Tag Archives: Anglican Church

Reflections on whether God exists, etc.

Via email for the last few weeks, about a dozen people with and without faith commitments have discussed whether God exists and, if God exists, what is God “like”, or how can God be described? As you can imagine, many of the contributions to the discussion have been wishful thinking unsupported by much (anything?) that qualifies as convincing evidence. But there were two contributions I found most enlightening/stimulating, even though I do not agree with everything said.

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Here is the first contribution:

The Abrahamic religions are in awe of an all-powerful, all-seeing, all-hearing, all-knowing and all-everything god, even though this god, in common with religion itself, is a human invention (and a human invention of increasingly doubtful benefit, all things considered). This dire and dreadful invention of the human imagination from long ago is believed by followers of the Abrahamic religions to be admirable and therefore worthy of worship, when in reality a god of this nature should be taken down a peg or two, resisted, challenged at every opportunity to confirm his/her/its merits, or, perhaps best of all, completely rejected, and rejected as a matter of urgency to make it far more likely that we can all live with one another in peace.

Muslims are encouraged to submit totally to their version of the invented god (Muslims call him/her/it “Allah” and encounter knowledge and understanding about Allah in the Qur’an) and, as a consequence, must accept without question the values, aims, objectives, demands and laws attributed to him/her/it (many of the demands and laws are foolish or abhorrent in the extreme). And the result of such total/unquestioning submission to the will of the invented god? There are millions of obedient and unreflective people devoid of empathic understanding for anyone but those who share their beliefs about what this god is said to require of humankind. Thus, in many Muslim lands you run up against censorship/the suppression of free speech, the denial of basic human rights, forced conversion, the enslavement and sexual exploitation of women, authoritarianism, persecution, terrorism, attempted genocide and warfare with death and destruction on an almost inconceivable scale, all of which result in a world less safe, secure and pleasant to live in than at any time since perhaps the end of the second world war.

Since long ago, the Jewish people have been encouraged to critically engage with their most sacred scripture, the Torah, which is an outlook in marked contrast with that of Muslims who are encouraged to accept everything the Qur’an contains because of the impossible-to-sustain idea that it is the uncorrupted word of the invented god of the people of Abraham. In fairness to the Jewish people, such critical engagement has been notable both past and present, among many but not all pious Jews at least. This said, I am not sure to what extent this has ensured that Orthodox and Hassidic Jews resist or challenge the invented god. They certainly do not reject this god, although, for very obvious/understandable reasons, many Jewish people find it impossible to believe in a god in any shape or form following the Shoah/Holocaust.

Early Christians, perhaps aware that their concept of God the Father must necessarily be indistinguishable from the god of Judaism and the god of yet-to-emerge Islam, with all that this implies in terms of grumpiness, impatience, jealousy, anger, destructive inclination and genocidal intent (is there anywhere a god who manifests such indiscriminate wrath and arbitrary destructive force? Is there anywhere a god who manifests such contempt for humankind, even though humankind is meant to be this god’s supreme creation?), split the god of Abraham into three parts so that more benign aspects of the invented god can be celebrated in the person of the Galilean Jew called Jesus and the Holy Ghost or the Holy Spirit, whatever the latter may be (an invisible force somehow part of/an extension of the invented god that mysteriously inspires people to act in morally/ethically uplifting ways and/or in ways deemed worthwhile by the imagined god?). This departure from strict Jewish monotheism helped to make Christianity distinctive, but it does not look/sound like monotheism at all to many people who subscribe to religions other than Christianity, whether Abrahamic or otherwise. However, you are perfectly entitled to say that it does not matter one jot, given that the god that gave rise to the trinitarian god of Christianity is itself an invention! But the crazy thing is that it DOES matter. It matters because Jews, Christians and Muslims have too frequently fought each other – and they have too frequently fought the followers of other religions and beliefs, and their co-religionists when their co-religionists described the imagined god in a different way – merely to uphold or impose on others their understanding of the invented god. Thus has the dire and dreadful god of the people of Abraham caused humankind endless death and destruction for nearly 3,000 years.

I would therefore argue that, for the wellbeing of humankind and the long-term prospects of the planet itself, it is time we disposed of the invented god of the Abrahamic religions. I am confident that other versions of god are much more benign in character than the god of the people of Abraham, but why transfer allegiance from one god to another when they are all human inventions? Moreover, can we say with utter confidence that any of the gods of the other religions have not themselves been the cause of dire consequences for humankind? Of course not. Therefore we should consign all the gods to the dustbin and, with luck, inter- and intra-religious rivalry will soon be a thing of the past. Moreover, concepts such as spirituality and disciplines such as philosophy will benefit immensely from being freed from the constraints of unsustainable belief in a god or gods. Everyone will very definitely be a winner!

