Thursday, October 07, 2010


This article is as ill-informed, unpleasant and ridiculous a piece of claptrap as ever I have seen from the Daily Mail. It doesn't even qualify as journalism, as it contains only three facts, and one of those has incorrect conclusions drawn from it. The Druid Network has achieved charitable status. It does not represent the whole of Druidry (it is smaller than OBOD), and the Charity Commission is not the government, so it does not mean that Druidry has been officially recognised as a religion. The other facts are that there is an association for Pagan police officers, and Pagan chaplains can visit hospitals and prisons, but both of these were described in a vile and dismissive way.

Getting charitable status for one druid organisation doesn't make Paganism an official religion - there are no official religions in this country, with the possible exception of the established church. Pagans do not "dress up as ghosts". Paganism was not "tied up with" fascism - that old chestnut has been debunked several times over, most recently by the Independent pointing out just how involved the Catholic church was with the Nazis. And it's a bit of a rich irony for a Daily Mail columnist to be saying that, as the Mail is a notoriously right-wing paper and has bordered on fascist views in the past. Many Christians believe in the immanent Divine as well as the transcendent Divine. In case Melanie Phillips hasn't noticed, we have religious freedom in this country (fought for by Unitarians and other Dissenters). It doesn't undermine Christianity if other religions are treated with dignity - it raises the status of all religions. And Christianity is not the "bedrock creed" of this country - it was imposed by force. If anything, the bedrock creed of this country is tolerance, fairness, and pantheism.

Please sign the petition demanding an apology. I think it would have been better to go to the Press Complaints Commission, but then I think they have a ridiculous rule that the libel has to have been of an individual, and that named individual has to be the one to complain (which is a bit difficult if you're dead, like the poor guy who got libelled by the unpleasantly homophobic Jan Moir).

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

LGBT teen suicide in the UK

Just in case you think this is only an American problem, it happens in the UK too.

Here's a few articles:

And remember that what the media reports is only the tip of the iceberg.

Check out the It Gets Better Project for inspiring videos from LGBT people showing that life really does get better after you leave school.  There's also a great video from a straight woman saying how she has loads of LGBT friends and celebrates their sexuality.

Monday, September 27, 2010

It gets better video

My effort for the It Gets Better Project. It's not the best video ever made, but it is my first ever YouTube video.

Supporting Teen LGBTs

Many UU churches have LGBT teen support groups. There are some excellent resources on being a welcoming congregation for LGBT people on the UUA's Welcoming Congregations section.

I think at least one church in the UK has placed a LGBT rainbow flag outside their church. This is a widely-recognised sign of being LGBT-friendly. Also, at least one UK Unitarian church hires their premises to the Metropolitan Community Church. Another thing you can do is to arrange to talk to your local university's LGBT group about liberal religion - where I live, the local MCC minister has done this and I hope to do a talk this term. Reaching LGBT teens is harder because they are more isolated - but you could offer to do a talk at your local school.

Standing on the Side of Love has a section for congregational resources.

In the 1970s, Golders Green Unitarians held meetings of Integroup, a sharing group for LGBT people and allies. Dudley Cave, who was a member at GGU, was a founding member of the Lesbian and Gay Switchboard.

Stonewall also has excellent resources for schools.

Other resources

Saturday, September 25, 2010

It Gets Better

Recently the media has been paying more media attention to teen LGBT suicides.

In response to this, Dan Savage has started a YouTube channel, "It Gets Better".

Nine out of 10 gay teenagers experience bullying and harassment at school, and gay teens are four times likelier to attempt suicide. Many LGBT kids who do kill themselves live in rural areas, exurbs, and suburban areas, places with no gay organizations or services for queer kids. (...)

I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.

But gay adults aren't allowed to talk to these kids. Schools and churches don't bring us in to talk to teenagers who are being bullied. Many of these kids have homophobic parents who believe that they can prevent their gay children from growing up to be gay—or from ever coming out—by depriving them of information, resources, and positive role models.

Why are we waiting for permission to talk to these kids? We have the ability to talk directly to them right now. We don't have to wait for permission to let them know that it gets better. We can reach these kids.

So here's what you can do, GBVWS: Make a video. Tell them it gets better.

This deserves wide publicity, so please blog about it, tweet it, and post it on Facebook.

(via Geeky Sex and sexgenderbody)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Who controls the weather?

It has often been a source of bemusement to me that fundies think God controls the weather, and uses extreme weather events to smite unbelievers, gays and liberals.

When it suits them, they claim that God was responsible for the Haiti earthquake (smiting the Vodouisants), the flooding of New Orleans (smiting the city for being nice to gays), and so on.

On the other hand, when the Boscastle flood destroyed the Christian bookshop but spared the Witchcraft Museum, they claimed the Devil was controlling the weather.

So which is it, fundies? You can't have it both ways.

