Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Was Paradise Lost?

Posted: May 19, 2010 by Tim Barclay in Religion

The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is one of the most symbolically important in the Bible. Coming right at the beginning of the pentateuch, it acts as a necessary set-up to much of the rest of the Old and New Testaments and the religions they have inspired. The story holds within it one of the most fundamental tenets of Christianity – the inherent sinfulness of man – and therefore the entire justification for the sacrifice of Christ.

Being of such central importance, the Eden story is one of the best known of the Bible, taught early to young children. The story and its apparent message are ubiquitously known by anyone who has any knowledge of Christianity or Judaism:

God created Adam and Eve and put them in the Garden of Eden to take care of everything inside it. God told them that they could eat from any tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – if they ate that, they would die. A talking serpent then approached Eve, tempting her to eat the forbidden fruit and to convince Adam to do the same. God found out and punished them (acting extremely surprised considering his omniscience), casting them out of Eden and never again allowing them the pure and idyllic life they had been blessed with before.

It has seemed to me for a long time that the general interpretation of this story, that the serpent leads the naive humans to sin and therefore turn away from God’s grace, is extremely skewed and that an objective interpretation, unencumbered by our society’s ubiquitous framing of the story, would lead to a different conclusion.

I believe a useful comparison to this story exists in sci-fi literature. This may seem like something of a digression, but bear with me a minute and consider almost any dystopian future story you can think of.

In Orwell’s 1984, for example, the society is ideal. There is almost no crime or disorder. Citizens are patriotic and dedicated to their land and their leader. But the cost of this apparent societal harmony is the ability of its members to question, to enquire, to think freely. Thought Police exist to make sure that nobody starts to question their situation or to pull away from the herd. If anybody does, they are quickly disciplined and brought back into line, or quietly removed so that the greater peace can be comfortably maintained. In many ways 1984’s society is without many of the problems that mar all modern civilisations, but the cost is true self-knowledge and the freedom to question.

Consider also the 2002 film, Equilibrium. Here the society has left behind crime, war and dissidence. People are comfortable, ordered and productive. But here the cost is emotion. Children are taught to suppress feelings and emotions and anything created to invoke these emotions, such as art, music and poetry, is destroyed. Mood suppressing drugs are routinely distributed to keep people in line and any dissent from the rules is dealt with quickly and efficiently by a military service comparable to the Thought Police. As in 1984, from which the film clearly take great influence, an apparently perfect society is created and maintained, but at the expense of its members’ humanity.

The message in both of these examples is clear: that cost is too high. Order in society is not worth giving up the freedom to question and to express ourselves. While the ideals of crimelessness and concordance are worth striving for, the costs involved in these fictional worlds are too high.

It has long struck me that Eden is very much like one of these warning fictional futures. Adam and Eve live in happy and idyllic harmony, but the cost is self-awareness, inquiry, free thought, the knowledge of good and evil.

Think through the story again. Is the pre-fall garden really the blissful heaven Christians invoke, or the controlled and ignorant oppression of Orwell’s vision? Is God really the benevolent and loving father disappointed by his children’s harsh disobedience, or the watchful and unquestionable Big Brother, angry that his control has been questioned? Is the serpent really the evil tempter or the liberator? Are Adam and Eve fallen or enlightened?

The story is clear: God lied to Adam and Eve that they would die if they ate the fruit. The serpent told them truthfully that their eyes would be opened. If George Orwell’s disturbing versions of the future taught us anything, which many claim they have, then is it really sensible to go on trusting this God?


The Story of Christmas

Posted: December 8, 2009 by Tim Barclay in Religion
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The following is from an advertising campaign which recently ran in the UK.

This campaign uses what is known as User Generated Content. By getting people to film and send in testimonies on webcams, the company not only saves time and money, but more importantly, it co-opts the apparently genuine, grass-roots nature of the amateur Youtube video blogger to lend unearned credibility to the product.

It is a marketing ploy, and a pretty cynical one at that.

During the 4th century, early Christians were busily spreading the message of Jesus up through Europe trying to gain support and converts as they went. All the civilisations they encountered had strong cultural traditions already which included various annual feast days and celebrations. The most important of which, in a lot of cases, was a midwinter festival some time around the equinox celebrating the end of bad whether being in sight and the eventual return of Spring.

