Category Archives: Religion

Abraham’s Followers

God said to Abraham “Kill me a son…”

This blog post is prompted by the Pope’s visit to Ireland – a secular, utterly changed, country in the 40 years since Francis’s predecessor visited the country. I say good to that. Let’s talk religion.

As a humanist, I obviously reject all religions (although Buddhism doesn’t require its followers to believe in a non-existent deity, so I’m OK with that.) The rest contain some superstitious nonsense about God, Yahweh, Allah or whatever and generally also a belief in some form of afterlife. Neither is for me. The Humanist position is clear and simple. We have but one life, here on Earth. And people are free to believe and practice any religion as long as it does no harm to others. That’s the acid test.

There are some deeply troubling trends in India in relation to Hindu nationalism, leading to state-tolerated anti-Muslim discrimination – but that would be a distraction from my main arguments. So I’ll stick to the main Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). For reasons of brevity and familiarity, I’ll use “Abraham” rather than the Islamic form “Ibrahim” in this post.

abraham and son

Orthodox and Enlightened

Broadly speaking, Humanists like me have most problems with the orthodox / traditional wings of these three religions. That’s because they are “book” religions and the words are taken literally by the traditionalists. Liberal Jews, Christians and Muslims recognise that the world and social attitudes have changed since the words were written. So they “interpret” what’s been written in the light of what we’ve learnt since.

There is no shortage of enlightened, liberal and even secular Jews to engage in a debate. “Secular” doesn’t work for Christians and Muslims: it’s an oxymoron – despite Home Secretary Sajid Javid claiming he’s a “secular Muslim”: logically impossible! I suppose it helps him to be more accepted by the Christian traditionalists in the Tory Party.

Judaism

The concept of “secular Jew” works because Judaism differs from the other two Abrahamic faiths in one important way. The term “Jew” is conventionally applied as both a religious and ethnic grouping. It is part of the reason we can all get quickly into hot water over debates about antisemitism. I believe that, under Benjamin Netanyahu, the actions of the state of Israel make it a rogue state: a democracy with a coalition government dependent on right-wing extremist parties. But my fundamental belief in anti-discrimination makes it easy for me to distinguish between criticism of Israel and criticism of Jews in general.

I do also believe that Jews, as an identifiable group, have been discriminated against – including genocide – more than any other over the past 2000 years. About 90% of the discrimination was done in the name of Christianity: anti-Jewish sentiment and actions by Muslims are – with one or two notable exceptions – a relatively recent phenomenon. And the Holocaust, as the most evil state-sponsored event of the 20th century, behoves us all to be very sensitive in our choice of words.

Christianity

Again, taking a 2000 year view, Christianity has been the main culprit when it comes to killing and torture in the name of religion. The Renaissance, in Christian Europe, led to a rediscovery of classical Greek and Roman art and philosophy, secular in nature. The Reformation gave us Protestantism, which, via the Enlightenment, led to secularism. This and scientific discovery have brought progress to the point where over half of Brits have no religion. There are more non-believers than Anglicans.

And yet, the Church retains many privileges in Britain and certainly in England, thanks to a combination of factors. Detritus which needs to be swept away includes state-funded faith schools, the requirement for our head of state to defend the established church and the general legislative drag on enlightened, secular policies. It is a disgrace that a part of the UK (Northern Ireland) violates the human rights of women over abortion, for example. The UK and Iran are the only two countries in the world with clergy formally and constitutionally part of the legislature.

Islam

Which brings us to Islam. Humanists have one big problem which we cannot avoid. Traditional Islamic teaching states that the Qur’an, as told to the prophet Mohammed, is the final word of Allah / God, which cannot therefore be challenged. A lot of Islamic teaching and cultural practice is not in the Qur’an itself, but in the many additions, not least the Hadith, bolted on to the faith subsequently. It’s primarily about 7th to 12th century politics, when things in the Middle East were pretty patriarchal (see Misogyny below). But asserting the Qur’an as the unimprovable word of Allah doesn’t exactly encourage open debate.

I continue to strive to gain a better understanding of Islam, for two opposing motives. The first (and by far the more important) is to enable me to be culturally sensitive in my regular dealing with Muslim people, as a matter of respect for them and their right to practice their faith. The second motive is to use my greater knowledge of their religion to disagree with Islamic beliefs from a humanist perspective. Much of the culture in Muslim groups in 21st century Britain is highly socially conservative, and I am keen to gain a better understanding of where this comes from.

