Sunday, February 28, 2010

Good and bad theology

According to Stevencarrwork, a commenter on the amusing article by PZ Myers, The Courtier's Reply over at Richard Dawkins' website:
There are no facts to decide what is good theology and what is bad theology.

Good theology is what you can sell to the believers.

Bad theology is what does not sell.
Actually this is wrong. Yes, OK, so according to atheists there is no objective reality which theology describes (and as a non-theist myself, I am inclined to agree). But some theology is definitely far more harmful than other theology, and some theology can be beneficial.

For instance, the kind of theology that says that God dislikes LGBT people is obviously harmful; whereas the kind of theology that says God is Nature and Nature is God, or that God is Love and Love is God (and not a person) is harmless, and probably beneficial as it encourages ecological awareness; and the kind of theology that encourages people to be nice to everyone because "we are all made in the image of God" is surely beneficial. Also the kind of theology that says we don't know if God exists or what She wants (e.g. Godless Morality by Richard Holloway) seems like a good thing to me, as it encourages people to be more humble and tolerant of others' beliefs.

Theology can be tested empirically by its effects on people's lives. Bad theology will make people unhappy and cause harm; good theology will make people happy and altruistic.

NB in my book, good theology includes old-style atheism (i.e. the kind that was more tolerant of other views), agnosticism, naturalism, pantheism, panentheism, deism, universalism, unitarianism, a lot of mysticism, and the interfaith movement. Most of these theologies recognise that mythology is a metaphor for the process of living, and is best enjoyed in the mode of fairy-tale. They also show respect for other philosophies and religions.

Friday, February 26, 2010


I do the Belief-o-matic questionnaire occasionally as a sort of personal inventory. My latest results (interestingly, I am now only 87% Pagan):

1. Unitarian Universalism (100%)
2. Secular Humanism (99%)
3. Neo-Pagan (87%)
4. Liberal Quakers (86%)
5. New Age (79%)
6. Theravada Buddhism (78%)
7. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (76%)
8. Nontheist (70%)
9. Reform Judaism (65%)
10. Mahayana Buddhism (62%)
11. Taoism (62%)
12. New Thought (56%)

Secular Humanism was in third place, now it's in second place.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Solon's commandments

The Ten Commandments of Solon:
(Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 1.60):
  1. Trust good character more than promises.
  2. Do not speak falsely.
  3. Do good things.
  4. Do not be hasty in making friends, but do not abandon them once made.
  5. Learn to obey before you command.
  6. When giving advice, do not recommend what is most pleasing, but what is most useful.
  7. Make reason your supreme commander.
  8. Do not associate with people who do bad things.
  9. Honor the gods.
  10. Have regard for your parents.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Greens vote for same-sex religious weddings

A press-release from Peter Tatchell:
End ban on religious civil partnerships, Greens urge

Current law forces churches to discriminate against gay couples

London – 23 February 2010

The Greens have become the first and and only political party to officially support an end to the ban on civil partnerships being conducted in places of worship.

The new Green Party policy would allow gay-affirmative churches, such the Quakers, Unitarians and Metropolitan Community Church, to host civil partnership ceremonies for the first time. They are currently prohibited by law from hosting religious civil partnerships.

The vote at the Green Party’s Spring conference, which took place in London on the weekend, makes the Greens unique among British political parties. No other party has the same commitment to end this discrimination.

By a near unanimous vote, Green delegates voted to strike down the ban on religious civil partnerships.

The motion was proposed by human rights rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who is also the Green Party’s human rights spokesperson. It was seconded by Darren Johnson, the openly gay Green member of the London Assembly and the Green parliamentary candidate for Lewisham Deptford.

A copy of the motion agreed follows below.

The new policy will now be added to the Green Party’s Manifesto for a Sustainable Society.

“The State is denying, by force of law, the right of religious bodies to treat same-sex couples equally. It is forcing them to discriminate, even when they don't want to,” said Peter Tatchell.

"Gay-accepting churches, such the Quakers, Unitarians and the Metropolitan Community Church, want to conduct civil partnership ceremonies and should be allowed to do so.

"The ban on religious civil partnership ceremonies smacks of authoritarianism. This injustice was written into the Civil Partnership Act by the Labour government in 2004, in a bid to appease homophobic religious leaders. At the time, the government refused all requests to remove the prohibition on religious civil partnership ceremonies.

“The Greens are supporting Lord Alli’s bid to amend the Civil Partnership Act to allow faith organisations to decide for themselves whether they want to offer religious civil partnerships to same-sex couples.

“If the law is amended, we expect that gay-affirmative denominations will agree to host civil partnerships. Some individual Anglican churches, and some liberal synagogues, are likely to follow suit.

“I may disagree with religion and want a separation of religion from the state, but I still object to religious same-sex couples being denied the option of having a civil partnership in their place of worship. If that is what they want, it is up to them. Exclusions based on faith or sexuality are wrong.

