Do No Harm

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If religions took ‘do no harm’ to heart (as the Hippocratic Oath does) and their adherents were made to comply with it, what a better place this world would be. There’d be –

No more religiously-motivated suicide bombers and terrorist atrocities;

No more murder in the name of the Lord (whichever);

No more children molested by priests and pastors;

No churches attempting to cover up their crimes;

No more child deaths as a result of ‘faith-healing’;

No religiously-sanctioned denigration and abuse of women;

No more ritualistic mutilation of children’s and young women’s genitals;

No more religious scams and shams;

No more religiously-inspired vitriol directed at gay and transgender people;

No more barbaric executions of ‘minorities’, like gay men, women and those of other faiths.

Of course, even without these, the world would still not be perfect. Awful things would still happen. But the principle of doing no harm would eliminate much of the trauma inflicted on people by the proponents of irrational superstition.

On paper at least, the Abrahamic religions have expectations that are more demanding than simply doing no harm:

Love your neighbour as yourself (Leviticus 19:18; Judaism);

Love your enemies; treat others as you would like to be treated’ (Matthew 7.12 and 5.44; Christianity);

…compete with each other in doing good (Surat al-Ma’ida, 48; Islam).

However, these are just too damned hard for so many religionists. They disregard them and opt instead for the spiteful paranoia of the same holy books. Perhaps the simpler injunction of ‘do no harm’ would be easier for them. But until the preachers of judgement and hatred find it in themselves to promote such a principle, we will all continue to suffer the destructive effects of the ‘great’ faiths.

So, how long until the next terrorist attack? The next church child-abuse cover-up? The next rape scandal? The next persecution of gay people?

      Not long at all.

           Praise the Lord (whichever)!

 

My preciousss is mine (and mine alone)

bible3Christians have a monopoly on the Bible. No-one else should comment on it, criticise it or even quote from it. Or so Christians tell me. The reason for this, apparently, is that ‘it is absurd to contest the Bible when (you’re) missing the one main ingredient: Jesus’. Not so, of course; the Bible is there for anyone who wants to consider and ‘contest’ it. Granted one’s perspective will be coloured by how one regards it to begin with –

whether you approach it with a reasonable degree of objectivity or look at it through the myopia of faith;

whether you take what it says at face value or apply shifty exegesis to smooth out its many inconsistencies;

whether you acknowledge it was created over time by a succession of fallible men or assume it represents the accurately recorded words of God;

whether you regard it as beliefs of ancient tribesmen and religious fanatics or see it as the means of salvation and the ultimate guide to life.

It is only reasonable that those who take the first of each of these alternatives look to those who take the latter to see how closely they adhere to the demands the Bible makes of them. It’s reasonable because those who believe in its magical properties use it to tell the rest of us how wicked and/or lost we are and how much we need Jesus. If the Bible is the Word of God (as I’ve noted before, it doesn’t claim to be; it’s Christians who say it is), instructing believers on how to live their lives while spreading the gospel, it is not unreasonable for those of us on the receiving end of their ‘witness’ to take a look at how that works out. Not so well as it happens.

Now either this is the fault of the book – heaven forfend that it isn’t clear about what’s expected of God’s Chosen – or Christians themselves are to blame for failing to live as it expects. Unsurprisingly, it’s a combination of the two; a book of mixed messages in the hands of flawed human beings. When Christians refuse to acknowledge that the Bible is far from perfect they are faced with the challenge of making its impossible demands compatible with their own imperfections. They have a number of cop-out excuses that enable them to do this, several of which appear in the comments on this blog. I’ve discussed a number of them before, but here’s a quick summary:

Christians are not perfect and the Bible doesn’t say we should be (actually it does, in Matthew 5.48);

Others have no right to be critical of Christians when we’re doing our best;

You can’t use our own book against us when you don’t know Jesus (see above);

You’re a sinner so what do you know?;

You’re quoting out of context (and only Christians can do that);

You’re not applying the correct exegesis and/or hermeneutics (i.e. mine);

The Christians you’re criticising aren’t real Christians;

It is unfair to lump all Christians together.

