Archives for posts with tag: religion

Over the last few weeks, I have been listening to Neil MacGregor’s terrific “Living with the Gods” BBC podcast. It has helped me to reconsider some of my views on religion and belief.

The podcast is wonderful, in that it brings you on an audio journey to places and peoples across the world. You name it, it’s there – from the dank caves of southern Germany, to the sacrificial pyramids of Aztec Mexico, to the great Kumbh Mela festival in India. Newgrange is mentioned, as is the Angelus that booms out on Irish radio each day. It considers the symbolism in religion, the common rituals, the public displays and private moments, and the relationship of religion to the exercise of power. It takes all these disparate elements and synthesizes them into a concrete, powerful narrative.

What I hear from all this is that religion is core to who we are. In all religions, our own nature is echoed back. It is a mirror, reflecting our greatest fears, our greatest needs and our hopes for the future. If you bypass the specific details of any one religion, you find the same needs there. These great longings are familiar to so many of us.

Religion doesn’t even need gods or supernatural agencies. We’ve seen in the last century the damaging power of secular belief systems gone awry. It seems that people will reach out for anything that gives them a sense of security, purpose and answers. God is just one alternative among many.

Such a pity it is that the details become so important. People will kill and die over the minutiae of their own faiths. Wars have started over trivial differences, people executed and tortured for not adhering to the orthodoxy of the day. Even today, so many people take delight in disparaging other people’s religions (and I’ve been one of them) to the point that demagogues can exact discriminatory laws and great injustices can take place with nary a whisper. Behind the details, we forget that at the core of much belief is something entirely understandable: something quintessentially human.

Such a pity that more people don’t reach out to understand religious practices elsewhere around the world, because the impression to be formed is that no matter where we are or who we are, there is a commonality that runs through us all. Having no religion or being inquisitive within one’s own religion, may be advantageous in this regard.

Thought is given in the podcast to life without religion. This is possibly the least satisfying part of the series, as it suggests that it’s unsustainable in the long run. At the end of the series, MacGregor makes the bold statement that we run the risk of society breaking up completely – this is something I would have wanted to understand more. Personally, I see many people making a good fist of living without gods or the traditional rituals of yesteryear. I don’t see how humanistic societies can’t operate for the success and happiness of their peoples: the record of countries like Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands is a case in point. Even Ireland is a happier place now that we have allowed God to fade into the background. Perhaps such states of affairs are unsustainable and perhaps communities are in peril, but at least a counter argument can be made in a world where we don’t now have to rely on revelation and traditional authority alone for matters of truth and belief.

Please give the podcast a go and let me know what you think.

In the beginning, we were Important.

God made a whole Universe, just for us.

He spent a few days at it, then we arrived.

Us, the pinnacle of his creation.

 

He told us not to fuck around

And not to fuck with Him

Do that, and we could live forever,

Because we were Important.

 

Life was simple with God.

Somewhat shit,

And somewhat short,

But uncomplicated.

Anyway, Important people shouldn’t ask questions.

 

Then a Polish priest asked a question.

What if?

What if we were not Centre of the Universe,

But off a bit, to the side?

Ever since, that’s been the story.

More questions,  more sidelining.

Turns out we’re not that Important after all.

 

This made a lot of people Very Angry.

But what about Creation?

And what about the Rules?

And Life after Death?

And what about God?

Good questions,

From people not supposed to ask them.

 

So here we are, not Important,

Life’s not so simple anymore

But better,

And full of hope.

We’re important to each other

And that’s what counts.

 

 

A few days ago, I asked this question on Twitter: when you take humanism from Christian teachings, is there anything left worth conveying to kids in school? This was in response to Joe Humphreys’ article in the Irish Times this week, where he wrote that elements of Christian teaching had a value in addressing the religious schooling problem in Ireland.

Joe has written some interesting thoughts on the issue over the past few months. This article wasn’t one of them, unfortunately. His was a ‘baby with the bathwater’ argument that did not address the problem of privilege within the Catholic Church. It sought to bolster the Church’s special place in education without giving solid arguments about why this should be. Appealing to tradition and creating straw men doesn’t cut it.

