Archive for the ‘Atheism’ Category

The things people believe ! A startling entry in the correspondence columns of the Church Times (25/01/2019 p 17):

“I am a regular churchgoer. [But] I do not believe in Original Sin, the Virgin birth, or that Jesus died to atone for the sins of the world, or in his bodily resurrection.  Am I a heretic, or are these views more generally accepted than acknowledged?”

After months of brooding on the bases of the Christian faith I have no quarrel with these questions.  For me, as a regular churchgoer myself, they represent the most obvious pieces of evidence supporting the argument that, as Richard Holloway puts it, ‘all religion is allegory’ and I am glad to see them in print.

If this aphorism is so, then a paradoxical but positive result unfolds. Not believing in most of the church’s ‘six impossible things before breakfast’ endows me with a freedom to take up the time and space to think through and challenge some of the most basic tenets of the Christian faith (with a sidelong glance at the other main religions).

The obvious rebuttal to this sort of claim says that this is nothing more or less than ‘pick ‘n mix’ religion, content to accept some of the principles of the faith and disdaining others.  This cavalier approach to tradition and scripture, however, is surely justified when so-called axioms of belief are so obviously encrustations created to head off some point of issue felt to be a threat demanding urgent action.  The Assumption of the NVM, for example, is a peculiarly unnecessary doctrine declared infallibly as late as 1950.  It has no footing in traditional Christianity and comes across as nothing more than a papal fix designed to emphasise Mary’s purity, to an absurd degree.

“Many Christians today admit they doubt the miracles of the Bible.  But they will happily recite the Nicene creed – a statement of faith that includes the physical resurrection of Jesus – and not feel they are lying or hypocrites.” (The Economist, 16/02/2019 p77)

Or as Porgy and Bess puts it,

It ain’t necessarily so
It ain’t necessarily so
The things that you’re liable
To read in the Bible,
It ain’t necessarily so.

The immutable teachings referred to by the questions listed in the Church Times are all, to a greater or lesser degree, of this nature. They purport to signal basic truths indispensable for the church but, as time passes, fail any of the believability tests we might deploy in each case.

The priesthood in large part acknowledges this but does not say so; I cannot remember the last time I heard a sermon which set out any of the Atonement doctrine. As I have mentioned elsewhere, this kind of dogma versus modern thinking contention has been fought out for two or three centuries (and in some cases right back to the first century of the Common Era). It must be common currency in any theological college or seminary in the West.

The battle continues.  A respondent in the Church Times (01/02/2019 p17) calls on bishops to admit what they no longer believe in: he suggests that such a list in each case would include “the actual bodily resurrection of Christ, or the uniqueness of Christ as the only way of salvation from eternal hell.” (Another correspondent describes how late in life he had come to realise that “for years he had never been a Christian, only a churchgoer.”)

Underneath its personality as a colossal work of art religion is like a river delta pumping the water of life through myriad channels towards the sea.  Some of those streams are deeper and wider than others.  All of them contend to provide us with the Answers to Everything.  All of them, at some time or other, fail.  I know which channel means the most to me and I rejoice in the freedom to choose it rather than others.

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My quotation of the week is from Michael Ruse  The evolution-creation struggle. Harvard UP, 2006  p274:

“For a start, atheists like [Richard] Dawkins and [Jerry] Coyne might consider taking a serious look at contemporary Christian theology(or the theology of other faiths, for that matter), rather than simply parroting the simplistic schoolboy travesties of religion* on which their critiques are founded.  Conversely, Christians like [Keith] Ward or [Holmes] Rolston might be encouraged to dig more deeply into modern, professional evolutionary biology and to start to get some understanding of its strengths and triumphs before they cast around for alternatives like self-organization.”

*These are described sympathetically but critically in the first part of Marcus J Borg  The God we never knew: beyond dogmatic religion to a more authentic contemporary faith.  HarperOne, 1998.

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At its molten core, the current science versus religion debate is compromised, it seems to me, by category error.  This is a recipe for mutual misunderstandings.  It’s most obviously revealed when periodically each side is forced into a ‘time out’ moment and has to say, “It depends on what you mean by…”  This tentative statement becomes critical when eventually we all arrive at that ultimate question, “Does God exist?” (more…)

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My recent reading is bringing home to me what I should have realised long ago; that successive attempts to ‘define God’ or ‘prove’ that God exists, or do the opposite, are pursued only by people whose mindsets are steeped in the materialism and individualism typical of Western culture.  Were it not for the rise of radical Islam since 2001, this essentially sterile debate would have run out years ago, for want of fuel and under pressure from new concerns and ideas. (more…)

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It’s irritating and disheartening to read again some debate which you thought had been concluded years ago.  But no, still they come: scientists proclaiming yet again that their researches have failed to turn up anything which could be identified as “God.”  After all, it was as long ago as August 1802 that when Napoleon asked Laplace where God fitted into the new cosmology, the great scientist replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

In fact, as Karen Armstrong has shown, the revolutionary period 1780 – 1820 or so saw many thinkers approach this problem and come to much the same conclusion.  The “God” they thought they were looking for turned out to be, at best unverifiable; at worst, not there at all.

Now Professor Hawking has told the Guardian this week that he too has failed to confirm the existence of heaven.  He thinks it’s a fairy story.  Well, Professor, I think you’ve got something there, but before we all congratulate each other on this scientific exercise let’s pause for a moment to listen to the concluding part of Judge John Jones’ judgement in Kitzmiller v  Dover Area School District (2005) which barred the equal teaching of the belief in Intelligent Design (ID) in local science lessons:

“In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.

Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs’ scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.”

Surely you know, Professor, as Judge Jones does, that we are dealing here with a category mistake.  Faith, as the judge seems to realise as you seem not to, is not science.  True faith in religion does not contend with science, it welcomes it.  But what we believe in is to be found in a different category of ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ than that which science knows and tests.

This is not a problem for us.  We who think of ourselves as are believers are perfectly prepared to accept this, just as we acknowledge the fact that for the past three or four thousand years, it has proved impossible to define “God” in any kind of scientific, logical way.  As Thomas Aquinas said, why should we believe in a deity that we could, with our human limitations, ever imagine?  Even using the attractive concept of the Brahman – the essence of existence; Being itself – only gets us so far, as Vedic belief readily admits.

I too readily concede what I have written here before, that I do not believe in a supernatural “God”, let alone a personal one.  Any “God” that I find I can refer to is more like an enormous work of art, or an expression of a shared commonality with values, or a dimension of our understanding or our will, or… I just give up.

In that context, that framework, that I am free to believe in, I am happy still to pray, to think of scripture as a certain kind of midrash and myself as an Anglican atheist (or perhaps a Christian Humanist), and also to respect science.  But if you want me to be shocked at your news, Pressor, that you have not found “Heaven” anywhere in the cosmos, and that this must make a lot of people seem to youo rather misguided, then you are not as bright as the world thinks you are.

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In recent posts, I’ve thought aloud about the human need to believe in something, anything: some architecture of hidden meaning which reveals itself only fitfully.  Above all, we are driven by our desperate search for explanations for all that we experience in life. What does it all mean?  Why do we suffer?  How can we lead a good life? (more…)

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The argument so far: whatever we, as believer or non-believer alike, refer to as “God” is subject to the God Paradox. This is the paradox that, to be truly ‘godlike’, anything we label as such must necessarily be outside our human frame of reference.  That is the only frame available to us.  Within that frame we can say that either something ‘is’ or it is not.  So the “God” concept is, in our terms or in any terms meaningful to us, literally non-existent. (more…)

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