Is it? Is it really unfair to lump all Christians together? Aren’t you all meant to be one body, the Body of Christ – you, the Pope, Westboro Baptists, the mega-churches and their celebrity pastors, Joyce Meyer, those who would stone gays, those who affirm gays, Franklin Graham, Alpha converts, abortion-clinic bombers, African witch-finders, Archbishop Sentamu, ‘Emergents’, those who belong to one of the thousands of other denominations and all your friends in your own little church? Who are you to say who’s saved and who isn’t? All Christians represent all other Christians, who represent Christ himself. The Bible says so in 1 Corinthians 12.12-26, Ephesians 4.14 -16 and elsewhere. Or did it get it wrong again?

Talking Jesus

Harvest

The Church of England published its report, Talking Jesus, last week. It finds that, rather than interesting others in Jesus, Christians only put them off when they talk about him. What a dilemma! To evangelise or not when all it achieves is the opposite of what’s intended. Christians must feel their hands are tied.

Not that this will stop them doing it, more’s the pity. But why? What drives some Christians to talk about their beliefs at every opportunity? What makes them think others haven’t heard of Jesus already? Do they honestly think that in England and other places where the Anglican church holds sway, people have never heard of him? Let’s have that show of hands: if this is the first time you’ve heard about Jesus, raise you hand. Or admit to being a Jesus-virgin in the comments.

That’ll be no-one then.

Please – we know about Jesus! And, what’s more, most of us would be happy if we didn’t. While some feel duty-bound to treat him with respect (God knows why when they don’t do the same for Father Christmas or Julius Caesar) most recognise him for the myth he is and trust their instinct not to get involved.

Here in the West it’s almost impossible to escape him, especially as Christmas approaches. Church leaders, with free access to the media, burble on about him, Christian web-sites number in the hundreds of thousands, and songs about his miraculous, fabricated birth will soon be everywhere. At any time of year, armies of street preachers invade our town centres, shouting about how we all need him, while Jehovah’s Witnesses hawk their version at a front door near you. And if we’re really unlucky, a friend or colleague will feel it their duty to tell us all about him at work or school or in the pub.

But, Christians, this isn’t how you’re meant to ‘make disciples of all the world’. The Jesus of the gospels (though that should be ‘Jesuses‘, plural) tells his followers how it should be done. Not by ambushing others to tell them how much they need him but by letting your lights shine (Matthew 5.16). Your ‘good deeds’ and sacrificial love are what should mark you out and impress others; Jesus says so himself. Actions, not words, are how to demonstrate your faith in him, if that’s what you feel you must do.

But they don’t, and that’s why we’re not interested when you’re subjecting us to your fantasy and dogma. If you lived the life – the really radical life Jesus advocated – forsaking wealth, spending yourself on others, going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, giving and forgiving, loving everyone sacrificially – then we might just be persuaded there’s something to this Jesus cult after all (then again we might not). As it is, talking the talk without walking the walk, is – how does the Bible put it? – just the empty noise of clanging cymbals.

 

You’re all sinners!

BabyYou are a sinner. You deserve the wrath of God. After you die, you will meet God face to face and because of your sin he will throw you into the pit of hell for all eternity. But repent of your sin and believe the gospel and instead he will cast your sin away from you, as far as east is from west.

Or so said the street preacher in the centre of town at the weekend (yes, our old friend Dale McAlpine; he who suffers excessively from religion-virus).

I’m not a sinner. And neither, dear reader, are you. Sometimes in my life I’ve behaved badly, it’s true. I’ve hurt other people, though usually unintentionally, and I’ve been thoughtless. I’ve been unappreciative of loved ones and haven’t done enough for others. I’ve said things I shouldn’t and have occasionally lost my temper. I’ve even had sex when it wasn’t for making babies.

