Tag Archives: God

Tube Talk

26 Apr

So I was sat on the train on the way home, reading my magazine and eating a sarnie, when a young chap sat next to me.

The unthinkable happened: he tried to initiate a conversation with me.

The chap started by asking how I was doing. “Fine” I replied, and returned to my reading, signalling an end to the exchange.

Did I have a good night? “Yes. Thanks.” I answered tersely, hoping he would get the message, and took another bite from my sandwich.

He continued to try to engage with me and get past my Londoner’s cynicism. I gave him nothing much to go on, as I felt a slight intuition that there was some kind of agenda behind his stilted attempts at conversation.

Eventually my nice side took over as he seemed harmless enough and I asked him where he’d been: “at a wedding”.

“In jeans?” I queried.

“It was a Nigerian wedding and I don’t have any of the traditional dress.”

Hmm.

And then he said: “So. I was wondering…”

“Here it comes” I thought.

“…do you believe in Jesus?”. A few wry smiles appeared from others around us as they empathised with my plight.

I dismissed him saying “Ahhhhh, I wondered what was coming. Listen I’m really not interested.” poignantly shook out my magazine and started reading again.

“The reason I ask”, he persisted “is that I’m a christian”.

And as he continued, I tried to ignore him, knowing that if I answered his proselytising he really wouldn’t enjoy my reply.

But as he went on, my resolve to spare him continued to weaken. I tried one last time to fend off his advances, but to no avail: “Seriously”, I warned him, “you’re talking to the wrong person”.

And when he said “I want you to be happy. God wants you to be happy.” I couldn’t hold back.

“Listen”, I began, “how can you claim to know what god wants? Who are you to say you speak for the creator of the universe? Did an angel appear to you to tell you what god thinks? Did he rearrange the clouds in the sky to spell out a message? Did a big booming voice speak out from nowhere?”

“God speaks to me” he interjected.

“Seriously?”

“We have a relationship” he asserted. At this point people had forgotten any pretence of ignoring what was going on and were openly staring, clearly enjoying the entertainment.

“You’re telling me”, I softened my voice “that you hear voices in your head?”

“Yes” he replied, weakly.

“If it wasn’t for the fact that what you’re saying is based on a two thousand year-old tradition, you do know what people would say to you, don’t you?”.

He didn’t manage to find an answer to this and simply nodded mutely.

Alas the train arrived at my stop, so we couldn’t continue. I wished him a good evening and stood up to leave.

As I was heading for the door a girl with a wide smile tugged on my sleeve and showed me a book she was reading entitled something like “Talking With God”, the subtitle describing the book as a psychologist’s view on such claims from the religious. We shared a giggle as I left the train and headed off home.

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God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

19 Apr

This is a good book to explore some of the arguments around gods existence, the nature of religion and its effects on people.

The reader is left in no doubt as to his view given the subtitle of the book: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Not as good as watching the Hitch debate live mind. If after reading the book and watching him talk you can remain religious then you clearly must have a screw loose (I recommend the second link – he summarises the book in 10 minutes).

The Hitch (PBUH) calls himself an anti-theist rather than an atheist; a distinction I enjoy.

I heartily agree with most of what he says. I’ve noticed more and more the egregious lack of morals in the biblical stories and the principles espoused therein. Although most Christians (by necessity) cherry pick the nice bits and close their ears to the downright nasty bits, I think it’s important to point out the fact that it condones slavery, selling your daughter, rape, genocide, ritual slaughter of animals, human sacrifice and torture; whether that be to appease god or to punish non believers for all eternity. Indeed the idea that we have the choice to follow god, and then choose not to take that option then deserve the eternal damnation that Jesus first introduces, it is scandalous to claim the christian god is all loving, all powerful and all knowing. Further, if he already knows the future and the choices we will make, he has therefore created us knowing that we will make that choice. Pretty immoral.

And so if people truly do follow the claims of the belief system, and believe the bible to be the word of god, i.e. get a bit fundamentalist, then we’re in for a rough ride.

He argued that putting threats of eternal punishment behind these religious moral exhortations rather devalues them – surely we should do it out of a better motive.

And then christians can somehow claim that the morals and laws in society come from religion. (Granted some come from the church trying to maintain power and control.) In fact, in the fourth century, when christianity was being codified, they borrowed largely from the Stoics. I would argue that most decent laws come from our natural instincts as humans to figure out rules to work together as a society, i.e. we have a moral society not because of religion, but in spite of it.

I think The Hitch could have pushed this point more strongly in his book; he does this to great effect in his debates.

That said, most of the arguments were great, and added to the already big armoury of anti-christian arguments that are fairly obvious to anyone that takes the time to read even a small part of the bible with an open mind. He does it with wit and erudition without getting ranty and so it is an enjoyable and educational read.

His treatment of the assertion that atheistic regimes can also be pretty abhorrent (Russia, Cambodia, Nazi Germany et al) could have been stronger; he draws parallels between the ideologies of these regimes and religion and shows that religious people and organisations didn’t condemn then, and even supported them. He could have done a lot better than that, for example mentioning that Hitler was a christian and his interpretation of christianity was a central motivation for his antisemitism. He could have also used an argument that I prefer: mentioning that Hitler was a vegetarian and by the same ‘logic’ could say therefore vegetarianism leads to evil. Or he could have just shown this cartoon which says it nicely. “Saying that you believe in atheism is like saying you believe in maths. Hitler and Stalin didn’t go to war in the name of atheism, much like they didn’t go to war in the name of fractions or prime numbers.