Winter festivals, such as the Scandanavian Jōl, were deeply ingrained in their respective cultures and popular among their people. So the early Christians realised that forcing would-be converts to drop their dancing and feasts in order to accept a new message was going to be a hard sell.

So they adapted their message. Before the 4th century, there had been a certain amount of speculation about when Jesus had been born, but no date could be said with any real certainty. So the early church exploited this hole in their knowledge by creating a midwinter celebration of their own to mark the newly fabricated date of Christ’s birth. The actual date on which Jesus had been born was of little importance as long as they could nominally pin something onto a festival so that converts wouldn’t feel hard done by if they joined up.

Just like tried to borrow the credibility of Youtube bloggers sitting at home with their webcams to attract customers to their brand, the early church co-opted the popular elements of the cultures it encountered to attract converts to their religion. ‘You don’t need to give up the fun parts of your present culture,’ they angled, ‘you can keep those bits and still join us.’

Christmas was, in short, a marketing ploy. And a rather cynical one.

This leads me to two conclusions. The first is that atheists should have no problem celebrating Christmas if they want to, despite the assertions to the contrary by some Christians. Christmas was created to avoid early European Christians getting jealous of their heathen peers by re-branding almost all the details of various pre-existing pagan festivals to be nominally Christian. So I see no reason why modern heathens shouldn’t celebrate their part in the holiday’s historical formation by acknowledging the normal traditions of the Christmas tree (Roman), gift-giving (Roman), Santa (Norse), feasting etc.

The other conclusion is that the typical annual outcry over the perceived rise of commercialisation subverting the real message of Christmas is unfounded. Considering that the concept of Christmas was little more than a marketing strategy in the first place, it seems rather fitting that its name should be employed by modern marketeers to shift their goods at this time of year.

Looking back at my original analogy now seems rather unfair. Christmas, for all its pseudo-historical shortcomings, is still founded on a rather lovely ancient tradition of feasting, enjoyment and the giving of gifts to others. The marketing campaign is an artless and vacuous attempt to fool viewers into forming a particular, and probably incorrect, image of a bland corporation by creating some of the most intensely irritating thirty second pieces of film in recent memory.

Regardless of your beliefs, the Christmas period is one where we can remind ourselves to do all the selfless things we should be doing all year round. We can spend time with our families and reconnect with friends, give and receive gifts of wildly varying quality and enjoy the warmth of a season that, at least for a couple of days, encourages people to feel goodwill to all.

Just remember that not that long ago, it would have been Odin putting things in your stockings.

No sadly this isn’t a WWE match set in at “Edgefield Federal Correction Institute”, where Dawkins uses his intellectual might to pile drive Kent Hovind – young earth creationist, conspiracy theorist and criminal – into the mat.

The Greatest Show on Earth is in fact a fascinating new title from Prof. Richard Dawkins. It aims to explicate evolution in a manner that every man on the street can understand. Demonstrating complex scientific concepts with examples, diagrams, rich colour photos  and of course is his occasional no-nonsense humour, Dawkins bring evolution to a level we can all understand. A secondary role can also be found within its pages, in that it equips the reader with the tools to refute the arguments of the ID/Creationist brigade.

In opening Dawkins does a great job of explaining what is meant by the term theory in regards to the “Theory of Evolution”. The word theory in this context is often misunderstood – partially down to the fact the word theory has two different meanings.

So having taken us through a basic explanation of the term and warming us up with a brief look at; Darwin, On the Origins of Species and natural selection, Dawkins then starts to explore how natural selection and artificial selection (for example dog breeds) works and gives us some fascinating examples of each.

Over the course of thirteen chapters we are treated to many examples of evolution in practice as well as lab experiments that refute the claims of the Creationist brigade. Dawkins touches on other areas of science that back up the “Theory of Evolution” ranging from carbon dating to tree ring counting (Dendrochronology).

The book finishes with a small appendix titled “The History Deniers”. Dawkins uses this term during the title to describe those who ignore, refute or discard evidence that challenges their faith-based beliefs.

The figures detailing those who don’t accept evolution as a factual theory make for slightly worrying reading – and these are just from the EU and Turkey.

With the above in mind, Dawkins work as well as being a fascinating piece of science literature, provides those of us who read the God Delusion with  a useful tome to challenge those who refute the scientific method.

With Creationist museums in the US and Creationist Zoos in England, this book couldn’t have come at a better time.