I think you'll find that the weather is not controlled by a supernatural being, but is an emergent chaotic system.

As the Bible points out: the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike (Matthew 5:45).

Friday, September 17, 2010

After religion, what?

As for ceremony, already the leaves have swirled over, the wind has spoken - Andrew Brown, Caute
We have just been through a week in which we have seen yet further examples of the deeply problematic nature of religion - especially in its monotheistic varieties.
My question - developing in various ways since 9/11 - is how might we continue to access these sacramental energies without resorting to the language of the gods/God with which they were once so indissolubly linked? In short, what religion might look like after religion - after God?
This is a wonderful post and very gently articulates what I have been struggling to say in several different ways: that religion is not all about fundamentalist nutters threatening to blow things up and burn things because the world isn't how they think it should be.

Many of my Pagan friends seek to blame fundamentalism on monotheism, claiming that polytheism is inherently more tolerant. This is understandable, but it does the liberal monotheists a disservice.  I think polytheism can be intolerant too - look at what happened to Socrates.

I think the problem is twofold: assuming that metaphors for the ineffable mystery are literal, concrete and graspable; and assuming that religion is an external process, something you do, a set of laws you adhere to, rather than an internal process and an internal apprehension of harmony.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

status of religious texts

The idea that the Bible is a single unified text, intended to be "God's word for all time" or some such rubbish, is an entirely modern idea, invented in the late 19th / early 20th century by fundamentalist nut-jobs (the original Fundamentalists who actually coined the word).

The point is that the Bible was put together by a bunch of different people, and the law codes of Deuteronomy were produced at a time of extreme social conservatism, some time in the late Bronze Age. More liberal authors of the Torah, Nevi'im (e.g. Amos) and Ketuvim would probably have been horrified by what appears in Deuteronomy.

The Qu'ran was originally produced as an oral tradition, handed down by the followers of the Prophet Muhammad, and intended to be interpreted by qadis (judges) and modified by hadiths (sayings of the Prophet). It wasn't written down until well after Muhammad's death.

The Torah (Jewish scriptures) were always subject to constant reinterpretation and discussion by the scholars (which was basically every Jew who could read and comment on them).

This notion that a religious text should be a completely infallible law code for a religion and be taken completely literally is therefore an entirely modern invention.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Let's get this in proportion

In response to my previous blogpost about what I would ask the Pope, Steve posted a link to this article on spiked, How the New Atheists are abusing the truth, by Brendan O’Neill.

O'Neill is clearly not an apologist for the Catholic Church, but he points out that various newspapers are quoting excessive figures for "child rape" by "paedophile priests".
A similarly warped conflation has been made in relation to Ireland, now widely looked upon as a country where crazy priests spent most of their days handing out communion wafers and/or raping children. When the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse was published in May 2009 - with its analysis of accusations of abuse made by individuals who had attended Irish reform schools between 1940 and 1999 - the media reported it as if it had uncovered apocalyptic, Caligulan levels of sexual depravity. ‘Thousands were raped in Irish reform schools’, said the Independent. ‘Thousands raped in Ireland’s Christian Brothers schools’, said the Belfast Telegraph. ‘Thousands raped and abused in Catholic schools in Ireland’, said the Guardian.

So were thousands of children - in particular boys, the main focus of the media reports - raped in Irish reform schools? No - 68 were, allegedly. Two-hundred-and-forty-two male witnesses made 253 reports of sexual abuse against the staff of Irish reform schools at the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse - and of these, 68 claim to have been raped. Once again, not all of the allegations resulted in convictions. Some witness reports involved priests who had died, and out of the 253 male reports of sexual abuse, 207 related to the period of 1969 or earlier; 46 related to the 1970s and 1980s. How did 68 claims of anal rape made against the staff of Irish reform schools over a 59-year period translate into headlines about thousands being raped?  ...

Why is it worth pointing out these basic facts? Not in order to defend the Catholic Church, which clearly has a sexual abuse problem, or to minimise the suffering of those individuals who ‘only’ suffered being verbally abused, shown dirty photos or fondled over their clothing by Catholic priests - all of those acts are abhorrent and potentially punishable in a court of law. No, it is worth pointing out the reality of the extent of allegations against the Catholic Church in order to expose the non-rationalist, anti-humanist underpinnings of the current fashion for Catholic-baiting amongst the liberal, opinion-forming classes in the US and the UK.
It's worth reading the whole article, just to get this thing in proportion. It is bad, and there was widespread abuse of various kinds, but let's be sober and accurate in reporting it. It does not help the victims of this to exaggerate it - it means that once the exaggeration becomes apparent, it will be much harder for any future victims to be believed.

