Friday, 20 July 2007

Why Religion Still Makes Me Cross, Part 5: Not just "is", but "ought" as well!

Personally I am just about able to tolerate or endure faith-based efforts to explain what “is”, because they are deficient and laughable in equal measure. But it’s just hurtful, and personal, when faith is brought to bear on the question of “ought”. It makes me cross when some (certainly not all) religious people suppose that their access to Higher Truth obliges them to tell me what I am and what I ought to be. They behave as if it were up to them to decide what my life means. An appalling violation: who are they to say I can’t make sense of my own existence through my personal experiences?

It’s paradoxical, but true to say that difference is something we all share. We are the same in the sense that we all have distinctive genes, experiences, aptitudes, and inclinations. With infinite variety our characters tend towards opposing poles: dependent or independent; silly or solemn; intellectual or practical; extrovert or introvert, and so on. So how can there be One Path to happiness? Sorry but I tried worshiping God, confessing my sins, and essentially giving Him all the praise while giving my self all the condemnation. It didn’t work, and made me unhappy: thankfully I realised I had a problem before all that left me utterly demoralised, inward-looking, and ineffectual.

Were I to take my critique of the Christian Path to a believer, he might try the following classic rebuff, which can be readily adapted to destabilise almost any critic: he could say “It’s easier to destroy than it is to build”. My reply would be “Yes, it certainly is easier to destroy than to build”. I’d politely suggest that a superior path to happiness involves praising our unique selves, accepting our potential even in the face of our failings in order to BUILD hope, motivation, and also confidence. Confident individuals are secure, and as such aren’t disproportionately defensive or aggressive; they don’t need to dominate over others, or fear difference in others. So, they feel good, and their actions tend to be “morally good”. How about it: “Imagine all the people, living life in peace”?

It’s not that I’m saying good behaviour is easy to define or accomplish, but at least the whopping existential challenge before us comes alive once we are free of simplistic ‘Rules from Above’. We can confront “morality” as that which asks us to perpetually assess and re-assess our own actions, as well as our conceptions of meaning – most notably in our personal variations on the theme of love – and responsibility. It’s as if we must mould and re-mould our intentions and actions into shapes, then fit them into an infinite number of different jigsaws (or different situations) as best we can. Morality is grey, however much our fear of uncertainty and/or our indolence may cause us to wish it were written in black and white on some handy stone tablets. Compassion is grey too, by nature constantly inconstant; based on flexibility and compromise.

The sort of benign avoidance of judgement that compassion often calls for is, furthermore, absolutely opposed to biblical absolutes: were an accident or degenerative illness to devastate my body, so that the pain and indignity were too much to bear, I might beg to be helped to die; who could say, who would dare say, that it would always be right to refuse me? Now the kind-heartedness of ‘good’ and ‘true’ Christians frequently takes me aback – bless them, they want to help. But too often they decide what help is appropriate for me, or what help I need. Were I gay I might like it if the Church chose to help me campaign against prejudice, or perhaps promote civil partnership. But instead many Christians would seek to ‘help’ me make an alternative “lifestyle choice”! Were I hungry I might desperately seek relief from material poverty, and yet scores of concerned Christians would continue diverting efforts and resources towards saving me from my “spiritual poverty”.

Why Religion Still Makes Me Cross, Part 4: The Ultimate Question.

I don’t find myself suddenly grave and deferential when Christians round on me and say – with a self-satisfied checkmate smile – “Well, how do you think we got here then?” I just sigh, and wish we could engage with life’s subtleties for a minute. Where does this arbitrary all-or-nothing illogic come from, as if whenever science cannot (yet) fully explain something it is defensible to assume – and worse, “assume with certainty” – that God must be The Answer?

How exasperating when we don’t know anything about God. That’s why ‘great theologians’, from Pseudo-Dionysius to Karl Barth (to Rowan Williams?), have contented themselves by pondering what He isn’t and, yes, finding new and exciting ways to extend the range of what they don’t know. Here “God” is merely a word rather than The Word; a referent to nothing at all, useful only as a convenient label for ignorance. He’s the Ultimate Question (and, for Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, the “Ultimate Boewing 747”) rather than an answer in any sense: “Well, how do you think He got here then?” Surely He’s too complex to have come into being by chance. We are envisaging an Intelligent Designer who, just as much as the Universe we inhabit, has the appearance, and all the complexity, of something that has been designed. So where on Earth did He come from? Not even science (natural selection) can’t help out here, as it does when we seek to explain the presence of intricacy in our world.