Anglican Church, North Yorkshire

Anglican Church, North Yorkshire

Here is the second contribution:

Ah, ha: the big one – God! 

In relation to the concept of God, should we define ourselves as theists/believers in God/gods, agnostics or atheists?

If God exists at all, which of the following is correct: monotheism, dualism, polytheism or monism (monism is what Sikhism most consistently subscribes to, in my estimation at least)? 

If God exists at all (just as organised religion is a human invention, as everyone concedes, is it not likely that God is also a human invention?), is God transcendent or immanent or both, or something else altogether that we cannot yet imagine and/or explain in words? 

Does God have one form, two forms, three forms or hundreds or thousands of forms? Or does God have millions of forms?

But back to theism/belief in God/gods, which, with a little wriggle room, can be subdivided into monotheism, dualism, polytheism, pantheism, panentheism, deism and autotheism (for many people even this quite long list is incomplete. C.f. monism – unless monism is synonymous with/more or less the same as pantheism). There is even the concept of value-judgement theisms such as eutheism, dystheism and misotheism. Dare I share a personal view? To me, the concepts of dystheism and misotheism are more convincing than many of the “isms” just listed! Why? The evidence is everywhere!

Mind you: deism may have something useful to offer, in so far as those who subscribe to the concept insist deism is knowledge of God based on the application of our reason on the designs and/or laws found throughout “nature”. As a general rule, deists also believe God created the world but God has since remained indifferent to it (it is God’s supposed indifference to the world that may explain why the planet is in the mess it is, and why humankind seems incapable of caring properly for all the life forms on it. Of course, given humankind can’t even care properly for itself, often because of the hatred religions generate for fellow humans, why should we expect humankind to care for other, non-human, life forms?). I also quite like the deist assertion that “God gave us reason, not religion.” In fact, the more you think about this, the more the sentence makes sense. Religion blights our lives, reason will save us. To combat the detrimental effects of the “post-truth world” in which we are said to live (the EU referendum campaign and Trump’s US presidential campaign have much to answer for), we definitely need more reason and less superstition and misinformation!

Annual

Annual “Discover Islam Exhibition”, University of Newcastle

 An interesting fact drawn from archaeology. The oldest known site where people engaged in organised/structured religious practices dates back only 11/12 thousand years (Gobekli Tepe in south-east Turkey). No one suggests that this was the first place or time people engaged in religious practices because, for a settled religious centre to emerge at Gobekli Tepe, people must have engaged in religious activity, perhaps of a less organised/structured variety (e.g. shamanism among nomads?), for a long time before religion could evolve into the relatively sophisticated form that must have been in evidence at this important archaeological site near the city of Urfa. But the point I am making is this: for hundreds of thousands of years, perhaps for millions of years, humankind survived and evolved without religion (animals indistinguishable from modern humans emerged about 2.5 million years ago. Animals very similar to us existed much earlier than this but are now extinct). Religion emerged only as the brain gained in size and sophistication, but when our knowledge and understanding of the world/universe was nonetheless so limited that we had to invent explanations for the inexplicable. Moreover, organised religion as we know it today, with all its conflicting understandings of God, has existed for only a very short period of time compared with human history as a whole (it was 6 million years ago when humans and chimpanzees had the last common grandmother). Additionally, it is doubtful that ANY manifestation of religion today is in the least bit like the religion or religions that existed at Gobekli Tepe only 11/12 thousand years ago, Even Hinduism, perhaps the religion with the longest pedigree on planet Earth today, has its origins about only 4 or 5 thousand years ago, according to some contemporary but reputable scholars.

But why do I share the above? Partly to suggest that there is very little chance that anyone has had the time to get God “right”, if God exists at all.  

God might be called our flexible friend (or our flexible enemy, if you subscribe to some of the “isms” above) in so far as we can make of God whatever we want. Moreover, scripture (even in each distinct religion) is often so confused about what God is that it frequently provides the very means for the many interpretations that exist. Pick and chose from scripture and you will find the God you want!

ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

I have a grudging admiration for Buddhism which, in its “purest” form, says that belief in God/gods is not necessary to be a Buddhist. Thus, you can be a Buddhist who believes in God/gods or a Buddhist who does not believe in God/gods. I wonder if Siddharta Gotama and the early Buddhists rumbled to two important things. First, if God/gods exist, God/gods are unknowable. Second, whether God/gods exist isn’t that important.  

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Religious people behaving badly (and far, far worse), one.

