By Asad Hassan, Class of 2019
On Tuesday, February 5th, three renowned scholars debated the place of faith in the world today. Professor David Nirenberg, the Interim Dean of the UChicago Divinity School, moderated the discussion between Reza Aslan, an award-winning author, commentator and television producer, David Dennett, a prolific author and professor of philosophy and William Schweiker, an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church and professor of ethics. The dialogue took the audience through an exploration of the origin of faith, morality and future of religion.
The panelists kicked off the conversation by describing their interest in the topic. Aslan cited his desire to share his passion for religious history and philosophy with others in an accessible way. Schweiger described his motivation to explore how religious beliefs help address questions about the complexity of life and how to orient our lives. Dennett described his inquiry into materialistic theory and human consciousness.
The discussion then explored the idea of the ‘soul’ to dig into the origin of faith. Dennett contended that the soul is essentially an organization of information that has evolved with social and cultural influences. Aslan, instead, described the soul as ‘immaterial essence’, a belief that predates homo sapiens. Schweiker took a similar approach, arguing that humans have been concerned with how their actions impact their ‘immaterial essence’, begetting the need to answer questions about justice and redemption – a key part of many faiths.
Dennett sparked a spirited debate as he offered his thoughts on the foundation of religion. He contended that religion was born from powerful superstitions that occupied human minds. Over time, these morphed into theism and were put to use by humans, often to wield power over others. Dennett also argued that religion has done more harm than good to ethical thinking over the past few hundred years.
Aslan strongly contested Dennett’s claims by characterizing religion as a reflection of the human condition, especially paradoxical behaviors such as violence, bigotry, compassion and love. “Religion on one hand can lead to the civil rights movement in the United States, and genocide in Myanmar on the other,” he claimed. Schweiker continued the rebuttal by arguing that religion helps frame morality in an expansive context, beyond the human life.
The panelists, however, agreed on one thing. The ‘faith card’, i.e. believing in a position purely based on religious teachings, stifles debate on questions of morality. “Convince the rest of us using plain arguments. The fact that it’s written in scripture shouldn’t matter at all,” Dennett stated, as Aslan and Schweiger agreed.
The guests concluded with a reflection on the future of religion as arms shot up for Q&A. Schweiger advocated for the need to continue the dialogue on how religious traditions can coexist sustainably. Dennett maintained that society will continue to ‘grow up’ and religion would have a diminished role in influencing how people think. Aslan, however, argued that religion will become a stronger symbol of identity over time. “We’ve been talking about the death of god for a very long time. But all you have to do is look around the world to know that god is very much alive,” Aslan concluded.
The discussion was organized by the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge at the University of Chicago. Formed in 2015, the institute studies how factors like history, politics, culture and religion shape our beliefs and values.