Archived entries for society and religion

For what we are about to receive

A quick update about me: after being retrenched by IBM at the end of March, I did a short project with Access Testing, which finished up yesterday. Now that I’m officially unemployed again, I thought I might as well make an effort to try and catch up on blogging, and seeing as I haven’t done an Atheist In God’s Kingdom post in a while here’s one to kick things off.

(As a reminder for those of you who are new to the series, my aim is to try to speak against the militant anti-religious brand of atheism championed by Dawkins, Hitchens and their ilk, and point to a more tolerant, moderate form of atheism that embraces and welcomes the wonderful things that religion continues to bring to the human experience.)

Kids saying graceThe practice of saying grace before meals comes from the biblical references to Jesus giving thanks to God before taking a meal. Take God out of the equation, and you’re left with an act of thoughtful consideration towards the food in front of you. Here are a few things to think about when your Christian friends are saying grace, or even if you want to make a habit of pausing to think about your breakfast/lunch/dinner before you scoff it down (might be a good diet tip!):

What you are eating
This isn’t about counting calories or suffering buyers’ remorse over picking the (large) Big Mac Meal instead of the McSalad. Look at what you’re eating – really look at it: how it’s been prepared, and what ingredients are in it. Have a think about where those ingredients might have come from, especially if you’ve got a green bent and are interested in things like food miles, slow food, food security and sustainability. It’s amazing how little we think about what we eat considering that it’s critical to our survival – I know when I’m hungry and tired, I’ll just cram anything even remotely edible into my mouth, and I can recall many occasions where a little deliberation might’ve saved a lot of pain and suffering.

The person who prepared it
Putting together three square meals a day is no easy ask, and unless you’re lazy and eat out regularly, you’ll appreciate the effort that goes into planning and preparing meals. It’s not just the cooking, it’s also the shopping, preparing and washing up afterwards. If you cook for yourself it’s a good time to think about your own skills – be they good or bad – and reflect on what you’ve just achieved.

Those without
I know this is wandering dangerously close to moral high ground turf, and I appreciate that some are turned off by the idea of taking a guilt trip with each mouthful. Still, I believe there is such thing as a healthy dose of rationalism, especially when it comes to food waste. Check out this recent CNN article that reports up to 30% of all food is wasted. So in thinking about those without, it doesn’t have to be “oh won’t anybody think of the starving orphans!” so much as having a respectful attitude towards our ability to obtain food easily and cheaply, and not treating it as an endless resource magically created by supermarkets.

Feeling hungry? Remember to “say grace” before your next meal!

Don’t you myth the old days?

I’ve spent many a word in this series criticising the various problems with atheism, so you’re probably starting to wonder by now: if organised religion is so good why did you bother leaving in the first place? A valid point, so let me turn my critical eye in the other direction for a moment:

Photo credit: Taif Star Trails by ~almumen on deviantARTEver wonder why it’s so strange that we have 365.25 days in a year? What if I told you that God originally designed a year to be 360 days, and that it started getting longer and longer ever since Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Using the latest supercomputer models of our solar system, scientists have discovered that if you wind the clock back until a year equalled 360 days exactly, it would be… you guessed it, approximately 6,000 years ago – exactly the age that Theologians calculated the age of the Earth to be, and exactly what the bible says!

That’s not all! It’s no coincidence that 360 is the number of degrees in a circle; it is the smallest number divisible by everything from 1-10 (except 7 of course, which is the Holy Number); and it’s also the sum of two squares (a number multiplied by itself): 6 and 18. 18 divided by 6 is… three! The number of the holy trinity! And so on…

(Now if you don’t forward this to 10 of your friends, you will suffer from really, really, excruciatingly bad luck for the next hojillion years)

Look familiar? Well it shouldn’t, because I made it up. It took all of about 15 minutes worth of writing and Wikipedia “research” to create something similar to the stuff that we regularly receive in our inboxes. Here’s an example of one that I didn’t make up: the one about the supposed “missing” Christian verse in our national Anthem, Advance Australia Fair:

With Christ our head and cornerstone,
We’ll build our Nation’s might.

