You too can be free

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One of the most liberating aspects of jettisoning Christianity was the realisation that nothing I did had cosmic significance. Nothing anybody does has cosmic significance. Yet to hear the cult’s leaders and spokesman talk, now as then, everything matters.

First and foremost, what you believe determines whether you lived forever in Heaven or not. Can you credit that: what you believe. So better get that doctrine sorted out! Right thought makes all the difference. You only have to read a few Christian blogs to realise how important this still is. Believe something only minimally unorthodox and your eternal life is in jeopardy. Not only that, but what you think in the privacy of your own head about issues like abortion, homosexuality, politics and society is subject to the Lord’s scrutiny. Better get it right – ‘Right’ being the operative term. It means recognising that Trump is God’s Chosen One because the Almighty is really only interested in the USA. He has much less time for other nations, except maybe Israel, so better get your thinking straight on that score, buddy.

God is, or so his self-appointed mouthpieces like to tell you, obsessively interested in how you, as an individual, spend your time, the language you used and whether you’re a faithful steward of the money he supplies (that’s the money you work hard for yourself). He lays it on your heart about how you should spend your time, the only valuable way being in the service of his Kingdom-that-never-comes. You’re made to feel that if your marriage isn’t close to perfection then you’re not really working at it (though god knows the biblical view of marriage is nothing like the one promoted by today’s Christian leaders). You’re made to feel you must share the gospel with everyone else you have relationships with: children, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, complete strangers. Don’t they too deserve to have a chance at eternal life? You don’t want them denied it because you failed to speak up, do you? Well, do you?

And then there’s the guilt when you can’t do all of this. You’re not sure you believe all the right stuff. You think you do but then you’re told about some point of doctrine you hadn’t considered and it is, apparently, really essential you do. So you consult the Holy Spirit who you think lives in your heart and you wonder why he hasn’t spoken up before now. Maybe you have liberal views about abortion. And really, you can’t find it in yourself to condemn all those ‘sodomites’ you’re told about; what difference does it make if you do or don’t? And your marriage is less then perfect. In fact, it’s a little bit messy, like human relationships tend to be, and sometimes you want just to relax, maybe laze a little bit. Not everything you do has to contribute to the Kingdom, after all.

But the guilt won’t let you. What kind of Christian are you, anyway? And as for witnessing at every opportunity, you wonder why you feel like a dog that’s compelled to pee at every lamp-post. Can’t friends just be friends? Can’t you just appreciate others for who they are, not as sinners who need saving? Apparently not.

What a wonderful release it is then, when you finally realise that none of this crap matters. Nothing you do, say or think makes the slightest bit of difference to whether you or others live forever (Spoiler: you won’t, they won’t.) How you act may help others feel a bit better about themselves or provide you with a sense of fulfilment but that’s the extent of it. Outside your immediate context, you’re insignificant, and there’s great significance to that. The pressure is off; God is not watching you to see whether you’re a good and faithful servant. Your time, money and thoughts are yours and yours alone. It’s entirely up to you how you use them, free from the tyranny of religion.

 

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Love and Kindness

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I’m sometimes I asked what, given I don’t believe in Jesus, I do believe in. I always find this an odd question, presuming as it does that Christianity is really the only thing worth believing in. Implicit in it too is an acknowledgement that faith in the supernatural is irrational, and that sceptics are just as prone to irrationality as believers themselves: ‘you too have faith in any number of unprovable propositions, just like us misguided Christians!’ The question is often an attempt to show that sceptics are just as gullible as Christians.

Recently, Jimoeba said on his blog, The Common Atheist, ‘I believe passionately in nothing,’ meaning, I think, he doesn’t believe in any sort of supernatural nonsense. It set me thinking about what, in fact, I believe in. Do I still have some irrational, unfounded beliefs? Certainly I don’t believe – can’t believe – in Jesus and his support cast of mythical entities, who live in Heaven or just out of sight or wherever they’re meant to be. The same applies to their counterparts in other religions. It’s not that I hold this as a matter of faith; there simply isn’t the evidence to support the existence of gods, angels, demons, eternal beings, heaven and hell (as I discuss here and here.)

In any case, I prefer to know things rather than believe in them. Where there is evidence, there is no need for ‘belief’ or ‘faith’. Yet I still have a suspicion I believe in some things; things that seem intuitively right (never a good measure, I know, of what actually is true) but for which the evidence isn’t as substantial as I’d like. Things like love and kindness. I do believe in these, however cliched it may be to say, ‘I believe in love’. I do. I feel and, I hope, demonstrate love for my family, specially my children and grandchildren. Also to my friends and partners. It seems to me love matters a great deal. There are no doubt good evolutionary reason why we feel particularly strong affection for our offspring; taking care of them increases their – and the genes we share – chances of survival. But subjectively it is more than that. I believe it’s more than that anyway.

