Thursday, February 19, 2009

a familiar refrain

It's pretty well impossible to get round the fact that the god who stars in the Old Testament is not a nice guy. There are numerous instances of gobsmacking cruelty and barbarity throughout, but I'll just focus on one event: the Flood.

Kids tend to like this story, with the animals tramping into the ark two by two, joined, we can imagine, by love and loyalty, eager to face a new beginning. But outside the ark? Apparently we needn't worry about the people outside the ark, not to mention the other living things. We're assured that they all deserved to die:

5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” [Genesis 6: 5-7 – ESV Bible]

Of course the god's judgement is infallible, so if he says [or somebody says that he says] every person's thoughts were continually evil we aren't really in a position to demur. As for all the other creeping and flying things, the fact that the god is sorry that he made them should be enough for us.

But of course it isn't, not for any thinking feeling person. It was this part of the story - of drowning, desperate people, of toddlers and six year olds swimming and struggling desperately for disappearing higher ground, seeing their siblings and parents washed away, seeing dead babies and animals floating by – that haunted me. It didn't get much of a mention in the sermons.

Yet the sermonisers and interpreters can't quite wash their hands of this crime. On's page about the Flood, under 'Points of interest from the story', the interpreter kindly informs us that God's purpose in the flood was not to destroy people, but to destroy wickedness and sin. So the god really wanted to get rid of unspecified 'wickedness and sin', and the only way he could think to do that, in spite of being all-powerful, was to destroy every living person, not to mention, again, all the other living things. I should've paid attention to this explanation when I was younger, but somehow it slipped by me. All I kept in my head were hundreds of drowned babies, and screaming, gurgling children. And later, in association, the bowed, cowed children following their wicked parents into gas chambers. After all, the Reich's purpose wasn't to destroy people, but to make everything cleaner and brighter for the chosen ones of the earth.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

religion and moi

Here is my introduction to the book, first draft.

Religion has always been a troubling phenomenon for me. I can't recall it ever holding any attraction, or any sense of reality, though that is probably a false memory, as many researchers are now saying that religion and childhood go together like fish and chips. If not official religion, then its general territory - magic, monsters and coming alive again after being snuffed out by cops, Indians, assorted bad guys or the afore-mentioned monsters. Of course I marvellled at Superman and fantasised flying faster than bullets on errands for attractive schoolmates, but the god I heard about at Sunday School was nothing but a source of irritation. I felt ashamed of the gullibility and self-deception of my elders, and the questions I posed, without ever vocalising, were much the same as those of the young Christopher Hitchens; why would a perfect being want to be worshipped and praised by his creations? Wouldn't he be as squirmily embarrassed as I was by all this fawning? Okay, that was making the mistake of thinking the god was just like me only more super, but surely by worshipping him and singing to him and dedicating buildings and babies to him, they too were making assumptions about his nature, or at least how he preferred to be treated, and these assumptions actually made him all the less attractive, as someone totally insatiable, never entirely appeased, never satisfied, like the most nightmarish of parents. He was far more remote and less believable than Superman, who, like us, had gone through childhood and survived his parents and looked sexy even in his ridiculous outfit [well, okay, unlike most of us] – in fact he was the most reassuringly human of extra-terrestrials

It seemed so patently made-up and yet, as I glanced about at the adults during the Sunday service, they all seemed to believe so fervently. It seemed to make such a difference to them. I didn't get it at all. Even if their god existed, which I could never concede, what would be the point of sitting around, swaying and chanting and smiling and fervently believing?

I wondered what they believed when they were in the throes of believing. Or what they were thinking at least. Were they thinking, He exists, wow he really exists, wow, I mean I just can't get over it, and he created us all, and me especially, I mean I know i'm nothing special but to me I am, and it's all because of him, I can just never thank him enough, or praise him or... I just wonder if he notices how impressed I am with him, because I really really am, but maybe I'm not showing it enough, though he sees everything, but maybe he wants me to smile more, to sing louder, to spread the word, I'm not spreading the word enough, I'm keeping it to myself, that's selfish, that's a sin, PRAISE THE LORD!...