In the 10th century, a phenomenon known as closing the gates to Itjihad occurred: in plain English, the law-makers of the time “laid down the (sharia) law” and there it stays until this day. One thing I can say for sure: Islam has never had the equivalent of Christianity’s Reformation. But it’s more complicated than that! (Read on in the Wiki article linked above to get a brief overview of 19th century Islamic modernism and Salafism – but many of the most extremist groups in Islam and individuals such as Osama Bin Laden hark back to a mythical “Golden Period” of early Islam – which only makes things worse!)

I think what really matters is that nearly all Muslims living in Britain get on with their lives in such a way that they do no harm: that’s the Humanist litmus test. It’s a key tenet of Humanist thought that all people, of all faiths, are free to act this way without fear of discrimination.

Misogyny

All the Abrahamic faiths, but especially Christianity and Islam, seem obsessed about women and what they may, or may not, do with their bodies. There is a strong propensity towards misogyny. It’s easy to spot where this comes from in Christianity and orthodox Judaism. Women are unclean, as a result of menstruation and childbirth (Leviticus 12). (Incidentally Leviticus 18:22 is the only Biblical source of Christian anti-gay bigotry.) It’s worth reading Leviticus in full, as I have done. You’ll learn that it’s OK to eat locusts but not prawns, it’s a sin to wear a garment made with more than one fabric and how to deal with mildew as a nomad in the pre-Christian Arabian desert. And a whole lot more: how times have changed.

The other great driver of religious misogyny is the Adam and Eve myth. Specifically, it’s in the role Eve plays as temptress with the apple (Genesis 3:6). Echoes of this myth filter down to today in Islam around the issue of Muslim women’s right to wear what they choose or forced to by men(?). This Polly Toynbee article intelligently addresses the issue.

Misogyny and the violation of women’s rights remain the biggest example of what I meant by “legislative drag” in the earlier section on Christianity.

The Pope and Catholicism

Which all brings us back to the Pope’s visit. Good luck to Francis with his reforms – if he truly means it. Church politics will resist all moves towards a more enlightened position. Thought control is hard-wired into the Catholic hierarchy. And the interests of the Church always take priority over the victims of abuse. Steve Bell’s cartoon from 8 years ago got there first.

Sorry
Not really sorry…

The Catholic Church is intrinsically evil. It has caused more anguish and misery than any other man-made institution in the past 2000 years. (Its supporters will argue it has brought comfort too. That may well be true, but the evil is greater than the good). To be Catholic is to learn guilt at a young age. If I remember rightly, wanking is a sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church. So that gets 90% of Catholic schoolboys for a start!

The pope said some words earlier this week in advance of his visit to Ireland. But victims’ groups were unimpressed: it was just words with no sense that anything will change. A bit like the “prayers and thoughts” offered by Trump and other NRA apologists in the USA after each school mass killing.

I hope that everyone has a nice time in Dublin today, even those with whom I disagree over matters of faith. But, like gun control in the States, don’t expect real change any time soon.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

What Was It All About, Alfie?

There’s a sad postscript to the tragic tale of Alfie Evans, the little boy who died last week.

Extra Security

Alder Hey Hospital has set up a helpline and introduced extra security measures as a result of the Alfie case. Hospital staff were abused and attacked by ill-informed mobs after they cared for little Alfie for 18 months, in the most sensitive and distressing circumstances imaginable.

crucifix

It all sounds familiar to those who remember the equally tragic case of Charlie Gard. In both cases, the sound of people – Catholic fundamentalists and pro-lifers generally –  jumping onto bandwagons and hijacking proceedings were deafening. The Catholic Legal Centre bullied Alfie’s parents into letting them take over the legal case. Catholic fundamentalist activists posed as relatives to gain access to Alfie’s bedside. Even the Pope was in on the act: Alfie’s parents got an audience with him.

More Scary

So what is the result of all this?

Every child in Liverpool who is ill enough to need to go to Alder Hey Hospital, and their worried parents, will now need to go through extra security checks. That makes visiting the hospital that little bit more scary for every child at their most vulnerable. That doesn’t sound a very Christian thing to me.

What Is to Be Done?

The sad tale of Alfie seems just the latest in a long line of gross overreach and interference in our lives by religious fundamentalists. Christian evangelists seem the worst – the Catholics being richest and best organised – with some Islamic groups also to blame. It does seem to be a particular problem with the monotheistic (Abrahamic) religions, but Jewish groups and the good, soggy old CofE don’t seem to be in the same league. So we must choose whom to oppose with care and consideration.

