Fraternising with the enemy

June 22, 2009

The latest edition of Humanitie is out. This is my contribution, which as always should be read alongside Tim’s contribution from The Friendly Humanist.

I was invited by a friend of mine in the Christian Union (yes, I do have friends) to an Alpha Course group. For the first few weeks we followed the structure of the course guide, but we increasingly noticed that Nicky Gumbel, the incredibly well-spoken man behind the course, assumes he’s managed to turn everyone into a Christian after week three. Unsurprisingly, he’ll have to try again with me. So we did away with the course guides and instead we’d just have a discussion about some aspect of Christianity like the power of prayer, final judgement or the unlikelihood of life or something. Then after a few weeks of that we watched some short films as a stimulus and have a discussion afterwards, and we kind of fizzled out from there. All in all we met for about 10 weeks.

There were several points when I realised some differences between many theists and many atheists. For me and most other people, the reason for debate and discussion is a healthy respect for the truth. But that didn’t always seem to be the case there. Sometimes it seemed that the only reason they were engaging in the discussion was in the hope that I’d change my mind, with no possibility that they might too. Often I would make a point that they couldn’t answer (like for example that you could never justify eternal punishment), but instead of taking it on board, they just changed tack and used another argument to try and convince me. I didn’t expect that from relatively liberal Christians at university (although I’m still shocked that several members of the CU don’t believe in evolution).

So is it worth doing? Definitely! Interactions of this type between humanists and faith groups mean that next time someone at church refers to the demon atheist wallowing in sin and obstinate hatred of the innocent baby Jesus, the believer knows at least one example where that isn’t true, and similarly we don’t fall into the lazy trap of generalising religionists as idiots (we should only call them idiots if they ARE idiots). Humanists should constantly be challenging their own positions, and discussion with a group of people who don’t share those positions is the perfect opportunity to do so! I found that I came out of such encounters more sceptical of religious belief than when I went in, with my arguments and opinions honed (and my patience more durable). I have an appreciation for evidence that I didn’t have before. But most importantly of all, these interactions with faith groups mean that now, everyone at the Chaplaincy includes non-believers in their thoughts and actions from the offset. They no longer speak of ‘faith groups’ but of ‘beliefs and traditions’ or ‘backgrounds’. The humanists at the university have become part of a wider community based at the Chaplaincy. Of course many might see that as an excellent reason not to interact, but I think those people are missing out.

Alpha Course

October 10, 2008

This afternoon I had an interesting yet challenging encounter with the CU. Ruth, who I’d met at the society’s fair, invited me along to a lunchtime talk but I didn’t realise it was the Alpha Course. Maybe that’s a good thing because if I’d realised that I probably wouldn’t have gone (I’ve seen some of the materials used and it’s clearly geared towards Christians). In any case that wasn’t the interesting part, that was mainly just an exploration of Christian theology, which I’m not too interested in. I think it was good for them too to have an atheist come along and ask questions from that point of view.

I started by commenting on the notion of justice. During the talk there had been a section on grace and mercy which linked in with justice. God has to punish somehow, else where would the justice be? We wouldn’t be too happy if the Nuremberg Trials had just given Hitler a slap on the wrist (had he survived, of course), for example. But I entered the suggestion that an eternal punishment of any kind cannot be justified (whether you view hell as a place of torment or just a separation from God), there should always be some kind of time limit on it. One of the humanist society’s newer members, Greg, has made this argument before, but I think he made the mistake of saying you can’t justify eternal torment, when in fact a more modern interpretation of the idea of hell is that it’s just a separation from God, which takes the poke out of his argument, when in fact it should be on the idea that it’s eternal. There’s nothing you could do to warrant an eternal punishment. Someone brought up that even in human justice systems we have life sentences which, if you don’t believe in an afterlife, is essentially eternal, but for me that’s nothing to do with punishment, a life sentence is to protect to public from a dangerous person. The conversation kind of concluded on the thought that hell isn’t a punishment either, it’s a choice. People have chosen not to be with God, and hell (a separation from God) is the outcome of that choice, people just don’t realise how bad it is. That doesn’t really sit well with me either, but we kind of cover that later.

I then moved the conversation onto predeterminism, much to the groans of the others. The fact that God supposedly knows me and knows what I will do before it happens means that (presuming I don’t accept Jesus Christ as my personal saviour) he has created me purely so that I can go to hell, which is a problem because he’s supposed to love me. Balancing free will against this predeterminism is also a significant problem with me. I suppose knowing what I’m going to do isn’t necessarily the same as controlling it, but in that case why does he bother with our time on earth, why not just judge us based on what he knows we’re going to do?

Free will is also one way to explain away the problem of evil which I brought up next. If God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, then how can evil persist in the world? Someone asked if I thought God controlled everything and I said no, just that he would intervene to prevent evil. The extension of that argument is that it would contravene our free will, but so what? Surely an omnibenevolent God would place the prevention of evil above free will? Even if not, free will doesn’t explain natural disasters and genetic diseases, but that can be explained by the Fall. Apparently the earth took the physical consequences of our sin. I have my own problems with the Fall (for example, there’s no evidence that sin is genetic), but for the purposes of the conversation I left that aside.

