Religious Bathwater

I’ve been reading Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists.

Religion for Atheists (cover)

De Botton’s big idea is that the least interesting thing about religion is whether its claims about God are true. We should be more interested in the fact that religions have had a couple of thousand years of experience of understanding and guiding human nature through art, ceremony, and moral codes and through the social interactions that come from sitting together for a couple of hours every Sunday. Religions also make a big deal of celebrating life’s important events and the passage of the seasons.

It’s true that we don’t actually need religion for any of those things. Secular art can be beautiful; we can get our social interactions at a football match on a Saturday afternoon or at quiz night at the pub every Tuesday and there are plenty of non-religious ways to celebrate the seasons. The trouble is: we don’t though. Not really.

Virgin at Prayer after SassoferatoSecular artists broke free of the shackles of religion in the 19th century but when was the last time you were truly inspired by a painting? Was it painted in the last 50 years? I didn’t think so. In theory, there is plenty of secular inspiration to be had—De Botton cites Jane Austin and Shakespeare—but they don’t really bring us together the way the Bible or the Ramayana used to.

 

Earlier this month, I stumbled across an interview with Alain de Botton on Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast where he expands on some of these ideas.

On Being - The School of Life

De Botton observes that much of what we think of as typically Christian was originally pilfered from pagan culture—not just Christmas trees and Saturnalia; philosophy and ethics too—and it’s about time we took some of it back.

I suppose what I’m arguing for is a kind of reverse colonization. In the same way that Christianity colonized the pagan world absorbing its best elements, so I’m arguing that non-believers today can do a little bit of this with religion just as religion did it with them, because, you know, a lot of what we find in Christianity comes, of course, from Greek philosophy. Even the concept of monasticism was taken from the Epicurean philosophical communities that existed in the mount_athosMediterranean world. So an awful lot that seems to us intrinsically religious is not; it’s part of the treasury of mankind. These religions at their highest points, at their most complex and subtle moments, are far too interesting to be abandoned merely to those who believe in them.

 

Alain de Botton founded The School of Life to lead this recolonisation effort.

The School of Life is devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture. We address such issues as how to find fulfilling work, how to master the art of relationships, how to understand one’s past, how to achieve calm, and how better to understand and, where necessary change, the world.

school-of-life

From On Being.

I think a lot of what’s attractive in religion is that it puts us in a wider perspective both in time and in place because most of our lives are lived right up against the present moment. We get so stressed. We got so confused. We get so overwhelmed by the kind of people around us, what’s in our diaries, what’s going on right now. And then once a week or more or less, you can go to a religious institution, be it a mosque, a synagogue or church, and you can step outside of the ordinary and you can be brought into contact with very, very old things or very vast things, things that are much greater, deeper, more mysterious than ordinary life. Suddenly that brings a kind of calm to our inner lives because it’s nice to be made to feel small against the backdrop of a vast universe.

At The School of Life’s non-church, they hear sermons, sing hymns and enjoy a nice cup of tea afterwards.

MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, I’ve read a journalist account of coming to “The School of Life” and it’s really interesting. They described it as a place of play and whimsy and big talk, that it’s warm and stylish and serious. I mean, I have to say, I watched a bit online and I watched a sermon that you gave — and that is a word you use, that some of these talks are called sermons. The video I watched, there were a lot of people there that looked like people of all ages and a lot of young people and they were singing “Jerusalem,” this great classic hymn which is at once deeply Christian and deeply British.

MR. DE BOTTON: We could say what on earth is going on?
MS. TIPPETT: Exactly.
MR. DE BOTTON: But, of course, you know, when you talk to people who don’t believe, one of the things they often say is, “Such a pity because the music’s fantastic and the singing is great and I love to have a cup of tea at the end and, you know, chat to neighbors and all the rest of it.”

I have to confess that Jerusalem is one of my favourite songs and I can barely make it through the third verse because I get choked up at the bit about bows of burning gold and arrows of desire. It’s an amazing song.