I have always felt uneasy at the misogyny associated with these religions and the passion devoted to telling women what to do with their bodies. A quick read of Leviticus will remind us all that women’s bodies are inherently dirty. Leviticus 15:19 (menstruation) and Chapter 12 (Purification after Childbirth) would be good places to start for the uninitiated. Mary is fetished by Catholics as a virgin, but I assume she had periods! (Incidentally, Chapter 12 is sandwiched between “clean and unclean food” and “regulations about infectious skin diseases.”) Sorry, folks, times change.

So, what can we do? Pick our opportunities as best we can. Here are two ideas for focussing our lobbying and pressure.

Safe Zones for Family Planning Clinics

foetus image

The first area relates to the harassment of women considering abortions who get intimidated by Christian groups outside Family Planning Clinics. Congratulations to the councillors in Ealing for passing local bylaws to protect women from harassment at a vulnerable time. We now need central government to make this into an England-wide piece of legislation. But with May’s constant reminding us of her visit to church every Sunday, we may have to pick off the country one council at a time. There are, I believe, other councils considering their own bylaws.

Faith Schools

I obviously believe, as a Humanist and secularist, that there should be NO state-funded faith schools in the UK (the norm throughout most of the rest of Europe). But the 80% of the public who agree with me find ourselves in a hostile environment on this issue whilst May stays as PM.

But there is a good second best: ensure that the National Curriculum regulations, particularly in favour of teaching “British” Values and admissions policies are rigorously enforced with NO opt-outs for faith schools. (The “British” values are, of course, in reality European ones, but we dare not speak that word!). Amanda Spielman, Head of Ofsted, has said some encouraging words on the subject. Local governing bodies, sympathetic councillors, parents’ groups, teaching unions and the rest must use local opportunities to ensure no backsliding on this.

So there are a couple of things we can do to fight back and put religion back into its box where it belongs. Alfie, tragically, was just the tip of the iceberg. “First, they came for the Jews…”

One Other Thing

Oh, and one other little thing. We must strain every sinew to ensure that Britain stays close to its friends who share its values. That, of course, means the UK must stay a member of the EU.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

Desert Island Discs

Exclusive to Human Eyes!

desert island discs

I can now reveal the eight records Theresa May has chosen for her appearance on Desert Island Discs. They are:

Should I Stay or Should I Go? – Clash
Go Now – Moody Blues
Sling Your Hook – Jez and Labour
Our Day Has Come (original 1688 mix) – DUPey and the Rome-antis
No Woman No Rights – Bob M’arlene and the Wailers
Unsteady As She Goes – The Saboteurs
Is There Anybody Out There? – Barnier and Juncker
Give Jez a Chance – John and Yo-go

(May was forced into a U-turn on one of her choices when the BBC Record Archive could find no trace of The Laughing Policeman.)

wheat field

Book chosen to take to a desert island: The Desert of Wheat by Zane Grey, “to bring back those happy memories”.

spadeLuxury item to take: a spade, to bury all her hopes and dreams, and ours, too.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

Curiouser and Uncuriouser

Just after she retired, my wife and I were at a social function. She was asked what she was now doing with her time. She replied that she was doing English Literature as a part-time student with the Open University. The questioner without hesitation responded: “Oh, I can’t think of anything worse!” This, as it turns out, is a great conversation killer! Where on earth can the conversation go from there?

Reflecting on this exchange some time later, I wondered why I felt at the time such huge contempt for her questioner. My conclusion was that the questioner and I are poles apart on one spectrum of human attitude: curiosity. I was appalled by the fact that someone would find offensive the idea of a mature woman gaining new knowledge and learning new skills.

Lifelong Learning

I started to think about the wider ramifications of all this. To start with, we all have some fundamental principles that underpin our outlook on life. Two of mine, relevant to this subject, are these. Firstly, the development of the human brain by the random march of evolution is a thing of wonder and celebration. Secondly, when it comes to the brain, I’m a firm believer in the “use it or lose it” principle.

Alice and the Mad Hatter

Just look around any primary school classroom. Just talk to, or observe, any 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9-year old child as they explore new things about the world. See the joy that comes from each new discovery, and the further quest for knowledge that it inspires.  Sadly, for too many of us, that joy, that quest for learning, withers and fades. But for many – and I like to consider myself as one such – that curiosity survives into old age. The popularity of adult education classes, of institutions such as U3A, of mature students taking degrees are all testimony to that. To quote a tired – but paradoxically energising – old cliché, “You’re never too old to learn!”

