Tag Archives: Religion & Spirituality

Comparative Contexts: From Stars, to Humans, to Faith

No human has lived long enough to witness the life-cycle of a star, and yet we know how stars are created, how they persist, how they degrade, how they die. There are two main reasons for this: we know the basic rules that govern their lives (i.e., physics) and we have a tremendous sample size. We understand the principles of atomic fusion, the power of gravity, the inevitability of entropy. We can look up and see stars at every possible stage of development across a variety of compositions, from gaseous nebulae to black holes and supernovae.



A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with Realising That There is No God.

When I was young I loved reading about the myths and legends of other peoples; I still do. I was enthralled by the pantheons of the Greeks, Romans, Indians, Norse, Irish, Aztec, Egyptians, and pretty much whoever else I could find. I did prefer the European ones, as the gods they believed in were mostly human. Snake gods and monkey gods were fun, but, even in my youth, I found them a bit unbelievable. The gods of the Europeans were clearly kings and queens, warriors and heroes, concepts I could grasp much more easily, and, with the limited understanding of history a child has, might in some fashion be based on real people and events. But, I was told, they were all myths, all made up by primitive people who didn’t understand the world as we now do. Whoever told me that really shouldn’t have…

In my mind, the gods of the Greeks were just as true as the god of the Christians; they each had complicated histories, heroes and monsters, heaven and hell. In my mind, it was simply that one religion had replaced the other in a contest of popularity, aided by men with pointy bits of steel. I never understood why one was relegated to fantasy while the other was regarded as reality. I was told it was because Hercules and Achilles were not real people, but Jesus and Moses were actual historical figures who lived and breathed, and wandered around a lot. I put aside the myths and became more interested in the Bible because its stories were real, apparently. ‘Why then are there no dinosaurs in the Bible; if it’s true they should be in there somewhere?’ The answer I received was adequate; the old parts of the Bible are made up because when people started writing it they hadn’t discovered dinosaurs yet, and they didn’t know how life began, but the stories are still important. Which appeased me somewhat at the time; I could see how the Bible began like any good polytheist myth, but then, as time moved on it became more real; Greeks, Persians, and Romans started popping up and having wars and such, the places mentioned could be easily found on a map, and people were still fighting in the region, which made the newer bits of the book far more true in my mind.

I should point out that the nation in which I grew up was almost exclusively Catholic, the schools were run by the Church, and the Church had a dominant role in society (things have change somewhat since then, but the Church still wields a great deal of power). A priest used to come to my primary school on a regular basis and quiz us; we learned loads of prayers (which I have long since forgotten), parables from the Bible, and all kinds of other nonsense. I vaguely remember being afraid at my First Confession that I wouldn’t remember all the prayers and curious incantations, which would lead to the priest getting angry at me, and then I’d have to say lots and lots of prayers. I don’t recall ever being afraid of god, just of priests; they were weird and always smelled funny (I later figured out the smell to be incense and sweat). I remember that when we were supposed to say our prayers silently I used to think about other things, and wondered if the other kids were doing the same. I’ve often wondered how many people actually pray when they bow their heads in silence.

By the time Confirmation came around (another of Catholicism’s strange rites of passage) I had serious doubts about the whole Bible thing. Not god so much, I was willing to give that the benefit of the doubt. I had become very interested in physics and history, and these disciplines, while not questioning Christianity outright, were certainly showing me an alternative perspective. Reading about evolution or the Big Bang, no mention of god was made, just of natural selection and elementary particles. Mathematically defined forces had drawn the universe, not some benign deity, and natural selection had led, quite randomly, to the improbable existence of us. Where was god in all of this? I was told all things happen “by his hand”, or some such platitude, but that was not satisfactory. Science didn’t seem to need god to explain the universe, so why did religion? And why was it made so empty? I had begun to notice some small inconsistencies in the Bible too; history books on Egypt never mentioned the flight of the Jews, the kingdom of David, which was a mighty and powerful kingdom in the Bible, was barely a blip in the history of the Near East, and Jesus was hardly noticed by the Romans until Christians started becoming a nuisance long after he died. You’d think that these great empires, and all their historians and annalists, would have noticed these apparently important people and events. The Bible was looking more and more like a myth, and not a very good one at that (also, I read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ around this time, and if one man could invent such a detailed world, well, it made me think that whoever wrote the Bible just wasn’t trying that hard). The history of the Church was also troublesome; its issues with Copernicus and Galileo, its oppression of reform, its stranglehold on education. This was looking more and more like an organisation that wanted confine the mind rather than liberate it. And who would want to be a part of that? I had not yet given up on the god thing though.