I think it’s important to sing the original words to sacred hymns like Jerusalem and to not bowdlerise away the religious bits. How profound to wonder, as Blake did, “Was the holy Lamb of God, On Englands pleasant pastures seen?”. And how inspiring to pledge to build a new Jerusalem in England’s green & pleasant land?  Would Odysseus’s adventure be as compelling without the mythical creatures? Would Frodo’s tale be so memorable without the immortality of the Elves? Christian mythology has some great stories too. Let’s keep them and learn from them.

jerusalem

The Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings are both moral tales but we don’t really talk about morality in public any more and the hole left by the absence of morality has been filled by commercialism. De Botton would have us reclaim that space too.

So, you know, we don’t live in the kind of completely neutral public space that’s often fantasized about by secular defenders of a kind of neutral liberalism. We are actually assaulted by commercial messages. So religions want to assault us with other messages, messages to be kind and to be good and to forgive and all these things, and they know that having a feeling of being observed, having a public space that is colored by moral atmosphere, all of this can help.

For de Botton, morality is about how we interact with other people and how we deal with the difficult challenges that life confronts us with. We should make more of an effort to learn about life’s lessons together.

MR. DE BOTTON: You know, the modern secular education system is based on the idea that life is essentially a kind of fairly easy process to get through, so you need to teach people certain skills for the modern economy like accountancy and microbiology and all this sort of stuff. But what you don’t need to teach them is how to live because how to live is fairly obvious. All you need to do is, you know, separate yourself from your parents and bring up some children, maybe, and find a job you like, deal with mortality …

MS. TIPPETT: All those really easy things [laugh].

MR. DE BOTTON: All those really easy things, and then confront your own death and it’s just really simple. You don’t need guidance.

So you’re supposed to know this stuff and my question is, how? I don’t know this stuff. And the fascinating starting point of religions, all religions, is they start from the idea that we don’t know how to live and so that’s why they need to teach us wisdom.

Much of the dissonance between religion and secular life comes about because religion has hijacked many of the words that we use to talk about morality and meaning. Words like soul, spirit and sin are rarely used in a secular setting. But the words are important and should still be significant even if put aside their supernatural meanings.

MS. TIPPETT: So I often make a statement which I think is somewhat controversial that atheists have spiritual lives too. Then it ends up depending on how you’re defining spiritual, but would you say it that way, do atheists have spiritual lives?
MR. DE BOTTON: Of course, I mean …
MS. TIPPETT: Do you have a spiritual life?
MR. DE BOTTON: Yes. I mean, if you — it’s like the word soul, you know. Do atheists have souls? In the strict religious sense, no, but in the loose sense, yes. You’ll know what we mean. If you meet somebody and you say, you know, that person he was quite interesting but he seemed to lack soul or she doesn’t seem to have much soul.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. We have secular ways of using this word.
MR. DE BOTTON: Right. But I think when we use it that way, we’re onto something rather useful. It means an illusion to the deeper sides of a human being, the side that’s going to confront death, the side that’s there at moments of love, the side that is interested in questions of kind of ultimate meaning and direction, the serious stuff, the side of us that kind of we confront at 3:00 a.m. when we’re awoken and suddenly the world seems a challenging place to deal with the in the way that sometimes we might not notice in the kind of busyness of the day. I think that’s the soul bit and, of course, it exists in nonbelievers as much as in believers. Similarly, atheists have amazing moments under the stars as well when atheists look up and see the galaxies and contemplate the sheer nothingness, puniness of humans in the cosmos. It’s just how we choose to interpret it. We don’t leap to a supernatural conclusion. So when I look at the cosmos, I’m not forced to then make the next step, which is to say there must be something out there. Look, there’s so much more in common between believers and nonbelievers than we’re sometimes encouraged to think. At the very last moment under the stars, we may differ about, you know, what’s going on, but we can still have a very nice time together for a long, long part of this journey.

