If you were all hyped up for the “conflict” part of last night’s Veritas Forum “Faiths in Conflict: Searching for a Common Space,” you may be disappointed by the friendly banter between secularist Heyman Center Director Akeel Bilgrami and Sri Lankan theologian Vinoth Ramachandra. Bwog correspondent Sarah Ngu reports on their discussion of how to build foundations for tolerant, mixed-faith communities.

religionAkeel Bilgrami wanted to avoid a “polemical evening,” so the first thing he did was distance himself from staunch atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. He called the pair “some of the most distasteful people on the intellectual scene today” and compared them to religious fundamentalists. You’ll only get the intellectual play if you know that both men claim that labels like  “Muslim,” and “Christian” can only be used to describe extremists. If you go to church and say your prayers at night, you’re either a heathen or an atheist in denial

Ramachandra expressed brief sympathy for “militant atheists” like Hitchens and Dawkins, noting that, if only exposed to televangalism early in life, he would not be a Christian today.  He then lamented with Bilgrami the dearth of serious books on religion in bookstores and picked a bit of a fight with what he calls “American tolerance.” Since Americans who disagree with each other are so content with their own beliefs, they don’t engage with each other on religious questions and don’t leave their own beliefs open to revision.

True tolerance is what Ramachandra calls a “political secularism”: Cultural groups must, without surrendering their core values, challenge their members to be self-critical and practice an empathetic appreciation for others. A group managing this may contribute to public wellbeing, religious diversity, and global peace. According to Ramachandra, faith can provide the proper grounds for a “politically secular” space even for the marginalized. To him, the core message of Christianity is that God identifies with the marginalized. Thus Christians ought to care for “the dregs of the world,” as he says they have done in the past, leading the abolition and labor movements.

Professor Eisenbach, moderating, asked a blunt question of the speakers – “Where do human rights come from?”

Bilgrami didn’t quite say, but he argued that human rights and values cannot be explained by natural sciences, as some of his secularists fellows believe, because the sciences operate in a “normative void.” Evolution can explain why a human perceives a value and why a snail does not, but it cannot explain why we believe what we believe, and not something different.

Ramachandra doesn’t disagree; he argued that to explain rights by rational and moral agency does not hold, because human rights are universal, and everyone, no matter how smart, should have equal access to them. Bilgrami notes, however, that to demand an answer to the question about the origins of our values is to fall into the trap of scientific thinking.

More was asked than answered, but the discussion proved that it is possible for secular and religious people to amiably and respectfully engage one another despite opposing views. Really, this was nothing but a discussion between friends; when Eisenbach interrupted the two for questions from the audience, Bilgrami responded, “The audience… yes, them.”