Many people in Ireland have a love-hate relationship with the Catholic Church. It has been an opponent of almost every progressive reform in the last half century, not to mention having presided over the greatest cover-up (and worst abuses) we have seen in our lifetimes. Many would argue, with ample justification, that the Church’s primary concern is its own survival. Still, we all know nice church people. We know clerics who have said the right things at the death bed of a loved one and taken principled stances on difficult issues when nobody else was addressing it. Even the Pope has his moments. 

Excellent though this is, the Church has no monopoly on such good works. Much of the same can be found within Protestant, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and non religious communities, or in any situation where people are compelled to help others. When Christians behave admirably, they are acting from a strong sense of human compassion. Religious principles may inform good actions, but it is not something only seen among Christians. Every day in China, India, Nigeria, Iran and all around the world; you will find good, kind, thoughtful, principled people doing good, kind, thoughtful, principled things, mainly because that’s the kind of people they are.

There is great humanism in Christianity. But back to my question: if you take this basic humanism from Christianity, what’s left?

Honestly – and quite possibly I’m missing some things- but it doesn’t seem terribly impressive to me. There is a strong appeal to prayer, which quite overlooks the fact that praying has a particularly poor record in solving most of the basic problems of the world. There is the belief in a deity who consistently eludes detection in any reasonable sense. There are all the rituals that seek to make this deity happy or at least smooth the way to an afterlife, the outcome of which this deity already knows. Is this even remotely on the same level as maths, history and geography?

It’s the area of sexual morality where the differences with humanism are greatest. Instead of looking at the complexity and variety of sexual practices and sexual preferences, Christian thinking often seems to reduce it down to disgust, shame and a desire to control other people’s basic freedoms. Sex is rarely seen as healthy, positive or worthy of proper discussion. Some Christian views, such as the stance on contraception and homosexuality are positively anti-human in their effects. A side effect of their absolutist views on abortion are to silence the voices of millions of women and to reduce them to a second class within society. It’s difficult to see how such simplistic thinking is at all helpful for children who will soon experience the massive complexities of adulthood for themselves.

I don’t have a problem with dedicated, devoted Christians being part of a new educational dispensation, but I do not think that this should be some sort of compromise between equals. It’s not. Humanism has developed from Christian thinking, but it’s also been able to benefit from the views of many other great thinkers, using science to validate these views. If people insist on educating their kids within their faith, then that is still their right, but I doubt if such an education will be greatly superior. It may even be detrimental if there is a strong emphasis on the non-humanistic parts of the curriculum.

On the First Day of Richmas, Richard Dawkins Tweeted Me

 

On the Second Day of Richmas, Richard Dawkins Tweeted Me

 

On the Third Day of Richmas, Richard Dawkins Tweeted Me

 

On the Fourth Day of Richmas, Richard Dawkins Tweeted Me

 

On the Fifth Day of Richmas, Richard Dawkins Tweeted Me

 

On the Sixth Day of Richmas, Richard Dawkins Tweeted Me

 

On the Seventh Day of Richmas, Richard Dawkins Tweeted Me

 

On the Eight Day of Richmas, Richard Dawkins Tweeted Me

 

On the Ninth Day of Richmas, Richard Dawkins Tweeted Me

 

On the Tenth Day of Richmas, Richard Dawkins Tweeted Me

 

On the Eleventh Day of Richmas, Richard Dawkins Tweeted Me

 

On the Twelfth Day of Richmas, Richard Dawkins Tweeted Me

 

Twelve Prize Winnings,
Eleven Old Men Griping,
Ten Pedophiles Equating,
Nine Date Rapes Comparing,
Eight Abortions Advising,
Seven Hero’s Presuming,
Six Violence Implying,

Five Free Beheadings,

Four Clockwork Bombs,
Three Tribesmen,
Two Normal Curves,
And Religion as a Terminal Disease.