It worried me. I felt rather contemptuous of these swaying, smiling chanting elders, even as a young boy, but I also felt intimidated. I didn't know how to deal with such conviction, and of course I still don't. The sense of intimidation is heightened of course when there's a congregation of them. I've never attended personally to feel the love, but I'm thinking of masses of shining-faced believers in massive modern evangelical churches, chanting and stomping and halelujaing, presumably in gratitude for believing, and also masses of bobbing madrassa students and streetloads of breast-beating Iraqi men chanting something about Allah. I don't wonder so much then about what they might be thinking, as the whole impetus appears to be about unthinking, submitting to some kind of chain of basic believing being.

So, in the following, I want to put some pressure on all this believing, and to consider the alternatives. I want to look here and there at the history of religious belief and unbelief, and to wonder about the future. I doubt if I'll come to any earth-shattering conclusions, but I feel it's one of the most important issues to try to get our heads around, as the gap between believers and unbelievers widens, and exasperations grow.

Not that this will necessarily be a bridge-building exercise! Partly it will be my attempt to come to terms with the intimidating nature of relentless religious belief. I've no idea, honestly, as I write this, what the outcome will be.


Saturday, February 14, 2009

the soul of the white ant

I remember a dog-eared paperback on the shelves of my first bohemian inner-city residence, shared with a book-collecting bowerbird of an art student. It was called The Soul of the White Ant, by one Eugene Marais. I never read it, or even looked into it, though its title somehow encapsulated for me something of the new life I was entering, mad and unexpected, surrealistic and romantic. It would probably have been better for me to have read the book.
For its South African author was a strange and tortured genius, a bewitching story-teller who loved and was beloved of children, a drug addict and a suicide. Above all though, he had transformed himself, for a time, into a painstaking, patient and insightful observer and recorder of the lives of termites and baboons. Mr Darwin, I feel sure, would've been proud to make his acquaintance.
All of this I've only recently discovered, and it's not the subject of this piece, more's the pity. The book's title has long symbolized for me the weirdness of the religious, and particularly Christian, notion of the soul. I've heard that some Buddhists claim that every living thing, prokaryotic or eukaryotic, has a soul, which transmigrates in the process of reincarnation. If you've led an exemplary life as a bug or a germ, you will migrate to a higher form next time, maybe a booby or a red panda. It sounds pleasant, as anything does if you put it the right way. I've probably got this Buddhist teaching quite wrong, but in any case it seems problematic to me to impose morality on the life of a bacterium. Then again, how much more problematic must it be to impose morality on the life of a human being.
Be that as it may, Christians are supposed to believe in the soul as a specifically human apparatus. As such, it has taken something of a battering since the theory of evolution by natural selection has gained wide acceptance [among the intelligentsia]. Those Buddhists and others who believe in a soul for every organism have at least the advantage of consistency.
The Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church has generally been quite woolly in its response to evolution, while all the time insisting that its god, formally known as Yahweh, now called God, created everything. If you don't accept this, you're anathema. Now of course this doesn't necessarily pit the HRCAC against evolution, even though it's highly unlikely, and possibly impossible, that the Darwin-Wallace theory would ever have been developed by a Christian. The HRCAC can simply say that God created evolution, and let's see you prove otherwise.
Unfortunately for Christians, though, they have to have to believe what they believe through a set of sacred texts called the Bible, written by God apparently through various scribes.* We find there no hint of evolution or natural selection, not to mention fossils, dinosaurs, plate tectonics, other galaxies, black holes or anti-matter. What it does say is that God created humans in his image.

*Why god chose this method, rather than just writing the stuff himself, is one of those mysteries that form the backbone of religion. After all, he wrote the ten commandments in his own hand, on two stone tablets, now lost to posterity, and I can't help but feel that to lose one such tablet was unfortunate, but to lose two was downright carelessness. To think how much the divine handwriting might've fetched at Sotheby's is surely to bring the spiritual and material world together in the most delightful way.

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

the problem of compatibilism 1

see him?

Religious thinking is hard to encapsulate in a single simple definition, though we generally know it when we encounter it. Rather than trying to capture the whole of religion, from Australian Aboriginal Dreaming to ancestor worship in China or Africa, to the deistic hierarchies of the Vikings or the Greeks, I'll focus on the inter-related monotheistic religions we in 'the west' are most impacted by. These religions require belief in a creator god, and in some notion of the soul and another world.

