Desiderata

Blog361a

There’s really no secret to what life is about. It’s simple – simplistic even. All the same, it took me most of my life to discover it.

The best way to live your life is to be yourself.

That’s not as easy as it sounds, because you have to have pretty good sense of self to begin with and, for a multitude of reasons, such awareness can elude you.

It’s possible that this is because none of us truly has a self. Current thinking among psychologists and neuroscientists is that the self doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion, created by competing and often conflicting processes in the brain. I picture it like those optical illusions in which carefully arranged shapes make it appear, as in the figure below, that there’s a different shape in their midst, when in fact all that’s there is clear space. Maybe the neuroscientists are right about this, but even so, the self is a damn convincing illusion.

Kanizsa-triangle

Because the brain’s processes are ever active the illusory shape at the centre is subject to constant change – which we perceive as mood swings, changes to our personality, acting ‘out of character’ or being out of sorts with ourselves. Perhaps what I really mean by being yourself, then, is finding a point of equilibrium for the shape at the centre, where it isn’t constantly buffeted by the turbulence of the brain’s activities. However, this is merely to exchange one metaphor for another, so for now I’ll talk about the sense of ‘me-ness’ that we all experience subjectively and intuitively, and know as ‘the self’.

Perhaps you’ve never been in tune with who you are, living, as Plato called it, an unexamined life (he believed such a life wasn’t worth living). Perhaps like me, you drifted through the earlier part of life, allowing unplanned, random experiences to pull you along in their wake until you were left in a place you felt you don’t quite fit. Maybe though, you’ve heard a small inner voice calling you, telling you that this isn’t you. Perhaps, as I experienced for many years, the incongruity between who you are and where you’ve ended up is taking its toll on your mental health.

It’s also possible that you have heard your inner calling but have been told – by society, family or church that who you are is inconvenient, undesirable or unrealistic. ‘Just settle yourself down and conform to what we think is right for you,’ they’ve told you – and you have. They’ve convinced you that you won’t be accepted if you’re truly yourself, so you’ve suppressed or obscured who you know yourself to be.

Alternatively, you’ve assumed a role you know isn’t you. You’re doing a job that allows for no self-expression (because, after all, we all need to make a living), you’re in a relationship that suffocates the real you or you’ve been a church member, striving to conform to everyone’s unrealistic expectations of you. The result is you’re stressed, unhappy and uptight. You’re acting, as the term ‘role’ implies, without any authenticity. We all act from time to time, of course; there are occasions when it is unavoidable. But to live an entire life this way is to invite strife and depressive illness. To be healthy, happy and whole, you need to be authentic – true to yourself.

To adopt a religion is to assume a role. It is to deny your real self (Jesus demands you do: Matthew 16.24) and pretend you’re something you’re not. You can no doubt convince yourself God is doing a great work in you, sanctifying you and making you increasingly Christ-like, but the more you act out the part, the less like your genuine self you become. How can this be right for you, for your happiness and well-being? Adopting any ideology is to add a fake and unnecessary veneer to life that serves only to mask your true identity. Replacing who you are with a predetermined set of religious or political beliefs is mere play acting. Denial is not a solution; embracing your self is.

I hope that like me, you have reached a place where you know and embrace your real self. If not, and at the risk of sounding like a poor man’s Wayne Dyer, I’d ask you to take time to listen to your inner voice. Recognise it for what it is; it will not lead you astray. You know deep within who you are and who you should be, whether that’s an artist, teacher or baker; parent, celibate or gay; writer, performer or mystic; builder, musician or doctor, or a combination of these and other possibilities. You have to be what makes you happy. You owe it to your self.

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An open letter to loving Christians everywhere

Blog357

An open letter to loving Christians* who, in my lifetime, have told me that –

I’m perverted, diseased, sick, sickening, immoral, deviant, degraded, dissolute, toxic, satanic, dangerous, unhinged, unnecessary, intolerant, hateful, harmful, worthless and weird;

I want to destroy Christianity, society, the family, marriage and lives;

I’m indistinguishable from a paedophile or someone who practises bestiality, a sinner, an animal, a ‘sodomite’, a predator, an abomination and a ‘fag’ deserving only of death;

 I’m in rebellion against God and need to be cured;

I’m responsible for hurricanes, tsunamis and other extreme weather conditions and am capable of bringing God’s wrath and judgement to the Earth;

I’m conclusive proof that these are the Last Days.

 

I’m none of these things.

