A recent discussion reminded me of how often I hear arguments for God’s existence that stem from a lack of any explanation for our existence. I can see the appeal of such a position, and it used to be just about the only thing I could cling to when religion made no sense. The universe must have come from somewhere, therefore God.
In more sophisticated forms, or possibly in the hands of skilful bluffers, this argument would also incorporate claims that there is no experimental or observational evidence for abiogenesis, for example, or some similar position. Fundamentally, though, the argument remains the same and has the same flaws.
Even if we have no answer to the question of the origins of life and/or the universe (and on these matters, I’m happy to defer to people with much greater expertise than me), God isn’t an answer, because saying God did it tells us nothing; it has no explanatory power. Under this approach, God is just the name we give to the things we don’t (yet) understand – God of the Gaps rides again.
Supposing I live in a primitive culture and don’t know why the sun comes up every morning, so I say it’s pushed by a beetle. Quite apart from being completely wrong, what practical difference would that make to my knowledge? Or if I don’t know why boiling water becomes steam, so I say pixies do it – it’s not an explanation, I’m just dressing my ignorance up in different words.
If we’re going to actually understand anything, the concept of God (or sun-beetles or pixies) needs to be rigorously defined and tested as science. Otherwise, it’s no more enlightening than an exaggerated shrug. Maybe some people find it helpful to give the gaps in their knowledge a special name, but it doesn’t actually change the level of our knowledge, and William of Ockham starts looking distinctly cross.
For God to be an answer to these questions, there would have to be scientific explanations for who or what God is, how He created everything, why He can be defined as having no prior cause when His existence was only postulated because the universe must have a cause, and so on.
And that’s without addressing all the claims about God which aren’t necessary for a First Cause but tend to sneak in under the radar – all the “Omnis”, for a start, and then moving swiftly on to all the various different religions and their particular individual beliefs.
There’s a reason why God of the Gaps is such a discredited approach. It chases its own tail in ever decreasing circles as the niches for God to hide in get ever smaller, with a desperation that resembles cherry-picking more than seeking after truth. It’s not just bad science, it’s positively anti-science, as further discoveries are feared and avoided lest they shrink God’s domain even further.
When I don’t know the answer to something, I try to find the answer. That’s how we make progress, both individually and as a species. Not by saying anything we don’t understand must be magic.
“Science answers the how questions, and religion answers the why questions” – that’s a common claim from people who are arguing that science poses no threat to religion, or that they’re Non-Overlapping Magisteria, in Stephen Jay Gould’s rather grand phrase. It’s another one of those many ideas and beliefs that I’ve previously accepted, but am now starting to question.
It’s not controversial that science tells us how things work. The precise position is a little more complicated than that, because the scientific method only really draws provisional conclusions, and is more about the best way of finding out how things work, rather than dictating that this is right and that’s wrong, but it’s perfectly reasonable to say that if a question begins “How”, you’ll want to turn to science to answer it.
There’s more of a problem with “Why” questions, because they aren’t all the same. A question that begins “Why” could be asking about cause and effect (“a. Why did the building fall down?”) or the intent of an agent (“b. Why did Caesar cross the Rubicon?”) Either could be taken as questions of either cause or intent as written, but they’ll do as illustrations.
A third category sits ambiguously between these two, asking a question that isn’t obviously about either (“c. Why do we have two legs?”) Interestingly, it’s category c, the most ambiguous one, which is generally intended in the context of the how/why distinction.
Category a, the direct cause of an event, is clearly a scientific question. The only possible way of defining it as outside the realm of science is by assuming a priori that there could be an explanation that would be entirely impervious to scientific investigation, and even then, religion has nothing to offer as an alternative.
Category b, on intent, is a question that could be answered in the language of history, sociology, psychology and probably many other disciplines. Science could have plenty to say about it, while religion has little to offer. Religion might say that a murderer killed because of sin, but this is a pat response with no explanatory power, simply restating the question in different terms.
