Heard the one about the rabbi, the Muslim, the Christian and the sociologist who all agreed with each other? It’s sound unlikely enough to be a joke but it happened at the Bath Literature Festival when the subject turned to the vexed question of faith schools.
Chaired by The Independent's Paul Vallely, a panel on What Happens When Good Religion Turns Bad? largely shared the view that what sours the relationship for many of us with the spiritual is certainty, pride and power. To varying degrees, they were all also worried about the influence of faith schools.
“I don’t want children to live in a world where they don’t encounter difference,” said Francis Spufford – author of Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. He linked this with the need for faith to allow doubt.
“If you aspire to certitude,” he said, “that belongs only to God, not to you. The voice of God is the one that says to you – perhaps when you’re wearing a suicide belt – ‘Are you sure about this?’”
Despite being a faith-school governor herself, rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner agreed. “We need to lock faith and doubt together,” she said. “Faith schools do a fantastic job in skilling up our kids. But it’s scary that they might go to university never having met non-Jews.”
Rashad Ali, a former member of fundamentalist group Hizb ut-Tahrir who now works on initiatives aimed at de-radicalisation, was also “very, very sceptical” about faith schools. “From a Muslim perspective, religion is a journey," he said.
"People will have their own sets of truth. If we know that God hears the cry of the oppressed, dogma is irrelevant.” Like all belief systems, Ali added, religion turns bad “when it tries to dehumanise points of view it doesn’t agree with”.
In amongst this, arch-atheist Richard Dawkins also came in for something of a hammering. “He needs to go and study philosophy,” said Ali, while Janner-Krausner confessed: “He drives me insane.” She added: “He’s so aggressive and non-doubtful.”
Spufford felt that Dawkins "can only see religion as a kind of early, defective science. That's an illusion.
"Where does meaning come from? Words like natural, as used by scientists, need to be approached with just as much scepticism as words like good and moral."
“Dawkins’s is a post-Christian view”, said Linda Woodhead, professor of the sociology of religion at Lancaster University, “He believes that the universe is meaningless and it is only man who imposes order on it.”
I asked panel members afterwards whether the central issue on which they agree is need for humility and doubt in dealing with matters spiritual. "And love," insisted Janner-Klausner, a leading figure in the Movement for Reform Judaism.
As a rabbi, she said in her talk, "I – like all clergy – have too much power. Religion can be a force for fantastic, life-affirming, enabling, empowering change. It can also be a super-duper gift for power abuse. It must use it very carefully."