Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Why Religion Still Makes Me Cross, Part 1: God’s Mysterious Means and Uncertain Ends.

I look on with disbelief when people take Christianity seriously, or simply politely tolerate it alongside other ‘established fantasies’, first of all because it seems to me so silly. Christian beliefs are a ripe target for ridicule, and I find it difficult to resist.

God, it seems fair to presume, must have decided that He was not happy enough alone, even though He was already The Almighty. He desired some companionship, but – He Reasoned – since He Himself happened to be so very Wholesome, His companions would need to be without stain too. Any association with impropriety would have been unconscionable. Well, okay, but why in Heaven’s name cause such a muddle by designing – or creating, or whatever – a duo like Adam and Eve who were evidently capable of wrongdoing? What was God thinking – sorry, THINKING? What kind of ill-considered Providence is that? And when He fathered only one favoured son, privileged with virgin birth and without sin, why abandon him to the Romans, and their then modish form of capital punishment – as if grotesque “justice” would somehow put right our spiritual wrongs?

No, I can’t see it. After all, if my dad had his wallet stolen in the street he could just forgive the robbers there and then, or possibly an hour or two later after cancelling his credit cards and drinking some tea to calm his nerves. He wouldn’t need to come home and punish me in place of the robbers before he could forgive them. Well, I hope not! True, God apparently had other things – worse things – to forgive than petty theft. Nonetheless, I would venture to say that even I, a ‘mere’ mortal, can improve my life by learning to accept and cope with some imperfection; I wonder whether God ought to have had the ‘omni-capacity’ to cope with an excess of imperfection? Shouldn’t He have been able to cope without Pontius Pilot coming to the rescue, when (the Bible alleges) he condemned Christ?

‘Perfection’ is such an abstract, Platonic concept, but it is worth remembering that we might not have fallen so dismally short were it not for God’s parenting skills, or the lack thereof. Let’s face it: we have an absentee Father who doesn’t keep up his maintenance payments. Who helps when natural disasters tear down homes made of mud? People do. And if no person steps in to save a drowning man, who or what else will? Not our Heavenly Father. He doesn’t even provide crusts of bread for starving children, never mind new bikes for Christmas. Of course believers would infer something Greater behind the actions of philanthropic people – God’s instruments – but surely the only proportionate response to our experience of compassionate people is a Humanist’s belief in people? That is, people on their own with no pretensions, artificial colours, miracles, or other wonders. The idea that God works through us reduces us – we shouldn’t have to share the credit.

Please understand, as a Humanist I don’t wish to mock of the rich and diverse population of human beings who happen to be believers, it’s just that I’d betray my Humanism if I didn’t interrogate their beliefs and be honest about my concerns.

Part 2 will follow shortly...

Why Religion Still Makes Me Cross, Introduction.

While I was growing up, the son of a charitable, liberal priest, remaining at ease within a sheltered Christian ‘reality’ was not difficult. But later, as a young adult and undergraduate student of Theology, I had to work harder and harder in order to sustain and defend my belief. I was clever enough to keep going for a while: I confined my reason to the narrow parameters of biblical discourses, or ‘language games’, and I successfully made my beliefs cohere on those terms. But it was no use, and eventually I was unable to resist a peek from ‘outside’, from alternative, more empirical perspectives. I let go of my efforts to make sense of the senseless, and discovered a rational humanism that felt infinitely more secure and legitimate. When my family and many friends remained steadfastly religious I asked myself “why should I care?”

Why do I care? I am not sure that I want to be ‘dogmatically anti-dogmatic’, and if faith in a deity makes my loved ones happy why not just let it go? After all, to quarrel with a child’s right to believe in Father Christmas would be petty, and some of the much more involved beliefs sincerely held by religious individuals often appear no more threatening. So what is it about religion that keeps niggling? And, writing as someone who has been baptised twice, can I explain and justify my unease about Christianity?

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Shared difference, self-belief, and a rational humanism


In this first post I just want to introduce myself and (off the top of my head) outline a few of the themes you can expect to find in this blog in the future.

