Founded by members of the Bahai faith, World Religion Day on 20th January was an event promoting the acceptance of an interfaith community. This was to be achieved by promulgating supposed common denominators of religions. The event’s purpose opposes the growing New Atheist movement championed by public intellectuals including the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris. Debates about religion’s place in the world and whether reasons for faith are justifiable have been prevalent for decades. New Atheists criticise everything about religion and declare their hope that the world be rid of it for an array of geopolitical, historical and ecclesiastical thought experiments.
Debates between New Atheist and non-secularist spokespersons, watched by millions of people on the internet, are mostly conducted in a respectful manner that is informative and thought-provoking. Putting arguments forward against religious doctrine is fair enough. If one does not agree with a religion, they are necessarily critical of it, whether that criticism refers to particular principles or disagreement on points of fact. But the spawn of the New Atheist movement often includes people who thoughtlessly lampoon religious worshippers. They point degrading and accusing fingers at religious people who they deem stupid, without considering that some people might have arrived at faith by routes other than the logical processes which are the parameters of the debates they watch.
Despite my own inability to arrive at a conclusion of religion by all my efforts of rationalism, I have a mysterious deist instinct. In my childhood my mother, who believes in God, bought me Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion because she wanted me to do my own thinking and take neither her views nor anyone else’s as authoritative, making my deist instinct quite baffling to those who think spiritual sentiments are simply handed down in families and cultures. It is important not to overlook the nuances and individuality of religion and spirituality, and not to point those generalising fingers at religious people. Some individuals practice their faith zealously and others only the aspects with which they personally agree, religion à la carte as Hitchens used to call it. Members of any religion have the capacity to be decent human beings, so it is only ideologies which should be criticised. This means that the acceptance towards religious people which World Religion Day seeks to promote is a positive message battling against the New Atheist movement’s malicious elements, whose tendency to generalise has caused rampant problems of belligerent anticlericalism like the epidemic of (shy) Islamophobia in Britain and elsewhere.
However, World Religion Day is flawed because it does not tackle problems of ideological differences which will still exist, remaining a source of conflict. Another problem is that the indiscriminate acceptance of religions is irreconcilable with some modes of religion, all of which the event too frivolously alleges to advocate. There are Christian sects whose active evangelical missions suggest their sense of superiority. There are also modes of Islam which call for the execution of apostates based on interpretations of the Hadith, thus some sects of Islam are not committed to religious acceptance.