Has religion a future? My remarks to Edinburgh International Science Festival

Update: Keith and I will be discussing this with the Edinburgh Humanists, 7:30 pm, Monday 3rd June; Mercure Hotel (formerly Mount Royal Hotel), Skyline suite on 7th floor (there’s a lift), 53 Princes Street, Edinburgh EH2 2DG (East End of Princes Street, between M&S and Jenners Department Store)

I took part in the discussion on this topic, as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, together with Keith Gilmour (of Unintelligent Design fame), and the Rev Andrew Frater, of the Thinking Allowed critical theology lecture series, and chaired by Alex Wood, ex-politician, education consultant, and journalist. Here are the notes of my own introductory remarks; for the other speakers’ remarks, and a fuller discussion, see here.

A not-so-cheerful prognosis

I see much of merit within religion, and hope that it can get its house in order. But I’m not optimistic. I see tough times ahead, and an increasing threat from obscurantist fundamentalism at the very moment when Government is unloading its responsibilities onto the churches.

Tough times ahead

Population pressure; built-in momentum will push this to 8 billion in the next 25 years

Rising food prices worldwide

Economic instability

Growing inequality

Failed states, wars, terrorism; consider Congo, Somalia, Afghanistan, Mali, Iraq

Nuclear proliferation; North Korea, Iran… and when a nuclear power is also a failing state, like North Korea and Pakistan in their different ways, what then?

Climate change; I wish it wasn’t happening but it is

The realities of power

 Representatives of religion complain of being marginalised, but the very opposite is the case. The embedded power of religion includes

School advisory boards, with representatives in Scotland of Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church, and religious observance (not just instruction) in all state schools

Chaplaincies, paid for with public money, in Universities, the armed forces, and the financially struggling NHS

“Christian value” pressure groups, some with esteemed and well-connected educators

26 Church of England Bishops in the House of Lords, involved in making the laws that affect us all

Privileged access to politicians; Cardinal O’Brien, during his last months in office, met Scotland’s first Minister several times in a n attempt to influence legislation

For the first time, a Minister for Religion in the UK government

Government abdication adds to this power

On 1 Jan this year, Justin Welby, designate Archbishop of Canterbury, said that the financial crisis could signal the “greatest moment of opportunity since the Second World War” for churches to grow

Food banks run by Trussell Trust (Evangelical); now over 300, up from 20 pre-crisis Thank goodness, by which I mean human goodness, that someone is running these things, but do we really want to be relying on so erratic a mechanism to stop kids going to bed hungry?

100 million hours/year volunteer work by the Churches on social projects (according to Daily Telegraph, 14 Feb). This would be worth 50,000 full time employees, or over £1 bn

Schools; One third of schools in England are already religious. CofE plans for more

Just when religion is under threat from within

General drift away from religion

But difficult times favour extreme beliefs

Upsurge of absolutism

Biblical literalist and creationist infiltration

Example of infiltration; Highland Theological College

No ancient institution, but Founded in 1994; Now part of University of Highlands and Islands

Awarding its own degrees since 2008

Website: “This enables HTC to retain its strongly evangelical, Reformed ethos within the university sector giving HTC a unique opportunity to impact on the training of ministers from a number of denominations.” No two ways about what they’re doing

Church of Scotland has been sending seminarians there since 2006

Why is this their theology our problem?

Basis of faith (from website), to which all teaching staff must subscribe: Bible “verbally inspired by Almighty God and therefore without error.” How does the College interpret this?

Website lists only two theologians among trustees, both of whom have written books promulgating literal six-day creationism, and both based in US Southern Baptist seminaries; Douglas F Kelly of Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina, author of Creation and Change, and the Rev Dr J Ligon Duncan III, Reformed Theological Seminary Jackson, Mississippi, author of The Genesis Debate

HTC teaching based on doctrine that (I quote)[1] a historical Fall “has ushered us into a state of bitter bondage, sad shame and total depravity”

So do we want our children taught that the earth was created 6,000 years ago, and that as a result of what happened at that time they themselves were born totally depraved?

More generally, do we want

… to be receiving a wide range of social services from religious organisations

at the same time that religion is losing its appeal

and its organisations are being infiltrated by the enemies of reason?

If not, what can we do about it?


[1] Information supplied “in the spirit of openness” by HTC in response to a Freedom of Information request, which the College did not, however, agree that it was required to answer.

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on April 1, 2013, in Creationism, Education, Politics, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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