The Greatest Show on Earth is available now in hard back from all good bookstores.

He Works in Magisterious Ways

Posted: November 3, 2009 by Tim Barclay in Religion, Science
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One area in which the so-called “new atheists” differ from what I can only assume are called “old atheists” is in their views on the possibility of harmonious co-existence between religion and science. Dawkins, Hitchens and Myers, while acknowledging that religious people can understand science and scientists can believe in God, see religious faith as either contradictory or, at worst, obstructive to good science. However, most moderate religious people, and a good number of atheists and agnostics, see no incompatibility between the two systems.

The most famous defence of the accomodationist position was made by Stephen Jay Gould in his definition of science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria“. Science is the realm of the observable, the empirical and the testable, he claimed; religion is the domain of that which is beyond human experience. Many people, in my experience, sum this position up in something like the statement that science deals with the ‘how’ while religion deals with the ‘why’ (like answer ‘B’ on this page); scientists may be able to tell us how the Earth came to be formed and how life evolved on it, but it is to the clergy that questions about the meaning of that life ought to be addressed.

I disagree. The ‘how’ and the ‘why’ defence is an easy maxim to rattle off in lieu of an agrument, but does it really mean anything at all? Does science helpfully limit itself to the dry mechanistic explanations? And does religion respectfully keep clear of them, only to shuffle out when someone asks a more metaphysical question? Of course not.

The Bible is full of explanations of how things work and how things happened – from the beginning of the Earth to its end. How many of these explanations you may wish to write off as poetically pregnant metaphors will be decided by the particular strain of the religion you most identify with. However, with even the most modern and woolly tea-and-biscuit fuelled reading of the Bible, it is a stretch to imply that the Good Book completely steers clear of physical and biological explanations or politely holds its tongue when any other ‘how’ question is raised.

Similarly, it is only a uselessly simplistic characterisation that would suggest that science limits itself to the ‘how’ questions. The rapidly evolving and endlessly enlightening fields of psychology, neurology and genetics have given us myriad insights into ‘why’ questions that mere decades ago would have been left entirely to theologians and philosophers. In fact science is even able to study the ‘why’ of religion itself (search Pubmed for ‘religion’ and ‘brain’ for examples).

Of course it is possible for scientists to be religious or for religious people to believe in evolution or the big bang. However, this is not proof that they are mutually compatible worldviews so much as further evidence of humans’ ability to hold multiple incongruous viewpoints while coping with the resulting cognitive dissonance.

The cornerstone of science is scepticism of that for which there is no evidence. This is the reason scientists make hypotheses based on observations and then try to test those hypotheses to see whether they hold true after exhaustive efforts to falsify them. Any christian scientist (by which I mean a scientist who is religious, not a follower of Mary Baker Eddy) must either admit that they hold some parts of their life out of reach of the light of their scientific scepticism or tie themselves up in confusing knots of attempted justification and theological gymnastics.

The cornerstone of religion is faith in that for which there is no evidence, and it is for this reason that I see it as fundamentally incompatible with science. A christian (or muslim or jew etc.) who wishes to maintain their faith must approach certain questions without the genuine openmindedness that ideal science calls for.

Once again, I acknowledge that some scientists are religious and some religious people are scientists and I do not think it would be helpful to force polarisation on such people and make them choose one or the other. However, both worldviews cannot be held in one mind without the necessary compromise of one or both.

The religious scientist must protect his faith from the requisite questioning tools of his trade. The scientifically-literate believer must moderate the will, power and scope of their god so as not to to tread on the toes of what rational discovery has given us. Inconvenient as it may be, these are two almost entirely overlapping magisteria, both of which claim powers of explanation and enlightenment.

The US based Center for Inquiry has the following mission statement on it’s about page:

To oppose and supplant the mythological narratives of the past, and the dogmas of the present, the world needs an institution devoted to promoting science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. The Center for Inquiry is that institution.

At the Center for Inquiry, we believe that evidence-based reasoning, in which humans work together to address common concerns, is critical for modern world civilization. Moreover, unlike many other institutions, we maintain that scientific methods and reasoning should be utilized in examining the claims of both pseudoscience and religion. We reject mysticism and blind faith. No topic should be placed off limits to scrutiny—certainly not fringe science and religion, which have an enormous influence on beliefs and conduct.

