Christian, Hindu, and Humanist speakers discuss interfaith

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This Thursday, March 28, Carnegie Mellon University hosted an interfaith forum, in which a Humanist, a Hindu, and a Christian gathered to discuss their personal and religious beliefs on the topics of good and evil, and what this means for people in today’s society.

Andy Norman, the director of Carnegie Mellon’s Humanism Initiative, began his introduction by describing himself as a philosopher and a teacher, and noted that he is “fortunate to be the faculty adviser to the Student Humanist League.” Next up to introduce himself was Kunal Ghosh, a Carnegie Mellon physics professor who describes himself as a scientist first, and a Hindu second, which he jokingly noted makes him “the least qualified” on the panel. Ghosh pointed out at the start that Hinduism is more flexible than some other religions, as there is not one single prophet or book that you must devote yourself to. Rather, you can choose your own morals and find meaning within Hinduism for yourself. Last to introduce himself was Bruce Backensto, a pastor at First Reformed Presbyterian Church of Beaver Falls, PA who believes in the holy trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In the preliminary introductions, Backensto laid out his basic philosophy: “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and do as you please. Because if I truly love him, I will do that which truly pleases him.” These three different takes on faith in the modern world set the stage for an interesting discussion on different belief systems throughout the world and how they interpret good and evil. Ricky Law, a professor of history at Carnegie Mellon, was the moderator for this discussion.

The first question that was posed to the three panelists was “Where do good and evil come from? Are their origins human, or supernatural?”

The first response came from Norman, who stated Socrates’ philosophy that there are two schools of thought: either morality comes “top-down,” from God, or “bottom-up,” from personal ideas and beliefs. Norman believes that there is a lot more evidence for the bottom-up philosophy, meaning that our perception of good and evil stems from ourselves, and humans before us.

Next, Ghosh responded to the same question. His take on the topic was that morality can come from many places. Good and bad have many roots. If a child tries to put their hand in a fire but their parent stops them, they have learned what is “bad” from their parent. If they read the bible, or the Qur’an, or any other religious text, and those messages take root, they have learned morality from a deity and religion. There is no right answer according to Ghosh, and the origin of good and evil doesn’t matter as long as we can distinguish between the two.

The final response to this question came from Backensto, who mentioned that man is made in God’s own image, and that we were born with temptation, referencing the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. Backensto believes that God gave us a choice, and that freedom is a representation of how good and evil manifest themselves in the world. Eve chose the apple, and in that moment original sin was born, along with the origin of good and evil.

Other questions asked by Ricky Law, an assistant professor of history at Carnegie Mellon, followed a similar pattern: Norman would respond with a basis in human thoughts and philosophies, Backensto would respond with teachings from Christianity, and Ghosh would respond with an opinion somewhere in the middle.

Occasionally controversial statements were made, such as Norman stating that “the more closely tied a society is to religion, the poorer the quality of life,” but the argument never got heated, and the panelists calmly discussed their personal beliefs and how they are applied. The panelists also discussed attending additional discussions together afterward, to spread their personal ideas to different groups and promote more interfaith dialogues. Overall, the interfaith panel was a successful event organized by members of the Student Humanist League.

The event promoted a powerful discussion on where different belief systems draw their values and how they let these beliefs impact their lives. Although the speakers were brought together due to their differences, the most striking aspect of the conversation was how similar they were. All of these panelists used their beliefs to better themselves, and to live their lives according to values that are universally understood among humanity.