Archives for posts with tag: Christianity

If your home were on fire, wouldn’t you do everything in your power to raise the alarm and lead everyone to safety?

It’s from sentiments like this where proselytisers come from. They are called to witness because God wants them to save the rest of us from hellfire. 

To be saved, you take on beliefs that argue for a suppression of critical thinking, a subsidiary role for women, an aversion of sexual health, a disdain for unmarried partners and parents and an intolerance of homosexuals. In other words, the price of salvation is the acceptance of bigotry.

If I were to ask people to take on such an intolerant position, I would need to be absolutely sure my own beliefs were rock solid. I would need to hold myself to the very highest standards of evidence. Testimonials would not be enough, because people can be fooled. Personal evidence would not be enough, because I can be fooled. It would not be enough to listen to a charismatic teacher or read a compelling book. I would actively seek out positions that contradict my views to see if alternative interpretations are possible. I would try not to rationalise but instead accept countering evidence on its own merits. I would try my best to become free from the hold of confirmation bias on my thinking patterns. I would want to be in a position to establish, beyond any reasonable doubt, that my house was indeed on fire.

This is not what we get from proselytisers of every hue. They are calling us to change our lives without having applied any rigour to their own views. We should be under no obligation to surrender our humanity just because the person looks trustworthy or friendly, or because of the emotional packaging in which they wrap such life denying views.

Is our house on fire? They don’t have a clue.

Here’s a heartwarming story from celebrity psychic Joe Power:

An atheist was seated next to a little girl on an airplane and he turned
to her and said, “Do you want to talk? Flights go quicker if you strike
up a conversation with your fellow passenger.”

The little girl, who had just started to read her book, replied to the total
stranger, “What would you want to talk about?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said the atheist. “How about why there is no God,
or no Heaven or Hell, or no life after death?” as he smiled smugly.

“Okay,” she said. “Those could be interesting topics but let me ask
you a question first. A horse, a cow, and a deer all eat the same
stuff – grass. Yet a deer excretes little pellets, while a cow turns
out a flat patty, but a horse produces clumps. Why do you suppose that is?”

The atheist, visibly surprised by the little girl’s intelligence,
thinks about it and says, “Hmmm, I have no idea.” To which
the little girl replies, “Do you really feel qualified to discuss
God, Heaven and Hell, or life after death, when you don’t know shit?”

And then she went back to reading her book.

Heartwarming, wonderful, except it’s complete bollocks, and falls into the trap of what some people would like to believe atheists think, as opposed to what is actually the case. At the time of writing, it has 357,000 likes and 239,000 shares on Facebook.

So, leaving out the smarminess of the putative girl in the story, the creepiness of any adult stranger trying to chat up a girl on a flight, and the fact that this conversation never took place and is a metaphor for the Atheism / Theism debate, this story still bugs me.

Atheists *don’t* claim to have special knowledge about God’s non-existence.

The implication in this piece is that most atheists somehow assume to know for certain that he doesn’t exist, enabling critics to accuse us of smugness, arrogance and a gross error of logic, in that we are trying to prove a negative. The child can then disabuse us of this arrogance by asking a simple question. Atheists can’t know for certain whether God exists, but if he does exist, we can legitimately ask what he actually does. Does he control the planets, the moon and the weather? Our current knowledge of astronomy implies something completely different, and altogether more compelling. Did he create the Universe? Then why did he make it so awesomely big, if our species has some role in his plan? Does he heal the sick? Then what about all the people he doesn’t heal, despite all their earnest pleas? Does he bring peace to the world? 2,000 years of brutal post-Jesus violence and genocide would suggest not. Does he comfort people in their suffering? Then why are Hindus comforted by their gods in the same way Christians find comfort in God? So what does God do, if he is said by so many people to exist? That’s really all atheists are asking. If he doesn’t do all that much (and there are often better explanations) then why invest so much effort and self-sacrifice in believing in him?

The girl’s question is a non-sequitor.

The response the girl gives is completely immaterial to the subject under discussion, and could be used for any situation, and even the other way around. Her intent is to imply that since you don’t know some things, then you can’t presume to know other things. Had the atheist decided to talk about paint, she could have used the same approach. Had her fellow passenger been a Christian, she could have asked the same question with precisely the same response. And, since atheists don’t presume to know in the first place, it’s a completely bogus argument.

Who is more likely to strike up a conversation about God with a total stranger?

Somehow, I don’t think many atheists are really that into foisting their views on others. The obligation to proselytise is more a Christian thing. We atheists don’t really care what you believe, so long as your intent is not to foist your views on others, or to re-organise society based solely on a presumed set of diktats from your god.

So who is the arrogant one?

By setting up this straw man argument, Power is implying that the God question should be out of bounds. To me, this is extraordinarily arrogant. How dare we ask questions. It appears that some things, no matter how illogical, unrealistic or wrong-headed, are supposedly immune from honest inquiry.

