Friday, 31 December 2010

"...A God who is but a reflection of human frailty"

An interesting quote I came across, attributed to Albert Einstein, in a column for the New York Times Nov 9, 1930:: “I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own—a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty.”

I've always found the worship of God a strange thing to do.  I did not choose to be created, and I have only very limited control over my destiny.  Why would God expect my praise for His creation? Why would he want it?

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Nietsche was right. There is no God.

OK, so it's an attention grabbing headline.  But having just re-read some of Nietsche's writings I am even more impressed by his ideas, which were truly innovative when he wrote them. 
For many this is a bleak conclusion, and they find it very hard to believe that there really is fundamentally nothing more to life than to reproduce and die.
But this need not be such a bleak conclusion if one accepts life for what it is, and models one's way of life on that premise.  It is possible to lead a full and satisfying life under this truth. 
Religion is so deeply ingrained into our culture that it is not something which it is either necessary nor desirable to try to oust immediately.  There will always be some who need the security of religious belief, and who will never be convinced of the alternative, which is arguably intellectually more challenging. 
However, religious extremism remains one of the major problems facing humankind.  And supplanting one  religion with another religion does not solve the problem.  There will always be those who seek violence, and whilst there are religions there will always be those who use it as the irrational justification for their acts.  Humanism does not breed suicide bombers...
I seem to be going though a phase when I feel particularly negatively towards religion.  I think it has outlived its usefulness, and I'm frustrated that people are so deeply indoctrinated that any amount of contrary evidence is dismissed, at the same time that any amount of supportive heresay and unreliable witness reports are unquestioningly accepted.  Far too frequently believers put up their own 'straw men' to discredit a non-religious view - often 'staw men' that fundamentaly misunderstand or misinterpret what Atheists actually believe.  I admit that many non-believers make no real effort to understand religion in any great depth, but it's my experience that the more conscientious atheists frequently tend to understand the religion of those with whom they argue to a greater depth than those who defend their religion.
What to do about all this though?  Hmm...

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

What is 'Eternal Life'?

In the Christian Bible it is written: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

But what is this 'eternal life'?  And why is it that there are so many differing answers to this question within the various sects and branches that make up Christianity?

One thing that most seem to agree is that the physical constraints, pain and suffering of this World are absent. But happiness requires sadness to it to be experienced, joy requires sorrow, lack of pain requires pain.  Take away one side of these equations and one is not left with something wonderful.  One is left with nothing.  If there is no contrast then there is no way to comprehend one's existence, at least not to a mind that bears sufficient resemblance to my current mind to be called me.  I cannot both be an individual and lack the constraints that this world includes.

I'm still puzzled.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Heaven and Hell - Helpful Illusions?

Have you noticed how no two people have exactly the same idea of what Heaven is like.  With Hell there's even more variance, including those who believe in heaven but not in Hell at all.  After all, Hell only features large in one sect of one particular religion, and one can't help thinking that it's used in the same way as parents might have coerced their children to behave by threatening that the bogeyman would take them away if they did not do this, or did do that.  No logic - just do as I say, or else...

I really struggle to see the point of Heaven. If it is an existence free from physical constraints, then there can be no individual physical sensation, no contrast, and therefore no appreciation of bliss.  Would we become passive, incapable of doing anything that we had done whilst alive on Earth?  Or would we experience virtual pleasure and pain as if it were real . (Could this apparent present physical body be a part of that experience - not real, but giving every impression of being real, in order to achieve its purpose?)  If so why?  How does make any difference to anything?  We just go on existing because we exist.  We achieve nothing, in eternity.  Personally I find the idea of 'not being' after death a far preferable outcome.  It has the benefit of certainty and if one does not exist one will not miss what it is to exist anyway.

I can understand from a psychological point of view why Heaven would originally have been such a comforting concept, when lives were generally short and brutal, and there was no chance to change one's lot.  Heaven would give one hope, provide a purpose for our misery, provide comfort in our distress, give meaning to our otherwise apparently pointless lives.

But wishing that something were true does not mean that it must be true.  Parsimony would suggest that there is no need for Heaven; and that therefore it does not exist.

I just wish I could understand how it is that so many humans are prepared to suspend logic and indulge in this untenable wishful thinking?  Is it brainwashing?  Is it the Ego refusing to countenance non-existence?  It must be something very compelling - though most likely ultimately false.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Belief in a benificent God is surely an exercise in human wish fulfilment?

Although we feel that the most truthful things are our feelings, in actual fact these feelings are very manipulable. The mind's scepticism is willingly disarmed so that skillful rhetoric stops people being able to think clearly and be critical of what’s being offered. People willingly put themselves in a position to be hypnotized and to lose their powers of reason.