Left and Right

I’ve often pondered what underlying characteristics separate politically left-leaning from right-leaning people. It’s part of the old “nature versus nurture” debate. Perhaps it’s something to do with our faith in human nature. The right might take a view that, left to their own devices, people are selfish and can’t be trusted. The left, by contrast, may hold an unshakeable faith in the improvability of human kind. They criticize each other as being bitter, cynical and twisted or being hopelessly naïve and utopian. Such an analysis may explain a lot, but I think it gets us only so far.

argumentI think there’s another dimension, a spectrum which characterises the left-right character differences. And that’s this dimension of curiosity: the preparedness to use one’s own brain to challenge received ideas and think things through for oneself. My observations of human behaviour over nearly seven decades have noticed one thing in particular. Those on the right (politically and socially) seem much more prepared to take at face value the word of authority figures, such as politicians, doctors, priests and anyone in uniform. (Increasingly these days, these also include business leaders and the rich of all types.) The left are more prepared to challenge and seek alternative views on the subject.

This underlying difference has many manifestations. Divine revelation versus the scientific method. Theocracy versus secularism. Royalist versus republican. Tradition versus progress. Order versus creativity. Views on the environment and climate change. Rote teaching of facts versus “learning to learn”. Attitudes to race, gender and sexuality. Nostalgia for a mythical “golden age” versus optimism for the future. The welcome, or otherwise, for different cultures and the immigrants who bring them. Win-lose versus win-win. Daily Mail versus Guardian.

To sum up: “I have nothing to learn from you” versus “I welcome the opportunity to learn from you”.

Sticking Together and Schism

There’s a further point I’d like to make concerning this phenomenon. And that’s to do with political parties. It’s a well-observed fact that parties of the left love to have debates and schisms, factions and splits. It seems naturally easier for left-wing party activists to split and form a new party than split the difference. (Think Judean People’s Front in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.)

Sorry, I meant the People’s Front of Judea.

Parties of the right tend to keep their differences to themselves. Last year, nearly half of Tory MPs voted Remain. But with literally one or two exceptions, you never hear from them now. There’s a strong cultural pressure to stick together / avoid doing something that is “bad form” / don’t let the side down / support the regiment / rally round the flag / supply your own cliché. (The exceptions, of course, are the extremist right-wing parties like UKIP and the Front National.)

In addition to the huge disparity in funding, this phenomenon hugely disadvantages Labour and the left in UK elections, with our first-past-the-post voting system. To recall an old joke of two men chased by a lion, “I only have to run faster than you, not the lion”.

It Makes Me Cross

One last thing about all this that makes me cross. It’s when religious apologists rage against that non-existent oxymoron, the “militant atheist”. You know, the person who’s going to undermine all moral authority by brainwashing our children into becoming atheists too. All the atheists and humanists I know want nothing of the sort. We just want people to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions. The uncurious just don’t get that bit. So I say, rediscover your inner eight year-old. Try using your brain a little harder and discover something new. Test your opinion against some facts. You might even enjoy it.

“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice. Well, amen to that, I might say!! (Or not.) And, by the way, Alfie, what is it all about?

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

A Headful of Ideas

… that are driving me insane

brain overloadIt’s now a year since I started this blog – time for a little reflection.

It started as an act of catharsis following the Tories’ shock win in the general election. But it’s kind of turned into a form of therapy. My wife* mocks the fact that there are very few followers I’ve been able to attract so far. One of my Twitter followers is a cat – and a cat I’ve already met!

In the early days, without much experience on social media, I felt I just needed to find the right topics and, with a bit of effort, I’d begin to get into a dialogue with like-minded people and, more importantly, those who disagreed with me. That way, ideas can be refined and built upon. All very enlightened. It hasn’t really happened yet.

Rightly or wrongly, I try to vary the style: some deadly serious, some attempts at humour or, at least, whimsy. This may attract certain types of folks and put others off – who knows? Sometimes, I have a headful of ideas in draft at the same time – at other times, I dry up.

As a committed non-believer, it’s an easy temptation to mock people of faith as self-deluded – I do try to avoid these thoughts. Humans are the only species on the planet aware of our own mortality. So, simply getting out of bed each day requires a measure of self-delusion too! But the fact that you’re still reading this is your evidence that I too succumb to a measure of self-delusion. In this case, about the impact this blog will have on the world.

So, as you’re still reading, send me a comment, tell me what you think so far; better still, text a friend with the link, whatever!

Still, maybe tomorrow, that next post will go viral…

*(It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor…)

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

It Ain’t Necessarily So

What is the “gospel truth”? It’s an expression we use when we assert something is true with absolute certainty. But hang on a minute… This is a piece about mistranslations in the Bible.

