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28 September 2012

God and Religion


Who, or what, am I?


I  pray to a (probably) non-existent God .. sometimes .. when troubled.
Or do I?

Or is He?
Why do I do this?

It is to do with childhood conditioning, which is why I spent most of my life as a ‘Christian’ for no other reason than my parents had me baptised as a Christian, and when I was old enough to comprehend speech, told me I was a Christian.
I was made to go to Sunday School and to Church Services, and I was taught that God created the world in six days, was everywhere, knew my every thought. I learned that I should say prayers; indeed I didn’t even have to think about what to say, because several hundred years ago someone else had decided what I should be saying and had written it all down in the Book of Common Prayer.

Apparently mankind started with ‘Adam and Eve’ in the ‘Garden of Eden’. They produced a couple of sons, one of which killed the other and also found himself a wife, though no one ever explained how she had materialised!
I learned that I was a ‘sinner’, and that ‘Jesus died for my sins’ (whatever that means), even though this was nearly two thousand years before I existed. I learned that there was somewhere called ‘heaven’ and somewhere else called ‘hell’. ‘Hell’ was where I was going to burn for eternity if I did wrong; and it seemed to me, from my mother’s endless criticism, I was doing wrong for quite a lot of the time!

This is powerful stuff for a child, because all a child knows when he has entered the human amalgam is what he is told by grown-ups; and stuff that is instilled in the first few years tends to become a permanent fixture in our brains, and difficult to break away from even with the help of rational thought and education. (“Give me the child until he is seven and I’ll give you the man” – Francis Xavier.)
 

Why are we religious?



So, the reason most Christians are Christians are because they were raised that way from Day One in their lives. And it is for that same reason that most Muslims are Muslims, most Hindus are Hindus, Sikhs are Sikhs, Buddhists are Buddhists, and – dare I say – Atheists are Atheists.
This nonsense is compounded by the various sub-sects of each religion. Are you a Protestant Christian or a Catholic Christian? If you are Protestant, are you an Evangelical or Baptist or Presbyterian, or Methodist, or Anglican, or Quaker, or Plymouth Brethren? (Or are you someone who throws money at some Television Evangelist who has hypnotized you into supporting his personal extravagant lifestyle?!) Are you a Sunni Muslim or a Shia Muslim or Ahmadi, or Sufi or Wahabbi? Are you a Jew or a non-Jew, a Hassidic Jew or a progressive Jew? All of them believe they are possessors of God’s Truth. Each is right, the others are wrong. But they can’t all be right. It is a kind of mental slavery, and inside which branch of mental slavery you are shackled is determined by accident of birth. How stupid is that?

It’s taken me over seventy years to start breaking the chains, by re-examining the beliefs by which I was raised, and by reading books by respected scientists and philosophers with better brains than mine, such as (to name but a few) The God Delusion by Professor Richard Dawkins, God is not Great by the late Christopher Hitchens, Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, and The Language of God by Francis S Collins (this last one arguing on the side of God’s existence, by an eminent scientist involved in the Human Genome Project). They persuaded me to re-examine my battered Bible with an enquiring mind rather than a passive one.

I once wrote a piece about my daughter when she was a little girl in hospital after an appendix-removal operation. She was in terrible pain and begging for relief. She was denied more drugs because the doctor had said she had had the required dose. I went outside and begged God to do something. I went back inside and found her relaxed. The doctor had made a mistake and had corrected it. To me, that was a prayer answered and it sustained my Faith for a considerable period.

But of course that might anyway have happened with or without my appeal to a supernatural being. In all the years before that incident, and in all the years since, there has been no other obvious response to any of my many prayers. I am not a statistician, but I would think that within a 74-year life span there must be a chance that at least one of my prayers would actually coincide with something that was going to happen anyway. In spite of my prayers, and those of millions of others, sick people continued to get sicker and die; famines, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, wars, torture, and religious wars continued (and continue) unabated. Epidemics of killer diseases continued (and continue) – though less so with advances in medical science.

A few years after my daughter was the subject of that earnest prayer, she was killed in a car crash.

The thing about prayer is this: if what you pray for comes about, then God has answered your prayer. If what you pray for doesn’t come about, then it’s “all part of God’s plan” – live with it!

