Saturday, 5 November 2016

The ‘Old Atheists’

We hear a lot about the ‘New Atheists’—Dawkins, Hitchens, et al—but let’s not forget the previous thinkers who came to the same conclusion.

Through another blog I’ve recently discovered the writings of Robert Green Ingersoll, 19th century American lawyer and orator. Here are a few quotes:
Each nation has created a god, and the god has always resembled his creators. He hated and loved what they hated and loved, and he was invariably found on the side of those in power.
The doctrine that future happiness depends upon belief is monstrous. It is the infamy of infamies.
In nearly all the theologies, mythologies and religions, the devils have been much more humane and merciful than the gods. No devil ever gave one of his generals an order to kill children and to rip open the bodies of pregnant women. Such barbarities were always ordered by the good gods.
The facts and forces governing thought are as absolute as those governing the motions of the planets. A poem is produced by the forces of nature, and is as necessarily and naturally produced as mountains and seas. You will seek in vain for a thought in man's brain without its efficient cause. Every mental operation is the necessary result of certain facts and conditions. Mental phenomena are considered more complicated than those of matter, and consequently more mysterious. Being more mysterious, they are considered better evidence of the existence of a god. No one infers a god from the simple, from the known, from what is understood, but from the complex, from the unknown, and, incomprehensible. Our ignorance is God; what we know is science.
If these take your fancy, his full works can be read and downloaded for free at the Gutenberg Project.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Jesus, the Kingdom of God, and ISIS

I’ve recently enjoyed reading a thoroughly absorbing book about Jesus, Joshua, the Man They Called Jesus, by Australian film producer/director and historian Ian Jones.

Jones vividly portrays the first-century Jewish world under Roman occupation in which Jesus (Hebrew, Yeshua) lived, and explains more clearly than any scholarly works I’ve read what the New Testament means when it describes people who were ‘waiting for the Kingdom of God’. People at the time were longing for Israel to be restored to its glory days, the days of the great kingdoms of David and Solomon. Most people believed that this would come about through a new great leader, anointed by God for the job—the now-familiar title Messiah means ‘anointed’. The Kingdom of God meant the end of Roman rule, and while some believed they only had to observe their religion faithfully and God would bring it to pass miraculously in his own time, others took it into their own hands and led semi-military rebellions, that were quashed time and again—both before and after Jesus.

Scholars differ as to quite where on this scale Jesus was—were his intentions entirely peaceful, or did he allow that there might need to be some violence in the end? It is difficult to establish the real motives of Jesus from the records that we have. If you choose to accept the four Gospels as reliable history and reject other documents such as the Gospel of Thomas, you still have to work very hard to explain away the apparent contradictions between the four, not just in a few details, but in how they portray the overall shape of Jesus’s mission. If you take a more sceptical, historical-critical approach, you have to decide which elements of the Gospels represent the earliest historical layer and which are later developments of ideas within the early churches. Neither approach is easy.

What almost all scholars do agree on is that Jesus believed the Kingdom of God would come about through his own career. Whether he intended it or not, this claim was an inherently political claim. That’s why the Temple authorities in Jerusalem, whose interests were best served by keeping the peace, were able to have him executed by the Roman governor, when his growing following presented a threat to the status quo.

According to Jones’s reconstruction of events, Jesus started out unwilling to be a Messiah figure, but changed his mind as his following grew. When he headed into Jerusalem on that fateful last week of his life, he accepted that he and his followers were risking execution—hence talk of ‘taking up the cross’—but he truly believed God would intervene, sending his ‘legions of angels’ to protect them and destroy the occupying power. Jesus would then rule the Kingdom, with the twelve disciples acting as his royal court, ‘judging the twelve tribes of Israel’ as he had promised them. Not directly stated, but implied, is that this would also involve the present Temple authorities being removed. When this mission ended instead in his death, the belief emerged among his followers that, rather than failing, Jesus had in fact been raised to heaven, from where he would soon return to complete his mission. (The origin of the belief in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus is perhaps the hardest part of the whole story to piece together—a topic for another time.)

In those early weeks and months following the crucifixion (and I’m adding my own observations now), the vision of the coming of the Kingdom of God remained implicitly political. It would be the end of Roman occupation, and the promotion of Israel to be the centre of a world-wide theocracy—now with God’s rejection of the Temple authorities being openly proclaimed because of their rejection of Jesus, and with Jesus and his followers taking their place. This was not a new religion, just a new interpretation of Judaism with Jesus as its (temporarily absent) Messiah. As the years went by, however, and the expected return from heaven did not take place, there was plenty of room for other people to re-interpret the message, which might have otherwise died out.

Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul, whose letters form a large part of the New Testament, was the most notable of these opportunists. Despite having not been a follower during Jesus’s lifetime, and despite avoiding any contact with the Jerusalem leaders of the Jesus movement for the first three years after his conversion, he went about preaching his own version of Jesus’s message, in which the coming Kingdom of God would not be a Jewish-centred theocracy, but a cosmic transformation—a new world era in which Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) would be equals under the spiritual rule of Jesus. In this way, he crafted a version of the Jewish Kingdom hope that was acceptable to people across the whole Empire, with no implied threat against Rome. Despite some early opposition from Rome, this new belief was eventually adopted by Constantine as the Empire’s official religion. Instead of being the enemy of God’s people, Rome could itself become the agent of God’s rule on earth. And so Christianity as we know it was born. The Kingdom of God became an apolitical, spiritual concept. Jesus’s teaching, originally linked inseparably with the impending transition to God’s rule that he was announcing, was turned into abstract moral teaching for all time by a Church that was by now ignorant of its original Jewish context. Christianity today is very different from the original Jewish hope that Jesus tried to realise—a very physical, political Kingdom of God on Earth, centred on Jerusalem.

But the idea of a Middle-Eastern theocracy didn’t die out completely with Paul and the rise of Roman Christianity. Around 300 years after Constantine, a new variant of monotheism appeared in Arabia, spreading rapidly through military conquest and aiming to reach Jerusalem. From the start, Islam believed in God’s rule being implemented through a succession of Caliphs who rule according to God’s laws, and spread God’s rule through conquest. This is exactly the aim of ISIS today, to secure and expand the current Caliph’s rule over an Islamic state. Their long-term aim is for this state to expand to cover the whole world. Anyone who opposes this is an enemy of God, just as Rome was seen as the enemy of God in first-century Judaism. According to ISIS’s version of Islam, violence is a legitimate means to defeat God’s enemies, just as it was seen as legitimate to many Jews to use violence against Rome in Jesus’s day. The Islamic goal of a worldwide Caliphate is not so different from the old Jewish hope of the Kingdom of God, from which Christianity developed.

If we are to successfully defeat ISIS, not just temporarily hold it back, we will need to defeat its ideas. And to do this it may be necessary to realise that its beliefs are actually very similar to those that lie behind the origins of the founding religion of our own society.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Forgiveness, part 2

I said I’d come back and say a bit more about forgiveness.

Last time I started from what Jesus said about forgiveness and how the church sometimes says almost the opposite. Jesus said, ‘Forgive, and you will be forgiven.’ Concern yourself first with forgiving others, and your ‘standing before God’ (to use a modern phrase) will take care of itself. But the church says that to ‘get right with God’ you need to feel guilty for your sin; you need to believe that Jesus died for you; you need to repent; you need to be baptised and join the church; etc., etc. And the church then says very little about forgiving others, except as moral teaching for its own members. It has swapped the priorities.

What I drew out in my last post were the parallels between what Jesus said and atheistic humanism. Jesus said live as though the angry God of the Old Testament, who requires sacrifice, doesn’t exist; instead, live a good life in the way you treat others. Jesus was against the religion of his day in as much as its rules and regulations were detracting people from being good to each other. And I think he would say the same of at least some churches today.

This time I want to explore a bit more about how forgiveness works in practice, and how church teaching can get in the way instead of helping or, at least, how it did for me.

The process of forgiving someone else is hard, but there are things you can do to make a start. You can try to imagine things from the other person’s perspective. You can try to focus on what’s good for their future rather than just on their offence in the past. You can try to focus on what’s best for the wider family or community that’s affected. And most of all, you can try to focus on what’s best for yourself, which is to move on from your negative feelings and replace them with positive ones.

All too often, however, the church doesn’t help with any of this. In fact its teaching can, perhaps unconsciously, discourage you from taking these steps. By teaching that God only forgives you when you have passed through certain steps (guilt, remorse, belief, repentance, etc.) it makes you think that you should only forgive others when they meet certain conditions too. It makes you place the same demands on the other person that you think God places on you. So you require the other person to show they are ashamed; you require them to give you an emotional apology; you require them perhaps to carry out a specific action, to pass a test that you give them to prove that they are sorry. Only then will you say that you can forgive them. But that keeps you looking backwards, to the offence, instead of forwards, and can never be true forgiveness. True forgiveness is a decision you reach to move on, for the best, regardless of what the other person says or does.