justrememberthatyourestandingonaplanetthatsevolving_8a5e63b457bb2df93d8fdcb65ff4a87a

Always go to the funeral – redux

A few years ago, the wife of a dude I used to work with died. I didn’t really know him well – and his wife not at all – but word got around and a friend of mine said “are you going to the funeral?” I said “well, no probably not. I didn’t really know him that well. I feel like I would be intruding.” My friend told me “That’s really not the point. It’s not about who knows him. It’s about being there.” and he sent me a link to an essay on the Internet called ‘Always go to the funeral’. It’s an amazing essay and it changed my mind about a lot of things to do with religion.

Here’s a little snippet.

On a cold April night three years ago, my father died a quiet death from cancer. His funeral was on a Wednesday, middle of the workweek. I had been numb for days when, for some reason, during the funeral, I turned and looked back at the folks in the church. The memory of it still takes my breath away. The most human, powerful and humbling thing I’ve ever seen was a church at 3:00 on a Wednesday full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral.

http://thisibelieve.org/essay/8/

Among my circle of friends, we have have adopted this rule and have a little ceremony when someone dies, that goes like this.

“Are you going to the funeral?”
“What’s the first rule of funerals?”
“Always go the funeral.”
“See you there!”

Now it’s my turn.

My Dad died last week and I am so very, very sad. We now have a big family debate about how to honour his passing. Dad fulfilled a long-standing ambition to retire to Spain (actually – he always said Portugal, but Spain is right there next door) and, after decades away, my family is worried that there is no one left who remembers him to remember his passing. There’s also a bit of a debate as to whether whether a christian memorial service is appropriate for a man who did not have a religious bone, vein or gristle in his body.

The Spaniards were very efficient with the cremation. The cremation was not even a thing but now we want to do something with a bit more significance and the choices at hand are:

  1. Scatter ashes in Footscray Meadows – the scene of many of a childhood memory.  Dad taught me to fish there. Most of my early misdeeds were there. That’s the first place I ever tried to cycle across a river. I have very fond memories of Footscray Meadows.
  2. Memorial service at the church in Rectory Lane. It’s the only church I really know well. My Dad was married there (first time round) and I was christened there along with my brothers and sisters. My grandmother was buried there a couple of years back.

The nub of the debate is whether it is inappropriate – disrespectful, even – to a man who was not so much an atheist as a never-really-gave-religion-any-thought-iest to give him a memorial service in a church. Here’s my response.

I am the biggest atheist I know but I think the one thing that religions do well is a funeral. Secular funerals feel kind of empty to me – like they are missing the point. I think the best kind of funeral connects you with two thousand years of western tradition and then sends you to the pub where you drink Guinness and laugh about the awful couch that your parents had in the 1970s and the good times that you shared and then you cry about the loss that you all feel. That’s a funeral. Scattering ashes in a park is not quite the same for me.

My sister Carol researched our family tree a few years back. She traced our heritage back many generations – back into the 16th century – and discovered that no one in our family moved more than two or three miles from Footscray in all those centuries. But in a generation or two we have scattered to the four winds. I have cousins all over England and Northern Ireland and in France and Australia and we made it all the way to California. My dad’s family was not from Footscray though. His was from way, way north – about 4 or 5 miles north- in Eltham.

So, is it appropriate to give a decidedly non-christian from Eltham a Christian memorial service in Footscray where all his children were born and christened? I can’t think of anything more appropriate.

My sister is a bit worried that it’ll be just us there in that church – four sad children remembering the life of a very special man and the very special lady who took care of him during his most vulnerable days. If it’s just us, it’ll be wonderful. But I’m willing to bet that there will be more than a handful of folks who remember us and are willing to fill the empty pews behind us. I hope you’ll read that essay and remember the edict: Always go to the funeral. I’ll buy you a Guinness if you come. You can buy me one too.