As for category c, in the example given you can either trace our evolutionary history back through many millions of generations, run models to show the competitive advantages of bipedal locomotion, or you can say that God made us that way. The same pattern is apparent whenever questions like this are asked.
The trick is this: the religious answer to a “why” question only has any validity when there’s an overarching moral purpose guiding events. Fundamentally, a religious answer to any “why” question is going to begin “Because God”. But in order for that to make any sense, there must be a God in the first place.
If there is no God, there is no higher purpose and no directing agent, so the question has no religious meaning, and the only possible meaning is a scientific question of cause and effect. The reason for the how/why distinction being commonly raised for category c type questions is that it equivocates over the true nature of the question being asked and answered. A “why” question is either a “how” question in different words, or it’s begging the question.
I have nothing against religion offering answers to questions of purpose, but would prefer more transparency. The only questions for which religion is better equipped than science are those which assume the existence of an agent outside the universe whose actions need to be explained, an assumption which is very much open to question.
To paraphrase Laplace’s possibly apocryphal words, I have no need for that hypothesis.
The Independent recently ran an article gushing with praise for the Alpha Course, calling it “British Christianity’s biggest success story“. I can understand that in a world where results are what gets you noticed, but having attended an Alpha Course once upon a time, I still find it both appalling and wryly amusing that the church is putting so much weight on a course that’s so fundamentally dishonest.
I went on the course at a time when I was feeling uncertain of my faith, the best part of ten years ago. I thought a return to the basics might be just what I needed, so I booked myself in and prepared to ask my questions.
Before I go any further, and to forestall common defences of Alpha, I want to emphasise that I was under no illusions about the theology of the course, but that was what I wanted at the time, and I desperately wanted to believe. I also know that courses vary massively in tone and content, even though this is against the wishes of Nicky Gumbel and Holy Trinity Brompton, but the course I attended worked through the standard videos and books. What I experienced was the very core of Alpha.
The first couple of weeks were pleasant and inoffensive. Gumbel’s video talks were relatively vague and platitudinous, but our group had some interesting discussions. Some knew nothing about Christianity, some knew quite a lot, and one guy was always asking about Islam, which was a bit odd, and suggested he was probably attending the wrong course. The one thing that puzzled me was that no one was prepared to correct obvious errors and misunderstandings.
That all started to change soon enough. When Gumbel introduced the Bible, suddenly all the fluff was moved to one side. A couple of weak, hackneyed arguments about the provenance of the Bible were rushed through as if they had a train to catch, and from that point on, it was expected that any question could be resolved by appealing to the Bible as an infallible book of rules.
It was also about this time that the course organisers started to get far more involved. From not correcting misunderstandings, suddenly they were pretty obviously starting to tell everyone what to think. I’ve since read Gumbel’s book on running an Alpha Course, and this is what they’re told to do – avoid correction or criticism for the first few weeks, then start hitting them hard with the party line. It’s a deliberate strategy.
When I’m asked to describe Alpha, the phrase I use most often is bait-and-switch. The whole thing is based on the idea of friendly discussion, but quickly becomes an RE lesson. We have some old fragments of parchment containing copies of Biblical texts, therefore we can assume that it’s all 100% true. We’re just going to talk about some issues, except for when we go off on the Holy Spirit Weekend!
The what? Yes, you read correctly – the Holy Spirit Weekend.
I could say a lot of things about the Holy Spirit Weekend. It’s undoubtedly clever, but I think it’s also deeply cynical and manipulative. Everyone goes away somewhere to learn about the Holy Spirit. Why do you need to go away for a weekend? Because the unspoken intention is that the new hothouse environment will facilitate a spiritual experience that will get you hooked. One session is even called “How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit?”
Clever churches get some church members to come along as well, ostensibly to help out on a more intensive weekend, but it also has the handy advantage of helping to create the right atmosphere. A bunch of confused Brits aren’t an ideal group if you want to encourage ecstatic spiritual experiences, but throw in a few people who know the drill (trust me, there is one) and it tips the balance considerably.