I find , try as I might, however, that I can’t extend that love to people I don’t know. Jesus’ command (not that I’m under any obligation to follow it) to love one’s neighbours and enemies is an impossibility, another example of his not knowing what he was talking about. It’s possible to feel compassion for those who suffer, or pity or sympathy, but these, while they’re perhaps components of love, are not completely love in any of its forms. So that’s why I believe in kindness too. ‘Be kind to your neighbour, to strangers and to those you encounter in daily life’ would have been, and is, a far more realistic expectation.

There are other things I believe in too – trying to steer people away from irrational belief in deities, saviours and magic books, obviously – and I’m not always consistent in my application of love and kindness. But I do try to be. I know they’re not absolutes, nor even universal values; they’re not delivered from on high because no values are, being entirely humanly derived, and they’re not practised by everyone either, not even aspired to by some. There’s no need to go around preaching about love and kindness, nor do they need a mythology created around them. Nevertheless, they’re what matter – to me, anyway.

I believe in them.

What Does Atheism Have To Offer? (Part Three)

Celia17. Atheism offers knowledge instead of belief
‘But you must,’ Christians have said to me, ‘believe in something greater than yourself’ and ‘You can’t deny your spiritual needs.’ Well of course there are things greater than me and of all of us. The universe for a start; love, beauty, friendship, music, great art, nature, the night sky – sex even. Who hasn’t had a spiritual experience through their appreciation of these things? The fact they exist though, makes ‘belief’ in them redundant. We only need ‘believe’ in those things for which there is no evidence – which is why you can’t ‘believe’ in evolution; you can only know it as fact. Similarly, atheists know there are greater things than themselves. They don’t, as a rule, worship them, but appreciate them, often in awe and wonder, for what they are. As for such experiences being ‘spiritual’, we do not, of course, have ‘spirits’ either to nurture or express. We are emotional creatures and the value we find in those things greater than ourselves often stimulates sublime emotional responses. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but our responses reflect conditions within us, not the supernatural without.

8. Atheism offers the embrace of reality
Part of the inherent honesty of atheism is its recognition that this life is all there is. Atheism faces up to the fact that we are organic beings and like all organic beings our lives come to an end; there is nothing in us, no part of us, that survives death. Knowing heaven and eternal life are impossibilities atheism promises neither. Religions do, of course, and that is their great selling point but no-one, apart from atheists, seems to notice that they never actually deliver what they promise (because they can’t.)

Christians also tell atheists that it takes more faith not to believe in God than it does to believe in him. They need only look to their own experience to realise this cannot be so: they don’t need faith not to believe in Allah, Santa Claus or any number of other mythical beings. Equally atheists don’t exercise any faith at all not believing in Yahweh.

9. Atheism offers, unfortunately, an unsatisfactory name
One thing I wish atheism made possible but doesn’t – not yet anyway – is a better term for one who is unencumbered by gods, the supernatural and superstition. I have no wish to be defined by what I’m not, which is how ‘atheist’ works. It also implies that being a theist is somehow the default position and that any other is an aberration. I quite like ‘humanist’, but that doesn’t quite capture it either, but I’m not keen at all on Richard Dawkins’ suggestion of ‘bright’. The tide is turning though and once absence of belief becomes the norm, the right name for the true default will present itself.

10. Atheism offers a sense of well-being
Happiness, tranquility, peace perhaps don’t come from atheism per se, but they do stem from it: the opportunity for the consciousness I think of as ‘me’ to experience life in the here and now. I know many are not able to enjoy being here to the same extent that I and many in the west are able to, but this only makes it more important that we all do something to help improve the lot of others. As the nineteenth-century atheist Robert Ingersoll expressed it, ‘the time to be happy is now, the place to be happy is here, and the way to be happy is to make others so,’

As I write, Queen’s ‘Who Wants To Live Forever?’ is playing on the radio. It hardly matters who wants to; we can’t and we don’t. And – same group, different song – it’s true that ‘nothing really matters’. Really, it doesn’t, and so we are free to get on with living instead of trying to impose our beliefs on others, exterminating those we don’t like or squandering our one and only life because we think there’s a better one waiting. Atheism is far from nihilistic – it allows us to see the value of this life and helps us live it to the full.

So, what has atheism to offer? Freedom, honesty, meaning, contentment. Or, to put it another way, and to paraphrase what somebody or other once said, atheism really is the truth that can set you free.