Lost in Translation

First, a bit of background. The most familiar version of the Bible in English is the King James edition of 1611. This was translated from Hebrew and Aramaic (Old Testament), from Greek (New Testament) and from Greek and Latin (Apocrypha – rarely reproduced in modern printings).

Ancient Hebrew, in written form, consists only of consonants. The vowels have to be inferred from the context or prior knowledge of the subject area. Consider this: “th cw jmpd vr th mn”. It’s easily recognized as a line from a well-known nursery rhyme. But suppose you came from a culture unfamiliar with the rhyme. Perhaps you’d think the most likely reading of this would be “the cow jumped over the man”. So we have a potential problem here. The chances that all 593,000 words of the Old Testament were correctly translated seem, well, a bit slim to me.

Secondly, it’s often hard to find a word in translation to convey the exact meaning of the original text. Here’s a famous example: “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1). The Greek original for “word”: λογος (logos) carries a wide range of meanings. Wikipedia devotes a whole page to it. Logos can be translated as “a ground”, “a plea”, “an opinion”, “an expectation”, “word”, “speech”, “account”, “to reason” or “a premise”. In ancient Greek philosophy (from Heraclitus), it is used as meaning “a principle of order or knowledge”. The King James translators hardly do justice to John’s original. This is just one example out of thousands (around 181,000 in the New Testament).

Camels and Needles

camel and needleOne of the most striking of soundbites attributed to Jesus is the one stating that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24 et al). (A similar phrase can be found in the Quran.) I was once told this is a mistranslation and so I did some research.

Here are four main rival theories I found:

  1. Jesus actually said this (in Aramaic of course, his spoken language). Camels were the largest animals native to Palestine. There are accounts of the phrase being used in other cultures, substituting elephants for camels, as a metaphor for something impossible.
  2. The Gate Theory: a story dating from the 15th century (and possibly as early as the 9th) asserts that the “Eye of the Needle” was a small gate or night door in the walls of Jerusalem used only at night after the main gates to the city were closed. There is no evidence such a gate ever existed.
  3. “Camel” is a mistranslation of “rope”: in Aramaic, the word for “rope” and “camel” are the same (roughly transliterated as “gamla”) and the gospel writers mistranslated this into Greek.
  4. “Camel” is a misspelling for “rope”: in this version, it’s all in the Greek. “Kamelos” means camel, “kamilos” means cable.

There’s an even less plausible 5th version involving mistranslation of “knot”.

So, basically, I just don’t know which version is true, but the implications for the theology between version one and the other three are significant. I’ll leave that to the theologians to thrash out.

Add to all the above the fact that, for the first 1400 years, there was no printing press and copies had to be made by hand. Were these always made without error? I doubt that. So, all in all, the things that you’re liable to read in the Bible: don’t treat them as gospel!

Oh, and Mary wasn’t a “virgin”. She was a “young woman”. (Think “maid” in English.)

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

Disestablish the Church of England Now!

Last month, a report revealed that weekly attendance at Church of England churches has now fallen below one million – just 1.4% of the population. This continues a long period of remorseless decline. The red line on the graph below shows this.

Church and school attendanceSurvey after survey has shown the proportion of British who say they are “religious” in similar decline. Latest figures put this at around half of us. “No religion”, at 42%, now far exceeds the 31% calling themselves Christian. (This is even lower than the 37% who voted Tory at the last election!)

Out of Touch with Opinion

The Church of England has not exactly shown itself in touch with public opinion recently. Justine Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, painted himself into a corner by convening a meeting of the so-called “Anglican communion”. This is some kind of post-imperial hangover. It arises from the ashes of the former British Empire and its missionary proselytizing – with a dash of inclusiveness arising from post-imperial guilt.

Welby’s desire to keep this mixed bag of Anglicans “united” resulted in the formal punishment of the most enlightened part of the communion: the Episcopal Church in the USA. And yet the Episcopalians are closest to public opinion, even of the Church’s own members! For example, the 2015 Eurobarometer survey found 71% of Britons in favour of same-sex marriage throughout Europe, with 24% against. The subsequent “apology” by Welby for the “hurt” caused to LGBT people merely reinforced how pathetic the whole sorry episode has been.

Faith Schools

Despite the continuing decline in church attendance, the number of school children attending CofE schools has risen slowly. This means that now more schoolchildren attend CofE schools daily than people worship in their churches each week. The blue line on the graph above illustrates this point. As a secularist, I strongly object to the grip that religious authorities, the CofE in particular, still have in 21st century Britain. What makes it worse is the extent to which faith schools break the law in their admissions policies.