Based out of Amherst NY, the Center for Inquiry is responsible for publishing a number of magazines and the Point of Inquiry Podcast.

I fully recommend checking out the Podcast and the Center for Inquiry website here

God Hates Us All

Posted: July 23, 2009 by Tim Barclay in Religion
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One of the most contraversial and widely hated groups in America is the Westboro Baptist Church. Following wide-spread media attention, and features by journalists such as Louis Theroux, their methods of picketing the funerals of victims of anti-gay hate crime, as well as service men, with slogans such as “God hates fags” and “Thank God for 9/11” have become well known and widely despised.

Westboro Baptist Church

Their behaviour has earned them myriad lawsuits and numerous arrests. For example, in 1995, Benjamin Phelps, the grandson of the church’s founder, was convicted of assault for spitting in the face of a passer-by during one of their regular pickets. In 2007, the father of a marine whose funeral was picketed successfully sued them for damages amounting to $5m.

Most people’s reaction to hearing or reading about this group’s actions tends to be disbelief and disgust. How could anyone be this callous? How could anyone show so little respect for their fellow humans? The answer, of course, is that they believe they are doing God’s work.

Homosexuality, they assert, “pose[s] a clear and present danger to the survival of America, exposing our nation to the wrath of God as in 1898 B.C. at Sodom and Gomorrah”. They interpret the Bible in such a way that they believe it is the job of anyone who truly believes in God’s greatness to war against “workers of iniquity”, and this includes gay people, and those who accept them and enable them to lead their lives. They picket the funerals of soldiers and service men because “they voluntarily joined a fag-infested army to fight for a fag-run country now utterly and finally forsaken by God who Himself is fighting against that country.”

Quite rightly, the WBC has drawn criticism from Christian religious groups just as it has from non-religious and other-religious groups. Perhaps Christians find their rhetoric more offensive because they claim to be speaking for God and on behalf of those who truly follow him. Perhaps they are also worried that actions like this from one Christian group will bring disrepute upon the whole church and be a shot in the foot for the whole mission of the glorification of God. Perhaps they particularly dislike the way they twist the words of the Bible to justify their hateful position.

To despise this group on humanistic grounds, for their hideous disrespect of humanity is reasonable and, in my opinion, absolutely correct. However to criticise them on religious scriptural grounds is not. The reason is that the WBC does not twist the words of the Bible to justify their position – they don’t need to – those hateful words are there already.

The WBC point to Psalms 5:5, “The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity”; Proverbs 6:16-19, “These six things doth the Lord hate:… he that soweth discord among brethren”; Psalms 11:5, “The Lord trieth the righteous: but the wicked and him that loveth violence his soul hateth”; and Malachi 1:3, “And I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness.”

The argument that the they are misrepresenting the Bible’s meaning, because really God loves everyone starts to look a little thin when you start to read a bit more of the Bible and come across these examples of God being unashamedly hateful towards, not just people’s actions, but people themselves. Indeed, as Skeptics’ Annotated Bible points out, one can hardly fault the group’s logic: God hates “workers of iniquity” (Psalms 5:5); homosexuality is “abomination” (Leviticus 18:22); therefore God hates fags.

I will reiterate quickly that I do not think this group deserves anything but the deepest contempt and condemnation, but for the religious to dispute them on scriptural grounds is hypocritical. What are they doing but validly, albeit selectively, quoting parts of the Bible? And this is exactly what every moderate sermon does aswell. For every John 3:16 quoted, there is a Psalms 5:5 being ignored, because to give equal weight to both would lead to so much contradiction and cognitive dissonance that no believer would know what to do with themselves.

In order for Christianity to function as a religion, the Bible needs to be read selectively, or at least certain passages need to be interpreted liberally. So it should be no surprise that there is one group that pays attention to those bits that everyone else leaves out, and who saves their liberal interpretations for those sections that others might prefer to take literally. This is the problem with the claim that the Bible offers any sort of revealed moral teaching – without engaging the evolved humanist moral sense to overlook the contradictions and to only pay attention to the positive messages, the Bible can be used to justify violence and hate just as well as it can love and compassion.

The Westboro Baptist Church are a disgusting group, but theirs are the same tools that are used in every pulpit every Sunday. A long, ambiguous book of myths can be used to justify any moral position, for real goodness, we must look to the evolved sense to protect ourselves, our families and our species that we all have without having to take any book’s word for it.