The more bodies you put together the less individual minds remain independent. Intense feeling gets under people’s skin. It’s like joining in a communal purge. They start to speak in tongues. Freudians would say it’s free association - They will speak the truth of their desire. They think that if they speak in this way then it bypasses self censoring, and they start to believe that they can commune truth direct with God.

Welcome to Pentecostalism - a religion for the 21st Century?  It's like a political movement without a central core (unlike Catholicism). Anybody can start a Pentecostalist Church. There is no central doctrine or control. In South America Pentecostalism threatens to supplant Catholicism as predominant Church. And it is also strong in China and in Korea, and even underground in N Korea.
It's been said to be‘In love with the poor’ - it speaks to their needs, and gives their lives purpose.

Of course, it's all fantasy, but if it makes people happy and encourages civilised behaviour amongst many who need something they feel is external to them to tap their innate sense of morality then maybe it is not so bad.  Hmm...

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Christmas and the rebirth of 'peasant Christianity'

Quite by chance I came across this article penned on Christmas Day by Simon Barrow of Ekklesia.  I think he brings to our minds a prescient vision of what it should be to be a Christian, without the unwarranted and unnecessary trappings of bureaucratic religious sects.

Christmas and the rebirth of 'peasant Christianity'
By Simon Barrow
25 Dec 2010

Soothing 'Christmas messages' have become practically unavoidable. I am thinking not just of the personal and circular ones that get sent to family and friends, but of the worthy treatises on goodwill and benevolence that pour forth with a great sense of duty from church leaders, politicians, dignitaries, shops and even - heaven forfend - PR agencies. Over the past few days these have been arriving in my mailbox by the dozen.

This year, British church leaders have enjoined upon us generosity ("embargoed until 00.01 hours on 23 December"), 'Big Society'-style sharing (after your bonus has been paid or your welfare payments slashed, so we're "all in it together"), "a more simple form of lifestyle" (from someone living in a palace), and "light in the darkness of each day" (the alternative presumably having been carefully considered and rejected).

However, seasonal blandness is not restricted to the religious, even if it is their speciality. "I've always seen Christmas as an opportunity for everyone to just be happy and be nice to each other", suggests one reviewer of The Atheist's Guide to Christmas, a collection of anecdotes and essays which has proved popular with a few of the 51 per cent of people who, according to the 2010 British Social Attitudes survey, say they have "no religion". (This, it should be noted, is the first year when the BSA has recorded that a majority of the people in the UK have no religious affiliation or commitment).

For those schooled in the texts and traditions that scholars like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg call (in a knowing way) The First Christmas, such blandness ought to be deemed a rather remarkable achievement. Here are stories full of difficulty and challenge which we Christians have mostly managed to render sentimentally vacuous.

There are only two canonical infancy narratives for Jesus in the New Testament, one developed in a Jewish and one in a Roman setting. Both of them recapitulate in symbol-laden miniature form a dramatic confrontation between two conflicting kingdoms, that of God and of Caesar. They speak on the one hand of the giver of life who comes to us in disarming vulnerability (confounding our 'religious' and metaphysical assumptions about godlikeness), and on the other of salvation through violence, using the currency of power and control.

In these terms, Christmas is not a time for making do with any old presents (the shinier the better), but for choosing between two rival claims to ultimate worth and allegiance. Both promise peace, but one is achieved by way of the ideology of 'victory' (and hence violent death) and the other through shalom (peace that works for justice).

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus' birth is told within the framework of understanding him to be the New Moses, the one who delivers to the people God's liberating intent, and who is spared the wrath of the imperial delegate (Herod's slaughter of the innocent) in order to be able to deliver them from tyranny - though not, as it turns out, in the expected vengeful way.

Luke's account, on the other hand, portrays Jesus as the antithesis of Caesar Augustus, who also is acclaimed as 'son of God' (Apollo) and saviour. To learn to see the man from Nazareth as 'Lord' is to learn to see God at work in a way that confounds the powerful and disavows all earthly claims to domination. These Christians, observe those living under the heavy yolk of the Emperor, "are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus" (Acts 17.7).

This Jesus, however, does not exercise his authority from a conventional throne, by entering an alliance with the court, by establishing a religion of power (that comes later), by enriching himself through taxing the poor, or by setting up a standing army to defend and extend his interests. Quite the opposite. He sides with the those who have been excluded and marginalised by the prevailing religious-political order. He shares food with the hungry and with sinners (those deemed 'unclean' by the authorities). He brings healing to the sick and hope to the broken. He announces forgiveness and restoration. He dubs Herod an 'old fox'. He turns the tables on the money-changers in the temple. He calls on his followers to become peacemakers, and in his last recorded instruction to them, in the face of execution, declares, "Put away your sword" (Matthew 26.52).