But what makes this truly outrageous is the Government’s response to this widespread law-breaking by faith schools. Nicky Morgan, Education Secretary, has taken two actions:

  1. She has issued guidance to schools telling them to ignore the adjudicator’s findings: in effect, to carry on breaking the law. As a school governor, I find this deeply disturbing. To be encouraged by a Government Minister to breach her Department’s own rules is a serious assault on the rule of law, a key foundation of democracy.
  2. She also proposes a change in procedures preventing organisations such as the British Humanist Association and the Fair Admissions Campaign from raising objections to the admissions adjudicator. She refers to the BHA/FAC campaign as “vexatious”. And this is after the adjudicator found over 1000 breaches of the code following their detailed campaign!

We can only hope Morgan will not follow the same career path as her predecessor into the Ministry of Justice. Following the same logic as in point 2, it doesn’t take much imagination to speculate what a Morgan-led justice system would look like. Presumably, the police would not be allowed to investigate murders without a written complaint from the victims!

Nicky Morgan
Morgan: Looking for Divine Inspiration?

It will come as no surprise to note that Morgan is a committed Christian. She is a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship. At a parliamentary event last July, she said she’s in parliament not only for her constituents, but “to remember the Word of God and serve the Lord”.

The admissions code breaches by faith schools include multiple cases of discrimination, including religion and gender. Guess who is currently Minister for Women and Equalities? It’s a certain Nicky Morgan MP, who incidentally voted against the same-sex marriage bill. At best, she’s misunderstood her brief. Worse, she appears to be grossly abusing her position to pursue a particular agenda.

Who says irony is dead?

Established Church

With our famously unwritten constitution, changes take place slowly and in a piecemeal way. In many ways, Britain is a socially progressive liberal democracy. But there’s one hell of a load of what I call “feudal detritus”. One is the continuing existence of the Anglican Church as the established church in England. (Note “England”: there is no established church in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.) The map below shows just how strange we are. The coloured areas show countries with an established religion. The string of officially Muslim countries (in green) across a swathe of North Africa and the Middle East will come as no surprise. More surprising is a tiny handful of officially Protestant countries in Scandinavia. But that’s just about it.

Established religion countries
Established religion countries

Oh, and by the way, there are just two countries with clerics as a formal part of the legislature: the UK and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For those who, like me, feel this is wrong, sign the petition for Parliament to debate the removal of the 26 bishops from the House of Lords.

Disestablish Now!

Modern, liberal, secular democracies understand the need to keep church and state separate. With less than half of Britons religious and less than a third Anglicans, the privileged position of the Church of England makes no sense at all. It’s frankly insulting to the rest of us. What was done for the political and sexual convenience of a womanizing former king – Henry VIII – has no place in modern times.

So let’s continue to clean up the relics of our feudal past. Replace Nicky Morgan with someone who will not abuse their position as Minister for education and who can fill the shoes of Equalities Minister without irony. And, above all, disestablish the Church of England  – with all that that entails!

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

Symbiosis: Kings and Popes

As an atheist, I have often wondered how religions arise and how some, at least, last so long. Durations for the world’s major religions are impressive. The figures are: 4000 years for Hinduism, 3000 for Judaism, 2000 for Christianity and 1400 for Islam, to name the most significant. (Oh, and Jedi – 30 years: 0.7% of people on 2011 census returns cited this as their religion.)

There is now a large collection of books aiming to give an explanation as to why human beings seem to need some sort of spiritual or religious ideas in their lives. Jesse Bering’s The God Instinct, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, A.C. Grayling’s The God Argument and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great are just a few books explaining this phenomenon, from various scientific and rational points of view: evolutionary, psychological and so forth.

In this post, I want to explore one possible contributory reason why religion, in particular Christianity in the West, has lasted so long. This is all about politics and power and the mutual support religion gives to kings and popes.

Kings and Power

Historically, the existence of kings (and they were nearly always men) depended on the use, or threat, of force to retain power. Scheming, plotting, betrayal, violence – including carrying out or commissioning acts of murder – were all part of everyday court life. History books, novels, films and plays down the centuries bear testimony to this truth. With the celebrations last year of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the slow journey to modern liberal western democracy has been resisted by those with power at every step, often very violently.

Medaeival crown
Medaeival Crown

Repression of the many by the few takes talent (of a sort), time, a reasonable number of close allies you can trust and, above all, money. Money is needed to bribe key individuals and groups and to pay soldiers who are prepared to fight for your cause. Many a king in history has lost power, battles, wars, influence and land through the lack of means to pay for their protection.

