One of the things that adherents of the world’s religions have in common, certainly followers of the three great monotheist religions, is their certainty that theirs is the true faith. It couldn’t really be otherwise if you think about it. If you are a Christian then you believe in whatever branch of Christianity it is that you adhere to. This means, by definition, that other faiths such as Islam or Judaism are untrue. There may be some overlap with other faiths, Islam embraces some aspects of early Christianity just as Christianity embraces some of the Jewish pre-Christian teachings for example. But if you are a Christian, or a Muslim or a practising Jew then it has to be that your faith is one hundred percent true and that other faiths, although you may believe that they have some truths in them, in their totality are untrue.

Given the above it is with a sceptical eye that we should look on the whole idea of inter-faith dialogue. At a compassionate and practical level it is, of course, reasonable that Christians and Jews and Muslims should meet and discuss things – they do after all have one big thing in common and that is that they each have faith – a different faith it’s true but faith nevertheless. But think again about this for it leads to the idea that to have faith, any faith is in some way better than to have none. So in the hierarchy of goodness adherents to “our” faith (whatever that is) will be at the top followed by faithful adherents of other faiths, followed a long way behind by non-believers.

The paradox of all this is plain to see. For Muslims in fact there is less of a dilemma for they are rather more certain that their faith is the only true faith and that their Allah is the only true God. Christians and Jews used to have the same certainty (some still do) but leaders of all three faiths in many pluralist states like Britain or the United States generally do favour a measure of inter-faith dialogue and even at times go to one another’s services. In Britain, for example, our Remembrance Day on November 11th has at its centre a Christian service but the Chief Rabbi and a representative of British Muslims always attend as do Hindus, Buddhists and the rest.

But is it better to have faith, any faith, than to have none or to be an agnostic? The arrogance of the suggestion that indeed it is better is the implication that those of us who have no such religious affiliation are in some way inferior. That for me to be a moral and respected person is very difficult if I don’t subscribe to the mumbo-jumbo of a religion. It is better, in such a Christian’s eyes, for me to worship Allah or Yahweh than it is for me to worship nothing. I believe that the reverse is true. My atheism or agnosticism (if that is what you want to call it) allows me to think for myself rather than defer to a text. It allows me to seek whatever influences I like to come to a conclusion about how I will live my life. These texts may well include those from holy books such as the Bible or the Koran. I can embrace the “Sermon on the Mount” (or part of it) as well as (say) the Koran’s teaching that I should give my “wealth away to near relatives, orphans, the needy, the wayfarer and beggars” – a reasonable request! But I do not have to sign up to a belief in the afterlife, or in transubstantiation or that to deny myself alcohol or pork is more virtuous than not to. I don’t have to visit a Church or a Mosque or a Synagogue if I can get just as much inspiration from being at peace on a mountain or at sea.   I don’t have to bury my intellect to parrot some absurdity about the Earth having been created in Seven Days. I don’t have to cover my wife in head to toe in black or to chant ritualistic gibberish along with hundreds of other “believers”. I can have as inspiration the secular statement of Wordsworth that by “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers” as well as Christ’s equally inspiring  “Blessed are the peacemakers”.

So you may ask how do I know that my choices are the right choices if I have no established reference against which to check them. Well of course I don’t. But they are mine and I believe in them just as sincerely as any religious believer believes in his – maybe more so. For my beliefs are not immutable and they can be changed. If I think that I am wrong I can change my mind – and I frequently do. But if I was to suggest that Biblical or, especially, Koranic teaching is wrong there is no room for me to manoeuvre at all – I become a heretic by using my intellect! Rather an honest unbeliever than a narrow adherent to any faith designed one or two millennia ago and all of which are in part contradictory in their teaching and their rules. I’ll think for myself thanks!
 

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