Tag Archives: ISKCON Centre

Concluding reflections on whether God exists, etc.

As you can imagine, discussions about God/gods (and whether it or they exist) have continued since the last post was uploaded, but, as is so often the case when the topic is discussed, very little has been said that is either novel or convincing. However, the two contributions below offer some worthwhile reflection, although, as with the last post devoted to the subject, I am not in agreement with everything written. The first contribution derives from someone who engaged with the debate from quite early on and the second contribution derives from a historian with an unusually perceptive understanding of things to do with religion and belief.

North East 2009 029

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

Morning, S. I hope the confusion about atheists and agnostics has been resolved!!!!

Below, I offer comment on your most recent email. You have certainly posed some important questions about what God/the Divine/the Supreme Being is, and what powers/influence God, etc. has (if any). 

S: the quote from the Guru Granth Sahib (“God created Nature and pervades it”) interests/concerns me. If by “Nature” the Guru Granth Sahib means the universe and everything within it, there is no problem with the idea that God created it in so far as the idea is found in most expressions of religion (God the creator of everything, etc.). But if God also “pervades it” (“Nature”. In other words, God is present in every sentient and insentient thing in the universe. By the way: based on the content of the Guru Granth Sahib and chats with Sikhs, this is exactly how I understand the Sikh “vision” of God – God is present in every sentient and insentient thing in the universe), is God passive or active? Deists insist God created the universe, then became indifferent to its future development/evolution. As a general rule, theists subscribe to the idea that God, having created the universe, remains active as it develops/evolves, or as time unfolds. 

One quote in the email (“He/God remains in a stable state and observes Nature with delight”) suggests that God is passive (not only is God “stable”, but God merely “observes Nature with delight”) – which, combined with the idea that humankind has free will, may explain all the problems that confront planet Earth when the problems are the result of human action/inaction (climate change, environmental degradation, famine, crime, religious intolerance, persecution, racism, war, genocide, etc.). But I imagine that Sikhs are encouraged to believe that God is somehow active as the universe develops/evolves, or that God is somehow active as time unfolds (e.g. as when you said to me some time ago that God saved you when you were a younger man in two life-threatening situations) – and, if this is so, God must therefore take responsibility not only for the good things that happen but also for the bad (the idea that God is present in every sentient and insentient thing reinforces the idea that God, if active at all, is at least partly responsible for everything that happens, whether good or bad). Add to this that you make the case for God being responsible for all the “natural laws” that explain so much about existence, then logic dictates that God must ALSO assume responsibility for the natural disasters that befall our planet (floods, earthquakes, volcanic activity, meteors that wipe out hundreds of animal species, etc.) in so far as such things are a direct result of the “natural laws” God is said to have created.

I quite like how you say at one point that the natural phenomena function on their own “without much interference from the Creator”. This implies God remains active as time unfolds, but that God restricts the degree to which God interferes/shapes things. You therefore clearly agree with the idea of a God still active in how time unfolds, but assign to God a role far inferior to that assigned to God in, say, the Abrahamic religions. Fair enough. If God exists at all, we may be dealing with a God who has powers that God choses not to fully exercise (the existence of human free will may be an aspect of God not exercising God’s powers to the full).

In the email I hear a case being made NOT for a fully passive nor fully active God as time unfolds, but a case for a God who acts only occasionally/sometimes/in certain circumstances. If this is the reality, it may explain why bad as well as good things happen all the time – but it also means that we cannot possibly know with any degree of certainty when a good or a bad outcome is due to God’s intervention. 

Many (most?) people agree that God is either all-powerful and therefore responsible for everything that happens in the universe, whether good or bad, or God is powerless to affect what happens in the universe (perhaps/probably because God does not exist). If the latter (God is powerless to affect what happens in the universe), we can no longer turn to God as an explanation for what happens. Instead, explanations for what happens might be that humankind exercises free will either responsibly or irresponsibly; natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic activity are the result of immutable laws of nature; and sentient creatures and insentient things behave in only particular/certain ways, and they behave in only particular/certain ways, not because of God (or, for humans at least, not because of ethical standards subscribed to for intuitive or intellectual reasons), but because of physics, chemistry and/or human and animal DNA. However, the idea suggested in your email, that God has limited powers/God chooses to exercise God’s powers in a limited way, may offer a compromise position that to some extent is supported by the evidence (there is no rhyme nor reason for many of the things that happen in the universe because there is no rhyme nor reason about whether God will be active or passive. Nor is there any rhyme or reason about whether God will act ethically or unethically on those occasions God is – or appears to be – active).