The Word of God


Whether or not God, or a supernatural Creator of the universe, exists is a matter for which my mind remains open, but on the matter of accepting the Bible or the Koran as ‘holy’ books, or ‘the Word of God’, or template for a worthy life, my mind is now pretty much made up: they are not the Word of God. They are the Word of Man. They are an amalgam of history, fiction, poetry, indoctrination, superstition, primitive fear, and power-play – much of it written hundreds of years after the events described. Moreover they have been translated so many times (including various forms of English) that one cannot be certain of the true meaning of the original texts as laid down thousands of years ago by members of primitive and superstitious societies.
For the most part over the centuries organized religion has been a force for evil rather than good. It has been the foundation on which corrupt power has been built, the rationale behind the exploitation and subjugation of women, the genital mutilation of both girls and boys, the excuse for the adoption and maintenance of slavery, and the inspiration for torture and killing on a gargantuan scale.

Having started to re-read the Bible (after many years of ignoring it) I now find most of it to be utterly incredible. It is full of contradictions, hate, vengefulness, and orders by ‘God’ to kill thousands of innocent men, women and children (whatever happened to “Thou shalt not kill”?) Thousands are condemned for the sins of one. We cherry-pick the bits that are suitable to be read in church services. The accounts of the life and death of Jesus do not match up. I am not prepared to accept that any woman can – or did – give birth to a child without sexual intercourse; and even some prominent churchmen have difficulty with this, not to mention the little business of life after death. (And by the way, many other religions refer to weird and impossible methods of birth, often using virgins, for the existence of their “gods”.) There is serious doubt about the use of the word “virgin” instead of, perhaps, a “young maiden”.

The Bible is, to me, a collection of histories and edicts written by priests and/or leaders of primitive tribes of people in order to exercise power. This seems to have been the purpose of religion(s) throughout the centuries. As society develops more knowledge, and accumulates more scientifically provable facts, and makes changes to what is and what is not acceptable to society, it seems that religious leaders are in perpetual disagreement with scientific discoveries and society’s changes until they eventually have to “catch up” and make adjustments to their theological arguments purely in order to make them more acceptable to us as religious leaders. No doubt one day the Catholic Church will subject itself to whatever contortions it finds necessary to endorse the use of condoms, not only as a means of birth control, but as a means of preventing the spread of killer diseases. But by then, religion’s game of catch-up will be too little too late (again).
There is more hate, conflict, war, and unspeakable terror committed around the world by people of Faith than by people of No Faith. Christians and Muslims not only fight each other, but Christians fight Christians and Moslems fight Moslems because they are not believing the “right” things!

The history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is awash with the blood of innocent men, women and children; moreover it continues to this day. In spite of (or I wonder if that should be because of) our education the superstition, prejudice, fear, and willingness to kill others in pursuit of our beliefs appears as strong as ever.

The stuff we are taught in church


Although passages from the Old Testament are read out as part of regular Christian church services, they are for the most part passages that have been cherry-picked for acceptable consumption. Even when the passive congregation receives the message, they are hearing it rather than listening to it and analyzing it, for to do so is too confusing and uncomfortable. It is just an accepted routine.

For example, how useful would it be for us to receive the following pieces of wisdom from Chapter 8 of Leviticus ..

22 And he presented the other ram, the ram of consecration: and Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the head of the ram.

23 And he slew it; and Moses took of the blood thereof, and put it upon the tip of Aaron’s right ear, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the great toe of his right foot.

24 And he brought Aaron’s sons; and Moses put of the blood upon the tip of their right ear, and upon the thumb of their right hand, and upon the great toe of their right foot: and Moses sprinkled the blood upon the altar round about.

25 And he took the fat, and the fat tail, and all the fat that was upon the inwards, and the caul of the liver, and the two kidneys, and their fat, and the right thigh:
 
26 And out of the basket of unleavened bread, that was before Jehovah, he took one unleavened cake, and one cake of oiled bread, and one wafer, and placed them on the fat, and upon the right thigh:

27 And he put the whole upon the hands of Aaron, and upon the hands of his sons, and waved them for a wave-offering before Jehovah.

Here endeth the Lesson.

Fantastic. Laughable. There are pages and pages of this kind of stuff.

By Chapter 16 we are still labouring under instructions about killing, dismembering and burning animals for the glory of God, to atone for sin, as a peace offering, as thanksgiving. Then there are instructions that deformed people, i.e., blind people, people with broken hands or feet, flat-nosed, (!) etc., shall not be deemed fit to make offerings to Jehovah. (I thought God made man in His own image!)

From Chapter 21 .. daughters of priests who act like harlots shall be killed, specifically, burnt with fire.

As I said before, we cherry-pick the bits that are suitable to be read in church services.

I have been looking through sections of the Bible to find examples of God’s morality. It is a tedious business and so I was very grateful for stumbling across a piece of work by Daniel C Dennett (included within Christopher Hitchens’ book, The Portable Atheist).  Dennett is the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, University Professor, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies (with Ray Jackendoff) at Tufts University (near Boston, Massachesetts).


