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Is religion a force for good . . . or would we be happier without God?

The Observer religion debate panel, from left to right: Evan Harris (former Liberal democrat MP), Samia Rahman (journalist), Jon Cruddas (Labour MP for Dagenham), Cristina Odone (author and journalist) and AC Grayling (philosopher). Photograph: Richard Saker

Anushka Asthana: What would a world without religion look like?

Cristina Odone: "I must stress here that I embrace the concept of religion as faith rather than simply a structure like the Vatican or a synagogue. When I think of religion I think of the injunctions that it has given its followers. Repair the world, a Jewish commandment. Love thy neighbour as thyself, the most famous Christian commandment. And look upon charity as something that you must do every day that the sun rises, which is a Muslim injunction.

"I think without such wonderful exhortations, our spirit would be the poorer and so would our society. And I think it is one of the tenets of religion, of all the major monotheistic religions, that each one of us is special, that each one of us deserves respect, having been made by God. I think that is something at the very heart of a good society."

Jon Cruddas: "I agree. I think the generic element of all religions is the search for compassion. That's quite a good departure point in terms of how you live your life… the search for virtue in our world."

Evan Harris: "I agree with [Cristina] only in the sense that she's appropriated to religion obvious moral rules that apply equally to people without religion. So you can't really defend religion by claiming unto religion rules that predated them, that are statements of the obvious. And the real question is, 'What would the world be like without organised religion'? Everyone has beliefs – it's not reasonable to suggest that people wouldn't have beliefs, mystical or otherwise. I think I'm with John Lennon on this, that it would be a much better place in terms of peace.

"There's a wish to label those people who believe that there should be less of a role for religion in public policy, as somehow extreme, when they're not extreme. I've looked carefully at what's been done in the name of religion..."

Read on



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