Finally, I want to quote part of Steve's comment:
I'm also reluctant to join in the fashionable chorus of condemnation of other religions because of allegations made by others. Some people allege that Wiccans sacrifice thousands of babies. I have no doubt that ritual killing of children for magical purposes does take place, but to make Wiccans a scapegoat for that would not be fair.
Because Wiccans have been victims of media feeding frenzies in the past (fuelled by right-wing evangelical Christians), we should be very wary indeed of jumping on any anti-Catholic bandwagon. As I said at the end of my previous post, I think much of the brouhaha about the papal visit is being fuelled by intolerance of religion in general and by a general Protestant feeling of anti-Catholicism. And I went on to point out that a lot of good is done by Catholics. Let's not lose sight of that.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Cultural appropriation

On Facebook, my profile says "Political views: Pragmatic anarchist (i.e. Lib Dem). Religious views: Unitarian and Wiccan pantheist / non-theist".

It took me quite a long time to arrive at that particular combination of things. I have been a Wiccan since 1991, and a Unitarian since 2007. During 2007, I went through quite considerable spiritual upheaval before settling on Unitarianism as my path in addition to Wicca.

I have had some ups and downs with regard to Wicca, and have made quite a bit of effort to learn about Unitarianism in depth. So I thought long and hard before identifying as both Unitarian and Wiccan or Wiccan and Unitarian. I feel entitled to call myself both, because I am a member of both the Unitarian community and the Wiccan community, and recognised as such by other members of that community. I do not identify as a Pagan., though Unitarianism has included pagan and pantheist ideas since its early days, and first referred to the divine as a Mother in 1850.

It also took me some time before I felt that I understood Unitarianism and other Unitarians well enough to call myself a Unitarian.

I briefly toyed with the idea of identifying as a Taoist, because I like the writings of Lao-Tsu and sometimes refer to the ultimate source of everything as the Tao, but decided that I did not understand Taoism sufficiently, and I am not a practising Taoist, so it would be mere cultural appropriation if I claimed to be a Taoist.

I call myself a pantheist because I believe the divine (however you conceive of it) is immanent in Nature, and I find my source of spiritual renewal in Nature. I call myself a non-theist because I do not believe that the divine has a personality - it only has the fleeting instances of personality that we project onto it. And I do not think the divine has an objective existence as a being either.

By pragmatic anarchist, I mean that I find anarchist ideals inspiring, but am not sure that they would work in practice, so my pragmatic response was to join the Lib Dems (the nearest mainstream political alternative).

I was pleasantly surprised when a chap from America contacted me to say that he liked my political and religious views. During our chat, two things became apparent. He had no idea what I meant by non-theist, as he believed in an omnipotent God with a personality and a will, which I do not; he didn't seem too sure what a pantheist was, or what I meant by pragmatic anarchism; and he was neither a Unitarian nor a Wiccan in the sense of belonging to either of those communities. Imagine my surprise then, when I looked at his profile and it said that he was a pragmatic anarchist and a Unitarian and Wiccan pantheist / non-theist.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so they say, but honestly, if you're going to identify as the same thing as me, at least find out what is meant by the terms I am using and whether you're entitled to use them. Given the painful process by which I arrived at my particular self-description, I am not happy with somebody else appropriating it without even knowing what it means. I am sure he means well and everything, and I genuinely wish him well in his spiritual journey - and maybe one day he will earn those labels by being a member of those communities and actually being a pantheist and/or a non-theist. Until then (in the nicest possible way), get your own label.

It's impossible to say that you agree with the beliefs of the entire Unitarian community or the entire Wiccan community, because beliefs about the nature of the divine vary widely among both those groups, and values are more important than beliefs in both traditions (but especially in Unitarianism). Membership of something is not the same as identifying with it.

I believe in love, wisdom, freedom, reason, tolerance, inclusiveness and peace - but that could be said of several different liberal religious traditions (with varying degrees of emphasis). I identify with the values of Unitarianism - but that still doesn't make me a Unitarian unless I am a member of a Unitarian community and accepted as such by other Unitarians.

I identify with many of the values of Wicca (as I understand them): reverence for nature, distrust of hierarchy, feminism, the celebration of sexuality and sensuality - but that doesn't make me a Wiccan unless I am a member of a Wiccan community (initiatory lineage, coven, wider Wiccan community) and accepted as such by other Wiccans.

I put pantheist, anarchist and non-theist in lower-case because those describe my beliefs, not communities of which I am a member. I am not in touch with other pantheists, non-theists or anarchists particularly (except where they also happen to be members of the two communities of which I am a part).

I am not for a moment suggesting that it's impossible for another person to arrive at the same identity and worldview as me (indeed I know another Unitarian who has arrived at a similar worldview by a completely different route, which I find very affirming) - but I would hope they would have put in a certain amount of effort (spiritual, emotional and intellectual) before claiming the labels.

In a wider context, this raises the question, what is that makes you a member of a religious community? Is it membership, identity, belief, practice, values, or a combination of these?