It is this Jesus, iconic bearer of God's indelible image on humanity, who is born for us at Christmas, and who is affirmed not by overwhelming force or by the triumph of the Christian tribe over others, but by the power of humble life defying the culture of death.

Steven Shakespeare expresses the Gospel dynamic with admirable simplicity and directness when he writes: "The paradox of God's 'Yes' spoken to [us] in Jesus Christ is that it throws the world into a crisis of judgement. It is spoken, not from the lofty heights of Christendom's power, but from the depths of dereliction, a cry of protest against all Empire. Absolute and vulnerable, God proclaims life as a free gift. No market can buy it, no state can enlist it, no church can own it. It is common wealth."

This is the real message of the crib. Hope is born again and again in the shape of Christ, inviting us to a way, a life and truth that confronts everything within and around us that suffocates, kills, denies and denudes us of God-given dignity, whether it wears the language of 'religion' or some other form of verbal aggression.

In a world of poverty and inequality, environmental degradation, mass violence, deadening consumption, and crippling fear of 'the other', the litmus test of Christian belief in the West is therefore not to be found in desperate acts of self-assertion, attempts to defend the club, wave the cross like a flag, or cry 'persecution' every time we are challenged. Instead it resides in open-handed living, in the cultivation of the way of the Prince of Peace, in hospitality for the stranger, in solidarity with the weak, and in a refusal to submit to the powers-that-be.

Along with Steven Shakespeare's aphorism, my other 'quotation of the year' is from the ever-irascible US theological gadfly Stanley Hauerwas (whose moving and insightful memoir Hannah's Child I thoroughly recommend, by the way).

On a BBC radio discussion of religion, Hauerwas declared: "I represent a form of Christianity which is non-Constantinian. Most of Christianity in recent times - well, since Constantine - thought it needed to rule. I represent what I like to call the peasant view of Christianity. I just want to know who's ruling me and how I can survive them! In the process, I hope to make a contribution [addressed] to those who rule..."

It may not tout guns or demand legal privilege, but such a contribution should not be underestimated. It means business. For, as the state of the world testifies, generalized 'goodwill' is not enough to confront the ill-will and pathology that infects too much of the human heart and of the human enterprise. It is the peasant understanding of Christianity, its peaceful threat of metanoia (a turnaround in our lives and politics), and its capacity to address tough challenges to a complacent church and a broken world alike, that needs to be re-born and rediscovered at Christmastide and in the coming year.


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Are you a StarTrek fan? Then maybe you're also a Humanist at heart...

If you're a fan of the various Star Trek series, then there's a good chance that you're a humanist at heart. The creator, Gene Roddenberry, made no secret of his personal humanist philosophy, and liberally sprinkled his out of this world Star Trek stories with the fundamentals of humanism.

Many of its episodes may be viewed as morality plays set against the backdrop of space. Star Trek, like humanism, promotes rational social justice and reason, and rejects religious dogma and the supernatural. Roddenberry strived in his Star Trek adventures to affirm the dignity of all beings. He was so resolute about not including religion that he refused suggestions to add a chaplain to the crew of the Starship Enterprise. Instead, Star Trek was imbued with a philosophy of ‘infinite natural diversity, in infinite combination’.

‘The Return of the Archons’, from the original series, is an example of how Roddenberry employed elements of humanism - A planet's population follows in an unquestioning way a mysterious cult-like leader, who allows no divergent viewpoints. The society absorbs individuals into its collective body and the world is free of hate, conflict and crime; but all creativity, freedom and individualism is completely stifled. ‘Archons’, like other Star Trek storylines, warns how easily people can be controlled by religion - and the viewer subsequently discovers that the cult leader is in reality just a n advanced computer.

Rodenberry saw himself as Capt. Picard, the cool-headed commander in the “Next Generation” series, and the Kirk character was modelled on Horatio Hornblower, C.S. Forester’s protagonist. After his death, some of the Star Trek vehicles, particularly the television spin-off series “Deep Space Nine,” were permeated with religious themes, something the franchise creator would certainly not have appreciated.

The series was also sprinkled with Rodenberry’s view on some of the things that he felt were wrong with US Government policies. The Star Trek series' principled “prime directive,” that humans should not influence or interfere with other races and peoples, was actually a snipe at American involvement in Vietnam, something that would not have been allowed if the television network censors had realised it.