One thing I agree: atheists don’t know shit. In this respect we’re pretty much like everyone else, Christians included. We know some things well and other things not well at all. The difference seems to be, however, that we desire to know things, even if that means upsetting a few sacred cows on the way. How good it would be if this thirst for knowledge was appreciated by the very many people who liked Joe Power’s snide and dismissive Facebook post.


“The color line is distinctly drawn by Jehovah himself; it is drawn in nature and in history in such a form as to make it a sin and a crime to undertake to obliterate it. “

– Rev. Benjamin Palmer, 1887

“It is certainly a matter of faith that this sort of slavery in which a man serves his master as his slave, is altogether lawful. This is proved from Holy Scripture…”

Leander, Catholic Theologian, 1692

“Christianity confirms the subordinate position of woman, by allotting to man the headship in plain language and by positive precept. []  But, while conferring on her these priceless blessings, it also enjoins the submission of the wife to the husband, and allots a subordinate position to the whole sex while here on earth. No woman calling herself a Christian, acknowledging her duties as such, can, therefore, consistently deny the obligation of a limited subordination laid upon her by her Lord and His Church.”

Susan F. Cooper, 1870

“According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed. []  But if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation. Likewise, the child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him.”

– Pope Benedict XVI, 2012

In a speech to the Vatican Curia today, Pope Benedict made what is considered to be one of his strongest attacks yet on gay marriage. Over the past few years, the Pope has made known his opposition to homosexual conduct in no uncertain terms, previously describing it as an “objective disorder“. This view has been repeated by numerous representatives of his senior executive team throughout the world.

A few days before, the news came through of a major breakthrough in the Philippines. After years of opposition by the Catholic Church, women in this country are now one small step away from government subsidised contraception and the right to family planning choices previously only available to those who could afford it.

Around the same time, Catholic bishops in Ireland came out forcefully against government plans to introduce abortion legislation in 2013. Even though most commentators expect the legislation to be restrictive and limited – merely clarifying the conditions by which a termination can be conducted in a medical context – it didn’t stop some more hysterical bishops announcing the onset of a “culture of death” in Ireland.

The Church’s priority does not seem to be common human compassion, nor the alleviation of poverty, nor the highlighting of injustice, nor calling the powerful to account. No. Instead the Church is preoccupied by the imposition of an absolute, unbending version of morality. Having no regard to the inevitable complexities and contradictions at the extremes, the Catholic Church shows itself to lack compassion. Its moral stance has become an immoral one, imposing suffering where alleviation is possible. By choosing not to accept reality, it has lost touch with common humanity.

This is the Catholic Church leadership in the early 21st Century, holding fast to positions that are becoming less tenable with each passing year. Through the stories of people whose lives have been blighted by injurious Church attitudes, it finds itself on the wrong side of history, playing the wounded soldier as the demands for greater liberty and common respect rise ever stronger. The point is missed entirely when these demands are rejected as nothing more than rampant secularism in the ascendent.

We are witnessing, in real time, the demise of this once powerful organisation. Should it choose to adhere to the course it is on, it will cease to exist as a force for change within our own lifetimes. The stance of this church is one of defensiveness, elitism, and deafness to a growing public clamour for renewal. By choosing to ignore the real desires of women, the poor, homosexuals, transexuals and those who clamour for meaningful change within the organisation, it is consigning itself to terminal irrelevance.

I am an atheist, so I am under no illusions as to how this essay will be taken by many people of faith. I am unconvinced, however, that religion is, necessarily, a manifest force of evil. In a free society, people must be permitted their beliefs and the comfort that they may derive from them. Religion provides breathing space to millions of people across the world, and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. Through acts of selflessness, charity and compassion, many deeply religious people across the world deliver encouragement to the needy of this world with no expectation of compensation, material or otherwise.

For a religion to thrive in this century, it needs to accept and understand the real world, with all its conundrums, confusions and contradictions. It needs to reach out to people, listening to their stories, walking in their shoes before setting forth an opinion. Despite axiomatic differences, there are no good reasons why humanists and convinced Catholics cannot share many similar values and work together on common causes. Right now, however, by elevating moral absolutes over what is practical, fair and achievable, a gulf exists where it need not be. Like those religious people who used their holy scriptures to justify slavery, segregation and the subjugation of women, its only a matter of time before the harm caused by these stances will be plain for all to see.

I’ve just finished reading a marvellous historical book: Thomas Asbridge’s “The Crusades – The War for the Holy Land”. There are many things to love about this work. It presents a very coherent narrative all the way through, explaining the key events and the important sequences clearly, without relying on military jargon. It brings many of the protagonists to life, giving you a sense of their inner workings, motivations and weaknesses. It also presents a picture of life through the eyes of the different combatants, providing explanations for sometimes inexplicable actions. Covering almost 200 years of history and a host of different characters, this is no easy thing. I would thoroughly recommend it.