No one is saying it’s easy to explain things like Existence, Nature, Morality, or Love, but let’s opt for a plucky attempt, rather than succumb to a directionless drift down the river of myth (up creek; no paddle!). Equally, how is it that we fail to use empirical evidence in order to try, seriously and unceasingly, to locate the origins of pain, jealousy, or cruelty? Fallacious flim-flam about serpents and the Devil amounts to a harmful, and to me frustrating distraction. Rather, acceptance equals awareness, and thereafter direction and motivation for change follow: we need to unconditionally accept ourselves and our world – the good and the bad – so that we can see honestly, without fear, denial, or distortion; we must replace belief in God with a belief in ourselves, in something tangible, in order to recognise that our own enquiry and can propel us – yes, us – towards meaningful answers and actions.

As for “Creation”, well, forgive me, but why is it easier for Christians to believe in an Eternal Father than a Universe that always Existed in some form? Look to the stars, and behold your Maker! Why not? Why shouldn’t The Universe be “God”? Even if The Universe did have a beginning I don’t understand why it should require a Greater, or perhaps just a more ‘human’ Cause (with a white complexion, and a large beard, surrounded by heavenly hosts…). I’m not saying that just anything can control its own necessity or origin – I’m not positing shrubs that arose out of nothing by the effort of their own Will, nor suggesting that a sardine can find the explanation for its being within itself. But the Universe is THE UNIVERSE, and it should be credited for what it is, and for what it once began, as well as for what it is continually becoming.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Why Religion Still Makes Me Cross, Part 3: Absence, and Evil.

At this stage theists smell The Problem of Evil, and drag out a creaky old wheelbarrow with which to bring forth the ‘free will defence’ once more. Apparently God – presumably not the predetermining God preferred by austere Lutherans, Calvinists, and ‘modern’ evangelicals – cannot educate us conclusively about right and wrong today, just as He cannot set us straight about His existence. If He did He would obviously violate our freedom, says the suddenly “oh so philosophical” theist. (“Err, would He? Golly, would He really?” I stammer – or at least I might were I an awkward spectacled choirboy in the 1950s – “Yees, by Jove, of course He would young man!” booms the Vicar, who looks very like Steven Fry and who prefers to drown out theological problems with his loud voice rather than risk actually having to think about them.)

Now, if we could might we not say “go on, take our freedom – for pity’s sake – if that means you can put an end to the suffering of just one innocent child in return”? And yet such a trade would be based on a false dichotomy, as if it were self-evident that we can have freedom with ignorance and suffering, or no freedom at all. Forgive me, it is possible to intervene to increase freedom, to educate and empower by showing people how (rather than what) to think. We manage it all the time, in schools, in prisons, and yes, in Churches. Richard Carrier has made the point well:
If all this is good for us, even morally obligatory, and is not a “violation” of the free will of evil doers, it is absurd to say it is wrong for a god to do it, that it violates free will only when he does it but not when we do it.

“Absurd”, and just lame. Ah well, we (who decline the fashionable but ungrounded deference to mass unreason) can, without qualms, fall back on more mirthful attempts to explain why a Manifold Presence might appear so woefully absent. I’d suggest a sick note next time: perhaps an almighty bought of feverishness (or manic depression) could explain all this wavering between the extremes of judgement, mercy, and nothing at all? Another option would be to admit to a more permanent insufficiency: I have in mind Dickensian images of a well-meaning incompetent (the Ultimate Mr Pickwick), or a cruel schoolmaster who is chillingly unmoved by the suffering of the children in his ‘care’ (the Uttermost Mr Creakle). Unfortunately implicit in the Name “God” is the idea that He made Heaven and Earth, and high achievers do find it hard to admit weakness, don’t they?

Why Religion Still Makes Me Cross, Part 2: The Manifold Presence and the Almighty Absence.