Whose way and truth and light alone
Can guide our path aright.
Our lives, a sacrifice of love

Reflect our Master’s care.

With faces turned to heaven above

Advance Australia fair.

In joyful strains then let us sing
Advance Australia fair!

It’s a nice verse, and while it has been around for some time, there’s no historical evidence to support the claim that this was written by the song’s original composer, Peter Dodds McCormick. What’s bad is the army of zealots who twist this into a claim that malicious forces are trying to censor the country’s Christian heritage. Um, the Christian heritage of a nation that started out as a penal colony?

I’m often astounded when a believer, who denounces numerology, astrology and other forms of spiritual mysticism, carelessly forward these messages on to friends and family. It’s but one symptom of an affliction suffered by all humans, but especially acutely by people of faith: confirmation bias, where one lets their guard down for anything that aligns with ones’ own beliefs, and puts it up for that which does not.

These are the myths that modern-day religion is built upon – the “spiritual food” that I used to gorge myself with, desperate for a true supernatural experience which never came. Despite all earnestness and no matter how much I followed the prescribed methods during my time as a Christian, I ultimately failed to have a genuine spiritual encounter. And that’s why I quit looking for Truth in religion – it’s riddled with distractions that do nothing more than tax ones’ ability to detect bullshit. If only religious institutions could just accept that what they can offer, compassion and community, is far greater than the spiritual benefits that they promise but can’t deliver.

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This post is part of the series An Atheist in God’s Kingdom.

A Generous Orthodoxy, by Brian McLaren

The cover of "A Generous Orthodoxy" by Brian McLarenWhat compels clergy to write? Is it to reach their congregations beyond Sundays? Are they peeved that their carefully crafted sermons are are only given one airing, and then forgotten forever-more? To have a resource that they can sell to raise funds? Or maybe it’s pride in thinking that one’s theology is somehow unique, or that they possess the skill to explain it better than any previous works in the vast realm of existing Christian literature? Whatever the reason, there sure are a lot of published pastors, because there’s enough printed material to sustain multiple franchises (e.g. Koorong, Word). Do other religions even have bookstore franchises?

At least Brian McLaren is more qualified than most – not in the sense of any religious accomplishment – but for the fact that he holds a Bachelor degree “with highest honour” (summa cum laud), as well as a Masters degree, in English. He also holds a controversially liberal view of his religion, which is the crux of A Generous Orthodoxy – to encourage Christians toward an idealised form of the faith that he describes as being both “neo-liberalist” and “neo-conservative”. Each chapter of the book provides a brief historical context of a particular denomination or orthodoxy, followed by the merits that warrant inclusion in his generous orthodoxy*.

I’d be punching above my weight to pretend that I know my left from my right, and all that religious and political speak other commentators take for granted, but what I can tell you is that I share much of McLaren’s views, except McLaren’s insistence on God. For example, the chapter on “Charismatic/contemplative” speaks out against rampant consumerism:

One acquires more and more things without taking the time to ever see and know them, and thus one never truly enjoys them. One has without truly having.

… which is quite agreeable. It should be enough just to stop here and encourage one to stop consuming beyond one’s means to appreciate that which is being consumed, but he goes on to suggest that the remedy must be in God:

I feel […] that I am carrying around this hilarious secret: that I actually own all things, that all things are mine-because I am Christ’s, and Christ is God’s, and God allows me to have things in the way that matters most. Not having them in my legal possession […] but by having them in my spiritual possession.

I despise this kind of forced analogy between the physical and spiritual realms. What does it even mean to spiritually possess a physical object, other than assigning arbitrary moral values to them? It’s this kind of thinking – e.g. disputes about the sacraments – that led to the need to have a generous orthodoxy in the first place!

I feel similarly about the rest of the book – that there are many merits to the existence and efforts of the church: community, co-operation, tolerance, charity, repentance – none of which ultimately requires attribution to God except to use Him as the glue to join all these unrelated parts together in one big liberal ideology.

