Monday, March 29, 2010

religion and science

Just been watching the absolutely marvellous Wonders of the Solar System (episode 1). Lots of beautiful imagery, lots of fascinating information about the solar system, and how the cycles of the sun drive river systems, and how to work out how much sunlight actually falls on the Earth.

Only one teensy little quibble. In the first five minutes of the programme, Prof Brian Cox says "science is different from all the religions that have been practised here in Varanasi; you can test science's explanations for things, you don't have to take them on faith".

Yep, that's true. Except that most religion is not about explaining how the universe works. Hinduism, the main religion of India, has multiple creation stories, all of which exist happily in parallel with each other and with science. They are symbolic stories.

I know there are lots of mad fundies who think that their religion explains how the world works, and I know they shout really loudly, and grab all the media attention, because for some reason journalists just love watching religious people frothing at the mouth (look how much media attention that old hypocrite Ratzinger gets).

But lots of religious people belong to a religion because they want the sense of community, and the mythological structure, the shared values, and the spiritual practices that go with it (meditation, prayer, singing, contemplation, yoga, whatever).

Most Unitarian Universalists and many Pagans and Quakers do religion because it reflects the inner reality of the psyche and they can share their spiritual journeys with others who share the same symbolism. It's not about belief, it's about spiritual practices (the efficacy of which can be verified empirically, by seeing if the people who do them are happier, calmer, etc.)

Many liberal people of religion enjoy science and find it fascinating and beautiful. I enjoy science very much, and wish that some scientists didn't think that all people of religion are nutters, just because some people of religion are out-and-out bigots and fools.

As Carl Sagan once said, "A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge." (But this should probably be taken in context with everything else that he said about religion.)

That Jesus character

The thing that both atheists and fundamentalists fail to realise about the likelihood that the gospels' account of Jesus is almost entirely fictional is that it really doesn't matter - in fact it's better as myth than as history.

It’s taking myth literally (whether you're an atheist or a believer) that is the problem. That's what causes all the wars and arguments.

Just because something is a myth, that doesn't make it irrelevant. Myths are powerful stories that inspire people. Robin Hood and King Arthur were probably entirely fictional (or very exaggerated versions of historical figures) but they have inspired people down the ages to emulate their values. Jesus may well be entirely fictional too (and I am certain that his miracles are entirely fictional and symbolic), but he is still an inspirational figure. (And the same goes for the other solar dying-and-resurrecting vegetation gods such as Horus, Mithras, Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Dumuzi etc.) Unfortunately there are things which Jesus is reported as having said that inspire fundamentalist bigots. But Jesus’ message of non-violence also inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King. It’s a mixed picture.

Most of the stories about Jesus can be given a mythological reading which fits in well with the archetypal stories of the Hero Journey, or other myths. The same stories (virgin birth, massacre of the innocents) are told about other deities such as Krishna, Mithras, and so on.

Bill Darlison has shown how the Jesus myth fits in with an astrological initiatory system. Joseph Cambell showed how it fitted with other versions of the archetypal Hero Journey. The gospel of John in particular can be read symbolically (and was various scholars have shown that it was intended to be read symbolically). Various authors (notably Timothy Freke) have explored the similarities between Jesus and pagan gods. It's all mythology, and that's good.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Finding Ada: Lisa Barone

This blogpost is part of Ada Lovelace Day, which is an international day of blogging to draw attention to the achievements of women in technology and science.

But many women go on to achieve great things in site of all this, and Lisa Barone is one of them. She writes:
I hate talking about gender. I hate talking about what it feels like to be “a girl” in tech or on the Web because it all feels like a bunch of crap and silly excuses. I’ve never felt hindered by my gender, never felt like I was looked down upon or treated differently. Never felt like I wasn’t put on a panel because I pee sitting down. But there are also a couple of things I’ve had working in my favor.
  1. I’m 27. I entered a workplace where ceilings were semi-shattered. I know that my mother did not.
  2. I’ve never treated myself or acted like I was inferior.
  3. I’ve never allowed others to make me feel that I was.
According to her profile:
Lisa Barone is Co-Founder and Chief Branding Officer of Outspoken Media, Inc. Lisa has been involved in the SEO community since 2006 and is widely known for her honest industry observations, her inability to not say exactly what she’s thinking, and her excessive on-the-clock Twittering.