I found that Daniel Dennett had done some of the trawling for me ..

Consider first God’s moral character, as revealed in the Bible. He routinely punishes people for the sins of others. He punishes all mothers by condemning them to painful childbirth, for Eve’s sin. He punishes all human beings by condemning them to labor, for Adam’s sin (Gen. 3:16-18). He regrets His creation, and in a fit of pique, commits genocide and ecocide by flooding the earth (Gen. 6:7). He hardens Pharaoh’s heart against freeing the Israelites (Ex. 7:3), so as to provide the occasion for visiting plagues upon the Egyptians, who, as helpless subjects of a tyrant, had no part in Pharaoh’s decision. (So much for respecting free will, the standard justification for the existence of evil in the world.)

He kills all the firstborn sons, even of slave girls who had no part in oppressing the Israelites (Ex. 11:5). He punishes the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great great-grandchildren of those who worship any other god (Ex. 20:3-5). He sets a plague upon the Israelites, killing twenty-four thousand, because some of them had sex with the Baal-worshiping Midianites (Num. 25:1-9). He lays a three-year famine on David’s people for Saul’s slaughter of the Gibeonites (2 Sam. 21:1). He orders David to take a census of his men, and then sends a plague on Israel, killing seventy thousand for David’s sin in taking the census incorrectly (2 Sam. 24:10-15). He sends two bears out of the woods to tear forty-two children to pieces, because they called the prophet Elisha a bald head (2 Kings 2:23-24). He condemns the Samarians, telling them that their children will be “dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open” (Hosea 13:16). This is but a sample of the evils celebrated in the Bible.

Now, how much of this stuff is regularly read in churches these days as our “Lesson” for the day?

And how much of it would you regard as morally defensible?

And on the subject of The Flood, just in passing, how did Noah physically manage to get together all those animals .. especially, for example, kangaroos (existing on an entirely different continent)? And how did he prevent them all from killing each other? And how did he deal with the waste disposal problem?

Creation


I have no problem with evolution. The truth of the evolved and evolving state of our planet and its inhabitants is there for all to see. But who or what set the necessary seeds for evolution?

 “The origins of evolution” are, to me, the true “Creation”. Therefore I am open to the argument that a higher deity may be behind all this, and I am open to the concept of a spiritual relationship with that Deity, but He is not the God of the Bible, or of the Koran.

Morality


I do not deny some of the good aspects of religion, or Christianity in particular: the creation of beautiful buildings, inspiring music, great literature, and charitable works, but I fear they are outweighed by the negatives. In spite of thousands of years of devotion to all sorts of gods (including the “God” of which we now speak) it seems they (or He/She/It) have been indifferent to the millennia of suffering, deprivation, fear, war, torture, tyranny, earthquakes, tsunamis, poverty, genocide, and the interminable prayers offered up. And why did this “Creation” by an omnipotent and omniscient Deity include such things as pathogenic bacteria, killer viruses, and cancers? And why were so many of his creatures destined to be born deformed, or born dead .. take note, “Pro-Lifers”, God also practices abortion on a daily basis.

The enthusiastic adherents of religion suppose that without religion there is no morality. Society falls apart. No, it doesn’t! All civilized societies work within a system of laws designed to maintain law, order and common decency between people, in order to survive. A society that is prepared to condone wanton cruelty, unbridled selfishness, theft, violence, or murder, cannot survive.

Morality is hard-wired into most of us. We know what is right and what is wrong. We know what is good and what is evil. This has nothing to do with religion.
“Ah, but” .. says the religionist, “There is much in the Bible that tells us how to behave well towards one another, especially in the New Testament.”

One cannot argue with this, and I don’t try to .. I acknowledge it. But we have already seen that there is much in the Bible also that we find so morally reprehensible that we forget, ignore, or rapidly pass over those bits. Cherry picking again. The conclusion must be, therefore, that far from shaping our morality, the ‘good’ bits we pick out of the Bible are reflecting our own morality.

Religion itself is no guarantee of a well-behaved society. The United States of America is probably one of the most pious nation in the “Christian” world. Hartford Institute estimates there are roughly 350,000 religious congregations in the United States, and a disturbingly high proportion of American Christians believe in the literal truth of the “Creation Story”. And yet the USA has roughly four times the murder rate than Great Britain which is one of the least religious countries. Not only is the USA a religious country, it also practices Capital Punishment.