-It’s awkward, I keep remembering important things we talked about, but we were talking for a good 2 hours or so, I can’t possibly include it all here, which is a shame. Maybe I’ll fill in the gaps in another post another time-

I think I’ll finish on our discussion of the trilemma and its branches. You may be familiar with CS Lewis’ argument that Jesus was either ‘lunatic, liar or lord’, and that if he’s either of the first two he cannot be merely a great moral teacher on the lines of Ghandi, Buddha etc. I added the possibility that he was merely lied about (apparently a lot of people add the words ‘or legend’ at the end), but for the people there, the historical evidence is so overwhelming that that’s not an option. I’ve already dealt with this kind of thing in my review of The Case for Christ and I don’t accept it (it’s based on the view that miracles are just as likely as normal stuff, whereas I’m like Hume – after all, if we accept the possibility that witches might exist, what happens after that is the Inquisition, it’s a twisted logic). From their perspective I look like the closed-minded one, but they’re going to have to show me the evidence before I believe in miracles. I’m not likely to budge on that one. I also queried whether Jesus could be a good moral teacher if he was a lunatic, because as far as I know, morality and lunacy aren’t mutually exclusive. This really puts the trilemma in hot water because the only reason Lewis accepts Jesus as the Son of God is because the other options aren’t feasible.

It was good to go along and discuss this kind of thing. I think I was invited personally because I like to listen to people (this is something we’re not very good at as a society – even during our own meetings we get sidetracked into our own little conversations and people get ignored, a personal pet peeve of mine), and I appear more open to discussion, whereas other members of our society can seem intimidating. That’s going to be a weakness in interfaith events, I think. I also had to leave aside points of contention (like interpretations of genesis, for example) which I knew we wouldn’t get anywhere on. Anyway I think I’ll go along next week, but my timetable changes in 3 weeks so I may be unable to go after that.

That was a long post and I still didn’t cover half of it.

Scientology… again

September 20, 2008

I was out and about in Edinburgh today and I got a text telling me there was a big Scientology thing going on in the city centre, so I made my way down there and saw a massive yellow tent with, to my surprise, “Scientology Volunteer Ministers” written on a very professional looking sign with the big crucifix-style symbol they use. There were lots of people there in yellow teeshirts who were obviously these volunteer ministers, so I went over, looked interested and asked what it was all about. A girl about my age (I don’t know why these organisations try hooking me in with people my own age. So far it’s been the CU, the Bahais, Destiny Church, the Christadelphians, and the Scientologists. It doesn’t work! Usually) came and said “well we’re the scientology volunteer ministers, and we have this technology to help you improve your life!”

“Wow, that sounds amazing, what kind of technology is this?”

“Technology to help you every day.”

“Ok, are we talking metaphorical technology?”


“Right, so… what does it use, electric shocks or something?”

“Oh, well, no, it’s not like tools or anything like that.”

“Well, technology isn’t really the right word then, is it? Maybe ‘advice’ would be better?”

“It is technology because you apply it to your life.”

“… ok. Why don’t you give me an example?”

“Well what do you want to improve in your life?”

“[struggling to think of something] What if I wanted to improve my grades?”

*vacuous smile, doesn’t reply*

[me] “But scientology’s a cult, isn’t it?”

“What’s a cult?”

“Like a sect that takes over your life and brainwashes you.”

“And how do they brainwash?”

“I don’t know”

“Right well we wash our brains on a Tuesday night. Have a nice day.” – walks away.

It’s so hypocritical that they pretend to want to help when you look like you don’t know who they are, but the second you show any sign of independent thought, they cut off communication. They’re also deliberately preying on traumatised people; their slogan was “no matter how bad it gets, something can be done.” So all they’re doing is targetting non-skeptical, emotionally vulnerable people. Why else would they do that, unless what they’re peddling wouldn’t make sense to an independently thinking person? (We accused the Student Alpha Course of doing the same thing with their slogan “Is This It?”, because that appeals to people who might have a lot of problems in their life and think it’s not that good. Incidentally my response to that question would be to draw attention to all the amazing things in the world like other cultures, all the literature, amazing technology, not to mention the beauties of the natural world, science, human emotion, and that’s only scratching the surface because we don’t even know anything about the majority of things in the universe. Isn’t this enough?). I know to them I look like the closed-minded one, but as with most things, until they can show me a bit of evidence I don’t really have a lot of time. It all looked very professional and expensive though, especially the identical Mercedes Benz minibuses they had across the street. I wanted to ask them where they get their money from but I forgot. Next time I’ll make a point of it.

I was generally quite surprised that they explicitly used the word ‘Scientology’, though. Usually they hide behind a less-well known phrase like ‘Dianetics’ or ‘Personality Test’ or something. Perhaps this reflects a more outgoing trend emerging within Scientology. I hope not.