In some ways, the book is not really about the Crusades at all. The book’s focus is the Crusader states of Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli and Jerusalem; from their establishment to their demise in the late 1200’s. Some Crusades, such as the Second and Fourth Crusades, are barely mentioned and the machinations of popes and princes in Europe take secondary place to the key events in the Levant.  A large section of the book is taken up with the events from 1100 to 1192, when crusading was a relatively minor aspect of life in the “Outremer”.

The role of religion is explored in the book. Unquestionably, religious devotion inspired legions of Crusaders to travel to the Holy Land, provoking a reciprocal commitment to jihad within the Muslim population. It was secular pragmatism, however, that sustained the Crusader states over much of their lifespans. Christian princes formed treaties and alliances with their erstwhile enemies, while cross-cultural trade and commerce flourished in the Near East during this time. Political changes were often a function of practical concerns, brought about by shifting alliances and crises of leadership. Religious idealism, as a force for change, was markedly less effective. Attempts by the clergy to organise their own expeditions usually ended in abject failure, costing the lives of many Crusaders while meriting barely a footnote in the history of the region.

Most of the people in this story lived short, brutal lives. If battle didn’t kill them, illnesses such as cholera and dysentery did the job. Irrespective of whether you were Christian or Muslim, you would have been lucky indeed to reach the age of forty. Children grew up quickly, if they made it to their teens at all. From the many massacres detailed in the book, life was cheap in the extreme. The inhabitants of a besieged city, once fallen, could expect no mercy. Even the elite did not have it easy. Kings and sultans at the height of their powers often succumbed to illnesses or murderous intrigues at a comparatively young age, prompting vicious power struggles amongst remaining family members. Slavery was rife and punishments were exceedingly cruel. How these conditions motivated people to live their lives, sacrificing all for the dreams of salvation, we can only guess.

Although Asbridge was eager not to make connections between the Islamic / Christian culture wars of today, I feel that an altogether different, more enduring parallel can be made between then and now. I was struck by a sense of familiarity reading about characters such as Baldwin I, Saladin, Richard the Lionheart and Louis IX. Despite a gap of nearly one millennium, these individuals came across as surprisingly modern to me. It struck me that they were not unlike modern businessmen, with interests to protect, opportunities to exploit and competitors to fend off. The elites operated in a relatively lawless world, similar to the modern corporate landscape, differing only in the amount of blood spilled. Their levels of strategic insight would put many an MBA to shame. These leaders benefitted greatly from advances in technology such as trebuchets, crossbows, navies and Greek Fire, while setting up information systems using messengers, homing pigeons, spies and an elaborate network of express couriers, in the case of later Malmuk rulers. I can’t help but think, were you to transport Richard Branson, Rupert Murdoch or Steve Jobs back to these times they would have readily donned a suit of armour, leading their armies into battle. When it comes to business, some things never change.

Ireland has been victim to a succession of increasingly violent gang related thuggery in the past 20 years. The crimes committed by these characters, from Martin Cahill, to the Westies, to Marlo Hyland, have been abominable in the extreme. What comes across is a kind of fecklessness: people who simply don’t care about anyone, so long as they can they can load themselves up on drugs and money. This pattern of nihilism is not exclusive to Ireland. The blood baths currently taking place in Mexico put Ireland into the minor leagues.

Religious leaders commonly portray such excesses as being caused by godlessness. These people, they say, have rejected God. They imply that widespread rejection of God will make such anarchy commonplace. It’s a frighteningly effective message, perhaps serving to bolster religious faith despite all the past and ongoing revelations of religious indiscretion.

Let’s put to bed the most glaring and idiotic canard straight away: that godlessness equals immorality, and even criminality. Millions of people around the world live good, honest, normal lives without requiring the services of any god whatsoever. Atheists and agnostics have contributed to the betterment of life, campaigned for the poor and sick, railed against injustice and have pushed forwards the frontiers of knowledge – just like many religious people, in fact. The children of non-religious parents grow up in similar environments to kids in religious families and go on to lead lives with just as much promise. There is no evidence that relatively godless and secular societies, such as Norway, the Netherlands or the UK, are on the brink of collapse or have any interest in throwing out common decency or the rule of law.

A second generalisation is that religious people are more ethical than atheists. The facts suggest that this is far from the case. You only need to look at the work of priests, pastors and bishops in the numerous child-abuse scandals around the world to realise that many religious people, whose theological credentials are impeccable, have a lot to answer for. Religious differences have sparked many a war, and many prominent, god-fearing religious people have been found wanting when the details of their lives are uncovered.