I’ll never forget the moment – at my nephews’ christening where my sister and I had to renounce Satan and all his works and we looked at each other and my sister said something like “This is the bit where we get struck by lightening or arrested for perjury “.  But I feel very grateful for the privilege of being a godfather even if neither I nor more my god sons believe in God. Religious ceremonies are not about religion, they are about ceremony and tradition and the Church of England does those particularly well.

That little church in Footscray is like a Tardis for me. Sitting in those pews transports me back through my memories and even further back into the memories of so many centuries past.

I shared some of these thoughts once before in Don’t Break the Chain. I imagine a chain of tradition and mythology stretching back for a thousand years and we shouldn’t be the ones to break it. It’s too precious.

Acceptable Prejudice

Usual disclaimer: discrimination against atheists is pretty tame compared to the discrimination that blacks and jews and gays have historically faced. It’s not like atheists were ever persecuted or excluded from public office [er, you sure? -ed].

Why_Do_Atheists_Hate_America_billboard

This bloggingheads.tv vialog makes the claim that discrimination against atheists is different from other kinds of discrimination in that prejudice against atheists is still seen as acceptable or even desirable whereas, while there is still an awful lot of discrimination against jews, blacks, gays, moslems, fat people and the disabled, the balance of public opinion has passed a tipping point and polite society will condemn it rather than nodding in agreement.

This, from today’s Guardian, illustrates the point nicely.

Conservative anti-gay prejudice was under scrutiny again on Friday after the Welsh secretary, David Jones, was forced to backtrack on an assertion that gay couples “clearly” cannot provide a “warm and safe environment” in which to raise children.

The important part of the story is not that Jones is a homophobe. It’s that he recognizes that it is unacceptable in 2013 to be a homophobe and that he is obliged to circumscribe his prejudices to try to make them acceptable and to walk back any comments that betray what he really thinks.

He even summons his invisible gay friends to vouch for his good faith.

“I regard marriage as an institution that has developed over many centuries, essentially for the provision of a warm and safe environment for the upbringing of children, which is clearly something that two same-sex partners can’t do.

“Which is not to say that I’m in any sense opposed to stable and committed same-sex partnerships.”

He did not believe he was homophobic, insisting he had “people in my life who are important to me who are gay”.

This is big news. Jones’s real crime is to be about 10 years behind public opinion. Back in 2003 it was obvious to most right-thinking people that the gays couldn’t be trusted to bring up children. Now that everyone knows a gay couple who are doing a fine job as parents, those ancient attitudes seem silly.  By contrast, it’s still acceptable to think that atheists are morally inferior or that we need to protect children from them.

Here’s the vialog.

Unfortunately, as long as atheists remain a disparate group with few interests in common (ie. forever. Ricky Gervais says atheists are like a group of people whose hobby is not-skiing) this state of affairs is likely to continue.

I’m Offended

Of all the trends in modern political discourse, the most ridiculous is the tendency in certain circles to go searching for things to be offended by. The latest group, The American Atheists, claim that including a pile of rubble – that looks a bit like a cross – in a museum dedicated to 9/11 was an impermissible mingling of church and state.

“The plaintiffs, and each of them, have suffered, are suffering, and will continue to suffer damages, both physical and emotional, from the existence of the challenged cross. Named plaintiffs have suffered, inter alia, dyspepsia, symptoms of depression, headaches, anxiety, and mental pain and anguish from the knowledge that they are made to feel officially excluded from the ranks of citizens who were directly injured by the 9/11 attack and the lack of acknowledgement of the more than 1,000 non-Christian individuals who were killed at the World Trade Center.”

Give me a break. Of all the things to pretend to be offended by, they had to choose a couple of pieces of rebar?

 

Why not?

It used to be hard to find well-thought-out justifications for atheism. Most people I knew were atheists but didn’t like to talk about it much (probably because they didn’t know that most people they knew were atheists too). The only famous atheists were either the shouty, angry kind or weirdos. You had to go all the way back to Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian essay from 1926 to find something witty and well-argued. You can go read that if like – it is pretty good – but, let’s face it, Bertrand Russell was a bit of a weirdo.