 

 

Let’s say you were watching a programme on house building, but every time the builder spoke up about using concrete blocks, the camera panned afterwards to a person who believed that instead of concrete, Christmas tinsel should be a better building material.

Or, you were watching a motoring programme with a mechanic talking about putting oil in the engine to keep the parts moving. After he had spoken, the programme sought the views of a person who felt that Fanta Orange was a much better alternative than oil to lubricate the engine.

Imagine, in both cases, how the builder or the mechanic would feel about this. Imagine what they would think about the programme makers. “Short changed” would be putting it mildly.

With due consideration to the Christmas Tinselists and Fanta Orangeists out there, we might consider it completely mad for a programme to devote time to people who clearly were off the range as regards issues that are generally accepted as mainstream ideas. Not only that, but it would be seen by many as sowing confusion and distraction where no such thing was warranted.

The principle of balance is ingrained into most broadcasting organisations. To be fair to all sides, they will often invite people with different viewpoints to debate particular points. This is a good principle in the main. It minimises the chances that we are being excluded from hearing important contrary information when making your mind up about various issues. It also makes for good, entertaining TV and radio.

In the cases above, however, you can see that the principle of balance can be overextended, particularly when subjects are largely decided and incontrovertible. In many situations, therefore, the broadcaster is not required to create a “balanced” debate; they are perfectly entitled to represent the single accepted position and get on with it. This is the picture acknowledged by most experts in that field. It’s accepted because there is overwhelming support for it. Why create debate when there is none?

Take evolution for instance. There are people in this world who deny evolution, primarily for religious reasons. That’s their choice. It is a nonsense, however, to employ the principle of balance when discussing evolution, because unlike evolutionary scientists, creationists have no real evidence supporting their position. In the many decades since Darwin first published his ideas, creationists have utterly failed to provide reliable support for an alternative, while the scientific underpinning have multiplied in size. The scientific evidence is so overwhelming that it’s a complete nonsense to suggest that a debate even exists. Pitting a creationist against an evolutionary scientist – no matter how many people feel there is a debate to be had – is quite ridiculous. It only serves to elevate a faith based position to be seen as a plausible alternative to the scientific research – a position it does not deserve.

After so much debate and so much evidence, we are also entitled to question the motives of those who would continue – to this day – to promote creationism or intelligent design as credible alternatives on a par with evolutionary science. Since their positions have been refuted in so many ways and for such a long period of time, we can safely say that such people are no longer interested in an honest pursuit of the truth. Denial has a propaganda value. Thus, it’s not just false balance: anyone organising a debate between creationists and evolutionary scientists nowadays must accept that the creationists are not coming to the table with pure intentions, despite what they might say publicly.

Such is also the case with climate change. The vast majority of climate scientists are in agreement that a) CO2 and other greenhouse gasses are warming the planet, b) that intensive human activity is the major factor in this warming and that c) this issue needs to be tackled urgently. Deniers take issue with some or all of these statements, but their arguments have little scientific merit. Pitted against decades worth of evidence building and hypothesis testing, the denier community has come up short. They are losing and they know it. Having singularly failed to develop a plausible scientific alternative, they resort to sowing doubt and muddying the waters. It’s the Creationism vs Evolution debate all over again. Because it too has only got worse for deniers in the past years, we have to ask ourselves what the underlying motive for maintaining their stance might be.

It’s for these reasons that I don’t think it’s useful to be giving a platform to climate change deniers on broadcast media. Like Christmas Tinselists or Fanta Orangeists, they have no scientific argument to make and thus they are a distraction from the real issue. But more than this, just like creationists, I have a problem with their motives. When the evidence is so overwhelming, there has to be an underlying reason for maintaining their stance. An honest debate in such circumstances is impossible.

There is a difference between Science and Religion.

Science needs evidence. Science embraces evidence. If the evidence tells you something that conflicts with your beliefs, then in science, the evidence wins. It must win, because that’s how progress happens in science. Scientists follow the evidence, irrespective of how uncomfortable that might mean towards their beliefs.

