Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dethroning Christianity

I posted my previous blogpost on Twitter, and received a response from an atheist commenter with a link to an article saying that most Christians do believe literally in the articles of their faith.

Did I mention Christianity in my previous post? (Feel free to read it again to check.) No, I did not. So why do atheists want to take Christianity (or indeed Abrahamic religions) as the norm for religion? I thought they wanted to dethrone it from its prominent place in Western discourse. Some news for you, atheists and Christians alike: religion is not synonymous with Christianity.

The notion that all religion is predicated on belief is a 19th century one, promoted by Christians and colonialists who wanted to discredit other religions, or insisted on seeing them through the lens of Protestant Christianity. This process is well-attested in the academic literature on the subject.

Karen Armstrong (if the New Atheists bothered to read her work properly, instead of relying on soundbites) is right -- belief was not always the most important thing about religion. It may have been the most important thing in Christianity for a great deal of its history; and indeed Western Christianity is rather well-known for murdering people for having the "wrong" beliefs. Though that behaviour gradually came to be regarded as uncivilised after the burning of Michael Servetus and other Unitarians.

In Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Paganism, Unitarianism / UUism etc there are a number of different schools of thought, giving rise to different practices and enjoying different mythologies. These different schools of thought co-exist happily and do not denounce each other as heretics. Nor do they take their mythologies literally.

There are many Christians who happily accept that they are not the only or the top religion, and who enjoy living in a world of pluralism where people of different faiths and none can learn from each other. Fortunately they are growing in numbers. Sadly, the New Atheists have either not noticed, or have wilfully misinterpreted the phenomenon. And they also don't get other religions, assuming that all religions must think theirs is the only truth and take their mythology literally. Funnily enough, not many New Atheists have studied the sociology of religion, or anthropology, or any other subject which might lead them to a more nuanced and accurate view.

New Atheism is so dim that it's no wonder many atheists and non-theists turned with relief to Atheism 2.0.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Missing the point (again)

PZ Myers and most of his commenters appear to have completely missed the point of Religion for Atheists.

They also completely exaggerate the importance of belief in religions. Alain de Botton is right that whether or not God exists is a boring question. It's been pretty well settled that God does not exist. Some theologians have got round this problem by saying that this is because God is existence, or the Ground of All Being, but then that leaves the question of what that might mean.

I'm glad that the New Atheism has raised the stakes in the theological game, and brought non-realist and apophatic theology to the fore again, but I dislike the way some New Atheists dismiss all religion as harmful rubbish.

Most religions are centred around practice rather than belief. In Hinduism, Paganism, Buddhism, Taoism, Unitarianism, Quakerism and Judaism, belief is not central to whether you count as a member of the religion or not. What counts is either values or practices. The question for Jews is not "Do you believe?" but "Are you observant?" For Pagans, what counts is your attitude to nature, the earth, and/or the land. There are many different schools of thought in Hinduism, Taoism, Paganism, Buddhism, Taoism, Unitarianism, and Quakerism, ranging from theists to non-theists. For Buddhists, deities may well exist, but they are irrelevant. Many Pagans and Unitarians would agree with the Buddhists on this. Many Unitarians are atheists and humanists.

So if it is not about providing an explanation of how the world works or how it came into being, what is religion for? It is about providing a system of shared meaning, and a set of spiritual practices (meditation and ritual), and a community to share ideas, joys and sorrows.

In liberal religions, you don't need to sign up to a set of axioms or propositions which may offend against your reason in order to be part of the community and make use of a collection of stories, mythology, symbols and practices.

Religious community also inspires people to band together to create social justice (although non-religious groups do this too). By consistently encouraging members to treat others with compassion, religious community can be a powerful tool for creating change. Think of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and others who were inspired to change the world.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The woman caught in adultery

Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery, by Guercino, 1621 (Dulwich Picture Gallery).
Apparently Prof Richard Dawkins likes the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery.
[Richard Dawkins] made the broad and uncontroversial point that the Bible includes passages both laudable and vile. As an example of the former and a great teaching he thought most people in the room would immediately get behind, he gave the Gospel injunction, ‘he that is without sin, cast the first stone’.

