From left to right: Dr Kate Wharton, Dr Maria Heim, Dr Brandon Gallaher, Professor Gwen Griffeth-Dickson, Professor Chakravarthi Ram Prasad, Dr Clare Carlisle. Photo W. Merttens
A Buddhist scholar of Keirkegaard, an agnostic scholar of Buddhaghosa, an orthodox Christian theologian and a learned Oxford don who happens to be a Hindu were sitting side by side on a discussion panel.
Sounds like it could be the beginning of a rather convoluted study-of-religions joke, but actually it was an interfaith conference organised by Dr Kate Wharton, deputy secretary for inter-religious affairs to the archbishop of Canterbury.
The panel seemed to be uncovering a tentative common ground – each of them in their way complicating the notion that a religion is a coherent phenomenon that starts and ends with its card-carrying devotees.
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Alain de Botton’s recent book Religion for Atheists is a bold proposal for a secular religion that embraces the best parts of tradition while avoiding embarrassing logical fallacies.
De Botton subscribes to the new-atheist belief in the importance of discarding unscientific notions. However, he also feels that our society should rethink secularism and reintegrate some socially useful aspects of faith traditions.
‘The thesis is not that that secularism is wrong, but that we have too often secularized badly – inasmuch as, in the course of ridding ourselves of unfeasible ideas, we have unnecessarily surrendered some of the most useful and attractive parts of the faiths.’