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Good religion, bad religion

by Jacquie Russell
01 April 2011
Is religion a means for excellence or destruction? This was the provocative opening question posed at the Good Religion, Bad Religion discussion held at the Sebel Parramatta on 6 March 2011, hosted by the Islamic Sciences and Research Academy Australia (ISRA) and St James Ethics Centre.

Good Religion, Bad Religion aimed to explore definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion as understood by Dr Peter Vardy, Philosopher at London University, Mehmet Ozalp, Muslim Theologian, Author and President of ISRA Australia, and Leslie Cannold, Author and Ethicist at the Monash Institute of Health Services Research. As might have been expected given the topic and diversity of speakers, many questions were raised, and somewhat fewer answered.

The format for the debate, a centre stage discussion, involved a table set for six but with only four set speakers. The event chair, Executive Director of St James Ethics Centre, Dr Simon Longstaff encouraged the audience to join the conversation at any time to question, comment and engage with the speakers. This format proved both engaging and intimate and ultimately encouraged significant commentary, as questions were raised during the actual discussion and not at the end of the debate.

Dr Longstaff commenced proceedings by asking the panelists to define, irrespective of concepts of good or bad, what constitutes religion?

Mehmet Ozalp advised that for him, the purpose of religion is to act as an instrument that cultivates the seed-like spiritual DNA of human beings in order to find the balanced course for the development of a civilised society. Through this one can achieve a level of individual transformation. His proposition proved popular and recurrent throughout the discussion and was marked early on as one of the capacities of ‘good’ religion. Questions raised around whether religion must include a theological dimension or a belief in the supernatural proved difficult for panelists to agree upon.
Religion at its best calls us constantly to strive towards being compassionate, humble and gentle in our dealings with each other

Dr Vardy commented that if all religions are a journey towards fulfilling our nature and becoming the best we can be – the idea of personal transformation – then religion at its best calls us constantly to strive towards being compassionate, humble and gentle in our dealings with each other. He went on to suggest that the point should not be to define ‘bad religion’ or ‘good religion’ as such, but should concern what amounts to good and bad religious practices. He called for people to stand up to others within their religion who use faith as a cover for destructive behaviour.

Mr Ozalp agreed with Dr Vardy’s criteria for good religion and proposed a single criterion: if people use religion in destructive ways, it becomes bad religion. If they use it for constructive ways, it becomes good religion. The divide between people choosing to use religion in destructive or constructive ways is entirely a question of practices and not of religion itself. Dr Vardy identified two Islamic texts, A Common Word and the Amman Declaration, highlighting the importance of direct action in challenging people who destructively use religion to further their own agendas.

“To be religious is to be human, and to be human is to make meaning out of life.” This was the first comment of the night from the audience. Leslie Cannold argued that this impulse was not religious, but in fact a common aspect of human nature.

Discussion then turned to the question of whether or not religion incorporates universal truths in response to questions such as “Why are we here?” and “What is the meaning of existence?” Acknowledging that all religions make truth claims, Dr Vardy indicated he was unaware of any independent criteria allowing us to confirm what was and was not true in claims of different faiths. While he was careful to sidestep the thorny issue of which religion’s truth claims were and were not true, he maintained that the practice of imposing your religious beliefs – read truths – on another was to ‘cross a line’, a further example of a bad religious practice.

Leslie Cannold’s agenda in the debate was to explore a growing unease around religion entering and influencing public space, in particular politics. She cautioned against politicians who claim the right to act in accordance with their own consciences while, at the same time, seek to limit the conscientious choices of others. This concern was shared across the panel. To steer the conversation towards extrapolating a more concrete definition of ‘good’ religion and ‘bad’ religion, Dr Longstaff asked if there were criteria against which bad and good religion could in fact be evaluated?

Responding that any religion not based on justice is a bad religion, Dr Vardy explained that justice and a commitment to human fulfillment are surely central pivots of what should constitute good religion. Additionally, Dr Vardy argued that a commitment to truth should be used as an indicator of good religion (albeit with the caveat concerning independent verification of religious truth claims noted above). Dr Cannold continued to develop the concept of bad religion as being one that involved an intrusion on another’s freedom. Whereas Dr Vardy had called for religious followers to denounce people choosing to show their faith in destructive ways, she placed the blame and onus to react squarely on the state.

Our next public comment came from a self-confessed heretical Buddhist Christian interested in Taoism who queried Dr Cannold’s concern with the perceived invasion of religion into the public sphere as surely it is only natural for one’s beliefs to influence what actions one takes. Leslie Cannold argued that influence is an entirely different matter to proposing laws based on an individuals’ beliefs that would essentially restrict the freedom of others. Confirming this line of argument, Mehmet Ozalp indicated there is no place for religious fundamentalists in influential positions – political or not – who try to impose their views on others. But this should not be used as a reason to remove religion from society.

Dr Longstaff asked whether this was a discussion we need to be having more broadly in society, a question that was met with universal agreement by both panelists and audience. Dr Vardy advised that the discussion needs to be a national one. Leslie Cannold added that it needs to educate people on the meaning and roles of secularism and freedom of religion – a protection of religious diversity and uniform tolerance.

The last word fell to our evening’s host Makiz Ansari, Director and Education Coordinator of ISRA, who in her closing statement wisely advised that, although we hadn’t clearly defined good religion and bad religion, we would all leave with our own unique experience from the discussion. A bit like religion really, we can choose to have a relationship with it or not and this relationship can be bad or good, but it is uniquely our own.
Jacquie Russell has recently joined St James Ethics Centre where she works as a Resource Officer.