So it begins…

Jesus Lazes

A true story:

They didn’t see it coming. No-one did. It couldn’t have been predicted. He came into their lives unexpectedly one summer evening and none of them would ever be the same again.

He met Maddy first, then Andrew and soon after that the rest of the group. He was quiet, diffident even, but from the start his personality shone, his smile captivating them all. Some fell in love with him immediately, others later but either way, there was no escape. His zest for life was infectious, his gentle, thoughtful ways drew in all who encountered him. He didn’t demand change or presume to tell them how they should live, but his unaffected presence changed them all and added immeasurably to each of their lives.

And so the cult of Salvatore began, in the way that all cults begin, with a charismatic personality. When that individual seeks to manipulate and control others, particularly if he or she has Messianic aspirations, then before long an agenda emerges: unquestioning obedience; the belief that only this leader has the Truth; the demand that acolytes abandon family, friends and society for the cause; the proselytising to increase followers; the expectation that others acknowledge the leader’s power and glory; the rejection of those who fail to do so. This is how it was with Jesus, Muhammed, the Buddha, Joseph Smith, Mary Eddy Baker and so many others

The Salvatore cult won’t come to this; the man himself is neither controlling nor manipulative, though there are those who would do anything for him. Myself included.

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Theology: Much Ado About Nothing

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I heard Richard Dawkins speak at the Edinburgh Book Festival recently. He suggested that the best way to understand views that are the opposite of one’s own is to study them for oneself. He was then asked by a smart-alec in the audience, that if this was so, how many works of theology he had read. Dawkins responded by saying he wouldn’t waste his time reading ‘pure theology’ because, in discussing the nature of God or the Trinity or the mechanics of the Resurrection, theology presupposes that the supernatural is real. As there is no evidence it is, there is no point in reading books the sole purpose of which is to discuss the nuances of the non-existent.

It was a good answer. There is no such thing as intellectual Christianity (or Judaism or Islam, or any religion.) No matter how complex the arguments become, they are essentially ones about nothing. Debates about theological matters, within and between the many versions of Christianity, are, as I’ve said before, as relevant as arguments about the colour of the tooth fairy’s dress.*

*Actually she wears a white dress to symbolise healthy teeth. I know this because of my deeply held faith and personal experience of tooth fairies.

It all comes down to feelings and subjective experience

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Argue with Christians (Hi there, Jim! Hi there, Don!) about the veracity of their faith and they will tell you it’s true for two reasons: the Bible and their own personal experience. ‘Christianity is true and Jesus is real because the Bible says so – and, whatsmore, I feel it.’

Or, as William Craig Lane likes to put it, the inner witness of the Holy Spirit testifies to the truth of Christianity. It’s a beautifully circular argument: ‘Christianity and its holy book are true; I know this because the Holy Spirit who lives in me tells me so; I know the Holy Spirit lives in me because the Bible says he does; therefore, I know Christianity and the Bible are true because the Holy Spirit tells me so’.

But equally, Mormons claim that they ‘know’ a completely different set of improbable beliefs are true because they experience a ‘burning in the bosom’ that tells them so. Roman Catholics say their faith is true because they experience Christ through the Eucharist, while Muslims know theirs is true because they have a real sense of Allah’s presence.

All of these spiritual convictions are not, as a liberal theologian like Karen Armstrong might claim, evidence that there is Something-Out-There that loves and communicates with us, but more obviously that human beings’ brains are adept at creating whatever ‘inner witness’ is required to support the beliefs and convictions they have arrived at. William Lane Craig concedes this when he acknowledges that

Anyone (or, at least any sort of theist) can claim to have a self-authenticating witness of God to the truth of his religion. But the reason you argue with them is because they really don’t: either they’ve just had some emotional experience or else they’ve misinterpreted their religious experience.

In other words, any experience of ‘self-authenticating witness’ enjoyed by believers in faiths outside Craig’s own brand of Christianity is at best mistaken, at worst fake. But then, how can anyone know, Craig included, that his own conviction isn’t just as much an emotional flush or mere subjective experience? Why is his conviction any more real than that of other kinds of believers? Ultimately, Craig can only say, “because it is”:

a person (possessed by the Holy Spirit) does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know and to know with confidence that he is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God.