 

 

 

 

* Pat Robertson, Steven Anderson, Franklin Graham, Linda Harvey, Tony Perkins, Stephen Green, Scott Lively, Albert Mohler, John Piper, Ken Ham, Westboro Baptist church, Focus on the Family… aah, f**k it, you know who they are.

What has God ever done for us?

Noah

Back in my Christian days, I used to sing a hymn with a line that went ‘give and give and give again what God has given thee’. It was a fine if largely ignored sentiment – like those of similar nature demanded by Jesus – but I was reminded of it recently on hearing for the umpteenth time of just how much God has given us.

Join me in taking a look around to see.

Everything around me here in the room is… well, not to put too fine a point on it, man-made, that is devised, created, crafted and manufactured by human beings. No supernatural intervention appears to be have been required in the creation of the technology you and I are currently using, nor in the creature comforts that surround me: the chair I’m sitting on, the cushions, the clothes that are keeping me warm this cold winter’s day, the glasses I’m wearing that enable me to see properly (and have done since I was a young child), the carpet that keeps my feet from bare boards, the boards themselves, the house that they’re part of. No god was involved in the making of these things and the many more conveniences that make life in the Western world as comfortable as it is. You name it, humans made it.

It’s true that many of these items utilise natural resources – wood, cotton and so on – but the cultivation of these is again the result of human effort. There’s a clue too in the name of such materials – ‘natural’. Nature produces them, which as Darwin made plain 150 years ago, does not require any god pulling any strings behind the scenes.

The same applies to our bodies; they are the product of natural processes. I was created by my parents who in turn were created by theirs and so back to a time before any of us were human; no god was steering the direction of evolution, nor, despite what Ken Ham thinks were we created as we are today in six days. And when our bodies let us down, as they inevitably do? Even the most ardent among us do not depend on god’s willingness to heal us – he is, as in so many other respects, notoriously unreliable – we go instead to the physician and the surgeon, to medicine and technologies; in short we turn to other human beings and the creations of human beings; we turn to science. The vast majority of Christians do this too, which says much about their faith in an Almighty who can work wonders (but doesn’t). When the chips are down they don’t, as Ham puts it, reject the ‘foolish ways of man’, but turn to the skills and provision of their fellow men and women. They help far more than – infinitely more than – any imaginary god.

So it is with ideologies, philosophies and religions; they too are human inventions, everyone of them. In the West we enjoy the benefits of living in capitalist democracies with their attendant conveniences and freedoms. No god-on-high handed down such systems. Jesus was rabidly opposed to riches and wealth and there was nothing democratic about his intention to be king of the world.

Everything we have, from our ideologies and morality to science and technologies we  created ourselves; no god was involved. The messes we’ve made too; these are our responsibility, from the damage we’ve inflicted on the environment and the climate to the wars we seem endlessly to engage in and the often often appallling way we treat each other. We are culpable. No god is going to come down from heaven to right these wrongs. No god ever has; we have to sort things out ourselves. That has always been the case and always will be.

If it’s not, then those who of you who promote a god need to show him to the rest of us. Show us your god – not through the actions of human beings because those are just that, the actions of human beings. Show us something your god made that is not better explained as a product of nature or of human beings themselves. Provide evidence of your Christ, his angels and his heaven that is more than the delusion shard by you and your co-religionists; show us that they are beings with an existence independent of the human mind.

You can’t, you say, because that’s not the way of spirituality, not the way of a transcendent god.

How very convenient.

 

Some Pig: Why God’s laws are not written on our hearts

Morals

According to Christians, everyone of us knows the right way to behave because God has written his laws in our ‘hearts’. We don’t always bother to consult what he’s written there, however, because we prefer to do our own thing, which is when our consciences start to bother us about our wicked ways. Here’s how Paul put in Romans 2.15:

Gentiles show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.

There’s no evidence that this is how it works, of course; Paul never cared much for evidence nor even for making sense. We know that, provided we are not born with psychopathic tendencies, we learn values, morals and how to relate to others from care-givers in our early lives. They teach us to share (or not) and how we should treat other people, and while it’s true we do seem to be born with a sense of empathy – watch a young child respond to the distress of another – this needs to be cultivated and nurtured. A knowledge of the 613, frequently absurd stipulations of the Old Covenant (which is what Paul is referring to) is demonstrably not genetic; we do not have an innate or instinctive understanding of God’s requirements. Psychologists point to the fact that it is only when she is three that a child learns that stealing is wrong; she is not born knowing it.