Again, in his debates he puts forward the excellent two questions:

First, you have to name for me an ethical action or an ethical statement or moral action or moral statement made or undertaken by a believer that I couldn’t undertake or say, I couldn’t state or do. I haven’t yet had an example pointed out of that to me. In other words, that a person of faith would have an advantage by being able to call upon divine sanction. Whereas if I ask you to think of a wicked act undertaken by someone in the name of God or because of their faith or a wicked statement made, you wouldn’t have that much difficulty, I think, in coming up with an example right away. The genital mutilation community, for example, is almost exclusively religious; the suicide bombing community is almost exclusively religious; there are injunctions for genocide in the Old Testament; there are injunctions, warrants for slavery and racism in the Old Testament too. There’s simply no way of deriving morality and ethics from the supernatural. When we come to the question of the absolute, well, the most often cited one is the Golden Rule, the one that almost everyone feels they have in common. The injunction not to do to others as you wouldn’t want them to do to you. This doesn’t in fact come from the Sermon on the Mount or from Christianity, or it doesn’t originate with it. It’s certainly adumbrated by Rabbi Hillel, a Babylonian rabbi, and it’s to be found in The Analects of Confucious, too.

It almost seems like he rushed the latter part of the book. Most though was very good and stuffed full of great arguments and quotes. I particularly loved “if triangles had gods their gods would have three sides”.

Suffice it to say that if you are in any doubt as to whether to pursue the believers route, or have the misguided view that religious values are somehow good for society, then have a read and be disabused of those notions.

Born To Believe?

5 Apr

On the back of the recent discussions around so-called militant secularism, a recent edition of the New Scientist has Justin Barrett discussing why belief in gods is so prevalent and concluded that “religious belief is ingrained into human nature”.

The premise of his argument is that from a young age we understand the concept of agents. An event that creates order must have an agent behind it, or to use a more contentious description: in our minds, a perceived design necessitates a designer. And it’s a good survival trait: if our ancestors saw a movement in a bush, to automatically attribute it to a predator rather than a chance breeze enables us to conclude that running away will decrease the likelihood of us being a tiger’s lunch.

When Barrett’s point is added to our in-built theory of the mind – which means that we are highly prone to anthropomorphism – we see the results: from the man in the moon to imagining ghosts.

Barrett said “the way our minds solve problems generates a god-shaped conceptual space waiting to be filled by the details of the culture into which they are born“. Couple this “with some other cognitive tendencies, such as the search for purpose, [and you have] children [that are] highly receptive to religion.

While an unfortunate amount of Barrett’s reasoning was nonsense, the conclusion makes sense. (One of the things he said is that “Mozart was a ‘born musician’; he had strong natural talents and required only minimal exposure to music to become fluent.” Actually his dad was one of the best music teachers of the time and most critics agree that the stuff he wrote before 16 was not exactly top rate. He just had a lot of practice and a good trainer.)

This conclusion – that the presumption of agency leads to a belief in the supernatural – reminded me of a lecture I heard from Lewis Wolpert who discussed why we are biologically predisposed to a belief in gods.

He argued that tool use is uniquely human, though he drew plenty of criticism for that assertion.

But for the sake of his main point we can still say that we are significantly more advanced with our use of tools than any other animal. From cars to computers to factories we are streets ahead of the rest.

And the reason for this is that we have a clear understanding of cause and effect. For example: “The ability to foresee that by creating sharp stones would improve the chances of killing game was the defining mental change that led us to diverge away from our ape ancestors“.

Further, we seem to have a need to know the cause of things. People tend to be distinctly uneasy if they don’t know the ‘why’ of an event. And so when we can’t find a rational reason for something we still need a cause.

Enter the god of the gaps: things we can’t explain or don’t understand get called magic, or are assigned to a supernatural initiator.

The problem is, this means we have a tendency to extrapolate causation from a dangerously small sample size which makes us prone to errors. This results fairly easily in superstitions.

As a result of this very useful cognitive bias, we are predisposed to finding a nice simple cause for things. I would suggest that there’s not necessarily one big reason why people believe. We’re not simple creatures and there are many other influences that affect us – social pressure, childhood inculcation, fear of death, etc. Or as geneticists say: genes can be activated or suppressed by environmental factors. And so although I agree that we are probably biologically predisposed to believe in a god, I suspect that for those that do believe it’s not necessarily the only cause.

What About All The Suffering?

15 Mar

Debate on this perennial question can go on; thankfully Epicurus managed to boil it down to this beautifully succinct set of rhetorical questions:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
– Epicurus

My Story (Burning Flesh)

12 Mar

I really like the smell of burning flesh. It makes my nose happy. If someone does something I don’t like I can get pretty angry. I can’t figure it out but that smell really calms me down. Goats and doves are especially nice.

I’ve got a son. Just the one. I really love him. To make him I had to make his Mum have him though – she didn’t know when we were making him. Some people think that’s bad. Don’t see why. I can do what I want. Her husband was pretty angry too. But then I’m bigger than him so there wasn’t much he could do.

I found out that these days people don’t think so much of my approach to calming myself down. So, I got my thinking hat on. Given how much the smell calms me down when people piss me off, I decided I should find something that smells super nice, to fix my anger problem once and for all.

And I came up with something no one else could have thought of. Watching my son die slowly and painfully calmed my anger down and now I’m able to say those magic words ‘I forgive you’. Who’d have thought it?

Some people think I’m not very nice. Others worship me as a god.
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