The weekend is at the heart of the entire course. The first few weeks deal with some basic housekeeping and weed out timewasters, and then they want you to be hooked as soon as possible. So they take you off somewhere strange, fill the place with music and people speaking strange languages, and wait for the payoff.
After that, the rest of the course seems slightly dull, stacking additional layers on top of what’s previously been discussed. If you’re in by this point, you’ll lap it up. If not, it’s just more data on what Christians believe, which will probably leave you cold, but might possibly be enough to convince you to “graduate” to church at the end of the course.
You might have gathered that I’m not a fan. I think the course is dishonest in its advertising and its arguments, sometimes manipulative, and always cynical. Finding out quickly moves into being taught, and then into emotional exploitation in unfamiliar group settings, all step by step, like a frog being boiled alive.
If a recognised cult was behaving like this, you wouldn’t be surprised.
He’d had a good innings, there was no doubt about that, but there’s more to life than longevity. He’d had ideals and dreams, he’d led a great movement, but in the end, nothing had changed. No one followed him these days. He still commanded a certain amount of respect, but no more than that. What good was it for a man to live forever yet achieve nothing?
At one time, years before, it had seemed that he was at the centre of a movement that would change the world. But that was the problem – it relied on him. There was no one who could take over as he became too old to travel very far to speak to different crowds, and he was acutely aware that he was cutting an increasingly forlorn figure as his hair greyed, his shoulders hunched and his voice began to fail him.
The people around him had always been decent and well-meaning, but there was no one he could really trust to take over and remove some of the burden from his shoulders. He’d tried to get them involved – they’d had opportunities, and they’d tried their best, but it had never really worked out.
It was hardly surprising that people talked dismissively of his movement as a personality cult – it was a fair description. And what happens when the personality becomes more withdrawn and less imposing? When he just can’t get out as much as he used to? The movement dwindles, and finally dies, of course. He didn’t need reminding.
His thoughts returned, as they often did these days, to that day half a century earlier. The day when he’d thought he was going to die. It was such a relief at the time, and he’d expected that his brush with death would inspire him even more. Carpe diem! The reinvigorating feeling that every new day was a gift would surely lead to a greater urgency and dynamism.
But everyone gets old.
When he thought of that day, he often wondered how things would have turned out if he hadn’t survived. How would he have been remembered? How would the movement have done without him? He sardonically considered that dying young was often a very smart career move from a certain perspective. How many members of the 27 Club would have been so highly regarded if they’d lived to 70, still scratching a living by butchering the few decent tunes from their youth?
Maybe somewhere out there, there was a parallel universe where he’d died. In a strange and slightly morbid way, the thought comforted him. Not that he wanted to die, but at least somewhere out there might be a world where people remembered him from his prime, not the doddery old man he’d become.
He couldn’t help wondering what it might be like.
Picture the scene: a number of young and otherwise healthy people are dying due to the failure of a single organ, a different one in each case, and no organs are available for transplants. An enterprising doctor suggests killing the next healthy person to walk through the door, and harvesting their organs. It’s an outrageous suggestion, but it would take one life to save many. Isn’t that a good deal?
This is the sort of thinking that’s usually being attacked when people criticise utilitarianism, and no one but the odd provocative philosopher or fifth-form debater ever seriously proposes it, but it’s hard to explain why it’s a bad thing. Wars are conducted on very similar ethical grounds, for example, with death accepted for the greater good. It’s not just consent – civilians don’t consent to be “collateral damage” either – but the obvious difference is that the death in this case is obvious and necessary, not just something that may happen.
As Philippa Foot’s trolley problem and its many variations suggest, our ethical instincts can be hard to explain, but we consistently balk at specifically using a person as an object, a means to an end. When it’s apparent that a person’s being used like this, all but a handful of Act utilitarians reject the suggestion as unethical. Essentially, a single deliberate death is far harder to accept than thousands of unintended but likely ones.