Alex Gabriel is a bit baffled by this:
Of course literal stonings are undesirable, and of course reacting to transgressions overharshly is worth discouraging. But the point of what Jesus says is, he is without sin. Not being subject to paternally transmitted original sin, Jesus is the only completely sinless human being and was (to commandeer a phrase) born that way. This is what gives him moral authority, as the son of God, over the woman; it’s why only he gets to absolve her sins. When he tells the crowd, ‘You are not without sin’, he is telling them they don’t get to judge her.
Here's the story from the English Standard Version:
but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”]]
Now, we could view Jesus entirely as a fictional or mythological character presented by the gospel authors - there is good reason to think that he acquired several legends from other mythological characters, in much the same way as King Arthur and Robin Hood did. Certainly the virgin birth story is as old as the hills, and was told about several Middle Eastern vegetation gods (Attis, Adonis, etc). The same goes for the story of the resurrection.

Or we could view him as a real person who has been at least partially misrepresentedby the gospel authors.

The mainstream Christian view is of course that he was the Son of God, in which context Alex's interpretation may well be correct.

Whether we view him entirely as a fictional character or as a real person at least partly misrepresented by the gospel authors, there are two questions we could ask here:
  • What does Jesus mean by "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” and "Neither do I condemn you"?
  • What does the gospel author think he meant?
Alex argues that Jesus chooses not to condemn the woman because he believes that he has the authority to forgive her because he is without sin, because he is the son of God. Now, the Gospel of John comes from a different Christian tradition than the other three gospels; it is a gospel of signs and wonders, highly symbolic and allegorical, and constantly emphasising the author's belief that Jesus was the Messiah.  But remember, in Hebrew tradition, 'messiah' (anointed one of God) and 'son of God' meant two different things. The gods of other nations were sometimes referred to as the sons of God, and so was Satan (see the Book of Job); and Jesus never referred to himself as the Son of God, only as the Son of Man (which means something like "everyman" or "average bloke").  Not all early Christians believed that Jesus was part of the Godhead ("very God of very God" as Orthodox Christian liturgy puts it). Some were Adoptionists (they believed that God adopted Jesus as his son when he was baptised in the River Jordan); others were Arians, who believed that Jesus was conceived by the union of God and Mary, but that he had not co-existed with God from the beginning of time). There was a bewildering variety of opinions on this, some of which still survive: the Monotheletes, the Monophysites, Diaphysites, and all manner of variations. So the author of the gospel may not have thought that Jesus was part of the Godhead, though he or she did think that he was the Messiah and the Son of God - the doctrine of the Trinity was not finally settled till the Council of Nicaea in 352 CE, and the doctrine of Christ's nature was not settled till the Council of Chalcedony in 451 CE.

Why do I care about this if I think Jesus may well have been a fictional character? Because I like the story, and I think it's important to be able to interpret stories in a poetic and flexible way, but not to infer the author's intentions from later interpretations.

So here is my interpretation of the story.

Jesus comes (as a rabbi among other rabbis) to the temple. He is teaching the people (as a popular rabbi would) when the woman taken in adultery is brought to him. The punishment for her "crime" is a horrible, slow and painful death. Jesus points out that the people who want to kill her for it are also guilty of some misdemeanour or other. The story is silent on whether Jesus thinks he himself is without sin - perhaps the reader is meant to infer that, but it is not explicitly stated. The point of the story is that we should show mercy and not excessively punish people for their bad behaviour, because we have also behaved badly. It's about showing empathy to others.

When Jesus says "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” and "Neither do I condemn you", I do not think that he's claiming to be without sin himself - that is a later doctrinal position.

OK, so elsewhere Jesus is reported as having said "Therefore be ye merciful, even as your Father in heaven is merciful" and "Judge not, that ye be not judged". But as far as I can recall, Jesus never arrogates to himself the right to judge. This power is attributed to him later by the Book of Acts and the Book of Revelations.

In fact, Jesus repeatedly extends sonship of God to humans generally. He says "I have said, ye are gods" and refers to God the Father as the father of everyone, not just his own father. So I don't think that Alex's interpretation is justified either by the text, or by the state of Christian theology when the text was written. It may well be the view of later theologians, but that is another issue.

