Tuesday, January 31, 2012


So, is it possible to be a Christo-Pagan?

It depends on what kind of Christianity and what kind of Paganism you are trying to merge.

One approach to Christo-Paganism emphasises that Yahweh had a consort, the goddess Asherah. Another way to do it might be to regard Jesus as a dying and resurrecting god along the same lines as Attis, Adonis, Dumuzi, Tammuz, etc. Or you could be a henotheist who worships Yahweh and family whilst acknowledging the existence of other deities.

Certain kinds of Christianity are not compatible with Paganism. The type of Christianity that says we are all inherently sinful and fallen, and need an atoning sacrifice to save us, seems to me to be completely antithetical to Paganism.

But the kind of Christianity that emphasises compassion and forgiveness does seem compatible with Paganism. These virtues were extolled by ancient Roman polytheism.

I'm not sure if Gnosticism is compatible with Paganism, because Gnosticism was world-denying and Paganism is world-affirming - but I know people who identify as both. It's certainly possible to believe in gnosis alongside earth spirituality.

Personally, I could never call myself a Christian because too many people have been murdered in the name of Christianity, and because I do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the only "anointed one" - but others feel that the name can be reclaimed. Good for them.

It could also be pointed out that ancient pagans (in the form of Roman state religion) murdered a lot of Christians. But Christianity's record of genocide is considerably larger in both geographical scope and historical duration.

It's certainly possible to be a Unitarian and a Pagan - but then not all Unitarians are Christians. Even the ones who identify as Christian don't believe in vicarious atonement (Jesus dying for your sins) or Jesus being part of the godhead. They also respect other religions.

(Just in case you were disappointed that the previous post wasn't about Christo-Pagans.)

Monday, January 30, 2012

"Pagan Christianity"

Ha. I bet you thought this was going to be a blogpost about ChristoPagans, didn't you?

That's what I thought when I saw the title of this blogpost by Dyfed Wyn Roberts, Pagan Christianity.

But no, it's about a pair of bigots who have written a book complaining about all the "pagan" bits in Christianity.

I find the notion of expunging "pagan" practices from Christianity really offensive - but then I am a Pagan.

The Orthodox Church at least has the sense to practice inculturation in its missionary activities, whereby it preserves the bits of the pre-Christian culture that do not conflict with Christianity (which is most things).

I don't approve of converting people of other religions to Christianity, but if you must do so, at least do it with some respect and sensitivity towards them, as the Orthodox Church does.

The early church preserved many aspects of pagan culture which might otherwise have been lost. Snorri Sturluson wrote down the Eddas (Norse legends). The Pantheon in Rome was converted into a church (can we have it back please?) St Paul quoted two pagan poets, Epimenides and Aratus, in his famous speech in the marketplace in Athens.

Many customs which are supposedly "pagan" actually turn out to be only pre-Reformation folk customs.

Other practices (such as Christmas trees) may have been pagan or Christian in origin - no-one is quite sure.

Doubtless there are "pagan" bits in Christianity - including the myth of the dying and resurrecting god so beloved of most Christians - but they should be celebrated, not expunged.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Atheism 2.0 and liberal religion

So, I finally managed to watch the whole of Alain de Botton's TED talk on Atheism 2.0, because I finally got broadband installed. Yay!

Pharyngula raised the objection that learning by rote is a bad thing. Well, I am sure that's true at advanced levels of science, but the reason the Japanese are so good at maths is because they still learn their times tables by rote. And it's very difficult to speak German properly if you don't learn the declension of the definite article, indefinite article, and adjectival endings, which also involves rote learning.. You can then go on to see how they operate in different contexts, but unfortunately there are some things that do need to be learnt by rote. However, that's not what Alain de Botton actually said - he said that repetition was good. Also there's a difference between learning something by heart and learning it by rote. And de Botton is not talking about the repetition of a creed or dogma, but the repetition of learning how to forgive, how to be compassionate, how to meditate - yes, these require practice and repetition. You have to meditate every day to get any good at it - and it has effects that can be measured by science. These effects are not caused by any supernatural thing - they are caused by the calming down of the brain and moving into a more relaxed state. Obviously.

Anyway, I reckon Atheism 2.0 sounds a lot like Unitarianism. Unitarians have been welcoming atheists (without trying to change their minds about being atheist) since the 1920s. Unitarians have been non-creedal (that is, each person is free to seek their own understanding of the truth) since the earliest days of the movement in Poland. Unitarians also draw inspiration from literature (yes! praise Shakespeare!), science (Darwin came from a Unitarian family), and reason.