As described in my Profile, I've gone from Christian to free thinker and (I like to think) deep thinker. I've replaced my belief in God with a belief in people – people who can: (1) choose to create our own meaning and purpose in their lives; (2) choose to find happiness in good deeds, and in causes 'higher' than our own selves; (3) take responsibility for their own actions, thoughts, feelings, and their own responses to situations even if/when they cannot control those situations; (4) find opportunity (the opportunity to demonstrate dignity and integrity) even in hardship; (5) believe in themselves so that they KNOW they can cope with setbacks, and that they are capable of making good things happen; (6) make their knowledge secure, or tested against real experience....

Now, in later posts I will offer some essays and arguments well supported by wider reading. I'll be drawing on Existentialist and Humanist foundations, and taking ideas from my study of Psychotherapy. My work will be influenced by philosophers, authors, and therapists, including the following: Aldous Huxley, Satre, Camu, Carl Rogers, Victor Frankl, Rollo May, Irvin Yalom, Richard Dawkins, Richard Carrier, and others....

Here, in brief summary, are a few of themes I'd like to go into:

1. Shared difference: as a therapist I am often brought back to my idea of "shared difference". We are all the same in the sense that we are all different (sorry if this sounds needlessly paradoxical). In some general senses perhaps we all want similar things: love, and meaning, for example. But different things bring love and meaning to different people, in very different ways. We all require the confidence to be ourselves, so that we can then (with confidence) pursue what we want. This means leaving aside other people's traditions and conditions, and indeed religions.

2. Self-belief: "we cannot fight the enemy we cannot see", as Freud rightly said. We need awareness of our limitations in order to know what to change, yet an appreciation of our strengths and our potential is what enables change to occur. That's my one big tip, and 'the secret': believe in yourselves and you WILL cope with setbacks - you will turn setbacks into successes, and whoever pushes you down you WILL take responsibility for picking yourself back up; and you WILL make good things happen. We can be proud of ourselves, without being full of ourselves - confidence isn't boasting, becaue confidence is secure! Of course no one is perfect, not in every way, so no one can acheive great things or win approval from others all the time. Thus if we base self-worth on acheivement or approval we are resting on very shakey ground. On a pragmatic level, therefore, the most useful thing is to believe in ourselves (as ourselves) unconditionally. Just by being ourselves (one of a kind!) we are being valuable.

3. Experience precedes truth, not visa versa: I'm a believer in empirically observable states of affairs (i.e. things that exist), so I'm no believer in karma or reincarnation anymore than I'm a believer in aliens called Zippie. However, I like Buddhist psychology because it puts experience before truth. In contrast other religions posit a truth, and require us to somehow shape our experiences (our hopes, and feelings) so that they fit that truth. There is no one objective truth, or one way that we can all (with our different languages, backgrounds, and intellects) see. There is no abstract (Platonic) essence of love, joy, sadness, nor any abstract essence of objects like doornails or rubber ducks. Further, if we pursue some abstract concept that we read about, or conjure up, we miss the real thing. Love, for example, happens when we surrender to the experience, NOT when we pre-plan the feeling before we've felt it (!!) and they tray to make the experience fit the concept.

4. Rational Humanism: If we all went around believing in things without evidence or reason it could all get very silly. People could be discussing the occurance of flying pink elephants (most Thursdays at lunch time). Or closer to home, people could believe in fairies, alien abduction, or indeed 72 virgins in Heaven if they die as martyrs.... How about this: we could believe that God made human beings who are capable of sin, even though He knew well that He (in his RIghteousness) could have no association with sin. We could believe in a God who just wasn't capable of forgiving us when we did in fact sin – at least not without inflicting some punishment, hence the need to allow his son to be crucified. Although a crucifixion may seem to take a bad situation and make things worse, we could nevertheless believe that this privileged Son of God somehow took our sins on himself so we don't have to do anything to go to heaven - or, that is, we don't have to do anything EXCEPT believe all this rediculous stuff without any direct experience or evidence. Oh dear: were having enough trouble explaining how our Universe came into being - why add to the problem by creating the question, "how did this God come into being?"? Yes, without evidence or reason things CAN get very silly.

In any case, these are just a few initial ideas. I'd love to hear opinions and feedback, and I hope to be open to, and respectful of, different opinions. I don't believe in things "beyond experience", but I am very eager to broaden my experience. Teach me, I want to learn, and to empower myself through that...