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%)