So I think Richard Dawkins is right to like the story. He likes it because it's about being reasonable and empathic, tempering justice with mercy, and taking all factors into consideration, and not being judgmental and self-righteous.

What do you think the story means?

Monday, February 06, 2012

Review: Religion for Atheists

Religion for Atheists (like Alain de Botton's other books) is fluently and entertainingly written. The arguments are cogent and well made. I didn't agree with everything in the book, but it certainly put out some interesting ideas.

One thing that surprised me was that, unlike some of his other books (such as The Consolations of Philosophy), it did not reference many other writers or efforts in this field, although it generously acknowledged the efforts of Auguste Comte to invent a universal religion in the 19th century. The acknowledgements at the end did mention Richard Holloway, Daniel Dennett, Mark Vernon and so on. I was a bit surprised there was no mention of Karen Armstrong, since she has done much to move the debate on from whether religions are literally true to whether they are of value.

Perhaps a supplementary work could survey the history of religion for atheists, liberal religion, creedless religion, the development of humanism, pantheism, naturalism and so on.

The basic premise of the book is that many of the areas of endeavour for religions - encouraging us to be more compassionate, build communities, connect with nature, and spend time reflecting and meditating - have been badly secularised, and in some cases not secularised at all.

Where, asks de Botton, are the temples of values such as compassion, community and love? Where are the secular places where we can be reminded that we are not alone in our suffering, and thereby be cathartically relieved of it?

The book also points out the techniques by which religions inculcate values into their practitioners: by having special days and special rituals to enshrine these values in our hearts, and by repeating these festivals on a regular basis, and allowing us to share our responses to suffering, beauty and love in a communal setting.

Actually, many of these techniques have been continued in liberal religions which welcome atheists without trying to change their mind about being atheists, such as Buddhism, Paganism, and Unitarianism. But Western practitioners of these religions - which may have thrown the baby out with the bath water in some aspects of their religious life - would do well to read Religion for Atheists to see what we have omitted. One obvious thing is the use of images, which many Unitarian chapels do not have.

The bit I was not sure I agreed with was the idea that institutions are a good thing. In many ways they are, and it would be great if lone thinkers like Nietzsche could have been accommodated somewhere where they could get on with thinking and writing, and not have to worry where the next meal was coming from - but perhaps Nietzsche's thought would have been very different if he had been a tenured professor. Institutions can be stultifying, produce conformity and complacency, and persecute minorities.

I do agree that the most boring question you can ask of a religion is whether it is true. Taking the story literally, whether you decide that it’s true or false, kills the multiple meanings that can be teased out of the story. It also ignores the many other great stories which follow the same mythological pattern: Isis and Osiris, Orpheus and Eurydice, Inanna and Dumuzi. The endless arguments about whether miracles can really happen, whether the earth was created, and whether God was really a man in Palestine, are boring to people who want to move on from the question of whether the story is literally true, to whether it will help us to live well.

The section on Auguste Comte's universal religion was very interesting. I suspect that his religion failed for several reasons; the fact that it was the idea of one person; but also the fact that it did not grow and emerge organically. Religions are like languages - they evolve and grow in their particular cultural and historical context. Esperanto failed as a universal language because it was not wedded to a culture and did not grow organically. Latin succeeded in remaining the lingua franca in Europe for several centuries after it ceased to be the language of Rome because people wanted to buy into the values of Romanitas and perpetuate the order and culture of the Roman Empire. The religions that will emerge from the wreckage of traditional religious belief in the West will be ones that builds on the traditions of the past, not a newly-invented one. Alain de Botton may well be hailed as a prophet in this newly emergent religion, but I doubt that he will be regarded as its founder - and I'm sure he wouldn't want to be.

As Richard Holloway pointed out in his review, I suspect the people who will like this book will be atheists and agnostics who are already involved in liberal religious organisations like the Sea of Faith, Unitarianism, pantheism, Paganism, Buddhism and so on. I certainly recommend it, and hope that it will start a more thoughtful conversation about where religion comes from, where it is now, and where it is going.