The biblical god created humans in his own image [Genesis 1: 27, Genesis 5:1], but no such claim is made in the Koran, which seems rather to emphasise the otherness of god - there is no god but god is chanted some 2700 times throughout the book, and more specifically, There is nothing comparable to him [112: 4] and vision cannot grasp him, but his grasp is all over vision [6: 103]. Clearly, the biblical references help to cement a special relationship between humans and their god, very much like producing a 'chip off the old block'. We're all god's children, which is more than can be said for rats, bats and mosquitoes. Yet it's notable that despite this biblical assurance that our god is like us, this god is almost never depicted in Christian iconography [in fact there were intense arguments in the early centuries of Christianity on just this issue]. Many would have considered such depictions as blasphemous, as all Moslems did vis-a-vis their god [arguably the same god], but the real issue around whether or not to forbid images of god was that there must be a gap between human and god, and to depict would mean somehow to depict the gap, and how could this be done? The safest approach would simply be to forbid.

This gap is of course a major problem not only for iconographers, but for the compatibility of religion and science. It's the gap that must be crossed in a leap of faith. Nevertheless, in many people's understanding of their personal god, there isn't much of a gap; their god answers their prayers, soothes them, reassures them, watches over them and so forth, or so they claim. He also offers them a life after death, though again, as with the shifting nature of the Christian god, from raging biblical tyrant to omnipotent omniscient effulgence, the nature of the afterlife has shifted, as the literal concepts of heaven and hell have become a growing embarrassment to thinking believers. Not that such concepts were ever particularly fixed. Hell isn't mentioned in the Old Testament, but it was one of Jesus's favourite subjects - or perhaps rather a favourite subject of the 'gospel' authors. When it's described, it's usually in terms of fire, but also darkness, and everlastingness. The most fulsome descriptions are in Revelations, not surprisingly, but they aren't very fulsome either. The really imaginative work on the subject was done in later centuries, culminating in Dante's dazzling but idiosyncratic vision of nine circles, and the more populist representations of the mystery plays.


Thursday, February 05, 2009

Anita Bryant lives, but fades

The real Harvey milk

After watching the film Milk recently, an inspiring and tragic story which will hopefully reach a lot of young people and affect their thinking about the rights and treatment of homosexuals, I wondered about the arch-enemy of the tale, Anita Bryant, a former small-time singer driven, presumably by conscience, to campaign against the horrors of homosexuality.
The fact is that Bryant's campaign turned out to be a rather less than successful career move. Initial successes in the late sixties led to a galvanization and mobilization of the opposition. A campaign to boycott Florida orange juice, because Bryant featured in commercials for the drink, led to her losing the contract, and her singing career stalled because of the polarization of opinion around her. Later she came to regret the extremity of some of her anti-homosexual remarks, though one wonders if this was simply an acknowledgment of tactical errors, for in spite of her many setbacks, she still lends her name to churchy arguments against the so-called gay agenda.
It seems that, in spite of the noisiness of religious conservatives, especially during the Bush years, homosexuals continue to make more gains than losses, in spite of the passing of proposition eight, outlawing gay marriage, in California recently. Many of Bryant's legal victories have since been overturned, and I'm confident that as people learn more about the realities of human behaviour, and the dead hand of religion is gradually loosened, homosexual relations, of every formal and informal type imaginable, will be accepted and enjoyed as enriching the tapestry of social life.

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the compatibility issue

Is science compatible with religion? It's a very popular question currently, not only directly but in an indirect way, with so many believers of an intellectual persuasion employing scientific techniques, or at least the language associated with them, to render their beliefs more persuasive to themselves and others. It's surely a great compliment to science that so many modern believers feel the need to invoke it in the interest of their beliefs - though it should be noted that this tendency hasn't spread to Islam to any significant degree. Though there are obviously only two possible answers to my initial question, there are two opposed perspective from which each of these two answers can be given. The two answers are of course yes and no, and the two perspectives are the religious and the scientific. From these we arrive at four possible positions:

[1] religious compatibilism - this is the official position of most of the established Christian churches, though whether it is tenable is another matter. There's also the question of whether this compatibilism is sincere, or an alliance of convenience with an untamable adversary.
[2] religious incompatibilism - the least interesting position intellectually, but also by far the most popular, given that the vast majority of the human population know nothing or very little about science, and of that majority almost all of them are religious and take their religion very seriously.
[3] scientific compatibilism - a position taken by some scientists, who claim that science and religion operate in mutually exclusive spheres, so that they can do their stuff harmoniously, presumably by completely ignoring each other. [Most, and perhaps by definition all, religious scientists are compatibilists, due to the primacy of their religious beliefs].
[4] scientific incompatibilism - to my mind, the only coherent position.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

processing to irrelevance

In normal circumstances, in decent, civilized society throughout the West, a person who expressed the view that the Harry Potter novels, with their incantations and magical games and mythical beasties, posed serious dangers to our kids, and that hurricane Katrina could well have been a god's retribution upon the residents of New Orleans for such iniquitous activities as homosexuality and prostitution - such a person would be politely shunned or perhaps referred to authorities as a suitable case for treatment. Certainly such claims would, and should, cast serious doubts on that person's fitness to hold any responsible political or community position.
However, the values of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church are not those of society at large. It doesn't bend to mere public opinion, because it believes its values are eternal, given to it by its god - who is our god too, even if we know nothing about the fellow. Besides, the claim about Katrina is quite plausible, as this god has committed such mass murders before when he has been displeased by members of his specially created species. Indeed he once murdered the whole species apart from one small family, apparently for disloyalty - something dictators rather relish doing, or would relish if only they had the supernatural powers of a deity.
So it's not surprising that a person who would be rightly reviled by most reflective secularists should be promoted within the Catholic Church. Yet there are some good signs to note here. The promoted ultra-conservative pastor is Austrian, and his appointment to a bishopric in Linz will undoubtedly turn ever more people away from a rigid, backward, bigoted church hierarchy. The Catholic Church is completely on the nose in Austria, apparently, and the numbers of its followers have dwindled dramatically. It can only be hoped that Herr Ratzinger continues on this track.
The Catholic Church hierarchy's response to Ms Rowling's massively popular magical adventure series is in fact highly diverting, offering light relief from consideration of its campaign of intimidation, repression, misinformation and outright murder in many African countries in recent years. There seems more than a touch of jealousy in their critique of the books' effects on the young innocent minds who flock to them. Take these remarks by none other than the Vatican's chief exorcist:
"You start off with Harry Potter, who comes across as a likeable wizard, but you end up with the Devil. There is no doubt that the signature of the Prince of Darkness is clearly within these books."
We may well laugh, both at the primitive manichaeism of these remarks, and at the title of chief exorcist, but we would do well to remember that this gentleman, Gabriele Amorth by name, is the inheritor of a long line of murderers, rapists and torturers doing their all for the glory of their god and church. It should never be forgotten that this church has never never willingly given up an inch of its power to destroy any rival superstition. It has been dragged kicking and screaming to its current state of relative impotence. It lives and breathes solely for a return to its old medieval powers.
Herr Ratzinger is very much at the centre of these dangerous puerilities. In a letter written before he was 'elevated' to the popehood, he wrote to a conservative critic:
It is good that you shed light and inform us on the Harry Potter matter, for these are subtle seductions that are barely noticeable and precisely because of that deeply affect (children) and corrupt the Christian faith in souls even before it (the Faith) could properly grow
I can only commend the Harry Potter author for corrupting the Christian faith by means of a fun rival, and I'd urge other authors of imagination and verve to continue the process. The human imagination, and especially the deliciously bottomless imagination of childhood, surely deserves much better than the murderous bigotry of Catholicism.


Sunday, February 01, 2009

getting the message through

one of John the Baptist's hangouts, yawn yawn

Societies change, and rapidly, and we’re reluctant to acknowledge this. A child wants her parents to stay together, to be happy with each other, as they have been. She wants to go on attending the same school and not to have to deal with different routines, different teachers, the loss of established and loved playmates. If a particular religion and its congregation and rituals are regular routines for her and woven though her family and social life, she’ll be most reluctant to deny that religion. Has it not sustained the family and community that has sustained her? The word denial is vital here, for it carries so much more weight than any intellectual skepticism can convey. Questioning the truth of a faith can come at an incalculable cost to our social being. It’s hardly surprising that many people would never even consider such a questioning, for they would see no meaningful existence at all without that faith.