Brain & religion

In response to these statistics about OK Cupid users, I decided to analyse my OK Cupid profile for reading grade level.

I am pleased to announce that my score was 10th grade (higher than all the atheists on OK Cupid, serious or otherwise). I suspect that, as Pharyngula warns, some other factor may be affecting these statistics, but anyway, I feel vindicated.

Here are the results:
Number of characters (without spaces) : 4,253.00
Number of words : 873.00
Number of sentences : 52.00
Average number of characters per word : 4.87
Average number of syllables per word : 1.64
Average number of words per sentence: 16.79

Indication of the number of years of formal education that a person requires in order to easily understand the text on the first reading

Gunning Fog index : 12.08

Approximate representation of the U.S. grade level needed to comprehend the text :

Coleman Liau index : 11.11
Flesh Kincaid Grade level : 10.27
ARI (Automated Readability Index) : 9.91
SMOG : 11.73
Flesch Reading Ease : 51.31

Thursday, September 09, 2010

What I would say to the Pope

Apparently atheists are now "leading an onslaught" against the Pope. Funny, I thought it was all people of conscience who were banding together to protest against his visit.

Apparently the current issue of New Humanist has an article reporting what various famous people would say to the Pope if they met him. That seems like a good idea.

This is what I would ask him:

Why did you cover up the child abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests?

Why did you promote cardinals who were covering up the child abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests?

Why did you prevent the perpetrators from being prosecuted by secular criminal courts?

Why did you let them continue to be priests where they could carry on abusing children?

Why do you continue to preach against condoms which would prevent the transmission of AIDS?

Why did you then try to blame the epidemic of child-abuse in your church on gay people?

Why do you refuse to reform a system that fosters abuse of this kind?

And, not so important, but it kind of represents much of what is wrong with the Papal "state visit" - apparently our Queen is required to wear black when she meets the Pope, as only Catholic queens can wear white when they meet him. Er, excuse me, this is our country, and our head of state (I'm a republican but she's still our head of state) - why on earth should she be dictated to about what to wear by a person is responsible for a massive criminal cover-up?

I think much of the brouhaha about the papal visit is being fuelled by intolerance of religion in general and by a general Protestant feeling of anti-Catholicism. However, I still object strongly to his "state visit" on the grounds that the Vatican is not a proper state, and he is a criminal who has covered up child abuse, and his church is often responsible for oppression and misery (though many of its individual members do good charitable work and political activism).

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

A syllogism

God doesn't exist. (Many theologians have pointed this out, including John Scotus Eriugena, Paul Tillich, Karen Armstrong, and various thinkers from Judaism and Islam. This is because "God" is Being itself, or the Ground of All Being, or Nothing, or a process.)

God is love (according to various Christian commentators).

Love does not exist. (There's no thing you can point to and say it is love.)

Love is an experience shared between people.

God is an experience shared between people.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

redefining irony

The Jehovah's Witnesses redefine irony (Pharyngula - PZ Myers)
A new group of atheists has arisen in society. Called the new atheists, they are not content to keep their views to themselves.
That's right. The door-knockin', rabidly proselytizing cult is rebuking atheists for not keeping their views to themselves.
Wow, that really does redefine irony. I mean, you know, I have had quite a lot of atheists try to convince me that my participation in religion is deluded and strange, despite my constant explanations that my spiritual views and practices are consistent with reason and science, that I regard most theology as mythology and metaphor, and I'm only interested in practices that enhance my life. Also I have frequently pointed out to the atheists in question that religion is about practices and values, not beliefs (the idea that it is primarily about beliefs was introduced by Christian fundamentalists in the late 19th century, though sadly this attitude has spread to other groups).

But none of these atheists were complete strangers who were knocking on my door and trying to sell me irreligion. Though that might be quite fun - some of my best anecdotes involve the things that I and my friends have said to Jehovah's Witnesses and other doorstep evangelists. Let's face it, doorstep-evangelist-baiting is a national sport.

As I have said elsewhere, though, evangelism and proselytising are completely counter-productive and wrong. Interfaith dialogue is good; it's also good to communicate what your religion is about, so that other people can understand it, and join if (and only if) they feel the same way. And that goes for atheism too.

The thing that really annoys me about JWs is their rampant homophobia and the fact that they drag their kids around with them on their door-to-door evangelism.

The last time some JWs called at my house, I happened to have a copy of The Inquirer (Unitarian magazine) in my hand, so I brandished it at them when they tried to give me The Watchtower.

For the benefit of people who are unable to distinguish between different kinds of religion, may I refer you to my blogposts on liberal religion and non-theism? (for educational information only, of course).

Friday, September 03, 2010


I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain'd,
I stand and look at them long and long. -
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

from Song of Myself, Walt Whitman, in Leaves of Grass

Friday, August 13, 2010

Odd's bodikins!