Popes and Politics

According to official sources, there have been 266 popes since the first, St Peter (33-67 CE). Their succession has not always been smooth: 11 were martyred, 6 deposed, 2 murdered, 3 exiled and 3 resigned (including the previous incumbent Joseph Ratzinger). There were periods in the 13th, 14th, 15th and 18th centuries when there was no pope at all. During the “Western Schism” between 1378 and 1417 there were two, and sometimes three, rival popes. At this time, incidentally, England found itself on the opposite side to France (perhaps unsurprisingly), but also to Scotland and Wales.

papal tiara
Papal tiara

For the majority of its 2000 year history, there’s been rivalry, scheming, corruption, riots, popular uprisings and conflict similar to that of the kings. For the first 300 years, as leader of a small but growing cult, the pope had no real power. But from then until around the 18th or 19th century, popes and the Catholic Church played power politics big time, to greater or lesser effect. And, of course, nobody forgets the Spanish Inquisition!

nobody expects the spanish inqisition
Nobody expects…

A Mutual Need

Now, keeping order in an unruly kingdom has always been a problem. A king doing it all by force, i.e. an army or some form of police, is a time-consuming and expensive business. How handy it would be if there was some form of self-regulating mechanism whereby the masses behaved themselves. Aha! The pope has just the thing: an afterlife and the concepts of heaven and hell. Fortunately, these human beings really like the idea of an afterlife: it solves two problems:

  1. It acts as a soothing balm for the recently bereaved;
  2. It offers an outlet for the violent affront to the human ego when trying to imagine one’s own non-existence after death.

Popes (self-evidently) assert the existence of heaven and hell as two alternative destinations for the afterlife (plus the complicating “purification processing factory” called purgatory). Your destination depends on your ability to stick to the rules, as defined by the pope. Just throw in the presence of an all-seeing and judgmental God and – hey presto! – you have your mechanism for social control!

So, kings find popes useful as a means of helping with the social control of the masses, in a cheaper and more benign way than repression by pure force.

So, what’s in it for the popes with this deal? The Roman Catholic Church is an enormously expensive organisation to run. Having the power of the king behind you to encourage the masses to attend church, bide by its rules and drop their coins onto the collection plate is a great advantage.

There are some problems with this arrangement, however. The interests of the king do not always coincide with the interests of the pope. Kings, too, like to make rules, so whose rules must the people obey? Conflicts and power struggles abound down the ages. But, by and large, each needs the other to sustain the system in the long term.

A Symbiosis

pope and king
Pope and King

The kings have the tax raising powers and the greater “firepower” in the use of force, if necessary. But the popes have the “trump card”: kings, too, must either end up in heaven or in hell, and so are subject to the popes’ rules. The interplay between these two “truths” produces a kind of symbiosis which helped preserve the church and monarchy for most of the last 2000 years.

So I find it unsurprising that I’m a republican as well as an atheist!

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

Two Castles (part 1)

… but castles built on sand!

This is the first of two posts on the power of the human imagination. The second is on the economic theory I call free market fundamentalism. But this one is on:

Religion

I will look at this through two very different perspectives: architecture and philosophy.

Architecture

I am what some may think is a contradiction. I am a humanist who enjoys walking around churches and cathedrals (well, some* at least). I love a good cathedral: the sense of space, tranquillity, the sun streaming though stained glass, the lofty, vaulted ceiling. All these combine to produce a mixture of joy, wellbeing and a haven of calm secluded from the frenzied pace of 21st century living.

I have sometimes tried to imagine these great buildings at the time of their construction. Whole armies of people – architects, stonemasons, carpenters, artists and more – working to a common plan. Perhaps 4 or 5 generations of these workers spent their entire working lives on these awesome structures, the early generations never living long enough to see the finished design. The buildings themselves would tower over the modest mediaeval dwellings to a greater degree than they do in today’s cities.

Lincoln Cathedral
Lincoln Cathedral

A memorable occasion was a visit to the beautiful Lincoln Cathedral one Saturday afternoon when my wife and I were taking a weekend break in that delightful city. By sheer luck, we entered just as a concert of religious and secular music by a barber-shop quartet a capella was starting in the choir of the cathedral. The acoustics were fabulous and, combined with the inspiring surroundings, the effect was – dare I say? – magical.

These great buildings stand as a proud monument to the skills and imagination of people long since dead and they continue to bring awe, joy and peace of mind today.