I begin with behaviour that is predictable, but merely somewhere between naughty and bad:

The Anglican and the Roman Catholic churches are still officially opposed to mitochondrial donation, even though the House of Commons voted convincingly in favour of it as a way of preventing incurable hereditary diseases, and even though most people in the medical and scientific communities say such donation is a remarkably beneficial procedure that will help thousands of people now and in the future.

However, now for the far more worrying confirmation that religious people sometimes behave unimaginably badly. It is because of such behaviour that I am not uploading any photos to leaven the content. The actions recorded below are so terrible that any images would detract from their horror:

News from the self-styled Islamic State in parts of Syria and Iraq reveals that human beings – sorry, men (accuracy is required in these post, as you know) – have descended to new levels of depravity. Not long after two Japanese captives were beheaded, a Jordanian pilot was set on fire inside a cage and his murder filmed for the world to see (the film is said to last about twenty minutes). A man alleged to be gay was strapped to a chair and thrown to the ground from the top of a six or seven storey building. The man somehow survived the fall but was stoned and beaten to death by a mob waiting below. An Islamic State document has been translated to reveal in quite shocking detail how girls and women should be treated (e.g. they should be denied access to education once they are aged about sixteen). One of the most worrying things the document says is that girls can be married when they are as young as nine. And just this week, a Channel Four News’ journalist interviewed a few Yazidi women who had somehow escaped from their Islamic State captors. The women shared dreadful stories about Yazidis being forcibly converted to Islam, Yazidi men being murdered, Yazidi women and girls being sold as slaves in markets and Yazidi women being forced into sexual slavery. Meanwhile, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child confirms that abducted Iraqi children are being sold into sexual slavery, and young people have been beheaded, crucified and buried alive. It is also said that “mentally challenged” children are used as suicide bombers.

The oppression and the atrocities in Islamic State are now so bestial that even Al-Qaeda has condemned some of the militants’ actions. I feel compelled to ask: how is it that people are capable of such cruelties against fellow human beings? And how is it that people are capable of the cruelties revealed this week of what happens to sheep inside a halal abattoir in Thirsk? And why is the common link between the abattoir in Thirsk and Islamic State the religion of Islam itself?

Sadly, this is not the limit to religious people behaving very badly. Just this week it has been announced that, as part of Operation Sanctuary in North-East England, twenty males aged between twenty-two and forty-one have been arrested for allegedly grooming and/or sexually exploiting children and young women. All the men would appear to be Muslim and most are of Pakistani origin. Some of the men have already appeared in court and been charged for their alleged crimes.

Northumbria Police, who are responsible for Operation Sanctuary and have undertaken enquiries with admirable patience, determination and respect for the vast majority of law-abiding Muslims on their patch, whether Pakistani in origin or not, issued the following statement last week:

A number of men will appear before Magistrates today charged with a range of offences as part of Operation Sanctuary, the investigation into crimes of a sexual nature against vulnerable women and girls. 
We are limited in what we can say as legal proceedings are now live and must avoid any statements that could breach legal restrictions and put prosecutions at risk.


Operation Sanctuary will not end. It is a wide-ranging investigation into many different crimes of a sexual nature against vulnerable women and girls. Today’s charges are just one element of this.


The welfare of victims is our priority and we have worked closely with other agencies to ensure they have the appropriate support in place.


We have had tremendous support from the public and businesses and need this to continue. We would urge people to be vigilant and, if something doesn’t look or feel right, we ask them to contact us.
 We encourage anyone who wants to report such crimes to the police to do so. People who report such crimes will be believed and they will be supported.


Some people or groups may try to use Operation Sanctuary to build resentment. Our community has a history of harmonious and tolerant relations. Anyone who is subject to hate crime should report it to the police and we will investigate.


By working together we can continue to ensure out towns and cities are safe places for women and girls to live in, to work in and to visit.

The above is a perfectly judged statement. But read what follows, a summary of a media briefing called by the police and so-called leaders of the local Pakistani Muslim community following the news about the most recent arrests and charges:

Yes, I attended the media briefing by the police. The Deputy Chief Constable was very clear about his intentions. When pressed to say whether a particular community is more prone than others to groom and sexually exploit girls and women, he would not point fingers, but he urged the (unnamed) community to take responsibility for the problems that exist within it and, if such responsibility is assumed, the police will help in any way they can. But when it came to hear from people within the community most responsible for such grooming and sexual exploitation, they shifted discussions to anywhere but where attention should have rested. Result? They wriggled out of committing to do anything.

My contact at the media briefing went on to say:

The community from which the offenders originate has to seize the initiative, then it can ask other communities for support and guidance. The police position is clear: grasp the nettle, take responsibility for something that is obviously yours to address, and we, the police, will help whenever help is needed.