Dear Almighty God,

Please read Karen Armstrong’s history of you — I think you would find it most interesting. Did you know that you have several separate identities – the God of the philosophers, the God of Western Christianity, the God of Eastern Christianity, the God of the mystics, the Neoplatonic Divine Source, the Ain Sof (the God beyond God), and so on? And there’s also a chapter about your death, but don’t let it get you down, cos you’re obviously alive and well since you’re writing your own blog, right? Just like Dr Watson from Sherlock Holmes… he has his own blog too.

Also, who doesn’t like to read about themselves? I mean, we know you do, because your official biography is so long that most of your followers never get beyond Leviticus, even though there’s all those x-rated bits.

Mind you, I'm amazed you let some of the really dodgy bits into the book, like that mean trick you played on Abraham, and the time you told Saul to slaughter all those babies. You really should get a better publicist.

Oh wait, you did get some better publicists, but they keep getting killed in pogroms and burnt at the stake, or shot at.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Anne Rice

Well done Anne Rice!
Pink News: Author Anne Rice 'quits' being a Christian over attitudes to gays and women
"I quit being a Christian. I'm out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen."
She could always join the Unitarian Universalist Church, the liberal Episcopalians, the Liberal Quakers, or the Metropolitan Community Church, none of which are anti-gay. Indeed the MCC is run by and for LGBT people.

In addition, the Unitarians and Universalists and the Quakers have a long history of being in favour of science and reason (e.g. Tim Berners-Lee, Servetus, Robert Darwin, Newton, etc.). And the Unitarians (in 1904) and the Universalists (in 1860) were the first to have women ministers. I'm less well-informed about the history of Quakers, but they're very liberal too.

Norwich Pride Interfaith Service

The Norwich Pride 2010 interfaith service will be held at the Octagon Unitarian Chapel in Colegate in Norwich city centre. The service is at 6pm on 31 July. The church's beautiful walled garden will be open to picnickers prior to the service.

Stephen Lingwood, an ordained Unitarian minister, will lead the service entitled 'Coming Out as a Spiritual Practice'. He also plans to march in the parade with the diversity banner. He said he is pleased to be involved with Norwich Pride.
Ooh I would very much like to go to that. Well done to all involved. I wrote some bits about coming out as a spiritual practice as part of my essay on LGBT Spirituality.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Is religion inherently harmful?

Some atheists have argued that religion is inherently harmful. There are certainly harmful aspects of religion, but I do not believe that they are essential components of religion. And the effects of religion are often beneficial.

Harmful aspects

It is harmful to believe that your deity, or some other cosmic imperative, commands various body modifications (circumcision, genital mutilation, foot-binding, wearing all-over body-coverings that give you rickets, etc.) or that it is cosmically necessary for women to be second-class citizens, or not to use contraceptives, or to be stoned to death for adultery. These are all features of fundamentalist religions that believe they know what God's will is, and want to take the least possible liberal interpretation of books written hundreds of years ago in another culture as divine commandments for how to live. This attitude stems from a fearful, narrow and legalistic perspective on what religion is, and a basic pessimism about human nature. Not all religions do believe in this sort of thing; it is not a necessary or sufficient feature of religion.

It is harmful to think that your religion is the only truth (Christianisme, je t'accuse) and that adherents of other religions must be forcibly converted or die. Fortunately this attitude is increasingly a minority view (albeit held by a vociferous and powerful minority), as is well-attested by the growth of interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance generally.

A much more subtle problem is that when one is with a group of like-minded others, working on inner issues, one lowers one's guard, and can often be too trusting too quickly and then get hurt. I guess this would also be a problem in group therapy or amateur dramatics. I think this danger is outweighed by the benefits, but it is something that should be carefully guarded against.

Beneficial aspects
  • Experiencing a sense of community with like-minded others
  • Rubbing off the corners in social interactions (in grove, church, coven, sangha, etc.)
  • Being able to band together with others to bring about positive change in the world (of course this can also be done in secular contexts)
  • Being able to meditate and sing and do ritual with others is more effective than doing it on your own
  • Having a shared sense of meaning and a shared set of symbols
  • Sharing one's sense of awe and wonder at the Universe
  • Finding out about poetry and spiritual texts that one otherwise might not have found out about (this is certainly true of Unitarianism, anyway, where a wide range of readings from poetry, science, world religions and so on are welcomed and encouraged)
  • The opportunity to know some really wonderful people
  • Being able to share one's problems 
  • Finding your "tribe", the people you click with

Dissent in religion

I suspect that wherever there is a rigid dogma, there is someone dissenting from it - either quietly or loudly. In our own day, the hideous spectre of Christian Fundamentalism (and other fundamentalist groups) has given rise to a particularly intolerant form of atheism that cannot see any value in religion at all. Its model of religion is simply "belief in a supernatural deity" and that deity is a personal God, usually accompanied by a literal reading of the Bible (though obviously this is because that is what Christian Fundamentalists believe in). Other, more liberal, forms of religion are dismissed as "not religion" because they do not fit this narrow model. This is rather like the approach of the 19th century Christian missionaries who went to China and assumed that Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism were not religions because they did not resemble the European religion of Christianity.