By the time I began secondary I was left with what, I learned later, is called deism. I reckoned that there might well be a god, but that it was beyond us, outside the universe, outside of understanding. So physics and history didn’t apply. I also thought that Jesus was probably a real guy, but more along the lines of Gandhi, a moral leader, rather than the son of god, and that Christianity, on the whole, was no more or less valid than any other mythology from the ancient world. I had move away from Christianity in general, and had begun to investigate Eastern faiths. I imagine many teenagers do this in some fashion or other. I became quite interested in Zen as it didn’t appear to require a belief in the divine; it was rather more an exploration of the self, and it had a far more positive attitude towards this self than Catholicism. Religion never really came up in this stage of the education system in my school; the one teacher who cared was generally regarded by students as an idiot; even other teachers seemed to shy away from her when she began talk of god and Jesus in her life. I had stopped going to Church, or rather being cajoled into going by my mother, except on special occasions (funerals, weddings, Christmas), so religion was having less and less of a real impact on my life, and I was becoming less and less interested in it. I was thoroughly agnostic. And one day something weird happened; some of my classmates and I happened to talking about something religious at lunchtime, and one of the girls in the class looked utterly baffled. I asked her why, and she said that she didn’t believe in god, and neither did her parents; she was never expected to believe. To me, this was a revelation. I had never thought of it that way; I had remained agnostic because I thought that I should believe in some kind of divine order, I hadn’t realised that simply not believing was an option available to me. Dispensing with deism, which was not difficult as it is the vaguest possible avenue of belief, in an instant I was intellectually free of this god character and the mass delusion.

My Problem with Your God 3 – Responsibility and Forgiveness

God said unto Abraham, “Go, and kill your son, your only son, whom IAbraham and Isaac know you love dearly. Cut his throat and burn his body. I want you to prove that you are absolutely terrified of me, and will obey me no matter what.” Abraham went and did as the Lord said, and just as he was about to strike, an angel appeared and said “God is happy that you are willing to sacrifice everything for him, because, oddly for a supreme being who can do anything and knows everything, he wasn’t really sure if you were truly serious about worshiping him, so you don’t have to kill your son.” Abraham, wracked with guilt for almost murdering his son to satisfy the voices in the sky, but still too afraid to disobey said, “Thanks.” God was so happy about this little episode that he told Abraham, “Since you are so completely loyal to me I will reward you. Your children will be many and they will conquer the whole world in my name. Which isn’t really much of a reward for you, but a great service to me. Oh, and you’ll have two sons, who will each become figureheads for different religions, the most fervent members of which will kill each other mercilessly for centuries in my name. Isn’t that great?” Abraham, really hoping that attempted filicide would not damage his young son’s fragile mind, said nothing and went home.[1]

A complete submission to the will of god or gods is usually an article of faith in most religions. This particular episode is the basis for complete obedience to God in the religions which claim Abraham as their ancestors. Jesus developed on this notion when he told his followers to abandon, to hate, their families and friends, and listen to his interpretation of the will of God alone.[2] Which is not at all similar to what cult leaders tell their followers nowadays. The word ‘Islam’ literally means ‘submission’. Faith in the ineffable plan of a supreme divinity, submission to its will over that of personal common sense and reason, and the belief that all events occur by its sole design leads, inevitably, to the relinquishing of free will and individual responsibility. If a person sincerely believes in ‘God’ and that ‘He’ guides their lives in every minute detail, their actions are not their own; they bear no responsibility for their deeds or misdeeds. It is all part of ‘God’s plan’. This has had many very interesting consequences. Many who are wealthy (often American evangelicals) believe that their prosperity is a reward for their absolute faith in God. Consequently, those who are poor are being punished by the very same God – which is ironic considering their personal saviour’s views on such things – and are therefore not really worthy of being helped, and should ‘help themselves’.

Many Catholics will say that they are more rational than these more extreme brands of Christians, that they do not believe that their deity involves itself in the incidental details of their lives. It merely offers guidance and solace, encourages its adherents to do good things and refrain from doing ill. But it still knows what everyone does and will do.[3] Your fate is always in its hands. Individual freedom and responsibility is transferred to the god-head which can do no wrong. Yet the faithful continuously implore their deity to change its plan in human vanity and arrogance. They sit in churches and beg it to improve their lives, or to thank it for its benefice and mercy. Any events that transpire, for their benefit or misfortune, are due to its will, not theirs. Cries of “Deus volt” (God wills it) inspired the CrusadesPope Urban II, and victory confirmed His divine consent for their actions. To attack these people is unfair; religion and faith physically shaped their world in a fashion it no longer does, and they had no alternative explanation, such as science. Faith was their only choice, but they do provide an interesting example of blind faith in God’s hand. This was not an isolated incident. Watch interviews with soldiers returning from the Middle East and it can often be found that they believe that they are doing God’s work, that God protected them, and that their actions are sanctioned by God and country (an interesting development of the American belief in a divinely ordained Manifest Destiny).