Neither does religion provide people with a “get out of jail free” card. The religion of prison occupants tends to match the wider society where they come from (US – predominantly Christian, Middle East – predominantly Muslim), so if religion is stopping people from committing crimes, it does not appear to be working very well.

Now, some more difficult questions. Are gangs predominantly atheistic, and does this contribute to their criminality? Without knowing the true stats, it is unlikely that many notorious criminals are regular mass-goers, or that they care much for any of the trappings of religion. There may well be a correlation between gang criminality and godlessness. But that is not what is being asserted by many pastors and priests. What they are saying is that their godlessness causes their criminality, a very different question. Is the motivation for criminal acts a defiance against God? Or could it be due to more worldly factors, such as their upbringing, education, access to opportunities, peer pressure and personality? It seems that the right people to answer this questions are trained sociologists, not those who are willing to provide pat answers that simply reinforce their prejudices.

Another question is whether criminals who have found God are better people. There are many cases of violent criminals repenting while in prison. One could readily accept that “finding God” in such circumstances has made a positive improvement in these people’s lives. So too, however, does believing in Allah help Muslim prisoners, while Chinese prisoners become better people by studying the words of Confucius. The circumstances of redemption seem to strongly associated with the culture and location of the redeemed person. Maybe, it’s not so much the nature of the god-figure that’s important at all. What may be far more significant is finding a focus, educating oneself, having a chance to reflect on one’s life, becoming part of a community and the assistance of an authority figure or friend who is willing to go the distance with you. The reasons people turn their lives around may be far more attributable to common human approaches than to a deity whom we wish to attribute the turnaround to.

Religious preachers frighten their congregations into believing that godlessness equates to nihilism and the corruption of society, when the reality is totally different. Religious people and non-religious people alike share the same concerns and worries about criminality. The solutions to crime are grounded in common sense, not divine intervention. It’s time this “godlessness” excuse was thrown out, once and for all.


Ryan Tubridy outdid himself on the Late Late Show last Friday with an interview with a so-called “visionary” from Medjugorje, Vicka Ivanković-Mijatović, who claims to be in daily contact with the Virgin Mary. Mijatović is in Ireland all this week. Earlier on Friday, she spoke to a capacity crowd in the RDS Concert Hall.

The interview was mostly a monologue. Tubridy allowed her to speak freely (and was gently chastised for interrupting her flow at one stage) while she whittled on about how Mary’s dress sense and the occasional cameos of Jesus during her regular encounters. It was mad, delusional, contradictory stuff. If not for the prevalence of Roman Catholicism in Ireland, would Tubridy have been so patient and understanding? Say a woman came on the show to talk about her frequent meetings with polka dotted llamas dressed in bowler hats beseeching people to jump on one leg for a few hours each day, would the reception have been the same? Don’t answer that.

Within her ecstatic rantings, she talked about suffering being a gift. It was here that I lost my composure. The idea that suffering is a “gift” must be one of the most pernicious and cruel canards ever invented by mankind. Suffering is bad enough without someone suggesting that there is some sort of supernatural reason for it.  It implies that somehow, you deserve it. You have done something in your past, or you have thought things that call you out for special treatment at the hands of the Gods. Or perhaps God has some special mission in mind for you, so that you will continually torment yourself to understand what exactly it is you should be doing in your life at a time when you can least afford such vexations. Perhaps if you consider suffering to be a gift, you will therefore be reluctant to lose this gift by seeking medical help or other forms of assistance. Perhaps you will see suffering in loved ones as a “gift”, thereby prolonging their agonies too?

As anyone who has been around suffering long enough will attest, there is nothing at all glorious about it. Far from enriching lives, it wrecks it. It sucks the colour out of existence, leaving people in a perpetually vulnerable, negative, fearful and disordered state. In far too many cases it is capricious. It hits one person, leaving others unaffected. It’s roots may be genetic, age related, accidental or based on factors totally outside your control. It is plain to see that the most deserving of suffering in this life often never get their just desserts while the least deserving may sometimes receive it in spades. Even when suffering is deserved, the resulting effect may be out of all proportion to the severity of the cause. Suffering is not a gift. It’s a crap shoot.

Those who suffer do not need our prayers. They don’t need us to tell us that it happened for a reason. They don’t need to believe that somebody, somewhere singled them out for special treatment. They don’t need the mental torture that comes along with the statement that suffering is a gift. Any god who loved us would not send us such gifts, period. Any reasonable definition of love would never, repeat, NEVER, include torture, but some strains of religious thought have no problem accepting this.

There is no easy solution to suffering in the world. People get sick and die every day. Shit happens to us all, and for some it would fill a Boeing 747 with knobs on. There are reliefs in some situations and in those cases they should be embraced wholeheartedly. People can help and medicine can help and treatments can help and time can help, but there will always be unfortunate exceptions.

What sufferers do not need are the trite, malign rationalisations telling them how lucky they are.

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