Searching for Answers

TrustA tiny pamphlet is thrust into my hand by the street preacher’s confederate. Searching For Answers? it says, the question mark meaning, I suppose, ‘are you searching for answers?’, to which the answer is probably ‘no’. I’m not even sure I know the questions, which rules out, I can’t help feeling, finding the answers. It is badly printed and has a picture of a sunset on the front; inside shoddy grammar and misspelling tell me, not entirely to my surprise, that I need God.

The preacher is in full flow. Evolution, he’s saying, is a hoax, though he doesn’t tell those passing by why it is. Unless we repent of our sins and accept Christ, he insists, we’re all going to Hell and waves his Bible to prove it. A woman sitting on one of the nearby benches shouts something back at him – I can’t quite hear what, though it’s something about love – and he, with the advantage of his microphone and loudspeaker, bellows at her that there’s no arguing with God’s Word. Plus, he’s only telling her what a terrible person she is because he loves her.

I’ve made the mistake of slowing down to hear what’s going on and as I attempt now to walk on, to return to the reality of Saturday afternoon shopping, the man with the tracts catches me again.

‘So,’ he says, ‘what do you think? Will you let Jesus into your life?’

‘Not today,’ I say, ‘we’ve both got better things to do.’

‘There’s nothing better than turning to Jesus. And he likes nothing better than saving another lost sheep. Are you a lost sheep?’ he adds.

‘No,’ I say. ‘I’m not a sheep and I’m not lost. I’m on my way home right now, in fact.’

‘Ah, but do you have a home in heaven?’ he asks. He’s good; whatever I say, however light I try to make it, he turns it round into another impertinent question.

‘I thought you had all the answers,’ I say to him, glancing down at the tatty bit of folded paper in my hands. ‘Don’t you know?’

‘I’m telling you, my friend, you don’t,’ he says earnestly. ‘You are lost in your sin and because God cannot tolerate sin you have no place in Heaven. Not unless you repent and accept Christ.’

‘Jesus!’ I mutter under my breath. ‘Look, I don’t believe in your Christ or any of this stuff.” I push his tract back at him, ‘and I’m not your friend either.’ He looks crestfallen, but only for the briefest of seconds. His ally, still performing for the crowd, is shouting that Jesus is coming back soon to judge the world.

‘And you’d better be ready,’ my new best pal tells me, reinvigorated. I shake my head and step round him, apologising that I have to go; why? I wonder, when it was he who accosted me? So, despite not searching for any answers, I now have them. They just don’t seem to match any questions I might have, like why there’s so much suffering in the world and why human beings do such terrible things to each other (often in the name of religion) and what am I going to have for my tea? Now there’s a question worth answering.

Morality Tale

Preaches   A man who believes in the impossible – and it is a man more often than not – appears as a moral authority every morning on national BBC radio. This same man is frequently asked by television networks to give his views on moral issues of the day, be they assisted suicide, pay-day loans, same-sex marriage & adoption, abortion or capitalism. And even when he hasn’t been asked, the views he expresses on these subjects are widely reported, sometimes all around the world. The man can, in one of his roles, sit in the second most important legislative body of the land, again as a moral authority, influencing laws that are binding on everyone else whether they believe in the impossible or not. Indeed, the man has an automatic, unelected right to be part of this august body.

   Where, you might ask, does this man’s moral authority come form? Is he a psychologist with a profound understanding of human behaviour? Or a geneticist with knowledge of the biological bases of our decision making? Maybe a philosopher who has analysed the cognitive processes that lead to moral decisions? An ordinary, educated person, then, who has given much rational thought to how we might best treat one another?

   No, he’s none of these. He’s just a man who believes in the impossible and wears funny clothes to prove it. Invariably, it is true, he has become quite an expert in believing the impossible and he’s even been granted a special place in society that allows him to encourage others to believe the impossible. As a result, he has somehow made the leap into thinking that, because he believes in the impossible, he must therefore be a moral authority.

   Now, we may not object to the man believing in the impossible in the first place – it’s a free country after all – but we don’t accept, surely, that because he does, it means he knows much more than the rest of us about morality?

   Yes, I’m sorry to report that we do. We acquiesce to the man and say ‘because you believe in the impossible, and for no other reason, you must know more about morality than we do.’ And when we are looking for moral guidance, we turn to him – whether we are the BBC, the rest of the media or the government – and we say, ‘what do you say about this? What should we think about it, because, after all, you are the authority here by virtue of the fact that you believe in the impossible?’ And the man, in whatever guise he appears – pope, archbishop, bishop, reverend, imam, rabbi – says, ‘this is what it says in my magic book (even when it doesn’t) and you should follow it, even though you might not believe in either the magic book or in the impossible.

   And we say, ‘Well, you’re the expert and we respect that you should tell us how to behave, if for no other reason than you believe in the impossible.’