Maybe you’ve done similar things and, like me, have transgressed the moral law (which is entirely of human making) in all of these minor ways. Others have transgressed it, and the societal laws it gives rise to, in far worse ways, by deliberately hurting or abusing others, raping and murdering.

But still neither they nor us are sinners. Whether we have behaved reprehensibly or only a little thoughtlessly, we are still not sinners. We are human and we behave as humans behave; as evolved apes our developed brains jostle with animal natures, and we act as our distinct environments have taught us. ‘Sin’, on the other hand, is a distinctly religious concept, a component of a fantasy perspective of life with no purchase outside of its religious context. The problem with it is, however, that it has intruded for the best part of a two thousand years into reality, into life as it is lived by most people most of the time, and we’ve grown used to it. We give it credence when it’s talked about or preached from pulpit or soap box. But it is a meaningless concept.

The word for sin that is used most frequently in the New Testament (221 times) is ‘hamartia’, an archery term meaning ‘to miss the mark’. It means not being as good as we could be; not coming up to God’s standard: ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,’ as old wingnut Paul puts it in Romans 3.23. And this is the secondary – some would say primary – application of the idea of sin; it denotes our separation from God. The thinking behind this idea goes as follows: there must be a reason God always seems so distant, remote, far away, elusive and absent from us. And because he’s God and so wouldn’t behave in such a cold-hearted way if we didn’t deserve it, it can only be our fault. His distance, therefore, can only be because of sin, our failure to behave and be, from the moment of our birth, as he would want us to. Yes, sin really is God’s kryptonite and, according to Christian doctrine, Jesus came to be the lead lining that blocks its rays.

But this is an unnecessarily convoluted way to account for the perceived divine distance. It is much better explained by God’s existential and literal absence. It’s not our fault he’s so far away – or rather it is, but not because we sin. In our childish need to have someone out there who both explained everything and cared for us, we made him up. We anthropomorphised an insentient, indifferent universe, which could only ever lead to a God who felt distant and remote.

So, as Dale was recommending on Saturday, free yourself from ‘sin’. Recognise that you don’t fall short of the glory of God, because no such thing exists, and that you behave as you do because you’re human. And then you will be free indeed.

Loose Threads

FamilyPick a thread. Any thread. And start pulling. Gently does it, no need for force. A gentle pull on any of the loose ends of faith and the whole fabric will come apart quickly.

Here, pull on this one marked ‘the infallibility of the Bible‘. See how easily it comes loose as soon as you realise that most of it, Old and New Testament alike, was written long after the events it purports to describe, some of it by imposters and forgers.

Or this one – the salvation thread, much of it stitched into place by an excitable chap prone to hallucinations. Pull it and see how its pattern is nothing like the one proposed by the man it claims to be about.

Pull the magic threads, the ones about Gods, supernatural beings, heaven and hell, eternal life. Watch them disintegrate in your fingers once they’re teased out into the real world.

Take hold of the threads about Resurrections, Second Comings, Raptures and Judgements; so fragile, these break away as soon as they’re touched. The only miracle is that they’ve lasted this long.

Then there’s the promises threads, about how believers are going to do fantastic miracles and heal the sick and raise the dead. Imaginative and colourful, these have never really fitted in.

Then there’s the prayer threads, whose embroidery tells us how prayer works, how God will give us whatever we ask for. Downright embarrassing, these – yank ’em out.

And how about the strands that those who say they love the cloth pick out themselves and throw away? You know the ones; the threads which tell them how to live their lives that they just don’t like the look of and think spoil the overall effect. These have definitely got to go.

What about the threads that weren’t originally there – the ones about ‘defending God’s standards‘ and having a ‘relationship‘ with a dead person? These grubby, greasy threads have been added in to replace the ones those who love the cloth have pulled out for themselves.

Choose any number of other threads – the ones that clash with other bits of the pattern, the ugly brutal ones, the fantastic, the ignorant – and give them a tug. Oh, look. They come away too.

And before you know it, the entire fabric has come apart in your hands. All that’s left is a pile of worthless, brittle threads, good for nothing but throwing in the bin.

