On 3 July 2018, I spoke at Trinity Church of England High School which is a secondary school in Manchester for pupils aged 11-18.
I was asked to address the morning religious assembly for children in years 7-10 (ages ranging from 11 to 15) which is the first time that I have done such a talk.
I then spent almost an hour in a free-form question and answer session with seven pupils and their teacher in a sixth-form AS level Religious Education Class.
The two sessions together covered both how I see the role of religion in personal life, and had many questions about the role of religion in society and the law of a state.
Although this is a Church of England school, it is open to pupils of all faiths and of no faith. Accordingly, I did not want to assume any particular religious perspective on the part of the pupils.
Instead I focused on one of my recurrent topics. Namely there is life before death, and religion, properly practiced, should make your life better in this world.
You can hear my 7-minute talk below.
I was speaking from a prepared text which I have edited to ensure it matches what I said. I have added subheadings to make it easier to read on screen.
Good morning and “peace be with you, or in Arabic “as salaam aleikum.” Many of my best friends are atheists. They have a very stereotyped view of religion and religious people.
They think religious people have no fun in life. Instead, they think religious people live miserable lives worrying about upsetting God.
They think that belief in a wonderful afterlife is religious people’s substitute for success in this life. As Karl Marx put it, “Religion is the opium of the masses.”
As with all stereotypes, there is some truth in this.
There really are religious people who are so obsessed about life after death, that they forget that there is life before death. There really are religious people who worry so much about the risk of breaking divine rules that their entire life is a misery.
Worst of all, as we’ve seen with ISIS in the Middle East, there really are some religious people who believe they are free to kill anyone who disagrees with them.
With examples like that, it’s no wonder that religion gets a bad reputation!
Ultimately, religious belief is about absolute truth. The question of whether God exists, and whether there is life after death, really is the most important question.
I’ll come back to that at the end. But first, I want to talk about life before death.
My view is that the right kind of religious beliefs make you far more successful in life. What I’m going to say does not just apply to Islam; I'm not here to sell you my religion! It applies just as much to Christianity, Judaism and the other great religions.
I am going to give you just four short examples.
Firstly, if you believe that your body and your life are a gift from God, it encourages you to take care of yourself.
That is the reason why I don’t drink alcohol, have never smoked, have never taken drugs, avoid dangerous hobbies, and control my weight. The same applies to many religious people.
Secondly, I tell the truth because that is what my religion teaches me.
However, having a reputation for always telling the truth is a great advantage in your career, whatever your occupation. It also reduces your stress, because you never have to think about "Which lie did I tell this person?"
Thirdly, I think most people would like to be happily married.
It’s terrible how many marriages end in divorce. Sadly, break-ups are even more common for people who live together without being married.
Your chances of being in a happy marriage are far higher if you give your husband or wife total commitment and complete faithfulness. It sounds old-fashioned to say it; that you should have no sex outside marriage, and no sex before marriage. But it really does make a dramatic difference to your ability to have a successful marriage.
Finally, [some] people who are religious believe in a life of poverty.
I have got no objection to religious monks who dedicate themselves to the church and take a vow of poverty. But, there is nothing inherently evil about money. Even in the New Testament, it is "The love of money” that is condemned, not money itself.
In reality, the richer you are, the more you can do to help other people. Just look at the amount of money that Bill Gates is giving to charity, and what he has done to combat malaria.
Religious belief encourages many people to succeed in their careers and in their business activities.
The four examples I’ve just given all relate to life before death. They are about how religious belief can make your life more successful and happier.
But I promised to also talk about ultimate truth. To do that, I want to use the example of lottery tickets.
By the way, I have never bought a lottery ticket, ever, because my religious beliefs prohibit gambling. Since all money comes from God, you should not waste it by gambling.
However, lottery tickets are also normally bad value for money. If the prize in a lottery is £100 million, and your chances of winning are less than one in 100 million, then the lottery ticket is not worth the £1 that you have to pay for it.
Now imagine a lottery where the lottery ticket, if you won, offered a reward that was infinite. That could be an infinite amount of money, or everlasting life in Paradise.
If the chances of winning that lottery are any number above zero, no matter how small, even if the chance is only one in a trillion trillion, then mathematically any price somebody wants to charge you for that lottery ticket is worth paying.
This is known by the way as “Pascal’s Wager” after the great French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. Afterwards look it up on Wikipedia.
Now let me finish by going back to my atheist friend.
In this life, neither of us can be certain whether I am right, or he is right. When we die, if I am right, he has a surprise coming.
However, if my atheist friend is right and death really is the end, then neither of us will ever know, if you think about it!
The question and answer session was also recorded. However, I am not publishing the full audio recording for two main reasons:
Instead, I have listened to the session and written down a condensed version of the questions. I have then published the audio of my answers.
The first two questions were from the teacher, obviously intended to frame the session for the pupils. The others came from the pupils.
I explained how local my homes in the 1950’s and 1960’s were to the site of the school, particularly the site of my primary school. I also explained how I came to pursue my career and what I do in retirement.
I had some specific guidance for ethnic minorities. My key point was to think about what aspects of your background you regard as adjustable, and what is not negotiable.
I explained “Majoritarianism” and what is wrong with it, and the vital importance of inalienable rights.
I emphasised each person’s individual accountability to God, which in turn means that they are responsible for taking their own religious decisions. At the same time there will always be practical reasons why groups of religious believers need to reach some measure of agreement regarding their shared beliefs.
The views explained briefly in my oral answer are expanded in my article "Blasphemy should never be a crime."
I explained the importance of prioritising your exams by sharing how I left watching the most exciting tennis match of my life to resume my exam preparation.
During my reply, I talked about the Inclusive Mosque Initiative.
In my reply I shared my lifetime personal political history.
During my answer, I mention the book "Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims" by Scott Siraj Al-Haqq Kugle.
During my reply, I mention my article “In praise of ethnic monitoring.”
I gave some practical tips about how to assert yourself and stop people looking down on you.
The story is on my page "The importance of speaking proper English."
My first presentation recording was done on the spur of the moment, just putting my iPhone 6 on the table and relying on its built in microphone. See my page Lecture: One Muslim’s Perspective on Religious Freedom.
Once I found recording presentations worthwhile, I purchased a high quality Sennheiser digital lapel microphone which plugs into the lightning port of my iPhone. That produces a much better recording.