In other words, the true believer knows his experience of the Holy Spirit is real because his experience of the Holy Spirit tells him it is. And round the argument goes, though no amount of assertion makes a subjective experience an event in objective reality.

It is impossible for Craig, or any other Christian, to demonstrate that an entity he imagines inhabits his brain, no matter how convincing its presence may seem, has any existence anywhere other than in his brain. What the person who says ‘I believe’ is really saying is that they have no evidence at all for what they are claiming. If they had, they wouldn’t need to believe it; they would know it. They would, whatsmore, be able to point to independent, external evidence for it.

The Bible makes a virtue out of not knowing, of believing when there is no evidence.  It calls the resulting cognitive dissonance, ‘faith’.

Adapted from my book, Why Chrisitans Don’t Do What Jesus Tells Them To …And What They Believe Instead.

I Know What It’s Like To Be Dead

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And you do too.

We experienced what it was like last night and, you know, it really wasn’t too bad.

We entered, at some point, a deep, dreamless sleep (we dream for only a quarter of the time we’re asleep and even then often can’t remember what we’ve dreamt about) and the rest of the time we were, as far as subjective experience was concerned, dead to the world. During that deep sleep, our conscious mind was completely switched off; we did not experience anything while we were in this state and as far as awareness is concerned, we did not exist. And when we woke this morning we were none the worse for our period of non-existence. We booted up reasonably satisfactorily and the memories we had yesterday, before our deep sleep, were restored and the entity we call our self began to interact with the day.

This period of deep sleep, this unconscious oblivion, is precisely what it is like to be dead. Of course, in death we switch off permanently; there’s with no reboot afterwards, either in our beds, our graves or in heaven. The oblivion that is death is permanent. But, and this is my point, being dead is no more painful or unendurable, and no more to be feared, than the deep sleep you had last night and that you will enjoy tonight. We might not much like the idea that once we fall into the ultimate sleep there will be no waking up, but that is only a concern, if it’s a concern at all, of the living. I guarantee that it does not cross the minds of those who are already dead. They have no minds, the same as you didn’t last night, for it to cross.

Being dead, to paraphrase Mark Twain, does not trouble us at all. Its prospect, while we remain on this side of it, should encourage us to enjoy life and live it to the full. It shouldn’t cause us to worry about being dead, because there’s nothing we can do about it and, in any case, it’s no worse than being in deep sleep. Nor should we be concerned about whether we’ve subscribed to the right incantation, appeased the right God in the right way or lived a good enough life, in order to avoid death. There’s no avoiding death and the promises of religions that we can if only we believe the right magic, are utterly false. Understandable perhaps, but false.

Oh death, where is thy sting, says Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.55. Well, death still has its sting. It has it in its inevitability – every organic creature, of which we are one, must die – and it has it, depending on your perspective, in our individual obliteration. (Though, frankly, why anyone should think their own personal bundle of thoughts, impulses and prejudices merits everlasting existence is a mystery). Most significantly, however, it has it in the dying process, which for many of us can be debilitating and painful. This is the way of it for all of us, including those who believe religions’ false promises. They are not spared the suffering, even though modern medicine can help alleviate much of it. Christians, Muslims and Hindus, despite their belief that a deity smiles benevolently upon them, are not guaranteed a comfortable passage from this life to non-existence.

Death is the great leveller; we all experience dying in much the same way and we none of us experience anything after it. One of these – maybe both if we’re lucky – isn’t too bad. Just like deep sleep in fact.

Until then, we should make the most of life while we still have it.

Sleep well.

 

Rejecting Jesus the Christian way

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I’m sometimes taken to task for pointing out that Christians don’t make much effort to live as their saviour says they should. The title of my first book, Why Christians Don’t Do What Jesus Tells Them To …And What They Believe Instead sums it up. Since the very beginning, believers have replaced the radical commands attributed to Jesus with mythology, mysticism and magic formulae, none of which he’d recognise and all of which are far less demanding than going the extra mile, turning the other cheek and loving enemies. So today, when confronted with what Jesus says is expected of his followers, believers are inclined to say, ‘what right have you to tell us how we should be living?’ to which the answer is, ‘it’s not I, nor any other commentator, who tells you how to live; it is your Lord and Saviour. All we do – all I do – is remind you of what that is.’