Distinguished scholars of religion such as Jonathan Z Smith have pointed out that religion does not exist as such - it is a human-invented category, not a thing. This seems to me to be a much more fruitful approach through which to critique religion. Religions are discourses or languages which describe a particular way of engaging with the world. They involve shared symbolism and culture, and a body of shared spiritual practice. The more conservative forms of religion assume that there are divine laws which humans must adhere to, which curiously enough often resemble their own opinions. This is not a necessary or sufficient feature of religion.

If you assume that all religion involves an unthinking acceptance of a rigid set of beliefs and strict adherence to an outdated moral code, then it's pretty obvious that it should be abolished. No-one could argue with that. However, not all religion does involve these things. If, on the other hand, you observe (from studying it) that religion is a cultural form which evolves over time, then it can be changed and modified and improved (which is what has happened over time). In practice, you can make religious belief a private matter, and not allow religions to dictate what happens in the public sphere (though surely they can contribute to discussion about it, as that is part of the democratic process). But you will never succeed in extirpating the spiritual impulse; and attempting to crush religion and spirituality would be just as illiberal as attempting to crush atheism. So you might as well work with and encourage the liberal, heretical, mystical and dissenting aspects of religion - the thinkers and the lovers.

People brought up in the Christianised West assume that belief (and adherence to a set creed) is a necessary and sufficient feature of religion. That is not the case either; this view is peculiar to Christianity, and to the atheists who have reacted to it. In Islam it is adherence to the sunna which is more important in the case of Sunni Muslims, and adherence to the law which is more important to Shi'ites, according to Albert Hourani's History of the Arab Peoples. In liberal Judaism, the culture is more important; and in conservative Judaism, adherence to the practices laid down in Torah is more important.

The reason that belief and dogma became so important in Christianity is probably because early Christians were being persecuted in this world, they looked to the afterlife to provide them with hope. The idea that Jesus had already been resurrected gave them belief in life after death. In order to shore up this rather improbable belief, they had to create a whole raft of other dogma with which to support it.

A history of dissent
Having created a body of improbable dogma (a Triune God, a resurrected Saviour who was both human and divine, Original Sin, and so on) there were bound to be people who disagreed with  all or parts of it. The earliest form of heresy was the Gnostics. (The word heresy comes from haeresis, a school of thought. In classical paganism, it had been perfectly acceptable to have different schools of thought, as it is in Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism etc.) There was also the Arian heresy (the belief that Jesus did not exist from the beginning of time and so was not an equal member of the Trinity). This was denounced at the Council of Nicaea, but flourished in Europe until the 9th century, and then resurfaced in the Reformation as Socinianism, which ultimately led to the development of Unitarianism. Then there were the Cathars, who were a form of Gnosticism, though not descended directly from it. Then there were the Lollards, who were the first to translate the Bible into English (Wyclif's 14th century translation). After the Reformation, the Dissenters arose. The history of dissent is long and complex, but usually involved disagreement with the unpleasant doctrines of Calvinism, and a move towards more freedom of belief, including the freedom not to believe in things.

Mostly, when a group of nonconformists disagreed amongst themselves, there was then another schism and the group split into two groups with different doctrines. But in the 16th century, a very important development occurred. Unitarians realised that they were never going to agree on everything, and therefore decided to agree to differ, and embrace diversity of belief. As Francis David said, "We need not think alike to love alike". Thereafter, Unitarianism moved steadily towards increasing diversity, placing more importance on the values of freedom, reason and tolerance than on belief. The process was patchy and went in fits and starts (and was accompanied by much persecution from more orthodox groups), but it did help to create more freedom.

Similar developments occurred in Islam with the growth of Sufism. Many Sufis were non-theists, and focused on the mystical aspects of the spiritual path. They emphasised the importance of love.

Some very important groups among the Dissenters were Quakers (the Religious Society of Friends), Unitarians, Methodists, and liberal Baptists (Universalists in America). These groups campaigned for the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, education, freedom of thought and conscience, better treatment of animals, and social reform generally. Unitarians were campaigning for the emancipation of women as early as the 1840s. Unitarian belief (as opposed to Trinitarian) had only been legalised in 1813 - previously Unitarians had been persecuted. The list of distinguished Dissenters is long and varied, and includes many scientists (e.g. Isaac Newton, Joseph Priestley), social reformers (e.g. Elizabeth Fry, John Wesley), animal welfare campaigners (e.g. Frances Power Cobbe) poets (John Milton, William Blake) and other luminaries. We are the heirs to their struggle for freedom. Let's not forget their struggle and insult them by dismissing all religion as irrational and repressive. These were people with a profound faith, who worked tirelessly for a better world, and the world is better for their efforts.