There is no real need for the faithful to act responsibly; everything is in the hands of their god. Global warming is not their problem as they drive to mass to save their souls, and damn the planet. They will happily give money to charity when a disaster strikes some part of the world, but long-term aid efforts, the enforcing of democracy, ensuring the rights and education of women, children and minorities in disadvantaged parts of their own and others’ nations are not their problem. Intermittent and fleeting charity is useless charity. Religious aid is often contingent on accepting the faith of the would-be doers-of-good. Conditional charity is not charity. Charity is responsibility neglected. It is a piecemeal placation to assuage feelings of guilt. The Faithful and the Reasonable alike are culpable for the misfortunes of the World, but the Reasonable have no deity to hide behind, they accept their faults as their own. The Faithful say change will come with the help of God, which is no help at all. Change will come when all humanity takes responsibility for individual, national and global actions, no longer seeking the comfort and concessions of a figment of the imagination. God will always forgive His flock, how could he not? He is their tool, their conceit, their delusion.

The forgiveness of sins by God has to be one of the greatest, if often overlooked, innovations of Christianity.[4] Other faiths do demand that the faithful seek the forgiveness of others for their infractions, at which point the supreme judge will confirm the act and offer its concession. This requires the offending party to approach the offended. This is a perfectly reasonable and laudable practice, co-opted as a tenet of faith, clearly evolved form the practicalities of living in small communities which needed peace and cooperation to survive. An injury, physical, emotional or verbal, incurred by a person would demand, in a world without the facility to forgive, either a very high degree of forgetfulness or perpetual cycles of revenge. Christianity made a bold and brilliant adjustment to this custom. A Christian only has to repent and seek the forgiveness of God. They do not in fact need to approach whomever they have transgressed. The need only forgive, and assume they are forgiven by, others to receive the consent of their personal illusion. By seeking forgiveness from the arbiter rather than the affronted Christians have surrendered the responsibility for absolution in one dazzling move. They do not have to embarrass or humble themselves, make others aware of their failings and misdeeds, to wipe their slate clean of sin. The forgiveness of their imagination is good enough.

Lets us examine for a moment, in a simplified fashion, the rules, so to speak, of forgiveness. A reasonable person might assume the following: Some action has occurred which breaks the social or personal contract between two individuals. Forgiveness is sought by the offender for the restoration of trust in the hope of repairing and continuing the relationship. The offended must believe that the offender is truly repentant for trust to be restored. If they do believe the sincerity of the offender, forgiveness is delivered, the transgression is forgotten, and the contract is restored. This is clearly not a unilateral affair, and requires the assent of both parties to repent and forgive. Forgiveness cannot be given unless it is sought. Christianity has corrupted this process such that an individual need not seek the forgiveness of the offended, and is required by faith to forgive others, even if they do not seek forgiveness. This bizarre situation leads to everyone forever seeking forgiveness from their deity while at the same time forgiving everyone else to please that same voice in the sky. Everyone is free from blame and responsibility. To make up for this imbalance penitence was invented, punishment for the sins committed, almost as if the faithful do not believe that the forgiveness of their personal saviour is good enough. Sycophantic self-flagellation is preferred to responsible admittance of culpability. Of course only God can forgive an individual’s transgression against His laws, which has the same effect as saying sorry to Santa for being a naughty child, but Christians use this very same formula for all sins and misdeeds.

Between people, forgiveness is the forsaken of the right to avenge injustice and injury. Forgiveness is a gift which allows us to move forward in life without regret (or at least a lesser regret), or fear of reprisal. In this fashion it is a very important and entirely gratuitous gift. Institutional forgiveness, the ability to forgive accorded to the Christian Churches by God, is not such a gift. Indeed the ritual and sacrament which involves the removal of sin may not necessarily be called ‘forgiveness’, and may only be ‘leniency’ due to a failing of understanding and misuse of language. In any event, the penitent believe, and are taught, that they are receiving the forgiveness of God for their actions. Belief is of course fundamental to religion, and they hold true what they believe. In their minds, God does forgive them personally. And so they submit to a certain degree of punishment, penance for their sins, to show they accept their fault in the wrongdoing, to learn not to repeat it in future, and to illustrate their faith. Religious forgiveness is thus inherently bound to some form of punishment, however severe or gentle, while forgiveness between people takes an alternative path and forgives without punishing. An offender seeks forgiveness from the offended so that their relationship will continue, but the offended may also seek ‘forgiveness’ from the Church and God so that they may continue to enjoy the services and benefits of the institution and the spiritual renewal of being redeemed before the eyes of her Lord.