God’s absence would be less incongruous if He at least said why He chose to make His manifold Presence so obscure. What kind of parent fails to explain his actions, thus causing His offspring to feel confused and insecure? Come on God, why the riddle if you want us too earn salvation, through faith or however? You could give us a palpable basis for faith, and an object for our love, instead of abandoning us to a blind – thus certainly unwise, and most likely morally unsound – ‘leap’. Or just putting a stop to the Almighty subterfuge would be a start: why not, for example, arrange things so that our bodies disappear rather than rot in the ground, unless we aren’t really meant to believe in life after death? Yes, I’m aware of Jesus’ supposed triumph over decomposition, but I’m not all that impressed by one distant and poorly substantiated exception to the general rule.

From the Christian point-of-view belief on the basis of faith rather than fact is a good thing – a proper criterion for salvation since anything else would be too easy. (We are advised to believe in God on faith at any rate, even though the absurdity of believing anything else on those grounds is granted, naturally enough. How many upstanding Anglicans would set forth to proclaim the Good News to a group of hooded ruffians, or eschew medical care when ill, trusting on faith that Providence and prayer should keep them from harm? “Ah, yes, well… Quite.”) Indeed, some Christians may feel moved to chime in with “Gosh, isn’t it all wonderful; isn’t our Lord fulsome because He has bestowed upon us a chance to be tested?” And, to be fair, such sentiments would extend logically from a sort of twisted rationale, wherein belief has value precisely because it’s not straightforward, owing to its lack of foundation. Other apologists say, again with a whiff of reason, that the nature of God’s presence in a time and in a “mortal” guise, explains His current absence: they say He had to become our Messiah and die on a cross at a specific point in our history, which is, of course, now past.

But no, once Risen the Lord didn’t have to limit His Royal Appearances to such a short period after His “death”. He didn’t have skip the twenty-first century Jesus tour for his modern day fans, nor did He have to deprive all but a few close allies of his post-resurrection appearances in the first century. Come on, didn’t the resurrected King realise that we, now, would all be far more impressed if he’d appeared to (and converted?) the movers and shakers (and the sceptics) of his day – the Jewish Sanhedrin, or Pontius Pilate perhaps? He could even have dispersed visions of his Risen Self beyond the confines of Palestine, if He’d chosen to do so. That would’ve been something for the history books, and mindful that He was restricted to one stay on Earth He ought to have thought about the history books. It seems God was in a too trusting frame of mind if He thought human beings would be sufficiently moved to comprehensively record their experience of the Divine. What a disappointment: not a single authentic first century record of Christ, outside the Gospels, even though Roman historians and Jewish historians meticulously recorded just about everything else – including other “saviours” like Joshua of Galilee. For goodness sake, didn’t anyone else notice the eclipse, the Earthquake, and the walking dead detailed in Matthew 28?

If faith rests on a delicate recipe which combines reasons to believe (presence) and reasons to doubt (absence), then God got it all wrong – He grossly overbaked the latter and made a terrible mess in the kitchen. Perhaps His ‘taking a back seat’ in times of plenty, or when events haven’t really concerned Him, is partially forgivable – if still inexplicable. But harebrained nature of belief is soon fully exposed when we ask how God could have kept His Abundance to Himself while massacres were being perpetrated in His various names. To my mind a bit of parental mediation was certainly called for in 1572, when Catherine de Medici precipitated the Catholic slaughter of thousands, and thousands, of Huguenots. Equally, the Early Church may not have visited unhappiness and murder upon “heretical” Manichaes, Docetists, and Arians, if only He had turned up to settle to odd doctrinal dispute.

But then we are talking about the same Moral Force that was furious with Moses’ cohorts when they didn’t murder absolutely everyone in the Midianite gang – sorry “race”, not “gang”, like the similarly unfortunate Canaanite race. (Yes, every single man and beast were for it second time around, even if God did expressly decree that the young female virgins should be ‘spared’…) Finally, sincerely, and most decisively, there is just no way – no way – to defend belief in a God who couldn’t even manage an appearance when six millions of his ‘chosen people’ were being stripped naked, obscenely brutalised, and then gassed.