The Jesus Cult

Cult2A programme on the UK’s Channel 5 this week, Trapped In A Cult?, featured stories of people who had had encounters with or had escaped from cults. It didn’t spend too much time defining what a cult might be, but suggested that it’s a movement revolving around a charismatic individual who insists that only he or she has a direct line to God or some sort of Higher Truth. Such individuals insist that others must follow their teaching exclusively and that followers sever all ties with family and non-believing friends. They frequently demand too that followers give up their material possessions in order to demonstrate their commitment to the movement.

The programme also noted that once the original founder of a cult dies, or has been discredited in some way, belief in him or her can persist, with followers persuading themselves that their leader has miraculously transferred to a higher plane of existence. (Further information about cults and their leaders can be found on The Cult Education Institute web-site.)

Many modern religious movements conform to this pattern: The Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, the Unification Church (Moonies), Scientology and Branch Davidians to name but a few. Orthodox Christians are always eager to point out the apostate, cultish nature of these heterodox ‘churches’, blind to the fact that their own belief system began in exactly the same way. The original Jesus movement had all the hallmarks of a cult and its leader the characteristics of a cult leader:

Jesus insisted that only he had a direct line to God and Higher Truth:
For example in Matthew 10.32–33: Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven.  But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven

and John 14.23: Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.

He demanded his teaching be followed exclusively:
For example in Luke 10.16: He who listens to you, is listening to me; and he who rejects you is rejecting me; and he who rejects me is rejecting him who sent me

and Matthew 12.30: Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

He expected his followers to sever ties with family and non-believing friends:
For example in Luke 14.26: If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

He told those interested in joining his movement to give up material possessions:                                                                                                             Matthew 19.21: If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.

and when he died, his followers persuaded themselves he’d gone on to a higher plane:                                                                                                                  Luke 24.51: While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.

What do we learn from this? That if it looks like a cult, sounds like a cult and behaves like a cult then the chances are, it’s a cult. Christianity is just a first century cult that hit the big time. We are now so used to having it around – how legit it became! – we overlook its origins and essential characteristics. These are exactly the same as any other cult, both before and since.

I Don’t Believe It

Fabric‘When you think about it’, the taller of the two men said, ‘there is no evidence whatsoever that God, nor indeed any supernatural being.

‘I suppose you’re right’, said the other.

‘With that realisation, my faith began to dissipate. I mean if there’s no God, no angels, demons or Christs, no Holy Spirit, devils, fairies or Santa Claus, then it must mean they’re just figments of the imagination. Take that human element out of the equation and what you’re left with is… well, the natural world and nothing else’.

‘I suppose not’, said the other.

‘From there one realises there is no point in praying – I mean, talking to a being who only exists in your own head. Or reading the Bible; one begins to see it as a very human book, which of course it is’.

‘I suppose so’, said the other.

‘It means too that Jesus can only have been a mortal man – of course he was – and that a good deal of his teaching – if we can believe it really was his and not simply invented by his followers – makes no sense whatever. It was only the eyes of misplaced faith that made it appear so’.

‘I suppose it doesn’t’, said the other.

‘I mean, “pray for whatever you need and God will supply it”. Who has ever believed that sort of thing anyway? No-one. Not really. We all know that doesn’t work; Jesus himself, one suspects. And as for the resurrection, well, if you read those accounts at face value all they saw – Mary Magdalene, Paul and the rest of them – all they saw were visions, not a real person. All in their minds, you see’.

‘I suppose I do’, said the other.

‘No, Christianity is nothing but false promises, failed prophecies – Jesus saying he’d return within his disciples’ lifetime – and impossible morality: “be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect”! Well, I’ve never met anyone who is, Christian or otherwise. Good people are good whether or not they’re Christians and the mean-spirited are mean-spirited whichever side of conversion they’re on.

‘I suppose so’, said the other, before seeing his chance to add, ‘well, that’s £1.80 for your Church Times, Archbishop. Will there be anything else?’