Atheists 2.0 would also be welcome in Buddhism (a non-theist religion), Quakerism (includes many non-theists and atheists) and much of Paganism.

What did surprise me was that de Botton did not mention spiritual practices like meditation. These, to my mind, are the most effective bits of religion - not because they inculcate you with morality, but because they make you a calmer and less aggressive person.

When the compère asked him why he didn't mention spiritual experience and de Botton replied that you can have spiritual experiences without religion, that rather missed the point. Of course you can have spiritual experiences without religion, but religion provides you with techniques that allow you to access that level of consciousness on a regular basis. In my view, religion is spirituality practiced in community.

Also, he was talking as if Atheism 2.0 was a new idea, but as I said, Unitarians have been welcoming atheists since the 1920s; Buddhists have always been non-theist; and Lao Tsu just refers to the ultimate mystery as the Tao (the Way) and leaves it at that. He also says "The tao that can be named is not the true Tao." So as soon as you try to give it a name, it disappears. In a way, the same truth is pointed to when Moses asks the burning bush who it is, and the reply is "I am that I am". The Mystery has no name. There's a lovely hymn by Brian Wren, a member off the Iona community, which begins "Name Unnamed, hidden and shown, knowing and known" which is about the ineffability of the great Mystery.

Apophatic theology is really important here, too. Apophatic theology is the idea that anything you say about the divine can be negated - it is not light, it is not darkness, it is not wisdom it, it is not love. It is like all these things,  but it is not them. I think the reason atheism became so popular in the first place is because people lost all sense of the mystery of "God" and tried to define it as a person, or as three persons, and got bogged down in all the literalness; whereas if you just regard God as a metaphor for the mind of the universe, that's a lot easier.

De Botton also says "it's obvious that God doesn't exist - let's move on" -- but wait, there have been some really interesting theological ideas around that non-existence. Spinoza with his idea of God as Nature; Tillich with his theology of the Ground of All Being; Eriugena with his view that God cannot exist in a material universe; Pagans and pantheists with talk of energies and immanent deities.

Another thing he suggests is that if all religious belief systems are equally untrue, then pick and mix is OK. Well, yes, up to a point, but the problem is, how do you know whether you're rejecting a particular symbol or practice because it is objectively bad, or because it pushes up against an issue that you have? For example, in Wicca, we call the quarters with the four elements, which are seen as symbols of aspects of the psyche. (Earth = sensation; Air = intellect; Water = emotion; Fire = passion and intuition). So if someone was just picking the bits they liked, they might pick the element which most closely corresponded to their psychological makeup. But if they work with all four elements and their symbolism, it might create a balance in their psyche.

I think Atheism 2.0 is an idea whose time has come - apart from the fact that's it's already been invented several times before.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Bible for every school?

Apparently Michael Gove wants a King James Bible in every school.

Whilst I agree that the Bible is a foundational text of our culture, and that the 400th anniversary of it becoming available in English is worth celebrating, I do not think it should be accorded a status above other important books, like On the Origin of Species, or the works of Shakespeare. And why wouldn't schools already have a copy of the Bible in their library, along with other important sacred and secular works?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sense of humour failure?

Bisexual FTW tweeted:
Really unimpressed with @pridelondon and @petertatchell referring to the pope as "Pope Betty". Emasculating him is sexist and out of order.
Referring to a man as if he was female is potentially sexist towards women, because it implies that women are inferior; but referring to this as "emasculating" sounds as if Bisexual FTW thinks it is sexist towards men. 

However, I think what they are doing by referring to him as "Pope Betty" is the old-time Polari habit of referring to everyone (up to and including God, who is known as Gloria) as female. It also implies that he is a closet case (and given the propensity of Catholic clergy to wear dresses - sorry, robes - and froth at the mouth about gay sexuality, that's not an unreasonable conclusion).

Monday, January 09, 2012

a symbol for science

There's an interesting article by Paul Root Wolpe in the Opinion section of New Scientist putting forward the idea that science needs a symbol so that people can express support for science, because it is under attack.

Is science really under attack (apart from by a few nutters on the extreme end of religion)? The article even admits that plenty of people of faith do support science. My own research into Pagans and science found a lot of support for science. Dr Wolpe himself is an expert in bioethics, so I guess he comes up against a lot of overlap and potential conflict between religion and science in his work.