DSC03702

ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

I agree completely with the suggestion that “humans have to assume responsibility for their own actions, actions which might lead to wars, which cause destruction and the loss of human life. To put it bluntly, humans are responsible for persecution, bombs and wars”, because I believe 100% that we have free will and can exercise free will either wisely or unwisely. But this nonetheless throws up a problem with what we have discussed above, the Sikh idea that God exists within everything in the universe and must therefore be present in every human being. If God is present in every human being and, as many people allege, God is capable only of good things, why does God not stop humans doing bad things? Yes, the free will argument might explain bad actions, but this must therefore mean that God lacks the power/influence so often claimed for God. Perhaps God lacks the power/influence for the reason suggested above: God limits the extent to which God interferes. But such an understanding of God leaves wide open the opportunity for people to assert that God therefore acts in inconsistent/arbitrary ways which at times have amoral or immoral consequences. Or, to put it another way, God sometimes acts with mercy and sometimes without mercy. There is no question that thousands of people who say they are inspired by the concept of God act in ways utterly devoid of mercy and/or in ways that most people deem ethically abhorrent (e.g. Muslims belonging to a vast number of extremist groups/organisations, Boko Haram and ISIS included). Some such people even believe that the murder of vast numbers of innocent people is “willed” by God and/or that God derives “pleasure” from such carnage. Of course, God is not responsible for such crimes against humanity. But God is invoked to justify them. 

Holding those to account for crimes against humanity is only right and proper, of course, because we cannot blame God for such crimes (but we can blame some/many human interpretations of God for inspiring the crimes). More problematic is the matter of natural disasters such as meteors, floods, earthquakes and volcanic activity. With the exception of some floods, none of these are the responsibility of humans. Therefore, “responsibility” must lie elsewhere. Scientists, mathematicians and atheists are among those who argue that such things can be explained by the laws of nature, many of which (most of which?) have already been discovered (scientists, etc. would also insist that the laws of nature are not a product of God but an integral and inevitable part of physics). The Guru Granth Sahib seems also to say that natural disasters are a product of “natural laws”, but that such laws were devised by God. Therefore, if God devised the laws that make natural disasters at some point inevitable, God must be responsible for them. Natural disasters affect the innocent at least as much as the guilty and often strike without rhyme or reason. Consequently, God has created a universe in which unpredictability, injustice, unfairness and a lack of mercy are as likely to prevail as predictability, justice, fairness and mercy. There are therefore limits to the extent to which God can be deemed ethically responsible/the source of all that is good/unquestionably worthwhile.

People of faith have a tendency to ascribe every good outcome to God and every bad outcome to some other factor. As I’ve tried to indicate above, this is a wholly unreasonable/illogical position to assume, unless God is somehow far less the influence/power that most religious people allege. It makes much more sense to ascribe all good and all bad things to God, or none of the good and none of the bad things to God – but the idea above, that God interferes as little as possible/infrequently in God’s creation, offers a sort of half-way house between the two positions just summarised. However, the half-way house opens the way for people to question the merits of such a God, a God who will inevitably appear inconsistent/arbitrary/amoral/immoral.

You are aware that we have been scrabbling round the edges of one of theology’s most hot topics, that of theodicy (the issue of evil in light of the existence of God. If God is good and just/forgiving/compassionate, how do evil and misery exist?). Perhaps history’s most famous statement on the problem of evil comes from the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is He able, but not willing. Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?

DSC06061

Jesus in Malaga, Spain

To conclude these reflections about God and what God is like, if God exists at all, I share some wisdom deriving from Yuval Noah Harari. Harari is the author of “Sapiens: a brief history of humankind”, one of the most interesting history books I have read in recent years. He says things below that make more sense than many theologians and religious studies scholars addressing the same matters:

As far as we know, only homo sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled. Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, “Careful! A lion!” Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, “The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.” The ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of homo sapiens language…

Most scholars agree that animist beliefs were common among ancient foragers. Animism (from “anima”, “soul” or “spirit“ in Latin) is the belief that almost every place, every animal, every plant and every natural phenomenon has awareness and feelings and can communicate directly with humans… In the animist world, objects and living things are not the only animated beings. There are also immaterial entities – the spirits of the dead, and friendly and malevolent beings, the kind that we today call demons, fairies and angels… (For animists, gods) are not universal gods… (that are) all-powerful (and) run the world as they wish… (they) are local beings…

Theism (from “theos”, “god” in Greek) is the view that the universal order is based on a hierarchical relationship between humans and a small group of ethereal entities called gods… (Each theistic group) viewed the others’ beliefs as weird and heretical…

Two thousand years of monotheistic brainwashing have caused most westerners to see polytheism as ignorant and childish idolatry. This is an unjust stereotype…

Polytheism does not necessarily dispute the existence of a single power or law governing the entire universe. In fact, most polytheist and even animist religions recognised such a supreme power that stands behind all the different gods, demons and holy rocks…

The fundamental insight of polytheism, which distinguishes it from monotheism, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of interests and biases, and therefore it is unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares and worries of humans. It’s pointless to ask this power for victory in war, for health or for rain, because from its all-encompassing vantage point it makes no difference whether a particular kingdom wins or loses, whether a particular city prospers or withers, whether a particular person recuperates or dies. The Greeks did not waste any sacrifices on Fate and Hindus built no temples to Atman.