*Two counter-examples spring to mind. The first was an overbearing gothic monstrosity in Prague, with walls dripping with artefacts in gold-leaf and marble. The overall effect, I presume, was to intimidate and bully the flock into believing in the church’s teachings. The sense of claustrophobia was oppressive. I came out of there muttering comments about “architectural fascism”. The second, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the obscene excrescence built in the middle of the elegant Great Mosque in Cordoba. I rate this as the worst act of architectural vandalism I have ever encountered. Both are exemplars of what I call “Catholic tat”. I feel truly sorry for anyone impressed by these disgusting shows of wealth and power.

Philosophy

As a non-believer, I continue to be fascinated by the philosophical (and theological) reasoning given by religious apologists for their belief in God. This led me to sign up for a weekend course at Cambridge on the question of “God and evil”. I didn’t know what “theodicy**” meant until recently: I’ve now read quite a few of them, together with their critics’ responses.

Saint Augustine
St Augustine

What has struck me about these theodicies is their sheer complexity and sophistication. The arguments get more and more nit-picking as the meaning of words and concepts are dissected to an ever-finer degree. The CVs and credentials of protagonists on both sides are often highly impressive. These sometimes towering exercises in thought are the metaphysical equivalent of the physical structures of the great churches and cathedrals discussed above.

But the whole enterprise of theodicy has left me with two thoughts. Firstly, building a whole structure of ideas on what I believe to be a false premise reminds me of a parent teaching a child not to lie. Children, having told a little “fib”, usually get found out. On cross-examination by a doubting parent, they have to elaborate a whole pile of further, less and less plausible, lies to maintain consistency in their story. One can see the relief on a child’s face when they finally confess the truth: the sheer effort of lying is much harder than telling the truth in the first place.

This leads me to my second insight. My own conviction that God doesn’t exist essentially comes down to the attraction, for me, of Occam’s Razor. Simplifying slightly, this principle can be stated as follows: given two alternative explanations for a phenomenon, the simpler is to be preferred. This is because it is more likely to be true. Given the choice of explanations for evil between the complexity of any theodicy and the alternative that God does not exist, the latter wins hands down.

**It’s basically a reasoned argument put forward in an attempt to reconcile the existence of evil in the world with the existence of an all-seeing, all-powerful, perfectly good deity.

Conclusion

What both these examples illustrate is the sheer scale and complexity of the “castles” – physical and intellectual – that can be built by the human imagination, even if their “foundations” are made of sand. (Not literally, of course, in the case of the cathedrals!) Even so, as I have shown, they can bring great benefit and happiness to humankind. But they can bring great misery and suffering, too, as I plan to demonstrate in Two Castles (part 2).

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss

Don’t Eat That!

For years, I’ve enjoyed a certain wry bemusement from the dietary restrictions imposed by the world’s various religions. It seems obvious to me that the vast majority of such rules were based upon common-sense recommendations for healthy eating from a pre-refrigeration age. Some rules do seem to have passed their “best-before” date: a favourite of mine that few of us obey is the rule that it’s OK to eat locusts but not prawns (Leviticus 11:9-22).

One such rule I learnt for the first time a day or so ago, as part of reading about the ancient Greek philosophers. It concerns the followers of Pythagoras – he of right-angled triangles fame – and the absolute no-no of eating beans.

Some background may help here. It turns out that Pythagoras was not just a mathematician and geometer but also a leader of a religious and political cult. Followers believed in reincarnation and that some or all living things – animals and plants – have souls. (There seems to be some measure of disagreement among the Pythagoreans whether all animals had souls and they were even less sure about plants, although they all seemed to agree that laurel bushes did.) Strictly interpreted, about all that was safe to eat was milk and honey: that steak or bunch of olives you’re tucking into just might contain the soul of your dearly-departed granny, so best avoided, eh? These rules were frequently broken, but they were all sure about the beans.

The Pythagoreans faded away about 2400 years ago and subsequent generations of Greeks thought the practice odd and speculated wildly on the origins of the “no beans” rule. Suggestions in circulation included:

  • the flatulence beans cause disturbs our sleep and mental tranquillity
  • beans are testicle-shaped
  • they are shaped like the Gates of Hades
  • they are shaped like the universe
  • they are used in allotting political office (Pythagoreans were no democrats)
  • buried in manure, they take on human shape
  • their stems are hollow and so connect directly to the underworld.

More modern research suggests a more prosaic reason: some people get ill after eating fava beans, which were common in southern Italy where Pythagoras and his cult lived.

What struck me about this story is how easily wild rumours and speculation can gain hold and have some currency – a problem which our modern, digitally connected world can make worse for those who inhabit only those parts of cyberspace populated by like-minded people.

More beans, anyone?

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
twitterrss