Now I’m getting to the important question: what if you’re omniscient? If you know with absolute clarity every single result of your actions, isn’t every single negative consequence just as apparent and exploitative as if you were picking on the poor guy who walked into the hospital at the wrong moment? Free will is usually claimed as the greater good that justifies death and suffering, but if God’s truly omniscient, He knows exactly what the personal cost will be, including abuse, starvation and agonising medical conditions.
So God’s happy to make people suffer as part of His grand plan. It’s as if He was behind Ursula Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, about a community endorsing one person’s suffering so that they can live in comfort. But this contrives to be even worse, by creating some unfortunates just so they can spend eternity in Hell. Effectively, their souls are harvested so that others can have nice, happy lives and live forever in paradise.
Understandably, we tend to be repulsed by this sort of calculation. Maybe our moral instincts are completely wrong, but wouldn’t that be down to God, who we’re told both wrote His law on our hearts and gave us His own set of specific moral instructions? It also raises the question of whether it would be in any way acceptable, let alone praiseworthy, for us to start harvesting the organs of healthy bystanders for the greater good.
It’s ironic that Christians are so often dismissive of any form of utilitarian ethics, when their own description of God and His motivation points towards utilitarian arguments having at least some value. Even without my input, answers to the problem of evil tend to rely on appeals to a greater good, usually free will. If there’s suffering, an omniscient God must either be pursuing a greater good or allowing needless and gratuitous suffering – utilitarian or monster, take your pick.
Congratulations, apologists – it looks like you might be utilitarians after all.
After day one of the Vatican series of Big Brother, before Jorge “Super” Mario Bergoglio won Pope Idol and launched his new career by taking the stage name “Francis”, I was feeling provocative:
I know what the answer would be, and even if I didn’t, a lifetime of belief has made me highly skilled at providing post hoc explanations of all sorts of things. God doesn’t speak like that, we’re only sinful, fallible mortals, speaking clearly and unmistakably would prove His existence (the Babel Fish Argument), and so on. Shame on me for betraying my ignorance and superficiality with such a slanted question.
Or not. Twitter’s not an ideal forum for a detailed discussion, but those predictable stock responses are very revealing in their own way. If God doesn’t speak in a clear, unambiguous way, even over such an important issue to a group of (you’d think) the holiest men in the church, when would He ever communicate His wishes clearly?
But if God doesn’t make a clear statement, so that even a gathering restricted to the very highest reaches of the church can’t quickly form a pretty clear opinion on what His wishes might be, how come those same people are always so very sure that they know exactly what He thinks about all sorts of other things?
This isn’t a problem restricted to Catholics, either. Every church experiences the same thing, with debate and divisions at every level about what God wants to be done, but united and firm in the belief that they know what He really wants in any number of different areas where they want to preach to the rest of us. Anyone who’s ever served on a Parochial Church Council will recognise the same thing. It’s just that Rome, like Texas, seems to do everything a little bit bigger.
If the cardinals who elect the next Pope can’t agree on who God would prefer, what are the odds that the Pope can do any better, once appointed? How is he meant to reliably (and occasionally infallibly) set out doctrine if God’s as clear and communicative as a teenager with laryngitis? Even explanations like scripture and tradition just move the question back a step, as they still ultimately rely on some form of divine revelation.
I don’t really care how they run their club – political considerations and deep divisions are par for the course in any organisation. But when God’s will is so hard to discern, even among people who believe in Him and share a common background and understanding, it would be nice if they could stop being so outspoken in using their interpretation of “God’s plan” and “God’s law” to deny others basic rights.
I was previously aware of the term “Full Gospel” and the existence of “Full Gospel” churches, fellowships and conferences, but I was reminded of the term today and my mind started to wander in very strange directions. Part of me wants to stroke my beard and explore the implications for ecumenical relations, but mainly I think the idea’s ripe for a spot of mockery.