Of course I’m convinced that they’re wrong to think that way, but it often seems a useless conviction. It can also be a dangerous one, I’m sure. If ever invited to Kandahar to spread the message of secularism, I’m sure I’d decline.

However, unlike regions deep-dyed in Islam, most regions that have adopted Christianity, particularly European nations, are no longer as deep-dyed as they were. They are the nations of course, most affected by the enlightenment and the scientific methods that have so rapidly transformed human life. And it’s funny how cultures can be like siblings. If one sibling strides out on a particular path, the next sibling will consider, almost as a matter of course, that that pathway has been eternally blocked for her. Many have argued that Islam needs an enlightenment like that sparked by the likes of Galileo and Newton in Western Europe, but it seems that sibling rivalry might prevent this, perhaps indefinitely. Of course, that is to be too monolithic as regards both religious cultures, but there’s no doubt that jealousy, competitiveness and resentment are part of the package of tensions between these cultures. It’s not surprising that the gradual abandonment of mystical explanations and prophecies by one might result in their more fervent appeal to the other. And of course the same goes for the tensions within one culture, such as that most heavily influenced by the Judeo-Christian mythos.

The point being that the refusal to adopt the scientific method, and the related urge to see sacred texts as rich in historical and cultural truth beyond enquiry, have many strong forces behind them, including resentment, stubbornness and a need to forge or maintain a distinct identity. These forces aren’t rational – few human impulses are. Ultimately they’re instinctive, as sibling rivalry is instinctive, and they’re about survival and thriving. Ultimately the battle must be along those lines – survival and thriving. We need to present the argument convincingly that the scientific approach provides our best hope in that quest. Not everyone is impervious to the argument, clearly. Science would never have gotten off the ground if that were so. It’s a matter of continuously plugging away, doing fruitful scientific work and advertising and distributing its benefits.

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dostoyevski’s tears

perfect and European

I’ve mentioned in these pages Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury under William the Conqueror and, after the council of Winchester in 1072, first primate of England, and without wishing to make primate jokes, Lanfranc’s surviving writings are something of a disappointment for such a reputed intellect. Fast forward near a thousand years to the current incumbent, Rowan Williams, much more circumscribed in terms of political power, but certainly a lover of writing and ideas, even if in the rather tendentious way of religious types. Having recently published a book on the faith of Dostoyevsky, an old favourite of mine, Williams spoke in a radio interview of how Dostoyevsky’s eyes welled up with tears every time Jesus’s name was mentioned.

This is very very likely to be bullshit. It’s quite possible that it happened once. Dos was capable of much sentimentality, as revealed towards the end of Crime and Punishment. It’s also quite possible that the old stager managed a repeat performance, but it’s unlikely to have occurred every time. Who were the eyewitnesses from whom Williams got this information? This is how romantic legends are created, with monotonous regularity. Even were it true, we must remember that Dostoyevsky was writing at a time – a very long period indeed – when the legend of Jesus as both deity and real man of unparalleled goodness wasn’t allowed to be questioned. The application of scientific methods to religious questions and entities dates from the early twentieth century in the main, with, I think, significant negative impact on religious belief in those regions where scientific methods are respected. Works such as Lewis’s Mere Christianity were written in reaction to attempts to more thoroughly examine JC’s claims to fame. Dostoyevsky’s tears over Jesus, however many or few, were tears over a well-guarded mythical figure of practical goodness who hardly bore any relationship to the man of the ‘gospel’ writings, who in turn seems little more than confection. Tears in other words, for the mythical idealism that we humans are so eminently capable of, tears for the reality in which we let people down and let ourselves down on a daily if not hourly basis, unlike that perfectly courageous and knowing and good and simple person so many of us carry around within ourselves, and who some call Jesus. 

This entry is for the final miscellaneous section of the book.


pavlov's cat