Religion needs belief. Religion embraces belief. If the evidence tells you something that conflicts your beliefs, then in religion, the belief wins. It must win, because that’s the way religion preserves itself, often passing down the generations. Religious adherents follow the belief, irrespective of whether evidence exists to support those beliefs or even if if it refutes those beliefs completely.

If you are a scientist, and the evidence starts to conflict with your beliefs, but you hold fast to those beliefs despite strong evidence to the contrary, you are no longer practicing science. You are practicing religion.

If you are a religious adherent, and the evidence starts to conflict with your beliefs, so you change your beliefs to come in line with the evidence, you are no longer practicing religion. You are practicing science.

There is a difference between Science and Religion and this difference is unreconcilable. A wide, yawning, unbridgeable gap. You either accept that evidence has primacy, or that belief does. You can’t have both. Efforts to reconcile the two are unlikely to be very productive.

There is a difference between Science and Religion, but perhaps the issue is somewhat moot. The real question is what difference this makes to most of us. The problem is our brains, you see. Our brains have an interesting relationship with ideas, both scientific and religious. In our brains these things tend to get mashed together, confused with each other. Our brains can accommodate conflicting ideas. While science and religion are different, when it comes to scientific people and religious people, the distinction is far more blurry.

Most people don’t think about religion or science all the time. Most people spend their time thinking about other things. Whether they left the heating on, the pain in their foot, the hallway that needs a paint job, the local team losing last Saturday. Most people have friends to talk to, families to care for, work to do. Muslim, atheist, Christian, secular, Buddhist: when it comes to life and everyday concerns, we become less different. We become more human. The gulf can be traversed. It’s no longer black and white. It’s complicated.

There is a difference between Science and Religion, but our humanity keeps getting in the way. 

Years ago, when I was religious, I found it difficult to imagine how I could cope with adversity if I didn’t have a strong belief in God. I felt that my religious faith was the key ingredient that helped me through in times of trouble. A quick prayer and the feeling that I was being looked over by a loving deity gave me great comfort.

I’m sure many religious people believe that it’s all very well for atheists to hold their views in good times, but just wait until bad times hit. There are no atheists in foxholes, as they say. The reality, however, is that most of us can get through quite terrible setbacks without relapsing into religious belief.

I’ve had a few big setbacks since I lost my religion all those years ago. Some of them have been pretty tough. I had plenty of dark times as I negotiated my way through them. But not once did I have recourse to prayer. No matter how bad things got, I never felt like trying to rekindle my religious beliefs. Honestly, I would have immediately thought it pointless and silly. It simply wasn’t an option.

But nevertheless, I got through these times and lived to fight another day. So how did I manage? Looking back, here are a few pointers.

I tried to be kind to myself. Bad things usually happen, not because you’re a bad person or that you need to be punished, but because such is life. People get old, or find themselves in the wrong places, or make mistakes they couldn’t possibly have foreseen at the time. Realising this made me feel less angry with myself. Guilt was one burden I didn’t have to bear.

I gave myself time. I tried not to expect that all the bad thoughts would go away permanently just by thinking a certain way, or doing something transient. The feelings come back no matter what you do. Realising this helped to reduce the urgency of needing to have solutions for everything. Some things in life don’t have easy answers. As they say, if you can’t overcome it, you can often outlive it.

I tried to live in the present. Realising that bad feelings pass, given enough time, allowed me to better allow the worst issues to roll over me. You roll with the waves.

I tried to acknowledge the pain and feelings I was experiencing. They were real to me, why fight hard against them? If I felt like crying, I would cry. If I didn’t feel like doing something, I left it go until I felt a bit better about it. You have good days and bad days. It’s not about surrendering, as much it is about giving yourself some time.

I tried to get on with life, getting back to the things I liked doing and to the work routine I was used to. It was difficult at times, but it allowed my mind to think about other things. I feel that brooding about the past too much is the mental equivalent of scratching a scab. It can prolong the pain and I’m not sure if that’s particularly healthy.