Non-Muslim communities cannot help without Muslim leaders being at the forefront of solving this terrible problem themselves (ditto the problem of extremism among an alarming number of young Muslims). Some Muslim leaders kept on repeating the same mantra that we have to handle the problem collectively, and that other faith groups should be more involved in challenging such grooming and sexual exploitation. But anyone meddling in sensitive in-house Muslim affairs runs the risk of being condemned as Islamophobic! I do not consider that such evasive answers are going to help. 

I suppose the reality is that the self-styled leaders of the Muslim and/or Pakistani community do not represent their community, and they certainly have very little influence over the younger people in their community.

Hmmm: I fear my source of information is only too correct in his evaluation of the situation.

A final insight into these alarming developments. A good Sikh friend of mine who engages in lots of remarkable charitable endeavours is currently spearheading a project in which female victims of grooming and sexual exploitation in the Leeds and Bradford area have been brought to safe houses in the Newcastle area where they are slowly being helped to resume what might be called a normal life. As part of resuming a normal life, the young women are being prepared for their GCSE exams, which they have all failed or been unable to sit even once, and my friend is currently arranging for tuition in Newcastle settings where the young women feel safe and secure.

Of course, although there are many cases of religious women behaving badly (e.g. nuns in the Roman Catholic Church who, in the past, treated orphaned children and unmarried mothers in Ireland in ways that were abominable), religious people behaving badly is invariably a story of men behaving badly (and this is borne out by everything above, I fear). This is why every person who subscribes to religion should challenge patriarchy when they encounter it. I am confident that patriarchal attitudes underscore many, perhaps most, instances of religious people behaving badly. If I am incorrect, please put me right.

Come on, Phil: put us out of our misery! What does the US Institute of Peace “Special Report on Evaluating Interfaith Dialogue” say?

Actually, the report says a vast amount and, although dating from 2004, is as relevant today as when it was first published. Below is the report’s summary, which is more than enough to give a flavour of what the document as a whole has to offer in terms of wisdom and common sense.

  • Religion has been, and will continue to be, a powerful contributing factor in violent conflict. It is therefore essential to include religion and religious actors in diplomatic efforts.
  • Interfaith dialogue brings people of different religious faiths together for conversations. These conversations can take an array of forms and possess a variety of goals and formats. They can also take place at various social levels and target different types of participants, including elites, mid-level professionals and grassroots activists.
  • In some ways, interfaith dialogue programmes may resemble secular peacebuilding programmes. In other ways, religious content and spiritual culture are infused throughout the programmes, distinguishing them from their secular counterparts.
  • Evaluation requires that a programme develop a clear statement of its goals, methods and outcomes. Making these explicit at the outset helps sharpen thinking by providing an explicit yardstick by which to measure a programme’s success.
  • Over time, the knowledge accumulated through these types of evaluation will expand our understanding of the actual and potential roles of religious dialogue in international peacemaking.
  • At the individual programme level, evaluation is concerned with three components: context, the factors in the general environment that may influence programme implementation and outcome; implementation, the core of the programme’s activities; and outcome, the effect of the programme on the participants, the local community and the broader community.
  • Proposing a relationship between a particular intervention or programme and a desired outcome assumes a theory of change. A logic model, which links outcomes (both short- and long-term) with programme activities and processes, is one way to clarify the theoretical assumptions behind a particular programme design so that it can be shared with all stakeholders as well as with the evaluator.
  • Evaluation must be an integral part of programme planning from the beginning and should be an ongoing process throughout the life of the project, providing feedback to programme managers and staff that enable them to improve their ongoing work. Because change happens over time, it is important to evaluate the programme beyond the completion of the project.
  • Evaluation must include, but not be limited to, personal, face-to-face interviews with programme participants. Other outcome measures might include the number and type of participants, programme spin-offs and post-programme meetings, as well as the amount of media activity and ultimately, of course, a demonstrable reduction in violence.

Here, here! Even if only the final point in the summary is acted on whenever interfaith dialogue is undertaken, the benefits will be considerable. Also, action in relation to the last point will quickly establish if the initiative was worth undertaking in the first place! I fear that many interfaith initiatives currently have no lasting influence, and part of the reason for this is that no structured evaluation of such initiatives is ever undertaken.

From the above, it seems to me that interfaith dialogue is of ultimate value only in so far as it leads to change (and for such change to be truly worthwhile, it must be in terms of violence reduction). What do you think? Moreover, when did interfaith dialogue last change YOU rather than merely reinforce your pre-existing opinions, beliefs, perceptions and/or prejudices? Tough one, eh? But so important, don’t you agree? Comments are welcomed.

Outside the old Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Outside the old Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Anglican Church, North Yorkshire

Anglican Church, North Yorkshire