Record of meeting, 8 July 2009

We met on 8 July at David Lambourn’s house. Present were David Belcher, John Challenor, George Gregg, Andrew Homer (welcome!), John Howard, David Lambourn, Andrew Teverson and Stephen Williams, with apologies from Sara Clethero and Paul Graham.

As agreed, we discussed Faiths and Beliefs in anticipation of the Oxford day conference on that subject on 12 September. David Belcher introduced the topic suggesting that behind the idea is a distinction between beliefs as propositional statements expressed in a form that is in principle either true or false; and faiths which are the values by which we live our lives and for which the test is essentially pragmatic. In everyday speech the differentiation is less clearcut and words are used more fluidly but we stayed with it for our purposes. (Judging by the reviews – no-one has read it yet – the latest book by Karen Armstrong – The Case for God – seems to be based on a similar distinction.)

We reflected on the role of religious education. It looks as though the otherwise desirable multifaith emphasis has often resulted in religions being presented as sets of propositions which can be compared and contrasted; religions are looked at from the outside from an implicitly atheistic perspective rather than in terms of their meaning for the lives and actions of their adherents. Many faith communities, it must be said, collude with this and seem much more comfortable asserting authoritative propositions (eg, the age of the universe, the authorship of the Koran).

So the question is not “what do I believe?” but “what do I do next?” It can be answered by reference to rules or by deference to authority. Or we can act on the basis of the expectations others have of us. Or we can aspire to personal authenticity, the act of will or self-expression (a leap of faith!). There are attractions in the spontaneity of free action but it is not entirely realistic. We function on the basis of what we remember or what we have learned; only an infant is rootless.

This led to thoughts about free will. It is now recognised that this is not the self-evident notion it was once assumed to be. Many of our actions are almost unconscious (and in what way is answering a call of nature is an exercise of free will?) More fundamentally, big choices are often shaped by habit and expectation. Free will is thus a myth, an idea that invites scepticism and challenge, but one that is still expedient for managing the business of everyday life.

Similarly, we may need more than spontaneous free will to make changes in our lives. We reflected on the idea of “ceremony” as a way of confirming and marking change and giving licence to move forward. Absolution, for instance, both expects and licences us to act differently. This is yet another angle on “faith”.

We may come back to this after the Oxford event. Before that is the SoF annual conference on science and religion which a number of us will be attending and we agreed to devote at least part of the next meeting to a report back. We will also pick up on the issue floated last time of reviewing the organisation and programme of these Birmingham SoF meetings.

We agreed last time that that next meeting will be on Wednesday 19 August 2009 at 1930 at David Lambourn’s house, 28 Frederick Road, Edgbaston. The meeting after that will be on Wednesday 7 October.