The obvious (and boring) meaning is that it’s the whole Gospel, wi’ nowt taken out, but that makes me wonder if nasty brown bread’s the right analogy. What if it’s more like most things we consume, such as coffee, and some of the things in the Gospel are bad for you? Then it would probably be more virtuous to order a skinny Gospel instead of the full one, but I’ve never heard of a Partial Gospel Church of Christ, and the Strained Gospel Church sounds quite unpleasant.
Because I like the coffee idea, I’m not going to drop it just yet. You could order your church frothed if you’re Charismatic or Pentecostal, single if you’re a Unitarian, or decaf if you’re an Anglican. Any church can be ordered with hazelnut syrup for extra nuttiness. Okay, I’m done now.
I also wondered if it was possible to order a half portion of Gospel. Children aren’t going to manage that all in one go, and there are days when I don’t think I could manage a whole one because I’ve spent the morning snacking on Christian apologetics. Yes, I know I shouldn’t, but the moment I’ve finished one, I feel empty again and want another.
Or it’s possible that the full bit is their dedication to the Gospel – these churches rarely seem to take half measures (or serve half portions). But it’s not much of an advert really, is it? Just giving 100%? Footballers regularly give 110%, sometimes as much as 120%, and they’re just kicking a ball around – yes, they get paid well, but it’s not like they’re playing for eternal life, is it?
I’d expect nothing less than 150% from any church that was really taking it seriously, with 200% for the really keen ones. The Double Gospel Church of Christ has quite a nice ring to it, I think. And don’t give me any defeatist chat about 100% being the maximum you can achieve. With God, all things are possible, right?
Image courtesy of Flavio Takemoto, used with permission
I love Monty Python. I used to watch it from an early age, laughing like a drain, and there was a time when I could recite pretty much any sketch on demand. I think I must own just about every Python DVD there is, but I don’t watch them very often these days, because I know it all. Just reading through the description of a show is usually enough, and it’s familiar enough without needing to watch it.
But sometimes I put one on anyway, and it usually surprises me. Just the smallest detail that I’d forgotten about can be incredibly arresting, all the more so when I thought I knew what was coming. It might be Conquistador Coffee, a Man Who Speaks in Anagrams or the Italian Lesson, but I can be caught out by a forgotten sketch or even a line. However much of a fan I am, I never quite know it all.
That’s how I sometimes feel about the Bible. I’ve read it all, I’ve spent a lot of my life studying it, and I often feel like it’s got no more to offer me. But just occasionally, it still has the capacity to take my breath away.
I’ve attended enough church weddings in my life, in various capacities, to have heard more readings from 1Corinthians 13 than I care to remember. I’ve heard it read in ways that were moving, monotonous or just hammy, but however it’s read, I’ve heard it more than enough. It became my only non-negotiable when I got married – I wasn’t having that reading under any circumstances.
Despite that, and my irritation at the way it’s so often understood to refer to romantic love, I have to admit that it’s a brilliant passage. Along with the description from Galatians of the Fruit of the Spirit, it’s something that attracts me like a siren call, holding out an image of who I could be, and how I ought to behave.
When I’m under pressure or feeling irritable (like recently, when I was organising a birthday party for small children), I keep coming back to passages like this. Despite everything, they have a deep significance to me, and inspire me to be a better person in a way that’s unlike anything else. I recognise the description, and I want to be that person.
Image courtesy of Billy Alexander, used with permission
1. The practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess; falseness.
2. The practice of professing standards, beliefs, etc., contrary to one’s real character or actual behaviour, esp the pretence of virtue and piety
Keith O’Brien, everyone’s favourite recently retired Scottish ex-cardinal, has issued a statement relating to the accusations made against him by four young priests, dating back many years. He admits to general failings, remaining uncommunicative on the specific allegations. While the statement is carefully worded, I think we can take that as an admission to the essence of the claims, if not the details. In his own words:
[T]here have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.
