is that they declare certain questions and issues to be self-evidentally ‘silly’ and not worthy of their attention. I’m glad that science left that strategy aside long ago. Pursuing awkward questions has been the lifeblood of a lot of great research. Perhaps religions have shown greater capacity to accept the validity of uncertainties than belief structures restricted to the physical world alone.

    • Bill Jennings says:

      Rubbish. Mere casuistry. This is just a sleazy attempt to fabricate a schism between science and atheism. You’re just a deist or theist trying to make a point where there’s no point to make. I laughed at you saying that religions “have shown greater capacity to accept the validity of uncertainties than belief structures restricted to the physical world alone.” If you use six abstract nouns within a total of nineteen words, you’re being a flaky lawyer, not someone with an earnest point to make. Your previous sentence, though, may be proportionally about equal – possibly five abstract nouns in a fourteen total. I’m not being a nit-picking grammarian. Orwell would have ridiculed you. Deal with real arguments, not dishonest concoctions.

  2. n sto says:

    I agree with Ian Foster that no question is a silly question, as it obviously seriously matters to the person asking it. Where I disagree with Ian and “religion” is their eagerness to discern “validity” from “uncertainties” without due recourse to the scientific method. This is jumping the gun, and simply allows any proponent to advocate any number of (as yet) untenable positions. Doing that is not only silly but dangerous!

  3. Anisha Uppal says:

    I don’t believe religions can accept uncertainties; at least not formal religions. The idea of God itself is all-knowing so how can there be uncertainties in religion itself? Yes, interpretations may be more open-minded towards the non-physical realm (but so is science and philosophy with quatum- and meta- physics).

    It is commonly known that a snail needs three seconds to register an event. For example, move an apple in front of it and away within a second, and the snail’s brain wouldn’t have registered the apple at all. Now, it is limitations such as in human beings that is the non-physical. For religion it is faith (or sometimes metaphysics) and for science is the art of “discovery”.

    Regarding “silly questions” – - well, who determines a silly question? Sometimes the silliest-sounding of all questions (i.e. is there alien life?) helped us discover the Universe and understand our relationship to it (the significance and the insignificance). Now, that discovery can be silly. But it’s a question of how you use it and interpret it; the discovery itself just ‘is’. It has no value.

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