Atheism got a big boost when the so-called Four Horsemen mounted their steeds and wrote the four books – God is Not Great, The God Delusion, The End of Faith and Breaking the Spell – that defined The New Atheism. It’s hard to recommend any of those books to someone who is not already pretty secure in their disbelief though and, of the four, only Richard Dawkins is neither shouty nor weird. They are all polemics of one kind or another.

A polemic is a variety of argument or controversy made against one opinion, doctrine, or person. […] The word is derived from the Greek polemikos, meaning “warlike, hostile”.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polemic

The most interesting writings about atheism are personal stories – like Russell’s – that answer the question, “Why Don’t you believe in God?” Here are three of my favourite stories.

Ricky Gervais has a masterpiece in the genre in the Wall Street Journal today. Ricky has his eight-year-old self figuring out the answer.

But anyway, there I was happily drawing my hero when my big brother Bob asked,”Why do you believe in God?” Just a simple question. But my mum panicked. “Bob,” she said in a tone that I knew meant, “Shut up.” Why was that a bad thing to ask? If there was a God and my faith was strong it didn’t matter what people said.

Oh, hang on. There is no God. He knows it, and she knows it deep down. It was as simple as that. I started thinking about it and asking more questions, and within an hour, I was an atheist.

Wow. No God. If mum had lied to me about God, had she also lied to me about Santa? Yes, of course, but who cares? The gifts kept coming. And so did the gifts of my new found atheism. The gifts of truth, science, nature. The real beauty of this world. I learned of evolution – a theory so simple that only England’s greatest genius could have come up with it. Evolution of plants, animals and us – with imagination, free will, love, humor. I no longer needed a reason for my existence, just a reason to live. And imagination, free will, love, humor, fun, music, sports, beer and pizza are all good enough reasons for living.

Julia Sweeney turned her story into a monologue – Letting Go of God – that she performs on stage. Here’s the first act, performed at Ted.

You can watch a full performance of Letting Go of God on YouTube but be forewarned: in between the laughter, there will be tears. Keep a box of tissues handy.

The last story that I like to recommend is Bart Ehrman’s essay that forms the introduction of his book Misquoting Jesus.

When I was in seminary, I was taking a class devoted to the interpretation of the Gospel of Mark. At that time, I would have called myself a strong evangelical Christian. I thought the Bible had no mistakes. The first time I realized it did was Mark, Chapter Two. The disciples are walking through a grain field with Jesus, and the pharisees object to them eating grain because it’s the Sabbath. Jesus asks them if they haven’t read the passage in scripture when David went into the temple of God and ate show bread that wasn’t supposed to eaten. He says it happened when Abiathar was the high priest.

For the term paper, I decided to write on this passage; it contains a famous historical problem. The Book of Samuel says that Abiathar was not the high priest at that time; it was his father, Ahimelech. I wrote a 35-page paper explaining why this can’t be a mistake. It was based on the interpretation of the Greek words. The grammar is tricky in the passage. My professor was a very devout Christian, who I respected very much. He gave me an A on the paper but at the end he wrote “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.”

Even though it was a tiny little detail, it exploded the whole thing for me. Once I realized there could be a mistake in the Bible, I started finding them all over the place. The first thing it did was made me realize the Bible is not an inerrant revelation from God. It’s a human book with errors. I stopped being evangelical and became a liberal Christian. I eventually became an agnostic. There’s no way I would have leaped from fundamentalist to agnostic. It required a lot of transition. And the first thing to go was the inerrancy of the Bible.

Professor Ehrman is a little more scholarly than Ricky Gervais and his book is not a light read by any means. It’s a good read though, and examines the history of some famous bible passages – like the story of the woman accused of adultery – and when they were added to the bible.

Religion’s best hope is secular democracy

I gave up on reading or writing about atheism and secularism partly because it struck me that everything that can be said has already been said. If you haven’t heard the arguments by now, you are not listening.

