Archived entries for society and religion

Trigger-nometry

By now you’ve probably heard the news about the shooting at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. Unsurprisingly, the public discussion quickly turned into a gun debate – a highly contentious topic in the United States due to the tension between violent crime involving guns, and the country’s constitutional right to bear arms. While mulling over the tragedy of the situation a few thoughts occurred, which I thought I’d put out there – seeing as I haven’t posted in quite some time.

My dad’s always been a stickler for security: prior to ol’ Johnny Howard’s Gun Buyback Scheme in 1996, he used to own a shotgun for “hunting”. I can’t remember whether he actually ever took it out (for recreational purposes or otherwise), but I do remember the gravity of its presence in the house. My own personal firearms experience is going pistol shooting for a friend’s bucks. I’ve lived with a gun in the house, and I’ve held and fired a gun – so I feel somewhat qualified to speak about it, although any American (and probably no small number of Australians) would laugh in my face for making that claim.

Yosemite SamFear dominates both sides of the debate, whether they care to admit it or not. On one hand, fear drives gun ownership – guns are used for protection, be it from physical injury, or as a “big stick” to enable a person to speak boldly and exercise their personal rights. It’s fitting that the right to bear arms is second to Free Speech in the US Bill of Rights, as human tendencies will typically necessitate the former as a result of the latter.

Guns are as much a symbol of authority as much as they are a tool for violence. Note how despite the highly publicized tragedies that occasionally pepper the news, most Americans live in relative peace and safety with firearms – so long as it remains largely symbolic.

Take the guns away and people live in fear, literally powerless. The population becomes meek and subservient to any kind of power, with rhetoric being the tool of choice. Without force behind it, this is easily ridiculed – I hazard that this might contribute to the explanation of why “tall-poppy syndrome” in so pervasive in Australian culture.

Like how money used to be backed by gold prior to fiat currency, authority in the US is backed by firepower. Until some other form of individual empowerment materialises with sufficient clout to replace the brute force of firearms, I think it will be largely futile to try and annul the Second Amendment – its influence on the psyche of the average American is far too strong.

The world is doomed

Fractal world

Ours is a world of infinite and incomprehensible complexity...

I watched the SBS documentary Go Back To Where You Came From a couple of months ago, and at the time, I remember thinking that I didn’t know what to do with myself any more. I found myself completely, utterly and terrifyingly unable to comprehend the enormity of how totally fucked up the world is, to the point where the only rational solution was to stop participating in it by killing myself. Obviously I didn’t, but it seemed to be the only possible outcome if I took the thought to its logical conclusion.

I’m a person whose character is such that I prefer exploring the intellectual realm of the mind, rather than the tangible, physical world. I tend to gravitate towards Platonic idealism and the belief that perfection exists – that there is a solution for every problem, an answer for every question, and an end to every beginning. I’m not satisfied to just “do my bit for the cause.” I want the problem to be entirely gone

But I’m becoming increasingly resigned to the fact that the world suffers from an incurable case of entropy (chaos and disorder). The problems are getting larger, and our ability (or motivation) to deal with them is not keeping up.

It baffles me that in all of the discussions I’ve seen (including my own opinions here in this blog), people are conceited enough to think that they have a sufficient grasp on the issue, regardless of whether it’s asylum seekers, climate change, the National Broadband Network, to be able to judge others’ thoughts and opinions on the topic. We hold dearly onto the delusion that the world is even remotely comprehensible to us, and that our speck of understanding is sufficient to convince others of our righteousness.

In this regard, I’m beginning to see why religion is needed – if the Ideal doesn’t exist in this reality, then it must do so in some other alternative reality. Because we can imagine it, it must therefore exist.

How should I deal with this – do I throw my hands up in the air, say “to hell with it all” and live life inside a bubble of ignorance, as selfishly as possible? Or do I join those droplets of humanity dashing myself against the rock of futility, adding my infinitessimal contribution to the carving of humanity’s future?

It’s not even just asylum seekers. The media are constantly bombarding us with issues, and our form of democracy practically demands that we consider every aspect of running the country as if the prosperity of the nation is a very real responsibility for every individual, when the individual is already being beset on all sides by people, political parties and businesses trying to pass on more and more of the burden.

Pandora’s Box is not a myth – we’re living it.

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.



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