The reaction to this statement has been unsurprising. Ahead of the expected avalanche of comment, journalist and broadcaster Iain Maciver was quick to air what’s likely to be a common opinion, with a fairly pithy summary of his views:
This is proof, yet again, that the very worst religion-inspired homophobia comes from absolute hypocrites.
O’Brien would appear to be at the very least opportunistically homosexual, acting in ways that exploited his position of power in a highly dubious fashion. And he spoke out in colourful terms against gay people and any suggestion of gay rights. Add those together, and it’s easy to conclude that he’s a hypocrite, right?
Well, actually, that’s where it gets complicated. We know nothing about his private opinions, which makes it surprisingly difficult to pin this charge on him. We know that his behaviour has not always been in line with the doctrine he espoused from the pulpit, but this doesn’t mean that he didn’t genuinely believe in what he said. As Samuel Johnson argued in Rambler 14:
Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.
It’s possible to hold and profess beliefs that you yourself struggle to live by, without being a hypocrite. I believe that people should be patient and considerate towards each other, and generally not be jerks, but I can’t claim that I always manage to live by that ideal. I don’t think that makes me a hypocrite, but then, I don’t campaign to have impatient people disadvantaged and condemned by society.
O’Brien’s meddling in the political process certainly makes the picture more complicated, but I’m not aware that he’s ever campaigned for a position that would have caused him problems in the past, such as legal penalties for homosexual acts. His condemnation of gay sex is extreme, but while his manner falls short of what might be considered sensitive and pastoral, it may also be a genuine reflection of his views, despite (or even because of) his own personal weakness.
This probably looks like a desperate defence, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. As my history shows, I have no love for O’Brien or his views, and if you want to call him a hypocrite you’re welcome to do so, but to me, the charge looks arguable at best on the available evidence, and makes the debate personal while letting both him and church off the hook.
If he’s a hypocrite on this evidence, so are just about all of us, but few of us have abused and exploited our positions for sexual gain, which makes hypocrisy pale in comparison. More importantly, the church as a whole is unrivalled for bigotry and heavy tax-exempt lobbying against basic civil equality legislation, and I think they’re more important than throwing names at an old, retired and disgraced man, however accurate they might be.
O’Brien is gone, but like Breech in The Outer Limits, another will take his place, and if you’re expecting to see any significant change in tone, you’ll be disappointed. The church’s teaching isn’t about to move a single inch, and you don’t become a cardinal without knowing how to toe the line. So why focus on the personal failings of one man, when the rest of the edifice (including a disciplinary system that warns whistleblowers they’ll damage the church) will stay rock solid?
The problem is still the church, and if that’s going to change, it’s the unwarranted influence of sectarian interests in public life that needs to be challenged, not one man’s failings. It may even be that Keith O’Brien was screwed up by the church’s teachings just as much as anyone else. Despite his position, and without diminishing the impact of the bad things he did, he can still be a victim.
After all this time, I keep coming back to the question of how to describe myself at the moment. I know who I am and what I believe, but it’s hard to put a name to it that I feel comfortable with.
I am a Christian because that’s both my upbringing and the entire background to where I am.
I’m not a Christian because there’s next to none of it that I still believe in.
I am an agnostic because I haven’t reached a firm conclusion, and suspect the nature of the question means there will always be uncertainty.
I’m not an agnostic because despite that uncertainty, my thoughts all seem to point in one direction.
I am an ignostic because I believe the concept of God needs to be properly defined in order to be meaningful.
I’m not an ignostic because I doubt that my answer would be different for any non-trivial definition of God.
Running through all this, there’s the fear that identifying with a label puts me in a box, and will ultimately result in me conforming to others’ ideas of what an X should think, rather than following my own thoughts wherever they lead me. Depending on your point of view, that might be cowardice or caution. I like to think of it as being individual.
The nearest I’ve come to a label I’m happy with is heathen, which conveys the important details with a dash of self-deprecation without tying me to a whole lot of things I don’t accept. It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough for now.
Image courtesy of Robert Michie, used with permission