But this, in a Guardian-hosted discussion – Is religion a force for good or would we be happier without God, struck me as new and insightful.

“But a liberal, secular democracy is the best protector of religious freedom, because it says that we need to guarantee the absolute freedom of belief. There is no theocracy that has ever provided for religious freedom, let alone emancipation of women and equal rights for gay people.”

The whole discussion was enjoyable and Harris and Grayling made some good points – even if they have been made a thousand times before.

Grayling:

“What we think of as distinctive of western morality has its roots in the non-religious secular tradition of ethics that comes from classical antiquity.”

Go on then – kill me!

This is awesome in so many ways that I don’t know where to begin.

When a famous tantric guru boasted on television that he could kill another man using only his mystical powers, most viewers either gasped in awe or merely nodded unquestioningly. Sanal Edamaruku’s response was different. “Go on then — kill me,” he said.

From The Times via Secular Right.

When the guru’s initial efforts failed, he accused Mr Edamaruku of praying to gods to protect him. “No, I’m an atheist,” came the response. The holy man then said he needed to conduct a ritual that could only be done at night, outdoors, and after he had slept with a woman, drunk alcohol and rubbed himself in ash.

The End of Atheism

They say that without religion, we would not have the Sistine Chapel or Handel’s Messiah or the cathedral at Rouens. Well, without atheism Julia Sweeney would not have made Letting Go of God. After an hour of listening to Julia’s heartbreaking journey from devout catholic to accidental atheist, there is no need to read or write anything else about atheism or religion. Case closed.

This is the first video of thirteen. Everyone one of them is a masterpiece. Listen to it with your children.

He who is without sin

I don’t know why but Pat Robertson is suddenly on my TV and he and his co-host are taking it in turn to say things like:

I am sensing that one of our viewers has a torn meniscus but God says it’s gonna be fine.

and

The viewer with a mass in your stomach that you think might be cancerous…you just need to pray some more and God will make it right.

I don’t know what that’s about but I just got through reading a huge thread in which two communities of atheists are arguing whether Richard Dawkins is intellectually lazy because he attacks a strawman version of religion, the hypothetical adherents of which believe in a personal God who intervenes in our lives. Apparently no one believes in that kind of God any more and Dawkins should address more sophisticated conceptions of the divine.

The accommodationist atheists also say it’s rude to point out that people like Pat Robertson might not be telling the truth.

[The argument happens way down in the comments of a post claiming that the New Atheists are right-wing, foreign policy hawks. I read it so you don’t need to. ]

Go fish

Whenever I read something crazy in the Times – usually by Brooks – I bookmark it with the intention to blog my reaction. I have a whole backlog of Brooks columns to comment on and half-written posts brim full of bile.

More often though, I’ll run across someone else who did  better tear down than I could ever write.

Read Taibblog’s – more than half crazy himself – tear down of Stanley Fish’s nonsense review of Terry Eagleton’s new book. He captured both the points that annoyed me so – and then some.

First, Fish’s/Eagleton’s claim that God is not a knowable thing:

Eagleton:

For one thing, of course, God differs from Unidentified Flying Objects or the Yeti or the Tooth Fairy in not being even a possible object of cognition… it’s not just we cannot see Him, it is as it were that our not seeing him is inherent to God Himself, which is presumably not true of the Yeti.

Taibblog:

Got that? It’s not that we can’t see God — it’s that God is inherently unseen! Take that, atheists!

Second is the claim that science doesn’t have all the answers therefor we need religion.

Eagleton:

Reason dismisses faith because faith lacks the certainty of knowledge.

But, reason alone has been proven to be completely inadequate to solve the problems of the world, and has proven especially feeble at providing man with the answers to his questions about the nature of existence.

Therefore, reason was wrong about faith.

Taibblog:

The whole premise recalls Woody Allen’s famous syllogism: “Socrates is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore, all men are Socrates.”