"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

D'ya wanna be in my gang?

Ophelia at Butterflies and Wheels has caught the Pope Ratzi in the same act of hypocritical ecumenicalism as Rowan Williams.
He’s on a tour of his home country at the moment and while at a shared service with Lutherans (That’s Lutherans notice, Martin must be turning in his grave) he said
“The most urgent thing for ecumenicalism is, namely, that we can’t allow the push of secularism to force us, almost without noticing, to lose sight of the major similarities that make us Christians, and which remain a gift and a challenge for us,”
. Oh the irony. You can tell we’ve got the Vatican on the run when the Pope calls on one of the oldest protestant sects for help. What next; an appeal to the Dalai Lama?

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

"Gang up on the atheists" as the comic said to the Archbishop

Catholic comedian Frank Skinner has been in conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams at a recent event called “The Gathering”. held at the cathedral.
It seems Frank has a problem with atheists…
Atheists we might see as people like those who deny global warming. You might celebrate their right, and defend their freedom of speech, to deny global warming – but if they're wrong, and millions of other people have taken their view, then it could end in a terrible, terrible disaster for a lot of people.
It’s a pithy but ultimately ironic choice of analogy. In the first place, it is rarely atheists that align themselves with global warming denialists, as we are the ones that appreciate the science and the evidence that anthropogenic climate change is real (I know there are some atheists who won’t agree, but they are definitely the minority). If anything it’s the fundi-evangelical Christian right that foment the conspiracy theories and deny the science. But beyond that is the thinly disguised Pascal’s wager that suggests that if the atheist argument prevails millions will be condemned to hell.
Frank does his best to frame this in an ecumenical way
At a time when secularism is a threat to the salvation of millions, believers should get together, find what we have in common, and sell that
But theologically this doesn’t fly. His own religion denies salvation to anyone who isn’t a Catholic, so there is no point in recruiting all the Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists Ad Nauseam to the fray, let alone the Muslims, Hindus and Jews he is presumably letting into his big cosy theistic tent.
This na├»ve cuddly, “we’re all believers together” trope is a common one when the religious are confronted with the spectre of secularism. But this appeal to ecumenicalism is really a sham and a convenience that gets dropped once they have to deal with each other on their own terms.
Bizarrely, later in the conversation Frank touches on this himself when he compares faith to his other religion, football.
They all gave some sort of allegiance to his great game, but it’s compartmentalised by tribalism, In the Eighties people would be clubbing each other because they had different colours on, but it’s all about this brilliant game.
Yep! Exactly. Ask a West Ham supporter to be “ecumenical” about Chelsea fans and see where that gets you. You might engender some cooperation in a pub argument with rugby aficionados, but back on the terraces it’s business as usual. It is the same with religion; tribalism wins over cooperation in the end. In fact if that wasn’t the case I doubt that the “New atheists” Frank goes on to strawman as “sitting on leather chairs in gentlemen’s clubs with Dawkins and Bertrand Russell”, would be half so strident if religions really were the benign institutions he believes them to be.
It’s a funny sort of argument in my opinion, but then Frank Skinner is a comedian after all.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Catholics are back to fish on Fridays

For centuries and certainly, even in my youth, fish on Friday’s was a kind of cultural ritual for Catholics in this country. Until the Second Vatican Council, Catholics were required to abstain from meat every Friday, as a form of penance in honor of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, but this rule was rescinded and any chosen alternative form of penance was deemed acceptable.
Now Catholics in England and Wales are being asked to revive the practice.
The general secretary of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, Father Marcus Stock, said
"Because sometimes penance in the past had become mechanistic, many bishops' conferences were wanting to use the opportunity to renew the spirit of penitence. I think what hadn't been envisaged at the time was that because people wouldn't be carrying out the same act together that this might lead to the loss of penance in people's lives."
At a time when the Catholic church should have bigger things to worry about, following the Cloyne Report and the wider child abuse scandal, they are back trying to micro manage the personal lives of the faithful.
I don’t think this is a coincidence. Many Catholics have lost trust in the church and its hierarchy in recent times, even if their core beliefs have not changed and this loss of authority is anathema to the Vatican. This smacks to me as a non too subtle ploy to re-assert some authority and cohesiveness on Catholics in the west and create the impression that the faithful are united behind the Bishops. I predict a series of similar initiatives over the next few months, along with more vocal efforts by the Church to assume the moral high ground on all sorts of issues it has no business meddling in.

As an aside, I can’t resist commenting on the absurd theology (is there another kind?) underlying this Friday penance.
For one thing, there is no evidence, biblical or otherwise that Jesus died on a Friday. In fact some readings of the scriptures make it a Wednesday
But Father Marcus makes it even sillier with this…
It's about recognising that a wrong was done when our Lord was crucified and killed, It's linked to almsgiving and concern for the poor and to bring to our minds that we have responsibilities - all of us.
Christian theology rests on the assumption that Jesus had to be crucified. Without their bloodied scapegoat for original sin, they haven’t got a religion so in what way can they consider it a “wrong”.
Also if it’s about almsgiving, fine, give something to charity and do it regularly. If you have to give up some treats to afford this and you are prepared to do it, more power to you but don’t parade your piety just because you eat environmentally suspect cod and chips in front of the telly instead of rib-eye steak on Fridays.