All of which is a far cry from ‘God’s law being written in (our) hearts’. Even if Paul meant we have a sort of general, non-specific understanding of how we ought to behave – though this is not what he actually says – there is no evidence this has been planted in us by a supernatural being. Certainly not one that thinks slavery is okay and whose prohibition against killing doesn’t extend to tribes beyond one’s own.

The Christian approach to morality puts me in mind of Charlotte’s Web. In that great children’s book, Charlotte the spider adds messages to the webs she spins to help save her friend, Wilbur the pig, from slaughter. When the gullible humans in the story see ‘Some Pig’, ‘Radiant’, ‘Amazing’ and ‘Humble’ written in the webs, they inexplicably give the credit, not to Charlotte, but to Wilbur. No-one, either in the book itself nor in reviews, comments on the fact that it is not Wilbur who has these qualities, despite what the messages say, but the creature who made them (an anomaly I’m sure E. B. White was aware of when he wrote the book.)

If I might interpret Charlotte’s Web allegorically, we humans are Charlotte, while Wilbur, on whom everyone seems focused, is God. It is we who have developed moral codes throughout our existence, the latest versions of which our children learn from us, and attempt to follow (or not). Meanwhile, the likes of Paul and contemporary Christians refuse to give us one iota of credit. Instead, they insist, the credit goes to their god; a being nowhere near as pleasant as Wilbur, though he’s every bit as fictional – another of our creations, just like those moral codes we invented.

 

“When (a worldview) doesn’t include God, there is no basis for morality.” Roy Moore, 2008

Ravi3

I planned to dissect Ravi Zacharias’ morality argument even before recent revelations that he lied about his credentials. I’m sure that, despite his fraudulent claims, he’s still a good Christian™, perfectly entitled to tell the rest of us what terrible sinners we are. If you’ve ever seen his grandiose sermonising, you’ll know he likes to pretend that Faith is something deeply intellectual, despite Paul’s contention in 1 Corinthians 1. 26-27 that it isn’t. Zacharias’ pseudo-intellectual Christianity is, like many of his qualifications, fake.

In common with other Christians desperate to prove their God, he relies too on circular reasoning. He tells us that our morality derives from God (you listening TC Howitt?) and then uses this to argue that, because of we have morality, God must exist. His unproven conclusion is his premise, with nothing in between to justify either.

Here’s his ‘argument’ in full:

Ravi3

Let’s take a closer look:

‘When you say “There’s too much evil in the world”, you assume there’s “good”. Who says this? How much evil is ‘too much’? Do people other than Christians see the world in terms of good and evil? Does acknowledging evil mean one also assumes there is good? How is this ‘good’ defined? So many unanswered questions in this first muddled statement.

‘When you assume there’s good, you assume there’s such a thing as a “moral law” on the basis of which to differentiate between good and evil.’ The only one making assumptions here is Ravi himself. The considerate treatment of others, which is how we might reasonably define morality, is easily recognisable when it occurs. This presumably, given he fails to define any of his terms, is what Ravi means by ‘good’ (and conversely, inconsiderate or malicious treatment of others is his ‘evil’). There’s no reason to suppose, however, that the demonstration of good is a component of an objective ‘moral law’ that exists somehow independent of human interaction. Morality and any resulting goodness (or ‘evil’), is human interaction.

‘But if you assume a moral law you must posit a “Moral-Law Giver.” Well, of course we’re not assuming a moral law, not in the magical way Ravi is assuming we’re assuming. And how about that imperative: ‘You must posit a “Moral-Law Giver”‘! Must we? Morality is socially determined by human beings themselves; we see this is in the different moralities that have emerged in cultures with shared heritage; we see it in the changing attitudes over the last fifty years to the treatment of women and gay people. Morality is fluid; it evolves. The ‘Moral-Law Giver’ then, if we must have such a term, is we ourselves.

‘But that’s Who you’re trying to disprove and not prove.’ Erm no. Ravi’s being disingenuous here. ‘We’ were not trying to disprove a Moral-Law Giver at all; he was trying to prove it (him? – note the capital sneakily added to ‘Who’). Let’s though, for the sake of argument say Ravi is right; let’s say there is a Moral-Law Giver out there somewhere. Why has he, over the expanse of human existence, issued such varying and often conflicting moral codes? Compare, for example, today’s moral standards with the harsh, brutal morality of the ancient Israelites, which demanded the death penalty for almost any infringement of the law. Compare that with the morality Christians today claim they derive from New Testament. Then compare Jesus’ impossible demands with how Christians actually behave. By and large, they’re happy to ignore him and, with the exception of one or two areas they get hot under the collar about (abortion, same-sex relationships), they go along with the consensus of the culture in which they live.