If you’re predisposed to noticing the faults in religious discourse, you’ll find plenty of fodder in A Generous Orthodoxy. McLaren’s literary background also sadly fails to inoculate him from the usual religious shtick of cheap, meaningless analogies (“Think of the difference between a corpse and a living, breathing body, and you’ll understand the difference between a bunch of words and words vitalized with God’s breath.”) and mangling the language (“What if we were to redefine protestant as “pro-testifying”?)

As usual, my pointed criticism has probably made me sound overly harsh. It’s not entirely intentional. As I alluded to before, the book contains much worth in regards to educating the Christian and secular reader alike about the many and various denominations of Christianity, and what there is to like about each. McLaren is a clear and lucid communicator, and while he’s no C. S. Lewis, this particular work doesn’t bring any discredit to the realm of Christian writing.

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* I strongly recommending skipping past Part One entirely though, as McLaren spends an incredible amount of verbiage apologising for everything from the state of the Christian religion, to his lack of qualifications on the topic, to the very existence of the book itself – towards the end of it he’d almost convinced me not to bother reading the rest.

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This book review is part of the series An Atheist in God’s Kingdom.

The Emperor’s New Thought

Mannequins

When it comes to the subject of sex, my beliefs tend to fall on the conservative side – a random mix of Asian attitudes combined with a “brief” flirtation with religion. I also believe that I’m living in a highly sexualised Western form of society1, hence I often find myself at odds with liberalists in the circles that I frequent, who reckon things are about right or could even be less restrictive.

That’s why I’m surprised at the conclusion I reached while thinking about the “recent” hoo-ha in the media around body image issues, which is: our society needs more nudity. To recap, or for those of you who weren’t paying attention, here are a couple of events that lit up blogs, discussion forums, talk-back radio shows, letters-to-the-editor pages and wherever else a person can get a word in edgewise (probably not a good idea to click the links if you’re at work):

Prior to this *ahem* revelation, I’d been thinking about being unable to come to terms with my mortality2, and how as a society we hide death. Dead animals are swept away. Thrown out. Disposed of. Dead humans are packaged up and buried in specially designated areas. With the exception of the odd friend or relative passing away, our society systematically sanitises every indication that we’re all racing towards the grave.

In a different-but-same kind of way, I think this is what’s happening with our less-than-perfect bodies. Society strives to hide them away like Adam and Eve covering themselves upon discovering the shame of their nakedness. It’s becoming increasingly rare to see what a “normal” naked person looks like – or more precisely, the full spectrum of shapes and sizes that human beings come in as opposed to the parade of evil 666 clones: six-foot tall, size six (women), and six-packs (men). Against this tide of beauty served up by the media, yada yada yada, body image and nakedness have now become unequivocally equated with sex.

BreastfeedingThe culture I see around me now now is such that breast-feeding is an act considered so sexually provocative that people clamour to censor it from the public eye, lest a minor (God forbid!) accidentally catch a glimpse of the side of a boob3. And those who choose to practice public nudity are treated as if they’re handing out invitations to perverts and paedophiles.

As a conservative, I used to think that the solution to the problem was to rage at the media and tell them to cease-and-desist with their barrage of soft-core pornography, but now in light of the above I’m thinking that it will only serve to exacerbate the problem. A better solution might be to redress the imbalance of body types by encouraging works that display our humanity in all its glory – literally.

Not that I know how to appreciate art, but I can honestly say that there are some artists whose works I previously would have deplored, but can now entertain a kind of begrudging respect for (again, not safe for work):

It’s easy to dismiss these as pornography purely because their primary purpose is to depict nudity, but stripped of eroticism – particular Friedler’s books where individuals are displayed clothed and unclothed in side-by-side shots to show the contrast between the two – doesn’t the fault really lie with the viewer if sexual stimulation is the primary response? We must retrain our minds to appreciate the human form for purposes other than sex.

