Crystal Carter Public Speaking Competition

Senior School

Phoebe was chosen this year to represent the Royal High School in the Crystall Carter public-speaking competition. Phoebe’s fascinating talk for the semi-final was titled: ‘We may live in a godless world, but it is one hungry for new religions’.

Her speech navigated a range of disciplines, from theology and history to sociology and ecology, and while she was not chosen as the winner, she was praised for her intellectual breadth, conceptual sophistication and her creative exploration of the task. While the event had to take place on Teams and without a live audience of students, it was still a thrilling and deeply stimulating competition.

The speakers are assessed on a range of skills, including; the ability to engage an audience; appropriateness of style and language; grasp of subject matter; clarity of expression. The judges this year were Chris Powis, Director of Learning and the University of Northampton, Maggie Halsall, Director of an HR Consultancy for innovative business, and Annabel Amos, BBC Radio presenter.

Phoebe was a fantastic ambassador for the school and the English Department are hugely grateful for, and deeply indebted to, the enormous work and care that went into her preparation for the competition.

Read Phoebe's full speech below.

The subject of my talk today is God’s past, present and future, titled: “We may live in a godless world, but it is one hungry for new religions”.

First of all, let’s consider the key terms alongside some of the questions they pose. The word “godless” – do you identify with a being or beings that commands the title, ‘God’? “Hungry” – this is a need for nourishment and a theme that we will come back to. And lastly, “New religions” – can religion evolve as society has?

There are two ideas that I would like to introduce. Firstly, do we need a whole new religion, or, as we are learning to do with all of our physical resources, can we reuse, recycle, reimagine or reinterpret? Secondly, what does hunger mean for us in this context? Well physically, we are hungry for the nutrients that we need to survive, in terms of this discussion, we are talking about an innate need for something beyond the physical – one could call this spiritual nourishment.

To consider new religion, we must go back to the introduction of organised religion. What were people into spiritually? Well, before the big, named religions – we’re talking about 2000 years ago for Christianity, 4000 years ago for Hinduism – how did people achieve spiritual nourishment then? What was tasty? Essentially, it was the same for everyone, globally – it was about the spirit of nature. We can call it Paganism, we can call it creation stories, we can call it the Old Religions or if we’re getting academic, we can call them indigenous animistic-polytheistic beliefs.

The stories that were told, were influenced by the nature of the local environment. Here in Great Britain, we had a green, fertile, horned God and a mother Goddess. In Egypt, there was the sun God and the Goddess of the river Nile. The South American gods were fiery and vengeful, in a close relationship to the volcanic nature of the landscape. And in Mongolia, their spiritual nourishment was dominated by beliefs about the sky and the earth.

These traditions were feeding people’s spiritual needs perfectly well, helping people to live with the cycles of nature, in tune with their local environment. However, about 5000 years ago, a whole new religious concept started to emerge (the big religions we mentioned earlier). Taking the connection between hunger and religion one step further, I would like to offer an idea to explain this development: humans invented agriculture between 7 and 10,000 years ago, and by this I mean that people took control of food production rather than hunting or gathering what was available to them. We can say that prior to the invention of agriculture, human survival was thought to have relied on the gods’ generosity – in other words, the gods had dominion over their bodily nourishment. As soon as people took control of food production, they also achieved a new level of self-dominion which meant that humankind became a player in their own story and hungry for new religions.

These organised religions were based on prophets, and by that I don’t mean financial benefits, although that definitely came into it – I mean inspirational people with “charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent”, to quote a contemporary philosopher. Can I get an Amen up in here? Where was I, oh yes, we can just call these people men because these prophets all were, who ‘may’ have existed and about whom, some fantastic stories were written. These stories then became the bases of organised religions, and these prophets were raised to a super-human level offering role-models to emulate but ultimately out of reach. For example, in Hinduism, God or Brahman, is seen beyond attributes – a concept called Nirguna Brahman. So, the new religions were no longer about the indigenous spirits, but trumped those, leading to human connections beyond the local. This led to some pretty aggressive conversion behaviour from holy wars to missionaries ‘educating the natives’.

On the other hand, as societies were becoming more developed, these religions provided a framework for good behaviour, which could be considered the basis for the social contract theory, and included ‘Divine Commands’ such as “thou shalt not kill” or “honour thy father and mother”.

Even though there were many benefits to individuals, to communities and to society, some fundamental issues arose as people became more connected globally, and encountered people who followed different religions to their own. To put it simply, my God is the one true God, your God is false, therefore you are my enemy.

In addition, as societies have intermingled, so has the purity of the religions, which has led to a distinct lack of clarity, or a very confused meal.

At the start of this discussion, I asked whether God was a part of your life – might it be that there are too many gods competing for your attention? I would say that this is true; just as our relationship with religion has become confused, from the snacking to the bingeing, so has our relationship with the production of food and the earth. This has led us to consuming food which has no nutritional content, and replacing valuable religious ideas with pseudo-religious ideas that do not nourish us either. Let’s call this the church of Haribo. In fact if we continue with our current production methods, the fertility of our soil is offering us less than a hundred harvests. If you think back, the introduction of new religious concepts came about in response to the development of agriculture. As it had happened before, we have now reached a point where the way we live is not compatible with the religions we follow. The original thesis suggests that “we may live in a godless world”, I’m proposing that actually, we are living in a world where too many gods compete for our attention and now we are hungry for some clarity.

I would suggest that the next step should not reject anybody’s preferred deity, but, on the contrary, it will unite us through a common cause.

For Hindus, God is the soul of the universe; for Christians, God has gifted us with this earth, along with the responsibility and the duty of looking after it; for Muslims, each man is the custodian of nature and must live in harmony with other creatures. Today, this unifying cause – I’m calling it environmentalism - is nothing less than the key to our survival. To quote President Barack Obama, “faith speaks to a hunger that's deeper… You need to come to church in the first place precisely because you are first of this world, not apart from it.” This is our common cause. Environmentalism is not a new religion, and we are back to where we started. Indigenous animistic-polytheistic beliefs-R-US.

So for the sake of us all, let us pray.