Notable Achievements
  • Selected as a ‘Person to Watch’ for 2010 by Hudson Valley Magazine
  • Invited Guest, Google Search Relevancy Panel, Google Corporate Headquarters
  • Blog Editor, SmallBizTrends
  • Columnist, Search Engine Land
  • Columnist, Search Engine People
  • Columnist, Search Engine Guide
  • Nominated, Search Engine Journal’s Best Overall Search Marketing Blog, 2007
  • Nominated, Search Engine Journal’s Most Giving Search Blogger Award, 2007
  • Winner, 2007 SEMMY, Category: Best Search Tech
  • Winner, 2007 SEMMY, Category: LOL Funny
  • Expert Judge, 2008 SEMMYs
  • Expert Judge, Search Engine Strategies Awards 2008
  • Expert Judge, Search Engine Marketing Scholarship 2008
  • Featured Entrepreneur, All Over Albany
My other Finding Ada blogposts:
Hedy Lamarr
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Monday, March 22, 2010

Hooray for Philip Pullman

I was talking to some fellow Unitarians on Sunday and we all said how much we are looking forward to reading Philip Pullman's new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, as the ideas in it sound very Unitarian. We also remarked that the Unitarian concept of God is far closer to Dust than to the Authority, since many Unitarians are pantheists or panentheists who believe that the Divine is immanent in the world.

Unitarians have been in existence as a denomination since the 1500s in Poland (they were driven out of Poland for their heretical views), the 1600s in Transylvania, and the late 1700s in Britain, and throughout that time have asserted that Jesus was just a man. He may have been special and inspired, but he was just a man.

Unitarians and others in the 19th century learned much from the new Biblical criticism coming from Germany in the 19th century, and realised that the Bible is a palimpsest of different voices and editors. Nowadays atheists and humanists and agnostics are welcome to be members of the Unitarian movement.

Pagans also love Philip Pullman for his positive portrayal of witches, and the wonderful idea of daemons, which are rather like the concept of totem animals which is popular with many Pagans.

So it was with some dismay that I just heard that fundamentalist Christians have been issuing death threats to Philip Pullman because they don't like his latest book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Stupid, ignorant, narrow-minded, bigoted fools. It is fairly obvious to anyone who has read the Bible with an open mind that the Jesus of the gospels and the Christ promoted by Paul are very different. Christ is a mystical entity whose body is the church (and who should never have been conflated with Jesus). Many liberal Christians say that Christ is an archetype within the psyche (or words to that effect).

In any case, even if you think Christ is the supreme ruler of the universe, issuing death threats is not the way to convince non-believers that your faith is worthwhile - quite the opposite. And if Christ really was the supreme being, I daresay he could look after himself. "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord"; "Judge not, that ye be not judged." (Goodness me, haven't these people actually read the Bible?)

I am very much looking forward to reading Philip Pullman's new book, and hope that these evil people do not carry out their threats. I am sure that all decent people will be praying for his safety and protection.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Those mysterious snakes

Carl McColman has an excellent blogpost reflecting on St Patrick's Day and why Pagans don't regard it as a celebration. It's well worth a read.

That old chestnut about Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland does, as he suggests, seem a somewhat tenuous quote on which to base an accusation that he drove paganism out of Ireland. As he says, it went underground, and was most likely driven there by the entire power structure of the church and the higher echelons of society who had embraced Christianity because everyone else in Europe was doing it.

But it's a great shame that Christianity decided to abolish the old deities (or at least, the ones it couldn't assimilate as saints). When Buddhism arrived in new countries, it simply declared deities irrelevant to its message and let people carry on honouring them.

I do agree with his conclusion that everyone should work together for the eradication of slavery and the promotion of social justice.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

religion for cats

I have just seen a photo of a "my cat is an atheist" T-shirt on Facebook, taken at the atheist convention in Melbourne. I commented that one of my cats is a pantherist, the other is a worshipper of Ceiling Cat (well she spends a lot of time lying on the floor staring at the ceiling). She also liked to sit on the back of my broom - I think she was hoping it would fly.

So, I give you: religion for cats.

Pantherism: the belief that the ideal state is to be a panther or other large predatory cat.

Pollytheism: the worship of parrots as sacred food.

Minnowtheism: the worship of fish as sacred food.

Belief in Ceiling Cat: Transcendent monotheism.

Belief in Basement Cat: the feline equivalent of satanism.

Hedonism: the natural default religion of all cats.

Cat-o-lick: belief that cats are deities and should be worshipped.

Klein Test

Klein Grid
This is a much more subtle measure than the Kinsey Scale, though it is based on the Kinsey Scale. Interesting. It asks questions about past, present and ideal sexual preferences, and whom you like to socialise with.

Friday, March 12, 2010

You Shan't Go To The Prom!

I've just seen a shocking story about how a school in Mississippi won't allow a lesbian student to attend the prom with her girlfriend, and they wouldn't let her wear a tuxedo either.

