A packed audience of 200 people – students and guests of the East of England Faiths Council – gathered to hear a debate at Cambridge University’s prestigious debating society. The motion was: ‘This House believes that faith has an essential role in democratic debate’.
The proposition was put by Shayk Ibrahim Mogra, assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, who spoke of the value he placed on being able to practise his faith freely.
However, Dr Peter Cave, chairman of the British Humanist Association’s Humanist Philosophers’ Group, suggested that faith, far from adding to democratic debate, stifles it.
Vivian Wineman, President of the Board of Deputies British Jews, responded by arguing that the statement that ‘all people are made in the image of God’ has been the inspiration for the great social justice movements that have transformed society, bringing to an end both slavery and apartheid.
Speaking second for the opposition, Samantha Stein, founder and director of secular summer camp CampQuest UK, argued that faith is not grounded in fact, and therefore its inclusion hinders democratic debate, as adherents to a religion cannot, by definition, be open to the possibility of rational argument and change.
A lively discussion followed the first four presentations, questioning whether politics should be based on compassion or logic and whether faith and reason can co-exist.
The motion was picked up by the final proposer Dr Jonathan Chaplin, director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics at the University of Cambridge, who brought the proposition back to the question of proper discourse in democracy.
Sir David Blatherwick, a diplomat and former British ambassador to Egypt, concluded the opposition. He argued that, while religion can contribute to moral values, moral values do not stem from religion, which has nothing unique to contribute.
The motion was carried by a majority vote.