2038: The End of Religion
Edinburgh International Science Festival, Saturday 30th March 2013, 6pm
Panel: Paul Braterman, Keith Gilmour & Rev Andrew Frater
Chair: Alex Wood
The events indexers boldly refrained from appending a question mark to the title of this debate. Initially, I assumed on scanning through the Science Festival website that 2038 had something to do with the “end” of Unix time, when 32-bit encoding is going to run out of digits – a new millennium bug, if you will – but it seems that after 25 years of the Science Festival, the Humanist Society Scotland simply wanted to look another 25 years into the future.
The speakers were an academic chemist and science blogger, a teacher of religious, moral and philosophical studies, and a Church of Scotland minister so liberal that I’m surprised he’s allowed to be a minister, although he explained that the ordination of CofS ministers allows for liberty of opinion on such points of doctrine as do not enter into the substance of the faith. Which points those may be is another question.
There was consensus among the speakers that the literalist, creationist and other obscurantist trends in Christianity ought to be challenged and routed, that religion should keep its paws off education and politics, and that the church doesn’t have a monopoly on morality. It might have been better sport to have a creationist among them, and after the opening speeches I was half hoping that there would be some fundamentalist nutters in the audience, but if there were they didn’t ask any questions. Probably a good thing, really, because there was certainly plenty to talk about without having to deal with real live fundamentalists too.
A few interesting perspectives worth pointing out: Rev Frater made a distinction between religion on the one hand, which begins with dogma, and on the other hand faith, which begins with an experience. He also said that the rot set in when the Emperor Constantine became a Christian. Keith Gilmour made everyone laugh by saying that an omniscient god deserves our sympathy for having to watch the equivalent of a six-billion-inmate Big Brother house 24/7 for all eternity. And Paul Braterman hit the nail on the head by pointing out that the churches will continue to exercise power unchallenged until humanist/sceptical/secular people, or indeed liberal and free-thinking religious people, learn to organise themselves, volunteer, provide charitable services and form the kind of “constituency” that religious interests have so successfully formed, so that when governments break down or abdicate responsibility there's someone other than right-wing Christians to step into the breach.
A quasi-religious organisation for atheists? It’s been suggested often enough, it’s been tried a few times, but somehow it never quite sticks. How pernicious do the fundamentalists have to become before the nice liberals start organising? If the end of the world hasn't struck before we get there, let’s ask again in 2038.