Here's the email that I sent to,
Dear Superintendent McNeece and Principal Wiygul,

I am writing to point out that lesbian and gay students have a right to bring a same-sex date to the prom and wear clothing congruent with their gender identity under the First Amendment, and the US Supreme Court has ruled that a policy or public entity that is based on discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people violates the Fourteenth Amendment.

Simply cancelling the prom seems like a disproportionate response to a simple request to bring a same-sex partner. Please reinstate the prom and allow Constance McMillen to bring her partner as her date, and wear a tuxedo if she wishes.

I am deeply dismayed by your discriminatory practice, and feel that it should be a matter of regret to you that your school is now infamous around the world for this bigoted, disproportionate and unjust response to a lesbian student and her partner.

Yours sincerely
I would encourage Stroppy Rabbit readers to write to the school on similar lines. You can get more information from the ACLU's letter on Constance's behalf (PDF).
Update: apparently the email addresses above are now closed (wonder why?)

The ACLU has produced an online resource for LGBT students who want to take their partners to the Prom.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Omega point

Andy Pakula has written an interesting blog-post critiquing the view that we are evolving towards greater consciousness. He writes:
I have nothing against a good story, as long as we recognize that it is a story - to be taken metaphorically rather than as a fact. The problem with false facts is that they are eventually revealed, leaving behind the wreckage of shattered faith and lives roughly stripped of the meaning that sustained them. The world that we are told is evolving spiritually is also the site of tremendous hostility and hatred, an increasing gap between rich and poor, and catastrophic environmental degradation. Will these contrary trends not rattle the new stories?
The whole thing started with Teilhard de Chardin's concept of the Omega point, and was also put forward by Oberon Zell in his Gaia thealogy (which he also derived in part from the process philosophy of A N Whitehead and others).

I'm rather enamoured of process philosophy and its related ideas, but I can see how it could be seen as unrealistic in the face of all the negative stuff out there. I must admit, I would be quite reluctant to give it up, but would be forced to do so if it was shown to be contrary to evidence.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Next steps

A press release from Peter Tatchell:
Ban on church civil partnerships voted down by House of Lords

Next battle: End the ban on same-sex civil marriage

London – 3 March 2010

Last night’s vote by the House of Lords to end the ban on religious civil partnerships is “another advance for gay equality and religious freedom,” said human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell of the LGBT rights group OutRage!

“Allowing faith organisations to make their own decisions on whether to conduct same-sex civil partnerships is the democratic and decent thing to do.

“By banning religious civil partnerships, the current law is denying religious bodies the right to treat gay couples equally. It is forcing them to discriminate, even when many of them do not want to.

"The Quakers, Unitarians, Metropolitan Community Church and liberal synagogues wish to conduct civil partnership ceremonies and should be allowed to do so.

“Following a change in the law, we expect civil partnerships will be conducted by gay-affirmative religions, including the Unitarians and Quakers, and some Anglican churches and liberal synagogues.

“Our next goal is to secure marriage equality, to end the prohibition on lesbian and gay couples having a civil marriage in a registry office. Already, 61% of the British public believe that same-sex couples should be able to have a civil marriage, according to an opinion poll conducted by Populus and published by The Times in June last year.

“The gay rights group OutRage! is planning to challenge the bans on same-sex civil marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships in the European Court of Human Rights. Our aim is full equality for homosexual and heterosexual couples. We hope to file an appeal to the European Court by summer of this year. Already, four couples have agreed to join the legal challenge.

“If we win in the European Court of Human Rights, the government will be required to change the law to allow gay partners to have a civil marriage and to allow heterosexual couples to have a civil partnership. It will ensure, at last, full equality in the laws governing relationship recognition and rights.

“Last month, the Greens became the first and and only political party in Britain to officially support an end to the ban on civil partnerships being conducted in places of worship. Their Spring party conference voted almost unanimously to end the prohibition on religious civil partnerships.

“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,” said Mr Tatchell.

A victory for common sense

This is fantastic news!

The House of Lords has voted by 95 to 21 votes to allow civil partnership ceremonies in religious premises. This means that denominations and religions who want to can marry same-sex couples.

Stonewall UK, Peter Tatchell, Unitarians, Quakers, Liberal Jews and the Metropolitan Community Church have campaigned for this change. The liberal think-tank Ekklesia has also welcomed the news.

However, what is needed now is a push towards full marriage equality for LGBT people, and also for other groups who are currently excluded, such as Pagans and the polyamorous.

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 this change in the law will also mean that LGBT Scottish Pagan couples can have legal weddings, even if neither opposite-sex nor same-sex English Pagan couples can.