Dangers of religious fanaticism


I believe the biggest threat to our well-being comes from politicians who declare themselves to be driven by God. If these people believe half the clap-trap found in the Bible or the Koran as the literal truth and Word of God, then they are going to cause us nothing but trouble. When Tony Blair was the UK Prime Minister, his press aide once famously declared, “We don’t do God”. Interestingly, Blair later converted to Catholicism once safely out of office. He is now making a personal fortune. (The words “camel” and “eye of a needle” come to mind.)

If the President of the USA failed to end a public speech with “God bless America” he would be crucified (if you’ll excuse the expression). If a British Prime Minister ended a public speech with “God bless Great Britain”, half his audience would be baffled, and the other half would be rolling in the aisles.

In the 2012 American Presidential election campaign one of the contenders is a professed Christian accused by some of his opponents of being a Muslim, and the other is a very rich member of a church running an ancestral database so that dead people can be posthumously baptized into their church. In New York a Sikh who wore a turban in obedience to his religion was assassinated by an idiot who assumed he was an Islamic terrorist because he wore that turban.

In 2002 a group of Islamist fanatics flew airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the cause of their religion, killing thousands of innocent people (including many of their own Faith). They considered themselves to be martyrs and due to be rewarded by being transported to some great brothel in the sky where they could enjoy the pleasures of the flesh that they so earnestly denied themselves and others whilst on this earth.

A few years later a similar group of religious lunatics blew up London Underground trains and a bus, killing or maiming hundreds.

The problem with people “driven by God” is that if they reach a powerful position and have access to weapons of mass destruction they may find ways and means of hastening their journey to the prophesized “end time”, “apocalypse”, “rapture” – call it what you will – taking us all with them in their crazed belief that believers will be “saved” and non-believers (including those who have never had the chance to even consider belief, for example, babies) will be cast into the fiery cauldron of “Hell” for all eternity.

As I write this I am reading reports from Afghanistan that a group of Taliban came across some people dancing to music and summarily executed them. God’s work has been done again.

It’s difficult to believe that such people have been in receipt of any worthwhile education, and indeed some haven’t, which is part of the problem. There are young children in parts of the Islamic world forced to commit large parts, or all of, the Koran to memory. This process vastly reduces those children’s capacity to think and reason for themselves. Analysis of what they read is out of the question, since it is indisputably the Word of God handed down to Mohammed about 1,300 years ago. It is a dogmatic religion build on shaky foundations lacking in historical evidence. Some will grow up to become “God’s bombs” in pursuit of “Paradise”.

Christianity has also frequently, and relatively recently, been perverted to suit the egotistical, testosterone-charged desires of maniacs like David Koresh and his Branch Davidians.

How do I relate to “believers”?


If I have, somewhat late in life, come to the view that Religion is not only hogwash but dangerous, then I am faced with a personal dilemma regarding all those people with whom I have a sincere and loving relationship who are themselves sincere believers in God, virgin birth, resurrection, and the Bible as the living truth.

But, on second thoughts, there is no dilemma. The only way I am going to be in trouble is by trying to instill into my friends a pressing need for them to come round to my way of thinking. But that is exactly what is wrong with so many religious sects. They take it upon themselves to come knocking on my door with the express view of challenging my logical thought processes, and I take exception to their view that I have some kind of duty to think as they do.

So, the last thing I am going to do is to aggressively chip away at my friends’ core beliefs. Needless to say I consider my friends to be good people, otherwise they would not be my friends, and I have absolutely no desire to “convert” them. I am not so blind that I cannot see they are comforted in their beliefs. (It might well be that they will revise their view about me. I hope not, but there’s little I can do about it.)

Atheists, Humanists, Agnostics, do not go to war with other people or other countries or indulge in torture in order to enforce their way of thinking.

Looking at the remarkable species that is the human race, with its amazing achievements, and looking at (what appears to be, so far) this unique planet in an unfathomable universe, I am even prepared to concede the possibility of a “divine” power beyond our understanding being responsible for it all. But it won’t be the “God” of the Bible or the Koran. It is even possible that I might have some kind of spiritual potential connection with that power, in which case I certainly do not need men (mostly), in ridiculous fancy dress performing staggeringly boring ceremonies and rituals to intercede on my behalf.

So, all I can ask of my believing friends is that they understand and accept me as I understand and accept them.

I made my own choice to read books that persuaded me to re-examine the “Holy scriptures” in a different light. I do not wish to insist that others read them, because, in all honesty, the experience is initially uncomfortable – even scary - for the reasons outlined right at the start of this essay. We are naturally inclined to avoid reading stuff that invades our comfort zones.

I do not fear death, though I admit to be being a bit queasy about the means of getting there.

©Lionel Beck 2012
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