‘Because if there’s no Moral-Law Giver, there is no moral law.’ There is a ‘moral-law giver’: it is us. That is why moral laws vary according to culture and through time. Zacharias wants us to conclude that this capitalised ‘Moral-Law Giver’ is his God, yet he has neither demonstrated that a deity (any deity) decrees moral codes from on high, nor has he ‘proved’ (his word) that this cosmic law giver is his god, the barbaric and inconsistent YHWH. Rather, he ‘assumes’ this to be the case and hopes that his audience, failing to notice his assumptions, presuppositions and sleight of hand, will too. Given that most of them are Christian sheep  (Jesus’ term, not mine) they will no doubt do just that.

‘If there’s no moral law, then there’s no good. If there’s no good, there’s no evil.’ This is where the argument, such as it is, turns back on itself. Zacharias thinks he’s being very clever (he always thinks he’s being clever) but all he’s doing is declaring his premise over again.

Of course there are moral standards; humans have devised them throughout their existence. The ‘Golden Rule’ promoted by Jesus, for example, is first recorded thousands of years before him. We determine for ourselves what is good and therefore what is ‘evil’; these defintions are not delivered to us ready made from a “Moral-Law Giver” in the sky.

(While Zacharias doesn’t use the argument, there are those who like to say, on the basis of Romans 2.15, that God has written his (ever-changing) rules in our hearts, a fallacy I’ll address in the next post.)

‘What is your question?’ clever Ravi finally asks. We didn’t have a question. Here’s one for him anyway: how has he got away with such fraudulent drivel for so long?

 

The Moral Maze

Stoning

Where does morality come from? Ken Ham and others like to tell us it comes from the bible and the Christian ‘worldview’ they say they find there. Those non-believers who profess or practise morality in any meaningful way ‘steal’ it, they say, from this Christian worldview. They argue that without supernatural beings to dictate, with wild inconsistency, how we should behave, we simply wouldn’t know how to. That we do, by and large, means we can only have ‘stolen’ our morality from Christianity.

Unsurprisingly, the evidence suggests otherwise; versions of morality exist in all cultures – the secular, the pagan, the alternatively religious. Some of these are similar to those traditionally and often mistakenly associated with Christianity, some are not – which tells us they are socially determined. We decide ourselves, collectively, what is and isn’t morally acceptable. We don’t ‘steal’, or even need to, from the Christian ‘worldview’. Some of our morality might coincide with that espoused somewhere in the bible, but that doesn’t mean its taken from it. It means we value some of the same principles that ancient cultures valued – ‘do not steal’, is fairly ubiquitous, for example – because they too lived communally and needed rules like this one, as we do, to facilitate social cohesion. Of course, the collective understanding of a principle does not necessarily mean that everyone adheres to it, just as in those ancient cultures. Nonetheless we can all understand morality insofar as our culture defines and experiences it.

But let’s take a closer look at that ‘biblical worldview’ morality, that evangelicals think is the be-all-and-end-all, shall we?

T.C. Howitt, curator of the Oil for Light blog and commenter here, argues that ‘God’s moral law’, as demonstrated in the bible, is the only true (‘transcendent’ and absolute) morality. I’ve asked T.C. if he’s talking about the ‘morality’ that promotes the keeping and beating of slaves; the stoning of couples who have sex when the woman is menstruating; the execution of men who sleep with men, uppity teenagers and those who worship other gods, and which forbids work on the Sabbath (Friday evening to Saturday afternoon, that is).

It turns out it’s not (and yet it is) because, this, you see, is Old Testament morality and Jesus did away with all that. But nonetheless it’s still transcendent and absolute because it’s God’s Eternal Law. (I hope you’re following this so far.) However, in practical terms, what moralising believers seem to mean by biblical morality, is that which can be found in the New Testament. As I’ve pointed out to T.C., this is not the same thing as biblical morality.

So what does New Testament morality look like? Presumably it’s the morality promoted by Jesus, such as go the extra mile; sell all you have and give to the poor; turn the other cheek; give to everyone who asks; hand over your shirt when your jacket is demanded of you; don’t judge; love your neighbour as yourself; love your enemies; treat others as you like to be treated yourself, etc, etc.