Mystical and liberal religion is a very different phenomenon from conservative and fundamentalist religion. Mystical and liberal religion acknowledges and celebrates the existence of other metaphors for the way the world works, and recognises that it's all about feeling connected to the universe and becoming a more loving person.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I'm a non-theist

... or, why I don't call myself an atheist even though I am one.

  • Atheists are pretty strident about how much they dislike religion. And they have a pretty narrow definition of what religion is (usually, "belief in the supernatural"). I find religion fascinating and frequently inspiring (that is the liberal and mystical varieties of religion)
  • I consider myself a spiritual person - in other words, I get feelings of peace and joy from feeling connected to nature and other people, and I get those feelings in places where people have practised religion (possibly because of the beautiful architecture)
  • I like doing spiritual practices in the company of other people with similar values. That's what I call religion
  • There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy, atheists
  • I am open-minded as well as sceptical
  • I am not a reductionist, and certainly not a logical positivist
  • I like Paul Tillich's definition of God as the Ground of All Being
  • I pray (into the Void, the Silence, the darkness, the Tao) and meditate, and find this to be a helpful spiritual practice
  • I love stories and symbolism and mythology and Jungian archetypes
  • I think fundamentalist atheists are just as bad as religious fundamentalists
  • The main difference between me and a liberal theist is that they think God is a person and I don't. Otherwise our conclusions about the world are pretty similar.

What is liberal religion?

What is liberal religion? Some have derived the word religion from the Latin wordreligare, to reconnect; others have derived it from relego, to re-read. I like both these meanings, as the first implies compassion and connection, and the second implies the living of the examined life, the interpretation of experience, and the pursuit of knowledge. Religions have been compared to languages, in that they are embedded in particular cultures; even when a religion claims to be universally applicable, it is still modified by each new culture that adopts it. A religion is a set of shared practices, values and narratives that make the world meaningful for its adherents. Most of the world’s religions are not based on shared beliefs in the same way as Christianity, but rather on a shared worldview.

Even in the traditions that have codified beliefs that their adherents are supposed to subscribe to, individual interpretations of their creeds can and do vary wildly. Many Liberal Jews are atheists. Also, Jews (Orthodox and Liberal & Reform) say that there are many different interpretations of the Torah - they really enjoy debating them in the schul / yeshiva attached to the synagogue. In Christianity, there are 17 different models of the Atonement, and in practice, individual believers do not all believe the same things, even if they pay lip service to the idea that they should do. Even though Islam has a fixed set of beliefs, there's still room for interpretation of the Qu'ran. Surprisingly, the word fatwa means an interpretation or an opinion. So if you are unsure about what to do about a particular thing, you go and ask a mullah or a qadi for an interpretation of the Koran. So it is not assumed by most Muslims (except Wahhabis) that there is only one possible interpretation of the Qu'ran. (Personally I'd just do as I saw fit.) Even in evangelical Christianity, there are a variety of opinions about being gay (there was a study of this by Kirsten Aune, a sociologist).

There is religion as it's officially supposed to be according to the doctrine of the tradition in question; and then there's the reassuringly messy, fuzzy and human way that people actually do it. The problem is that no-one apart from liberal religionists will actually admit that the fuzzy messy human way of doing it is actually the best way.

In liberal religion, where the "divine" is usually viewed as immanent in the world, or as so diffuse that it's not a person, the source of authority is viewed as the self (as in one's conscience) and not a "higher power". Fundamentalists and orthodox types believe that God is the source of moral commandments. I do not believe this. There's an excellent book by Richard Holloway called Godless Morality which explains exactly why God being the source of moral commandments can't possibly work even if you actually believe in God (which he doesn't). The reason is this: because we cannot be sure what "God" wants, or even if s/he exists, we cannot claim in our moral pronouncements to speak for God. If two people both claim to be doing what God wants, but do exactly the opposite, how do we decide between them? By using ordinary evidence, reason and compassion to decide.

Many Unitarians prefer to emphasise shared values as the basis of religion, rather than shared beliefs. I think this is an important feature of Unitarianism, and is what holds it together despite the diversity of beliefs within it. It is there from the earliest beginnings of Unitarianism, in Francis David’s famous saying “We need not think alike to love alike”, and the tolerance of different beliefs is the basis from which our core values of freedom, reason and tolerance gradually emerged.

