In November 2017, Radhanath Swami was invited to debate at the worlds oldest, and arguably most prestigious debating society, the Cambridge Union. The topic was “Have we lost faith in faith? Does it have meaning in the modern world? Can we justify faith in line with the rest of the world’s atrocities?”
The Cambridge Union was founded as a small debating society in 1815, but today is the largest student society in Cambridge and has over 70,000 life members worldwide. It established a forum in which the art of public debate was defended and the free exchange of ideas was encouraged. The Union hosts many of the most famous speakers in the world including politicians, olympians, businesspeople and journalists, so that its members can meet them, question them, and challenge their views. In the past the Society has hosted important world figures such as Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt and the current Dalai Lama. Recent guests have included Germaine Greer, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Robert Downey Jr, Vivienne Westwood, Buzz Aldrin, Russell Brand and Julian Assange, to name but a few.
The Union also serves to encourage younger generations in public speaking, providing free debating workshops to local schools, and thrice-weekly workshops for all student members in Cambridge, at every level of ability, to train themselves in public speaking and learn how to competitively debate. It is this training that produced the top two debaters at the World University Debating Championships in 2015.
Over 200 people gathered in the chamber of the Union for the debate on faith. On the side proposing the motion, was Ken Follet, a Welsh Author who has sold more than 150 million copies of his works, and is a staunch atheist. Ajhan Brahm, a British Theravada Buddhist monk and the Abbot of Bodhinyana in Serpentine, Western Australia and Sadia Hameed, spokesperson for the Council of ex-Muslims of Britain, also joined him.
Opposing the motion was His Holiness Radhanath Swami, alongside Virginia Moffat, religious editor for Peace News and Asad Dhunna, board member of Imaan, Europe’s biggest charity supporting LGBTQI Muslims.
Before the debate started, the Cambridge Union created a poll on their Facebook page to ask attendees to vote whether the motion stands firm. That is, have we lost faith in faith? Fifty-eight percent voted that we had, leave 42% defending that we had not. This meant the debate was on the side of the Ken Follet and his peers.
The debate started with Ken Follet defining the word faith and sharing his thought on why faith had no place in our society. Radhanath Swami spoke in opposition first, arguing that giving up artificial faith makes us eligible to find genuine faith. As the debate proceeded, it swung to become a debate on religion versus science, but a member of the audience, Jonathan, who studied Philosophy and Religion at Cambridge University brought it back. He mentioned that we must have faith in something. We can have faith in empirical science, but that is still faith. Therefore, we can never lose our inherent faith by definition. The debate was closed by Ajhan Brahma for the motion and Asad Dhunna who was against the motion.
The evening came to an end with a book signing of both Mr Follet’s and Radhanath Swami’s books, with students intrigued to know the outcome. The Swami presented his memoir The Journey Home and New York Times Bestseller The Journey Within to all speakers and the President of the Cambridge Union, Page Nyame-Satterthwaite who mentioned, “It was a pleasure to speak to the Swami. It’s rare to have a speaker with such gravitas at the Union. We were very grateful he could attend.” Jonathan, the student who criticised both sides earlier, also met Radhanath Swami at the end. He said, “It was an honour to meet him and I enjoyed listening to his point of view.”
The result of the debate was confirmed at the end of the evening and the opposition claimed victory by receiving 54% of the vote to the propositions 27% of the vote. The rest of the audience abstained. This meant that arguments that Radhanath Swami and his peers put forward had swung the Cambridge audience to vote against the motion that we had lost faith in faith.