I sought out and appreciated the company of friends and family members. Just talking about things and the kindness they showed helped me so much. I appreciate that this is not something everyone can do, but it helped me. Even pets can be such great companions. They don’t think much about the future and they get on just fine. Maybe, during these times, neither should we.

I sought out professional help. A chat with a doctor or a counsellor helped me through the more difficult periods. Assistance like this has a big place in overcoming the most painful feelings.

Would my experience have been shorter or less painful had I kept my religious faith? It’s difficult to know, but I suspect there is little difference. There was no sense of help from a loving god as I went through it, but neither were there any feelings of despair or guilt that the same god wasn’t bothering to help.

Religious believers often thank their god for getting them through the dark times. But I think they are missing something. The truth might be that their success is only theirs to celebrate.

“I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do”

Confetior

The debate over the upcoming Marriage Referendum in Ireland continues to fascinate me. The NO campaign is largely driven by bishops, priests and spokespeople linked to the Irish Catholic church. In principle, the Church calls itself a beacon of humanity and compassion in the world. The utterances and actions of recent weeks belie such lofty aspirations. In doing so, they wilfully ignore a historic injustice they had some part in propagating and prolonging.

The past few centuries have not been kind to homosexual people. They have been bullied, scorned, laughed at, imprisoned, threatened with violence, assaulted, killed and gassed. Up to very recently, society saw them as deviants and predators and censured them accordingly. There was never any recognition that homosexuality was something you were born with; something you had little control over. The authorities at the time felt compelled to repress it and push it under cover. In doing so, countless lives were destroyed. We were driven to fear the enemy within.

Even to this day, governments around the world have laws against homosexuality. In Russia and Malaysia, gay people are routinely thrown in jail. In Uganda, legislators are trying hard to impose the death penalty for homosexuality. These malignant injustices are here with us today and, presumably, for a long time to come.

Surely this is a cause we should all support: for all members of our society to be given a chance, to be treated the same, to have past wrongs acknowledged and prevented. Unfortunately – despite the lip-service they pay to human rights – we are not seeing this from the elders of the Catholic Church.

You would think that any organisation professing to defend the downtrodden and the oppressed would see this referendum as an opportunity to provide positive leadership, but no. They have come out as dismissive, reactionary and uncaring; using precisely the same Jesuitic rhetoric in 2015 as the defenders of past injustices did back in years past. In all this debate they have forgotten whose side they should be on, preferring instead to champion ancient prejudices.

Not just one, but two generations have been alienated by such pronouncements. What we have is an organisation arguing itself into obsolescence, not caring about the consequences or how such views will be perceived by future generations. Not in our name, we say. Some day in the future, a pope will issue an apology for these wrongs, but by then it will be far too late.

I will let you into a little secret of mine. Every night, when I lie in bed, tucked under the duvet, I imagine myself flying a spacecraft to the stars. The craft is accelerating at relativistic speeds, often surpassing the speed of light as it heads out into the wider universe. It’s automatic, it’s comforting and it helps me fall asleep.

I’m sure many of us have similar mental rituals. Indeed, when I think about it, life is dominated by rituals that give us pleasure. What is our devotion to football, music and any of a million other pastimes and activities, but a kind of strange ritual? There is nothing life changing or cataclysmic about any of them – indeed from the outside they might seem a bit pointless and crazy – but without them life would be colourless. We need these regular indulgences.

Our brains seem to relish the familiar. Neural pathways, once laid down, are nourished by repeated use. Psychologists talk about “confirmation bias” – our tendency to absorb only that which appeals to us. But it’s much more than that. This comfort with the safe, the known and the well understood: it’s an essential part of our being.

Prayer is no different. For many, there is a comfort to be found in repeated recitations of the Our Father and the Rosary, or for others, the Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu chants. But there is something else about prayers that make them so compelling.

“To thee do we send forth our sighs,

Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears”.

The Salve Regina (aka “Hail Holy Queen”) is a thousand year old Catholic prayer. It speaks of a time when hardship was everywhere. Disease, brutality, avarice and accident could take everything away in seconds. If reality was so miserable, then why not accept a glorious fantasy? With a readymade industry of clerics and theologians willing to hone and interpret the myth (and punish non-belief), compliance would have been irresistible.