For myself, I see liberal religion as spirituality practised in community. Spirituality is another concept that is difficult to define, but I regard it as a sense of mystical connection with the universe and all beings within it. In feeling this sense of connection, we experience compassion for the sufferings of other beings, and empathy with their joys. We can enhance this sense of connection by finding a community with whom we can practice compassion and mindfulness; if we don’t engage in spirituality in a community setting, it can become self-centred and shallow, disconnected from everyday reality. We need the experience of actually living and sharing with others to enable us to grow and become our authentic selves. This can be done by the creation of a community of shared values, which models in microcosm the desired qualities of human community. Of course there will be conflicts and tensions, but it is in how these are resolved that the real values of the community will be tested and refined. It is only by this kind of radical openness and humility that the beloved community can become strong and genuinely inclusive.

I believe that the religious life is a shared spiritual journey towards greater communion with the cosmos, where Spirit descends into matter rather than escaping from it – but this communion does not involve the effacement of individuality; rather it is the celebration of diversity and the quest for authenticity, because the "divine" (the vision of ultimate worth) is the potentiality of all life to share in mystical communion. But we must expand our compassion to all beings, not just to those whose values we share, and we do this by engaging in social action – caring for the poor and the oppressed, protecting the environment, standing up for human rights, and promoting freedom, peace and justice.

Fundamentalist religion is often the cause of compassion being withdrawn from people whose beliefs are not shared. My ethics trump religion every time. I left Christianity when I was 15 or 16 because huge swathes of it conflicted with my ethics (it was homophobic, sexist, anti-life and believed that the only way to salvation was through Jesus' death on the cross — there are huge ethical problems with all of that). I would leave a religion if it was in conflict with my ethics. I am sure that not everyone feels this way, but I know a lot of other people who do.

Indeed, we cannot really expect others to be convinced that we are "mystical" or "spiritual" unless we put compassion into practice by helping others. The two aspects of religion go hand-in-hand: without a sense of connection there is no basis for compassion, and without the expression of compassion in the form of caring, the life of a mystic can be barren and unproductive.

Note: By "mystical" and "spiritual", I do not mean anything supernatural - I mean a passionate, poetical sense of communion with all that is. I know that atheists are capable of mysticism - e.g. Richard Dawkins describes a mystical experience he had in the introduction to The God Delusion

Further note: I do not think that religion is necessary to promote ethical living. There are many highly principled atheists.

Friday, July 09, 2010

secular humanism

My latest Belief-O-Matic results (crikey, I'm turning into a rationalist). Last time I was 100% UU and 99% secular humanist, now it's the other way round. But I am now 92% Pagan, whereas last time it was 87%. Problem is, the Belief-O-Matic seems heavily weighted towards variations on Christianity.

1. Secular Humanism (100%)
2. Unitarian Universalism (99%)
3. Neo-Pagan (92%)
4. Liberal Quakers (90%)
5. Theravada Buddhism (86%)
6. New Age (80%)
7. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (73%)
8. Taoism (72%)
9. Nontheist (71%)
10. Mahayana Buddhism (69%)
11. Orthodox Quaker (63%)
12. Reform Judaism (62%)
13. Jainism (55%)
14. New Thought (53%)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Will atheism supplant religion?

According to a blog at Psychology Today, atheism will replace religion because it provides a better explanation of how the world works. This is based on a Frazerian/Tylorian assumption that the primary function of religion is to explain how the world works.

I would argue that the primary function of religion is to provide a community of shared meaning, values and practice. Belief is secondary to these functions. Of course fundamentalists' explanations of how the world works (both morally and physically) are way off reality as evidenced by scientific research, personal experience, and any sense of spirituality.

The article suggests:
The reasons that churches lose ground in developed countries can be summarized in market terms. First, with better science, and with government safety nets, and smaller families, there is less fear and uncertainty in people's daily lives and hence less of a market for religion. At the same time many alternative products are being offered, such as psychotropic medicines and electronic entertainment that have fewer strings attached and that do not require slavish conformity to unscientific beliefs.
Not all religions require "slavish adherence to unscientific beliefs". The liberal and mystical tendency in religion has been questioning dogma for centuries. In the West, this questioning has resulted in four great liberal traditions: the Society of Friends (aka Quakers), the Unitarians, liberal Judaism, and the Pagan revival (which includes various traditions). None of these traditions requires adherence to a creed or even belief in God(s). They are about exploring the meaning of life (drawing on both secular and sacred sources of inspiration) among a community of shared values. In Islam, the mystical tradition of Sufism fulfils a similar role; and Buddhism, Sikhism and Hinduism are similarly diverse and include liberal perspectives. Please do some research before dismissing all religion as irrational and dogmatic.

The second aspect of this argument, that religion is about providing reassurance in an uncertain world, depends on what is meant by reassurance. Liberal religion provides the reassurance of having a community of shared values and interests, but it does not provide reassurance on the subject of life after death. Liberal religion is about enjoying being alive now, not about a future existence which is very uncertain.