I should make clear at this point that I’m not saying that I’ve found Christians I know to be any worse at forgiving than anyone else, but I am saying that when I was a practising Christian I found myself being unforgiving. I expected others to demonstrate repentance, otherwise I didn’t think it was appopriate for me to forgive them. I know from first-hand experience that it’s possible to be a practising Christian and join the church without ever learning how to forgive. Thankfully most Christians I know do better at this than I did when I was in the church, but I think they do so because of their better humanity, despite the church’s teaching, not because of it.

I think the problem with the church’s teaching boils down to it making the wrong choice between two fundamentally different ways of understanding what forgiveness is.

To the church (and to much of human society throughout history, to be fair), forgiveness is a two-way transaction between the victim and the offender. The victim (the god who is offended by our sin) offers forgiveness to the offender (us) on condition that the offender demonstrates remorse and follows the path of repentance laid down by the victim. In many religions, that path to forgiveness involves sacrifice, and in Christianity that sacrifice becomes the death of Jesus himself.

But these days most of us recognise that forgiveness is something initiated entirely by the victim, regardless of whether the offender appreciates it or even knows about it. According to Wikipedia contributors and their sources forgiveness is
‘the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, with an increased ability to wish the offender well.’
Forgiveness is a process undertaken by the victim, freely and without placing conditions on the offender. There is no need for any sacrifice.

I think Jesus understood forgiveness in this second way. He placed the emphasis on forgiving others. This is the practical action we can take as the victim, towards the offender. Only when we have tried to do that will we truly understand what unconditional forgiveness is—how difficult it is, yes, but also how radically liberating it is, and necessary for improving society. I hope I've moved on a bit from the judgmental person I was when I was a practising Christian, but I know I've still got a lot to learn.

If only the church taught the same thing as Jesus, that we should concern ourselves with forgiving others, rather than with religious rules or formulae that are supposedly required to gain forgiveness from a god. But I suppose if it did that, it would probably put itself out of a job!

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Jesus, the church and forgiveness

Has Christianity misunderstood, or forgotten, what Jesus said about forgiveness?

I’m asking the question because, in my experience, what some churches say about the subject seems to be almost the opposite of what Jesus said. The church can end up making people feel guilty and unforgiven, when what Jesus said was meant to be liberating. I hope I can bring out what I see as the positives of Jesus’s teaching without being critical of individual Christians, only of certain Christian teaching.

So, what did Jesus say about forgiveness? Here are a couple of reported sayings:
‘For if you forgive people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive people their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.’—Matthew 6.14–15
‘Forgive, and you will be forgiven.’—Luke 6.37
Although the exact wording might have been modified before it was written down—embellished in one case and stripped bare in the other—the basic idea here seems so fundamental to Jesus’s teaching that you have to accept it as authentic even if, like me, you’re quite sceptical of some of the other content of the gospels.

In both cases, it’s a very simple message: Make sure you’re right with other people, and you’ll be right with God as well.

But Christianity tends to say, in order for God to forgive you, you need to realise what a miserable sinner you are; you need to realise how every little thing you do wrong is offensive to God (even if it hasn’t affected any other creature on the planet); you need to feel ashamed; you need to understand that Jesus died in your place; you need to respond to all of this emotionally and ‘accept Jesus as your Saviour’; and, depending on which church you’re in, you also have to be baptised; you have to take communion and keep on doing so. And if you don’t understand the death of Jesus, or if you don’t really feel guilty, if you don’t repent ‘hard enough’, or you don’t join in with the church’s rituals, then God hasn’t forgiven you. You are not right with God.

This can result in people feeling more anxious about their standing before God than they were before they heard the church’s teaching! My own experience in certain Evangelical churches was exactly that: rather than freely offering me God’s forgiveness, each new sermon seemed to be making me more anxious about whether I had repented properly or not. I wasn’t finding myself emotionally affected by it all, so I wondered if I wasn’t really a proper Christian. I wondered if I’d missed some magical step that other people in the church had taken. Had I really ‘accepted Jesus’? Was the Holy Spirit really living in me?