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And finally, a few random pieces of information that I wasn’t able to work into the above piece, but which I think are still worth mentioning:

  • It’s backed by Science! In an SBS program called “What’s the problem with nudity?” scientists concluded that being clothed helps prevent promiscuity while bringing up children. The problem that I see here is that the assumption nakedness = sexiness is already baked into the experiment a-priori. What about those primitive tribes where the people wear very little clothing, and the women go around topless?
  • Artistic nudes – paintings, statues and other works of art featuring nudity practically have a category of their own. How did the people of those times (say, the renaissance period) treat nudes? Was it the equivalent of pornography in their age, or were they able to appreciate the human form objectively because their society wasn’t affected by hyper-sexualisation?

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Epic footnotes!

  1. That is, on any reasonable day, you will encounter sexually suggestive material regardless of whether you wanted to see it or not.
  2. Read: I’ve always been scared shitless about dying. If you want to correlate this with my recent religious conversion: You’re wrong. Go away.
  3. I will not entertain the possibility that some think that breast-feeding is too disgusting to be seen in public. Might as well say that people should always dine in private – the way some people eat is infinitely more disturbing than seeing a mother discreetly feeding her baby.

Evolution vs. Creation – what’s the story?

Tell me a story It’s generally accepted that in order to subscribe to atheism, you must believe in Evolution and renounce Creationism. Despite proclaiming myself to be an atheist, I don’t see the point.

At church on my birthday, which happened to fall on a Sunday this year, I listened to an excellent sermon by Robert Fergusson on “The Theology of Ignorance”. Simply put, he explained why the correct answer to the question of how the was Earth created, for practically every Christian, is “I don’t know.” The Bible does not provide any details about The Creation, which, as Fergusson explained, means that God did not intend for His people to know.

Yet there’s still such a strong compulsion for people to probe and ask questions about the Creation, why? Because it’s a compelling story. In their rabid adherence to logic and reason, what scientists (and militant atheists) fail to understand is the power of narrative. Regardless of race or religion, creed or culture, story-telling is deeply seated in our ancestry. We are wired to understand characters and plots, and forever seek to understand things within a coherent narrative framework. Books, movies, video games, TV – all are stories to some degree. Large portions of human endeavour can be interpreted as attempts at turning facts into stories to help others understand – the super-luminous Stephen Hawking couldn’t resist the urge, authoring a sci-fi trilogy for kids called George’s Secret Key to the Universe. Dawkins, even: “The Selfish Gene”, “The Blind Watchmaker”, “The Greatest Show On Earth”, etc.

The reason why Evolution is failing to oust Creation isn’t because people aren’t getting it into their minds, it’s because the lack of a compelling narrative means that Evolution is failing to capture peoples’ imaginations. Therefore, instead of arguing whether or not Creation has a place in high-school Science classes, we should be asking ourselves why the story of Evolution isn’t being taught to kids in pre-school.

As it is today, the story of Evolution lacks the core fundamentals of a good tale: relatable characters, and a compelling plot. In the quest to keep strict boundaries between fact from fiction, those responsible have stripped away any semblance of fun and excitement. The whole process is dryly told as how man came to be, from an unbroken chain of organisms originating from the first life form that appeared in the primordial soup.

Atheism doesn’t need any more scientists trying to save us from our unenlightenment. The time is ripe for authors, poets and musicians to take charge, and turn our history from boring lists of theories, formulas and equations into something that is inviting, interesting and entertaining.

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A short addendum to the post, from an interview with Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy in The Weekend Australian Review – May 1-2:

There’s also something of his grandfather in Pullman’s love of telling stories. This, for him, is how we humans come to terms with the mysteries of life, death and existence. And it is not a trivial matter; he believes fiction ranks alongside the scientific method and the symphony orchestra as our greatest discoveries.

‘”People have a hunger for stories that explain things,” he says. “That is what myths are: stories that explain where the seasons come from or where sin originates. The story of God was a story that explained a great deal, but it has now become incredible, impossible to believe.”

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This post is part of the series An Atheist In God’s Kingdom.



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