Christians don’t like this, primarily because they don’t like what Jesus commands – it’s too exacting, too radical, too impractical – and they want to go on disregarding it. It’s damned annoying being reminded of it and being challenged on how far they are from complying with it.

Have those of us who point out Christians’ failings any right to do so? Well, of course. Christians spend their time judging, castigating and condemning others and as Jesus himself points out, judging others leads to being judged in return (Matthew 7.1-5). He sees this as something of a natural consequence, a yin for a yang. But ‘judge not that ye be not judged’ is another of his commands his followers like to ignore. Even so, if Christians are going to insist on pointing out the speck in others’ eyes, they must expect others will have something to say about the plank in theirs. That’s the way it works – Jesus says so.

So, Christians, if you don’t like me and others challenging you on how far you fall short of your Lord’s expectations maybe you need to lay off atheists, LGBT people, those you consider to be sinners, those of other faiths and even fellow Christians you think haven’t got the right theology. Put your own house in order first and then maybe we’ll listen to you (or maybe not). But don’t say we’ve no right to look at how far you measure up to Jesus’ standards. We’ve every right to ask whether the so-called Salt of the Earth (Matthew 5.13) has any of its flavour left.

 

Religion poisons the well. Again.

dye

The shooting in Orlando of people in a gay night club (50 dead, 53 wounded) is yet another example of religion as the antithesis of human flourishing. Not Christianity this time, of course, but that other ‘great’ religion, Islam, the religion of peace. But Christians cannot distance themselves from atrocities like this, carried out in the name of God, when the influence of even moderate religion is a pervasive, unhealthy presence in our society.

It’s true that Christians don’t, as rule, rampage in the streets or fly planes into buildings but they do contribute to the medium in which more extreme forms of religion grow:

Westboro Baptist Church, for example, with its own peculiar brand of Bible-based homophobia – ‘God hates fags’ and all the rest – is, like it or not, an expression of Christianity;

Right-wing evangelicals who interfere in the churches and governments of Africa and South America, actively encouraging them to take a homophobic stance and to pass anti-LGBT laws, are equally culpable; Scott Lively, Pat Robertson, Sharon Slater, you too are people filled with hate;

Likewise, those Catholic bishops who use their influence to denounce gay and transgendered folk as ‘mentally disordered’;

Christian bloggers who trot out the old, ‘Woe to those who call evil good and good evil’ (Isaiah 5.20) and misapply it to homosexuality, together with those who quote Leviticus 18.22 (‘abominations!’) and Romans 1.26-27 (‘unnatural and indecent!’)…

All of these contribute to the animus directed towards fellow human beings whose ‘sin’ is merely to be different. Religions, or more specifically their adherents, contribute significantly to the levels of misery in the world today, though Christians will cry ‘foul’ here (or ‘persecution’ even, because how they love claiming they’re being persecuted when asked to demonstrate some empathy and a little love.) After all, it wasn’t a Christian who gunned down the people in the Pulse nightclub this weekend. No it wasn’t. But every time religious bigots –

tell others what despicable sinners they are,

misrepresent and denigrate minorities,

promote ‘gay cures’,

attack same-sex marriage,

add quotation marks around the words gay and gay marriage, as if they’re somehow not real,

assert homosexuality and transgenderism are synonymous with ‘moral decay’,

claim natural disasters are God’s response to gay people’s very existence,

boycott businesses that support equality,

‘take a stand’ against transgendered people using the appropriate restroom and

refuse to serve gay couples –

every time, in short, they say LGBT people are evil, sick or worthless, the self-righteous prepare the ground for individuals like Omar Mateen to do what he did in Florida on Sunday. Religious leaders condemning such atrocities after the event is too little, too late, when they’ve failed to take charge of their acolytes and  do nothing to stem the tide of hatred flowing from their churches, mosques and temples. 

To those of us on the outside, religions are all of a kind; harmful superstitions. If a ‘faith’ entails belief in supernatural beings and puts allegiance to such imaginary figures above fellow human beings, it is without merit. It is the evil among us.

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)!