I know not all churches have this effect, and I’ve had much more positive experiences of churches since then, but those that most closely follow orthodox Christian doctrine on the death of Jesus will still tend have this negative aspect.

Looking back on the time I spent in that sort of church, I think I was so pre-occupied with whether I was right with God or not, and kept myself so busy with church activities as a cover for this insecurity, that I didn’t have any energy left to think about living a good life or treating other people kindly or generously. I take some of the blame myself of course, but I think the church’s teaching also had a major part to play in making me rather self-centred, and critical of anyone else who wasn’t trying as hard as I was.

Jesus said the opposite of all this. He said, don’t worry yourself about your relationship with God. You don’t have to do anything special to get him to forgive you; you don’t have to make yourself feel guilty; you don’t have to take part in any ritual. Instead focus on living a good life; be forgiving to others, and you’ll be right with God.

And Jesus said this was already true. He didn’t say: ‘You’ll need to wait until I’ve died, and you’ve understood why it was necessary, and you’ve received me into your heart, and then God will forgive you.’ None of that stuff that preachers say. He said, if you’re right with each other, then you’re right with God too, right now.

Having understood this, it seems to me that what the church says about the death of Jesus—that it was a sacrifice, that it was necessary for God to forgive us—doesn’t fit with the original teaching of Jesus. Aside from finding the idea that God won’t forgive us unless blood is spilt rather abhorrent, it also contradicts the teaching of Jesus himself. According to him, nothing is necessary for God to forgive us; it just follows naturally from how we treat each other.

Now, I no longer believe in God as an all-powerful being, from whom we need forgiveness, for reasons I’m explaining in other posts. But, despite that, I’m still drawn to the teaching of Jesus about human relationships. In fact, now I no longer believe in God, I find Jesus’s teaching even more relevant.

Jesus put the emphasis on how we treat each other, not on how we treat God. Forgive, so that God will forgive you. God’s forgiveness is there for the taking. It’s almost taken for granted. It doesn’t need to be explained. It’s our behaviour towards each other that needs attention. God’s forgiveness follows automatically. Live as though God has already forgiven you.

While the church seems to teach that we should give priority to our relationship with God, and leave our relationships with each other as secondary, Jesus said exactly the opposite. We should give priority to how we treat each other.

You might ask, if Jesus says you should focus on other people first, rather than on God, how is that any different from if there weren’t a god in the first place? Isn’t it just humanism? That’s a very good question. You could actually accuse Jesus of teaching ‘practical atheism’—the idea that you can live as though there is no god. He certainly taught people to live as though there was no ritual uncleanness, no temple, no priests, no sacrificial system. In effect, he taught people to live as though God didn’t exist—at least not the God of the Old Testament that they were supposed to believe in. That’s why his cryptic saying about ‘destroying the temple’, whatever he really meant by it, was taken as evidence against him at his trial. To deny the need for the temple was to deny the existence of the God who had commanded the temple to be built.

Jesus referred to ‘the Father’, but the way he described him is very different from the God of the Old Testament. Jesus said that there isn’t a God who is angry with you; there isn’t a God who requires sacrifices; there isn’t a God who requires any religious beliefs or practices. There is only the Father whom you can know for yourself. Jesus was introducing a radical change in the concept of ‘God’.

If we apply the same idea today, I believe Jesus would still be urging the same radical change. He would be saying that there isn’t the God that the churches teach about. There isn’t a God who requires you to believe certain things about the death of Jesus, or who requires you to have a conversion experience, or who requires you to join a church. If there is a God at all, he accepts you simply based on how you treat others. There’s at least a bit of a parallel between the teaching of Jesus and the ‘Atheist Bus’ slogan that Christians got so bothered about: ‘There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’

The teaching of Jesus does actually fit remarkably well with modern atheism—at least better than it fits with modern Christianity. It’s not an exact match, of course, but it has some of the same effects, and comes from the same concern to set people free from the negative aspects of religion.

Jesus’s teaching also fits quite well with the New-Age idea of some universal spiritual force for good, that some people could call ‘God’—although I don’t myself see any evidence for such a spirit, and I certainly don’t think that it can have been our creator, for reasons I explained in ‘Evolution, Death and God’.

In part 2, I hope to say more about how forgiveness might work in practice between people, and how Christianity can sometimes hinder the process rather than help it.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Evolution, death and God

If the theory[1] of evolution by natural selection is correct, I don’t see how there can be a God who is both good and all-powerful.

