What's God got to do with it?

Sunday 23 October, 14.00 - 15.30 , Cinema 1 Keynote Controversies
Watch the video of this session at the bottom of this page.

Even in the most secular societies like the UK, where religion has long been in decline, God remains a ghostly presence in many social and political debates. Issues like same-sex marriage and assisted dying often divide avowed secularists from those who hold traditional religious views, while the question of the relationship between the Muslim religion and violent Islamism remains as thorny as it is inflammatory. Much seems to hinge on whether religion is a valuable source of wisdom, or an embarrassing hangover from less enlightened times. For many conservatives, it is the decline of belief that accounts for such problems as a breakdown of social solidarity or the loss of parental authority. For many critics, it is the persistence of belief that is holding society back from embracing positive change like greater equality. But perhaps both sides attribute too much significance to belief or otherwise in God?

After all, there are few religious values that are not also shared by significant numbers of non-believers. And conversely, few of the values held dear by secular liberals can be wholly derived from scientifically verifiable facts. Would we not be better simply arguing out our differences on the merits of the arguments, including subjective beliefs, preferences and desires? Is this not in fact how we do argue most of the time? Yet for many, both religious and otherwise, this is not enough: there must be some absolute source of authority. Of course, the desire to root our beliefs and values in something beyond the hurly burly of secular interests is understandable. And appeals to authority are not limited to God. In some contexts, science and other forms of academic knowledge are used to support claims that arguably reach beyond their purview; for example, the claim that children need particular styles of parenting in order to thrive. So does this desire for absolute authority drive even atheists to ‘play God’?

There is a strain in conservative thought that values religion less because it is true than because it is useful: the idea is that if people believe in God they are more likely to be well-behaved and respect authority. Is this now mirrored by a secular mind-set that replaces holy writ with professional expertise and a set of politically correct, received opinions on social issues? If so, are we in danger not only of closing down debate, but of trivialising difficult social and moral questions by insisting there must be a right answer that somehow exists independently of thinking and feeling human beings? Even if there is a God, is it not up to us to decide how we live in terms that would make sense even if there were not? Is there a conversation to be had that includes everyone, regardless of religion, or are we inevitably separated from one another by our different beliefs about religion? What’s God got to do with it?