Responsibility is the burden of an adult. It is a consequence of freedom and reason, two ideals which people have fought and died in the defence of for several centuries. They are arguably humanity’s greatest intellectual achievements. And the faithful would surrender them to fantasy. Forgiveness and repentance are the sole property and right of responsible people and should not be entrusted to a fiction.

“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.”

-George Bernard Shaw

Ceterum autem censeo, religionem esse delendam

[1] Genesis 22:1-19. This is a summary of what occurred in plain English.

[2] Luke 14:25-33.

[3] Jeremiah 10:23; “O LORD, I know the way of man is not in himself; It is not in man who walks to direct his own steps”, and Acts 1:7; “And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority.”

[4] Matthew 6:14-15; For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

My Problem with Your God 1 – Divinity

Who is this ‘God’ fellow anyway?God

When I say ‘God’ I confine myself specifically to the monotheistic deity of the Abrahamic faiths, as, for reasons upon which I shall elucidate presently, the other faiths of the world, which are either polytheistic or spiritual, do not arouse my philosophical ire to such a high degree, as their humble gods do not lay claim to the vast theological estates as the supercilious, capitalised God does.

So, what is this ‘God’ thing? It, though often described as ‘He’, is the creator of everything “seen and unseen”, the supreme ruler of the universe. It is described as being all-powerful, all-seeing, ever-present, unknowable, and as a being of infinite mercy, wisdom, love and compassion. It is also wrathful, angry, vengeful, destructive, silent, and judgemental. I have no issue with a god having some or any of these traits, but God cannot. It can be either one, or the other; it is either infinite or finite. The polytheistic gods were divine, but limited. They could, and often did, die. They have human traits and failings because they are reflections of the people who invented them. The monotheistic God is granted the supreme prejudice of being omnipotent. This is a coherent deity-concept only if you accept the full implications of its construction; it is entirely unknowable, such that no fragile human mind could grasp the extremes of reality that such a being would inhabit. Which is fine, but then people attach human notions to this supreme being. It is ‘good’, ‘merciful’, etc., petty human conceits, which would be entirely alien to such a being. This is due not to a lack of imagination on behalf of the faithful, but either an impossibility of imagination or purposeful obfuscation by the keepers of the ‘Word’. By attaching human characteristics to this thing people hope to grasp it in some fashion, but it was never designed to be held in the mind. It doesn’t even have a name; ‘God’ is its title.

It might be said that this God is infinite and the human attributes attached to it would be present in any self-aware being capable of reason, just taken to an infinite extreme. This might lead one to the Epicurean dilemma,[1] but I am more concerned with the clear folly of this idea. An infinite and supreme being would just as equally have no understanding of finite and pathetic creatures, such as us, as we would of it. It, I’m told, lives forever and is beyond time, we do not and are not. Pick any attribute of this peculiar deity and it will fulfil this formula. Death, which defines us, means nothing to it; how could it comprehend us if it cannot even share in this most crucial aspect of our being? It could be said that because of its supreme nature it can understand us while maintaining its own ineffability. To understand something it would have to be that something. I cannot understand what it is to be a bat, unless I were a bat. But seeing as we are dealing with the divine, let us allow it this latitude of understanding. Would it not now then be moved by its infinite compassion to help? But that again leads us to Epicurus.God-Python If it understood us, all of us and everything, then it would be, at least in part, us and everything. This is pantheist, and heresy. Aside from the thing itself, what is attributed to it is farcical. It lives in a kingdom in heaven, it has a throne, a son (depending on the faith), and vast armies of loyal soldiers. This is clearly a monarch, a king, a human invention.

Choose then that your God is either finite, knowable, comprehensible to the human mind and is prone to the same failures and weaknesses, or infinite and beyond understanding. The former is clearly the God of Abraham and all his descendants, while the latter is what is often professed by the faithful in their less than infinite wisdom. Pick the petty God and live in fear of his (gender might be applicable to this incarnation) wrath or in hope of the eternal reward he will provide in his kingdom. This God is not worthy of worship, and, more importantly, is not real. Pick the infinite God, and abandon religion and those who claim to interpret this being’s truth for they lie. While there is no good reason to believe that such a being as ‘God’ does exist there is a chance, however unlikely, that it might. If it did, it would be the infinite God, and so far beyond the intellectual capacity of humans as to be not worth even thinking about.

So, even if God exists, it doesn’t matter.

Ceterum autem censeo, religionem esse delendam

[1] “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?”

Epicurus – Greek philosopher, BC 341-270