Consider the question of why there is suffering in the world, why there is disease, why there is death. If there is a God, why is the world like this? Does he cause suffering, or does he just allow it; and, if he allows it, why does he do so? Does he lack the power to prevent it? Or does he allow it for some other reason?

The best answer that Christianity can give is as follows: God doesn’t cause suffering; humans do. God allows suffering it because it’s an unavoidable consequence of giving us free will.[2] That’s essentially what the Genesis story of Adam and Eve says (regardless of whether you read it as history or as myth)—God created the world perfect, but evil, suffering and death came about by human free choice.

That was a good enough explanation until the modern era. But we now understand that suffering is woven into the very fabric of life. Natural selection only works because there is death and disease. We wouldn’t be here without death; our species would not exist. It’s only when individuals with less favourable characteristics die with fewer offspring than those with more favourable ones, that life advances. Like it or not, suffering, disease and death are part of what has created us. There was no perfect initial state; life on earth has always known death, long before humans made their appearance. And the first humans were no exception; they were part of a branch of animal life that was becoming increasingly self-aware, which meant becoming increasingly aware of pain, suffering and death. If we accept the current interpretation of the evidence in the rocks and in our own DNA, we can no longer hold onto the Genesis idea that God created a world that was perfect until humans spoiled it.

So it’s no longer enough to explain why God allows suffering as the consequence of free will; believers now have to explain why God would choose to create a world in which the development of life is founded on death in the first place. They have to explain why God would create life in this way, knowing in advance that this process would result in conscious suffering in the higher forms of life, regardless of the choices they make. To me, this stretches the idea of a good Creator beyond breaking point. I can imagine a world like ours being made by a higher being who was indifferent to suffering, but not by one who is supposed to care. I can also imagine there being a force for good that we can draw on (which we could call ‘God’ if we want to), but which can’t have been our creator.[3] What I can’t imagine is a being who is both the source of good and the creator of a world founded on suffering.

Of course, you can choose not to believe in evolution, and believe in the Creationist version of Christianity instead, which takes Genesis literally, with its perfect original state of creation. On one level, I have some respect for that position; it may be crazy, and fly in the face of the scientific evidence, but at least it is self-consistent!—unlike the average Christian who admits that evolution must be right, and yet doesn’t think through what that implies about God.

I find it interesting that Jesus didn’t say much about the original cause of suffering in the world. People in his society tended to believe that specific cases of suffering were caused by specific sins. But when he was asked whose sin he thought had caused a man to be born blind, he made a point of contradicting the question—it wasn’t caused by anyone’s sin; instead he took it as an opportunity to do some good. And in general when he encountered people with disabilities or diseases, his main concern was to restore them into a society whose religion had made them outcasts. He didn’t use it as an opportunity to blame anyone (apart from the religious leaders who maintained the rules of exclusion). It seems that he just accepted that that’s how the world was, and got on with trying to improve it where he could. I’m all for that.

[1] I’m using the term ‘theory’ in the scientific sense of a hypothesis that is generally accepted as correct, because it is the best fit with all known evidence, not in the popular sense of something that’s ‘just a theory’.

[2] Why God is supposed to have given us free will is a whole topic in its own right; I may come back to that another time.

[3] Although as it happens, I don’t see any particular evidence for such a force for good, apart from our own human spirit.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Getting started...

I’m writing this blog to answer the question of why I no longer call myself a Christian. I’ll be saying why I don’t believe in the God that Christians believe in, why I don’t believe the things that Christians believe about Jesus and why I think some of the ideas in Christianity may even be harmful.

But on the positive side I’ll also be referring to the teaching of Jesus and bringing out what I think some of it says to a post-Christian society.

Why the teaching of Jesus? Firstly of course because that’s what I’m most familiar with out of all the religions and philosophies in the world, after over 30 years ‘on the inside’. But also because, since realising that I don’t believe, I’ve actually found some of his teaching more engaging and relevant than I did before. As a Christian, the teaching of Jesus always took a back seat compared with the church’s teachings about him. Now that I’m free of the latter, I’ve found the freedom to examine the former on its own terms.

What I’ve found in the teaching of Jesus is a concern to set people free from the shackles of religion and to help them live a more contented and peaceful life. And that matches very well with what I’d like for myself and for the world.