October 13, 2008

David Robertson mentioned (at the Is Faith in God a Delusion? debate), in response to a question about how atheists are religious, that we all have our rituals. Of course he’s totally missing the point, there’s a difference between doing something because you’re used to doing it and doing something because it’s written down in a magic book. But there are other kinds of ritual that are common between atheists and religious people (in the conventional sense); the kinds of rituals that celebrate the various stages of a persons life. I’m talking about things like weddings, naming ceremonies and funerals.

For many people, these kinds of ceremonies are the first point of contact with humanism. When I mention that I’m a humanist, people often say “Oh, my Uncle Bob had a humanist funeral, it was really good!” (well, they don’t say that if they don’t have an Uncle Bob, but you know what I mean). Just this Saturday gone I overheard an old woman who drinks at my work fairly often talking about a humanist funeral she’d been to, and when I mentioned that I’m a humanist, she said “so… you want all the ritual with none of the spiritual!” as if it were a bad thing, and I replied “Yeah, all the goodness, none of the bull!” I don’t think she realised that humanist organisations do a lot more than just bury people and marry them (not the same people you understand), but nevertheless the ceremonial aspect is important for a lot of people.

I was talking to a friend of mine about trying to get excommunicated from the Catholic Church (still no sign of my baptism certificate. Not being at home I can’t really go searching for it). She said that I shouldn’t do it because then I wouldn’t be able to get married at church. In reality this is one of the few things holding me back from making a real effort to find it and get ranting about it. Say I want to get married, and my future wife wants to have a church wedding, we won’t be able to and it’d be a great shame just because I didn’t want to be associated with the Catholics. But at the same time, is it not very hipocritical of me to keep my membership just for the associated benefits, when by any measure of the word I am no longer a Catholic? Undoubtedly it is. Perhaps I might go back to Christianity one day? I’m fairly sure that’s the reason my mother won’t hand over my baptism certificate. But even in the extremely rare event that some kind of proof of God is discovered, and I do turn back to Christianity, I’d never go back to Catholicism (too much human input to dogma), so it’s irrelevant.

I think I may be hunting out that certificate when I go home for Christmas.

Dawkins and Holloway

April 2, 2008

Last night some of us at the Humanist Society went to an event at the Edinburgh Science Festival, where Richard Dawkins and Richard Holloway sat and had a conversation with each other about God, Religion and Spirituality, at George Square Lecture Theatre here at Edinburgh University. It was a great event, and afterwards Richard Dawkins signed my copy of Unweaving the Rainbow.

Anyway it was really interesting because they didn’t really disagree on anything. The event was all filmed, so I’m sure you’ll be able to see it soon enough, either on YouTube, RichardDawkins.net, or at the Edinburgh Science Festival website.

What I want to discuss mostly here is Richard Holloway’s views about God and religion. If you don’t know much about him, he was formerly the Bishop of Edinburgh in the Scottish Episcopal Church, but he must be the most liberal Christian you’ll ever meet. The funny thing is, he doesn’t actually believe what the Bible says, he doesn’t believe God exists, or in the virgin birth, or that Jesus of Nazareth was Christ, the Son of God. What he does believe is that Jesus was “an extraordinary man”, by which I assume he means a great teacher, with huge moral authority, and that the Church does a lot of good. Indeed Richard Dawkins then compared Jesus with other moral figures of our day such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Mahatma Gandhi, but we don’t claim there is anything supernatural about these people. In short, as much as I don’t like labelling people, in this case it is useful, and I would describe Richard Holloway as an agnostic/pantheist.

The two men spent some time discussing the Bible stories as “beautiful myths” that can teach us a lot, whether or not they are true. Dawkins correctly noted that you could say exactly the same about the aboriginal myths about the Dreamtime, or Polynesian myths, or any other set of myths in the world, and yet Holloway specifically chooses the Christian myths, what’s that about? And furthermore, he picks and chooses which parts of the myth are useful for teaching morals, it’s not the myth itself which tells us what is moral, we put our own subjective judgement on it and decide for ourselves. So why bother with the myth?! Why not just jump straight to the morals?

So in what sense is Richard Holloway a Christian? I would say he’s not at all because he doesn’t believe in God or what I call “the mythical Jesus” (as opposed to the historical Jesus), but he defends his position saying that he still calls himself a Christian because he still associates himself with the community that has had such an influence on his life, and because he still sees the good work that the church does and the good moral teachings of the church. But then if I was living at home, I could say that as well, and it doesn’t make me a Christian. A question I wanted to ask would have gone like this: Just as there are good points about the Christian religion, so there are also very negative points. How can you justify to yourself continuing to associate yourself with a religion which is misgynistic, homophobic, and continues to condemn people to death in AIDS-ridden Africa through its condemnation of contraceptive use? Admittedly most of that is the work of the Catholics, but it gives Christianity as a whole a bad name.

I suspect the answer would have incorporated the facts that he thinks religion does more good than it does bad, and that the church is gradually changing. But I can’t help thinking that there is no good act that a Christian can do that an atheist cannot also do, but someone’s religious beliefs can make them cause a lot of damage, which an atheist would not do.

Anyway, a great event, look out for the video.