Reality is not so terrifying for many people nowadays. Medicine, law, technology and political reforms have made life vastly more tolerable. Religion has become optional, if not thoroughly second-rate. It’s not the only source of comfort anymore – instead we can indulge our passions, listen to music, play video games or surf the Internet. We are less dependent on heavenly promises to help us get through life.

I’m an atheist. For me, these old stories are no more realistic than Harry Potter. But nevertheless, I wonder how my worldview would have been shaped had I been born to a life of oppression and drudgery, where the pleasures I take for granted were not easily available?

There are plenty of people living lives devoid of freedom, security or hope. All they have are their prayers. We atheists need to understand this. It’s not enough to tell such people they are living a delusion if we cannot demonstrate alternative – and realistic – routes to fulfilment and mental health. Indeed, if prayer is the only comfort they have, who are we to deprive them even of this? We need to address the underlying causes.

Until then? Religion is here to stay.

I want to talk about bad ideas and good ideas.

Bad ideas originate from many directions. They can be based on the convictions of so-called gurus – the L. Ron Hubbards, or the Andrew Wakefields of this world – whose insane teachings are cherished like nuggets of gold by their many advocates. They can be based merely on a distrust of officialdom, such as is evident in the comments of the New World Order zealots, or the many and varied conspiracy-theorists in our midst. They can arrive from wishful thinking, like belief in angels or the Loch Ness Monster, or the idea that ancient aliens founded cities on the planet long before we arrived. They can be based on literal interpretations of ancient scriptures, evident in fundamentalist interpretations of Islam and Christianity. They can capitalise on fear or feed ancient prejudices, leading to pogroms, slavery and racism.

Bad ideas are like viruses. They are most successful when they exploit the parts of our brain that deal with our strongest emotions – love, fear, joy, loss and hatred. In this way they can persist for generations. Superstitions, astrology, homeopathy, fairy belief, white power, anti-semitism and witch-hunting all have a long, inglorious provenance, but this alone doesn’t make them good ideas. Not one bit.

Bad ideas inhabit a twilight zone, bolstered up by groupthink, forgiven with generous excuses and defended by Byzantine forms of apologetics. When the emperor has no clothes on, attacking the small child becomes the order of the day.

Bad ideas hurt. They sometimes kill. Quack medical practitioners, their heads stuffed with bad ideas, can give advice that endanger their clients’ health. Unscrupulous charlatans can empty the bank accounts of the unwary as they offer them false hope about themselves and loved ones. Governments have gone to war based on bad ideas. Bad ideas cause world leaders to bluster and prevaricate while the world’s climate changes, decade by decade.

Good ideas, by contrast, originate from systems that expose ideas to reality. When ideas don’t work, they are jettisoned in favour of better ideas. Over time, the best ideas rise to the top. Practical trades, such as plumbing and bricklaying, have no time for bad ideas, because they simply do not work. The currency of these professions are good ideas – ones that have stood the test of time, that do what they are intended to do.

Good ideas emerge from science and engineering all the time. We put men on the moon due to a string of great, practical ideas. The computer on your lap, that phone in your pocket, that car you drive, the pacemaker keeping your father’s heart ticking – they all happened because people built good ideas upon good ideas upon good ideas – a solid pyramid of innovation.

Good ideas are hard to come by. Bad ideas are ten-a-penny. In medicine, bad ideas cost lives, so there is a continual search for ideas that have the potential to do great good – to extend the quality of our lives and ease suffering. We’re still not there but each year a few new useful ideas are discovered. In the end, that’s a positive, hopeful story.

We look at race relations differently. We look at human rights and animal rights differently. We look at gender relations and sexuality differently – not because they are the faddish thing to do, but because they concur with objective reality. They match with how things really are when they are put to the test.

I understand the danger of bad ideas. I greatly value good ideas. And that is why I am a sceptic.

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