"The Unitarians are hosting a conference on marriage equality in London this coming weekend, where I will outline new campaigns to challenge the bans on same-sex civil marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships. The aim is full equality for homosexual and heterosexual couples," said Mr Tatchell.

Green Party conference motion RR507 (passed)

“The Green Party supports an end to the ban on civil partnerships being conducted in places of worship, whilst recognising it is up to religious bodies to make this decision and not for the state to dictate to them prohibitions on civil partnerships.”

Pagans also want to do same-sex legal weddings. However, Pagan opposite-sex weddings are only legal in Scotland, but they are not allowed to do same-sex legal weddings there. Hopefully if this is sorted out, at least LGBT Scottish Pagan couples can have legal weddings, even if neither opposite-sex nor same-sex English Pagan couples can.

Liberal Jews also offer same-sex blessings in synagogues.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Where do ethics come from?

The idea that religion is the only source of ethics is based on the idea that "God" (and I don't believe in him/her/it) dispenses laws or moral codes for humans to obey, and rewards those who obey and punishes those who disobey.

Anyone who does a good thing because they expect a reward for it from (or avoids a bad thing because they expect to be punished by) some cosmic lawgiver is clearly immoral. In Matthew 6, Yeshua is reported as talking about getting rewards in heaven for doing good on earth (or at least, that is the way that the passage is often interpreted). Eeeeeuuuuuwwwwwww!!!! Wrong wrong wrong.

I do what I believe to be right and good (the pursuit of justice and the comforting of the afflicted and oppressed, donating to charity, participating in campaigns for social & environmental justice) because I believe it to be right and good, and I hope that it will increase the sum of happiness, not because I expect a pat on the head from a non-existent person in the sky.

OK so I get satisfaction from seeing people looking & feeling better after I have helped them - but the amount of effort involved probably outweighs the reward. And OK so I also get satisfaction from doing what is good and right, cos it makes me feel as though I am making a difference, and it makes me feel better about myself, but I don't see why I shouldn't. Self-esteem is good, isn't it?

And anyway, empirical evidence in the form of numerous morally upright atheists (though not all atheists), and millions of bigoted religionists (though not all religionists), make it obvious that the sort of religions that have prescriptive moral codes are not a good place to get your ethics from. The sort of religion that is inclusive and tolerant and rational would be a better place to get your values from, but you should still check them against your own conscience, reason and experience.

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 Holloway doesn't, though he says he isn't exactly an atheist or an agnostic either). 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.

I tend to use the word ethics to mean a set of best practices that have evolved or emerged from a group ethos (though that is not the etymology of ethics), and I use the word morals to mean a set of practices imposed by a moral code. In this sense, ethics are clearly more pragmatic and flexible and humane, whereas moral codes, because they are usually arbitrary and invented, are usually cruel and inhumane.

Ethics and altruism are clearly evolved characteristics — but that doesn't make them any less beautiful, especially as we usually have a choice about whether to do the ethical or altruistic thing. It's amazing and wonderful that both people and animals will help the injured and dying, often at considerable cost or risk to themselves — and people often help others who are clearly not genetically related to them, including other species.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Aurelius' wager

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.
-- Marcus Aurelius (121-180)
Well, it's better than Pascal's wager, because it is based on values and virtues, not belief, but it is still somehow unsatisfactory. I do not exercise virtue for any hope of reward (whether in the form of being welcomed by gods, or being remembered by loved ones) but because it is the right thing to do. OK so I gain some satisfaction from doing the right thing, so perhaps it's not entirely altruistic, but I'm still uncomfortable with Aurelius' wager.

I thoroughly approve of "If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them" — quite right.

Addendum: Richard Carrier wipes the floor with Pascal's Wager (and by extension, Aurelius' wager).

Friday, February 12, 2010

LGBT-friendly religions

I was hanging out in a gay bar last night and we ended up talking about religion (yeah, I know, it's no great surprise when I'm around, as it's one of my favourite topics of conversation) and discussing which are the most LGBT-friendly religions and denominations. Some of the people had never heard of some of the religions.

So, in no particular order, here are some of the more friendly ones:

  • The Divine has no gender.
  • Unitarians have ordained LGBT ministers since 1977, and passed a number of motions at General Assembly in support of LGBT equality.
  • Most Unitarian churches are willing to do same-sex blessings, and welcome LGBT members.
  • Find out more about Unitarianism
Metropolitan Community Church
  • All sex is liable to cause ego-attachments, so there's no particular prejudice against same-sex relationships
  • Buddhist sexual ethics do not preclude particular practices but rather promote considerate behaviour
  • Lots of androgynous statues
  • Find out more about Buddhism
Eclectic Paganism
  • Sometimes heterocentric, but has the potential to be queered
  • Isolated covens can sometimes be homophobic, but the mainstream is not
  • Find out more about Wicca
Liberal Jews

See also