American Atheists use the atomic whirl as a symbol, and it is recognised as the symbol for atheism on veterans' gravestones. That symbol might be one possibility. The New Scientist article points out that the DNA double helix won't do, because the symbol must represent physics and chemistry as well as biology. He goes on to say:
And it should be easy to modify, perhaps to identify a subject area - able to accommodate within it a double helix, or an atom, or the word NASA, or any other refinement locating the bearer in the scientific firmament. Perhaps it could even accommodate a cross or star of David or some other symbol to state: "I am a Christian (or Jew or Muslim) and support science as an enterprise."
You could certainly fit a pentagram or a chalice in the middle of an atomic whirl.

As to the points that the symbol would express support for...
  • I'm not sure that I want a rigid demarcation between the areas that religion and science can pronounce upon, as I am not a supporter of the non-overlapping magisteria theory. May the person with the best evidence win the debate.
  • I do want to express support for the scientific method, and empiricism generally.
  • I think that politicians all too often make decisions which fly in the face of scientific evidence.
  • I do want to show that I am full of awe and wonder at the beauty of the universe as revealed by science.
  • However, I do think science could be more open to phenomena that do not appear to have a material basis (they probably do, but no-one has worked out how to measure them yet).
  • I don't believe that scientists are entirely objective; they are too often influenced by politics and ideology.
  • I don't want to express support for Dawkins' dismissal of myth and fairy-tales (I am sure no-one ever took them literally; they express mythopoeic truths)
  • And I do think science should take ethical and environmental concerns into consideration more often.
  • I would like to see more awareness among scientists of Kuhn's theory of paradigm shifts.
  • I would like to see more awareness among scientists of the history and philosophy of science generally, and how many times science and technology has made situations worse instead of making them better.
 So I probably wouldn't wear the symbol even if it existed, because I might not be able to sign up for everything it stands for, even though I think science is a jolly good thing and should form the basis of more decisions than it does.

The symbol could be an atom, except that it is already in use for a particular group. It could be a chemical flask, but that would not encompass astronomy. It's difficult to think of a symbol that would encompass the whole of science. Maybe a pair of compasses to represent the idea of measuring? or a pair of scales to indicate weighing up the evidence?

In praise of Alain de Botton

Quite possibly single-handedly responsible for reviving interest in philosophy among the general reading public (that is to say, the small proportion of the population that actually reads books), de Botton has certainly made philosophy accessible to me. I wanted to be interested in philosophy, but found the long-winded, overly abstracted and tortuous way it is generally written completely inaccessible. De Botton's engaging and laconic style, however, makes it available, and interesting, and applicable to the real world.

I started with The Art of Travel, which explores the experience of travel, why we do it, and which bits we focus on and which we ignore. Then I read The Consolations of Philosophy, which explores the approaches of various different philosophers to the common problems of life (love, death, meaning). Then I read The Architecture of Happiness, which looks at which types of architecture make us happy, and which make us miserable, and why. I am currently reading The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. I've only got as far as chapter 1, on logistics, which explores why we ignore the romance of goods coming from far away places and being delivered to our doorsteps, and why we allow warehouses and distribution centres to be so ugly and boxy. But it's very good indeed and promises to be as interesting as his other stuff. I look forward to reading his next book, Religion for Atheists. A timely offering if ever there was one - there are plenty of religions which don't mind if you're an atheist (Unitarians, Quakers, Pagans and Buddhists all welcome atheists and don't try to change them into theists).

De Botton's writing does what good poetry and comedy should do: it looks at the world from a different perspective, and makes connections between things that no-one else had noticed a connection between. Presumably that is what good philosophy should do, too. He also asks why things are as they are, and whether the status quo could or should be changed - or, if he doesn't ask this question himself, he certainly provokes it in the reader, and gives the reader the conceptual tools to ask the question, and work towards an answer.

It is a truism that the in France, philosophers are held in popular esteem, whereas in England, they are regarded with suspicion. De Botton has single-handedly reversed that trend, so that it is cool to be seen reading one of his books. And about time too.

Of course there have always been people who enjoy Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell and so on, but they were few and far between; now there are more people who read and enjoy philosophy, thanks to de Botton, who has succeeded in popularising something without dumbing it down.