If this isn’t what’s meant by New Testament morality then I don’t know what is. But forgive me – I don’t know many Christians who practise it, not even with an indwelling Holy Spirit and God’s personal support. That’s because it is an impossible morality. Consequently, Christians, like the rest of us, derive their moral standards from the culture around them, at the same time reserving the right to harangue the rest of us over our lack of ‘biblical morality’.

Doesn’t the bible have something to say about this? Oh my, yes it does. It goes something like this: attend to the log in your own eye, because it’s blinding you, and leave others to attend to the speck in theirs.

Now that’s what I call biblical morality.

 

 

Jesus just isn’t up to it

A brief diversion from considering why God couldn’t possibly have created the universe…

Falls

Billy Graham’s grandson, Boz Tchividjian, has been addressing the issue of child abuse in the protestant church. He concludes his considered comments with the claim that,“there was no greater defender of children than Jesus.” Presumably he bases this on the few things Jesus is made to say about children in the gospels – all two of them: ‘suffer the little children’ (Luke 18.15-17) and that stuff about ‘whoever leads a little one astray’ (Mark 9.42), which is really more about the precariousness of faith than children. And, according to Boz, this qualifies Jesus as the greatest defender of children ever. No-one has ever done anything ‘greater’ for them. Not Dr Barnardo, not Save the Children, not the NSPCC, not foster carers or ordinary mothers and fathers. Nope, Jesus is the best ever child protector. The same Jesus in whose name both Catholic and Protestant churches have systematically abused young people down the years.

I never cease to be amazed at the willingness of Christians to superimpose every conceivable virtue, and quite a few prejudices, on a long dead itinerant preacher. But this is no modern phenomenon. It began within a few years of Jesus’ death, when religious zealot Saul decided that a peculiar turn he’d had was really Jesus returned from the dead. On the back of this, Saul – newly rebranded as ‘Paul’ – invented all manner of nonsense about a man he’d never met, his entire, tortured theology bearing little relation to any individual who had ever actually lived. We know this is what happened because of the disciples’ objections to Paul’s ideas and the very different ways in which Jesus was later to be portrayed in the synoptic gospels.

Then the crank who wrote Revelation added even more to the Jesus legend; he was now an avenging warrior-king, ready to fight dragons and smite his enemies right, left and centre.

And still it goes on: Christians insist Jesus was perfect, that he did not ‘sin’ or do anything immoral, when the figure in the synoptic gospels is alternately misogynistic, xenophobic, insulting, prone to anger, supportive of slavery and megalomaniacal. Far from perfect, in fact.

Not so, say other Christians who make it up as they go along; Jesus is a great protector and defender, looking after his flock from Heaven. But in reality, his protection is non-existent, as those who implored him to divert hurricane Harvey recently discovered. (We can be sure his uselessness as an insurance policy won’t change the way any of them regard him.)

Even if Jesus isn’t perfect or a great defender, he is, according to extremist nincompoop, Kevin Swanson, a divine punisher, inflicting natural disasters as a result of people’s ’embrace of sexual perversion’. Yet at the same time, he has a special affection for the good ol’ US of A, steering Donald Trump into the presidency and pulling his strings to Make America Great Again.

Or maybe Jesus is really a financial wizard; proponents of the ‘prosperity gospel’ say so, despite Jesus’ repeated repudiation of wealth in the gospels. On the other hand, he’s a sensitive little snowflake, easily offended by anything and everything we do down here on Earth, to the extent he gets upset by what’s on the TV.

Jesus can barely bear the weight of the incredible claims made for him in the gospels (miracle worker, prophet, healer), even though this is a great deal less than the characteristics he’s had projected on him since. Jesus was not eternal, nor the ultimate sacrifice as Paul claimed; he was not God himself as later Christians determined; he was not perfect, nor the greatest defender of children ever; he was not a super-hero warrior-king, nor was he patient, meek or mild. He did not have a preference for a nation that did not exist in his time nor was he explicitly anti-gay. Despite how he’s invariably shown in devotional material produced by western Christians, he certainly wasn’t white. He wasn’t even a Christian.

All of these attributes have been added to him, long after his death, by those who need and want him to be these very things, who need a saviour in their own image. The many Christs that exist, from those invented in the first century to those worshipped today, are, every one, figments of the human imagination.