Archived entries for An Athiest In God’s Kingdom

Aborting anti-abortionist arguments

Yellow Balloons with "Yes" in celebration of Ireland passing laws in favour of abortion rights

Photograph by Informatique

Ireland recently passed laws to allow abortions in circumstances where the mother’s life is at risk (link). As reported in the article, the trigger for the change was a case where a woman died from blood poisoning after being refused an abortion.

Typically, the ensuing reporting painted a picture of outrage from those against the change, but it strikes me that “pro-lifers”, like climate change deniers, are an over-represented minority view. Unlike climate change though, it does strike me as surprising that many churchgoers tend to put themselves into the anti-abortion camp simply because they feel it is the right side to be on.

I felt that this was worth considering.

First, a thought experiment. Supposing God’s character is exactly as detailed in the bible, this suggests that He supports “life” (I realise this is a big call, since it begs the questions of why there are deaths due to natural disasters, earthquakes, etc. but sadly that’s just too much for one blog post). That in itself is vague, so let me break it down as follows: assuming the child is not yet ready to be born, a complication arises during pregnancy such that both mother and child’s lives are at risk.

  1. If an abortion is denied, both mother and child die
  2. If an abortion is granted, the mother’s life is saved

In the first outcome the net result is total death; none survive. It is only in the second outcome that one life is preserved at the cost of another. A God that is “pro-life” should therefore desire the second outcome. So what objections could there be to this? I can think of two:

  • Those who believe “nature” should be allowed to take its course (oftentimes expressed as “submitting to God’s will”). Those who fall into this category are simply ignorant hypocrites – humans have been interfering with natural processes for as long as recorded human history (and then some). In fact, interfering with nature is pretty much one of our defining characteristics as human beings, e.g. agriculture, domesticating animals, etc.
  • Those who object to the act of “killing”, even for the sake of saving life. Again, this is hypocritical as human sacrifice is prominent in the bible, particularly in the Old Testament (e.g. God commanding Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering – although this was not actually carried out), but also Jesus’ crucifixion. There are also some lengthy discussions on the nature of murder, but even these allow killing in the act of self-defence.

Having said that, let me come back to the point I made near the beginning of the post where I said that only a minority of Christians would actually hold these views. Certainly, of all the Christians I have ever encountered, none would deny a woman an abortion if it meant saving her life. So I will take liberties here and state, without proof, that any Christian who understands their faith and has actually considered the issue, should arrive at the same conclusion.

And what about abortion under other circumstances?

This may seem like a cop-out, but I would categorise anything apart from the above scenario as no longer just about abortion, but enmeshed with a bunch of other judgements about sexual immorality. For example, those who would condemn a woman for choosing to have a “voluntary” abortion will usually also have some very strong opinions about promiscuity, sex outside of marriage, or responsibility. Pretty big issues, so another time perhaps…

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

In-tolerance we must

NOTICE: intolerance will not be toleratedI once read a question on Quora where somebody asked why Christians in America feel like they’re a persecuted minority. The answer written by Robert Hegwood is intriguing: in a nutshell, he describes how Christians were used to living a certain way of life, behaviours that had been acceptable – expected, even – for a long time, but because of the rise of Atheism they now find themselves suddenly forced to dispense with hundreds of years of accumulated history (dating back to before America existed), simply because it offends modern sensibilities. Christians are essentially being forcefully told “you can’t do that any more”.

Is it fair to ask a person, or even a significantly large group of people, to change, when what they were doing has been acceptable for decades prior? Supporters of Atheism will likely bring up all kinds of anachronistic behaviours, and social norms of past eras which now seem ludicrous, to justify a general purging of all belief even if they aren’t practiced any more. Granted, situations like the recent riots in response to a sacrilegious Youtube video do little to help, but using this as a argument for banning all religion is like pointing to soccer hooliganism as a reason for banning all sport.

Religion is more than fad or fashion – it is peoples’ way of life, moral compass, worldview and belief system. One could reasonably argue that religious belief is no more or less dangerous than a political ideology. Both have their good and bad – wars have been fought for both causes – so why is one “politically correct” (ba-da-boom) while the other isn’t? It brings to mind the famous Stephen Roberts quote:

“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

… except I contend that we are all religious. I simply believe that an atheist’s “god” is ideological rather than metaphysical. Let’s be clear: I’m not saying an atheist “worships” their ideology as one would a deity, but a rational person must accept the existence of a system greater than themselves, of which they are necessarily a part – whether they choose to accept that or not. I don’t buy existential nihilism, which – to bring this post back around full circle – Nietzsche believed to be a widespread phenomenon of Western culture, and that it was an unsavoury yet inevitable phase that humanity must go through on the path towards transcendence.

In other words, let’s not get too carried away with this current zeitgeist of non-belief – it is just part of humanity’s journey, not the destination.

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

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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