Both humanism and Star Trek espouse a rational philosophy that champions compassion and creativity, and they both advocate open societies and participatory democracy. If this analysis is new to you, then next time you watch a Startrek episode consider the Humanist themes. You’ll see it in a whole new light...

Christmas Day - and religion is everywhere!

For those of us who do not believe in God, Christmas is still a time to spend with family, to give and receive presents, and to eat, drink and be merry.
Am I imagining it, or is there more religion than usual around this Christmas, especially on the BBC, whether it be the broadast of numerous religious celebrations or the screening of that well known apologist C. S. Lewis's Narnia tales.
I'm not a conspiracy theorist but I do wonder if this has anything to do with the Director of the BBC's deep Roman Catholicism?  Would this also explain the unprecedented slot for the Pope on Radio 4's Thought for the Day on Christmas Eve?  Again, nothing wrong with the Pope having a slot, except that Humanists are not allowed a slot at all, and this is a bit of sore point.
Oh well...

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Definitions Revisited - How the Non-Religious describe themselves

Having been involved in a number of discussions lately about what it is to be a Humanist I thought I'd remind myself, and any others who read this, of some useful definitions, as defined by the British Humanist Association (BHA).

"Agnostic" in normal usage today means "don't know" or having an open mind about religious belief, especially the existence of God. It can also mean something much firmer: that nothing is known, or can possibly be known, about God or supernatural phenomena, and that it is wrong to claim otherwise. That is the original meaning of the word, and 19th century "agnostics" lived their lives atheistically in practice - that is, without any reference to any concepts of gods or the supernatural.

"Atheist" includes those who reject a belief in the existence of God or gods and those who simply choose to live without God or gods. Along with this will usually go disbelief in the soul, an afterlife, and all other religious beliefs.

"Freethinker" is used of those who reject authority and tradition in matters of all belief, including religious belief, preferring to think for themselves. It was a very popular term in the 19th century and is still used in some European countries by non-religious organisations to describe himself.

"Humanist" is used today to mean those who seek to live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs. A humanist may embrace all or most of the other approaches introduced here, and in addition humanists believe that moral values follow on from human nature and experience in some way. Humanists base their moral principles on reason (which leads them to reject the idea of any supernatural agency), on shared human values and respect for others. They believe that people should work together to improve the quality of life for all and make it more equitable. Humanism is a full philosophy, "life stance" or worldview, rather than being about one aspect of religion, knowledge, or politics.

"Non-religious" – as well as those who are uninterested in religion or who reject it, this category may include the vague or unaffiliated, those who are only nominally or culturally affiliated to a religious tradition, and the superstitious.

"Rationalist" in this context, describing a non-religious belief, means someone who prioritises the use of reason and considers reason crucial in investigating and understanding the world. Rationalists usually reject religion on the grounds that it is unreasonable. (Rationalism is in contradistinction to fideism – positions which rely on or advocate "faith" in some degree).

"Skeptic" today usually means someone who doubts the truth of religious and other supernatural or "paranormal" beliefs, typically on rationalist grounds. ('Skeptic' also has a special philosophical meaning: someone who rejects or is skeptical with regard to all claims to knowledge).

"Secularists" believe that laws and public institutions (for example, the education system) should be neutral as between alternative religions and beliefs. Almost all humanists are secularists, but religious believers may also take a secularist position which calls for freedom of belief, including the right to change belief and not to believe. Secularists seek to ensure that persons and organisations are neither privileged nor disadvantaged by virtue of their religion or lack of it. They believe secular laws – those that apply to all citizens – should be the product of a democratic process, and should not be determined, or unduly influenced, by religious leaders or religious texts. The word "secularism" was once used to describe a non-religious worldview generally but this meaning is now very old fashioned.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Is Persecution a necessary part of Christian Mythology?

Is it just me or are there increasing numbers of stories about persecution of Christians in countries not known for this activity, such as the UK?  Most of the cases I've read do not appear to me to be anything like persecution.  The most that could be said about them was that there was unfair discrimination.  But is this narrative necessary to vindicate Christian perspectives in a secular environment?  Is having an imagined enemy being used to strengthen internal cohesion within Christian circles?  Often I've read Christian bloggers express the idea that opposition to their unusual views has provoked an adverse reaction and that therefore they must be doing something right.  It's a weird logic, but seems to crop up rather frequently.
When one tries to reason with these people, and show them what real full blown persecution looks like, one stock response is something like "Well if we don't do something to stop what is currently going on here then that is how we will end up too."  The thin end of the wedge argument.  But it makes no sense.  The environment and the circumstances are not related.  There is no proof that low level discrimination inexorably leads to religious persecution.
I remain puzzled.