Monday, 12 September 2011

The rise of Chinese Christianity

Watching from a European perspective it has long seemed that the last bastion of rampant evangelical Christianity was the U.S and to some extent even that is confined mainly to the Bible belt. However, somewhat under the radar there is now a phenomenal interest in Christianity emerging in China

China being China, the state has officially sanctioned Protestant and Catholic churches and maintains control of the clergy

The officially sanctioned Catholic Patriotic Association appoints its own bishops and is not allowed to have any dealings with the Vatican, though Catholics are allowed to recognise the spiritual authority of the Pope.
But underground churches are springing up in private houses, which the state appears to be tolerating as long as worship does not spill out into the public forum.
It’s difficult to know what to think about this. The suggestion has been made that it is a reaction to growing capitalism and greater freedom from the ideological atheism demanded by the communist party structure. Whatever the reason, the scale appears to be immense

It is impossible to say how many Christians there are in China today, but no-one denies the numbers are exploding.

The government says 25 million, 18 million Protestants and six million Catholics. Independent estimates all agree this is a vast underestimate. A conservative figure is 60 million. There are already more Chinese at church on a Sunday than in the whole of Europe.
That religion has been suppressed for so long and is now fighting back may not be surprising, but why Christianity? China has its own religious traditions such as Buddhism and Confucianism and you may think that the first shoots of revival would be from amongst these.
My guess is this is an unconscious homage to the U.S. The protestant work ethic that built the mighty economic engine that the U.S represents is the lure for the commercially aspiring modern Chinese citizen and they are seeing the Christian religion as a key part of this.

How much of a threat to secularisation this will be is not easy to predict. State control of religion will certainly fail and that is all to the good. Maintaining the party’s ideological atheism may also finally appear futile, which is also as it should be. But as China’s economic reach expands will we have another front on which to combat religionist superstition and bigotry, or will Chinese Christianity turn out to be a different animal altogether? Watch this space…

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Should Jesus endorse mobile 'phones?

The Advertising Standards Authority have upheld just short of one hundred complaints regarding this Phones4u advertisement displayed last Easter.
The ad, featuring a cartoon Jesus winking and making a thumbs-up sign to “Miraculous deals” on android ‘phones was deemed to be offensive to Christians and cannot be shown again.
Well O.K, we all know how precious the religious can be about their images and icons, so it’s unsurprising that the ASA got quite a few complaints. In comment on the judgement the ASA said:
'We considered that, although the ads were intended to be light-hearted and humorous, their depiction of Jesus winking and holding a thumbs-up sign, with the text "miraculous" deals during Easter, the Christian Holy Week which celebrated Christ's resurrection, gave the impression that they were mocking and belittling core Christian beliefs,'
Well possibly, but so what? Why do they feel that any beliefs require protection from mockery? I’m sure plenty of people could find something to mock in my core political and philosophical beliefs, but I wouldn’t take offence at that, mainly because I believe that I can make a good case for justifying them. Somehow the religious don’t have that level of confidence in what they believe forcing them to suppress criticism and mockery rather than meet it with rational argument.
The ironic thing about this ad though is that in my opinion Jesus is a poor choice of character to endorse mobile ‘phones. Think about it: he was hardly the world’s best communicator. Jesus left no first person account of himself or the god he purported to represent. What accounts he did leave were reportage and hearsay which even if you believe them to be accurate were couched in allegory, metaphor and parables so open to interpretation as to be practically meaningless. Then, for the last two thousand years, not a peep: he never ‘phones, he never writes, tweets, or posts a status on facebook. Let’s face it, if the risen Christ wanted to get a message to the world there was never a better time to do it. No more relying on open-air sermons on a Middle Eastern hillock or risking his gospel to the vagaries of mistranslation and political manipulation. He could make his presence and intentions for the world known at a stroke to countless millions of people all over the world (yes I know, he could have done this in the first place being omnipotent and omnipresent and all, but “mysterious ways”, indulge me).
No, call me cynical (I won’t be offended) but if I were head of marketing for Phones4u, neither Jesus nor his dad would be on my list of sponsors.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The end of the morning assembly?

When I was at school each day started without fail with a morning assembly, where the masters would lead us in an act of prayer, bible readings and hymn singing as mandated by the law. The gap between the end of this session and the commencement of more secular notices was punctuated by the shuffling in of the minority of pupils who were not of the assumed Christian pursuasion and who had withdrawn at the behest of their parents.

In the news today is this story in which a BBC survey found that a majority of schools were not fulfilling their legal obligation to provide a daily act of collective worship. Interestingly 60% of the parents polled had no problem with this.
Unsurprisingly, in this multicultural and largely (in practice) secular country imposing a requirement on schools to spend time in religious observance seems silly and from my point of view sends a wrong headed message to pupils. The time would be much better spent in giving community and civic instruction; religion should be left at home where it belongs.
Predictably religious voices are taking the opportunity to equate faith with morality
A spokesman for the Church of England said the law stated schools provide collective worship and the church supported that.
He said: "It provides an important chance for the school to focus on promoting the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of its pupils.
Which as I have pointed out previously is a specious proposition and not born out by reality.
This spokesperson also goes on to say
"Collective worship is when pupils of all faiths and none come together to reflect - it should not be confused with corporate worship when everyone is of the same belief."
Which is just inane. What exactly is a person of no faith supposed to worship?
It is perfectly possible and I would say preferable to teach a school as a community; morals, ethics and civic responsibility without recourse to religion. Perhaps since the majority of parents don’t want this archaic display of superstition it is time to abandon it.