The only reason to approach the supreme power of the universe would be to renounce all desires and embrace the bad along with the good – to embrace every defeat, poverty, sickness and death. Thus some Hindus known as Sadhus or Sannyasis devote their lives to uniting with Atman, thereby achieving enlightenment…

Most Hindus, however, are not Sadhus. They are sunk deep in the morass of mundane concerns, where Atman is not much help. For assistance in such matters, Hindus approach the gods with their partial powers. Precisely because their powers are partial rather than all-encompassing, gods such as Ganesha, Lakshmi and Saraswati have interests and biases. Humans can therefore make deals with these partial powers…

USA August 2007 581

Shrine, Hindu-run business, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The insight of polytheism is conducive to far-reaching religious tolerance. Since polytheists believe, on the one hand, in one supreme and completely disinterested power, and on the other hand in many partial and biased powers, there is no difficulty for the devotees of one god to accept the existence and efficacy of other gods. Polytheism is inherently open-minded and rarely persecutes “heretics” and “infidels”…

The polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion…         

With time, some followers of polytheistic gods became so fond of their particular patron that they drifted away from the basic polytheistic insight. They began to believe that their god was the only god and that He was in fact the supreme power of the universe. Yet at the same time they continued to view Him as possessing interests and biases and believed that they could strike deals with Him. Thus were born monotheist religions whose followers beseech the supreme power of the universe to help them recover from illness, win the lottery and gain victory in war…

Judaism, for example, argued that the supreme power of the universe has interests and biases, yet His chief interest is in the tiny Jewish nation and in the obscure land of Israel…

(Judaism is an example) of “local monotheism”…, (Christianity and Islam are examples of monotheist religions that have an impact) throughout the world…

North East 2009 017

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than polytheists. A religion that recognises the legitimacy of other faiths implies either that its god is not the supreme power of the universe, or that it received from God just part of the universal truth. Since monotheists have usually believed that they are in possession of the entire message of the one and only God, they have been compelled to discredit all other religions. Over the last two millennia, monotheists repeatedly tried to strengthen their hand by violently exterminating all competition.

It worked… Today most people outside East Asia adhere to one monotheist religion or another and the global political order is built on monotheistic foundations.  

Polytheism gave birth not merely to monotheist religions, but also to dualist ones. Dualist religions espouse the existence of two opposing powers: good and evil. Unlike monotheism, dualism believes that evil is an independent power, neither created by the good God, nor subordinate to it. Dualism explains that the entire universe is a battleground between these two forces, and that everything that happens in the world is part of the struggle.

Dualism is a very attractive world view because it has a short and simple answer to the famous problem of evil, one of the fundamental concerns of human thought. “Why is there evil in the world? Why is there suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people?” Monotheists have to practice intellectual gymnastics to explain how an all-knowing, all-powerful and perfectly good God allows so much suffering in the world… What’s undeniable is that monotheists have a hard time dealing with the problem of evil.

For dualists, it’s easy to explain evil. Bad things happen even to good people because the world is not governed single-handedly by a good God. There is an independent evil power loose in the world. The evil power does bad things.

Dualism has its own drawbacks. While solving the problem of evil it is unnerved by the problem of order…

So, monotheism explains order but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe – and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.

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.  

Religion and Belief in the UK, with an emphasis on the North-East of England town of Darlington.

Now let’s engage with some realities about religion and belief in contemporary Britain. Without engaging with such realities, posts on the blog run the risk of being no better than much of the nonsense about religion and belief that currently clogs up the internet.

According to the 2011 UK census, 67.2% of British citizens have a religious commitment, 25.7% do not subscribe to a religion and 7.1% did not state whether they had a religion or not. The same census suggests that 59.5% of UK citizens are Christian, 4.5% are Muslim, 1.3% are Hindu, 0.7% are Sikh, 0.4% are Jewish and 0.4% are Buddhist. 0.4% subscribe to “other religion”, but a breakdown by faith for this group does not exist (however, we can assume that the number of people subscribing to each faith in this group is very small). This means that about 37.5 million UK citizens are meant to be Christian, 2.7 million are meant to be Muslim, 835,000 are meant to be Hindu, 432,000 are meant to be Sikh, 269,000 are meant to be Jewish and 261,000 are meant to be Buddhist. I say are “meant to be” Christian, etc. because statistics about religious affiliation are known to be extremely unreliable. As a general rule, such statistics significantly exaggerate the true level of faith commitment.

The discrepancy between the level of religious affiliation as revealed in censuses (and in smaller surveys not national in scope) on the one hand and the reality about religious affiliation on the other is perhaps most obvious in terms of how many UK citizens engage in regular attendance at a house of worship (not that attendance at a house of worship, regular or otherwise, is the only way to measure commitment to religious belief, although statisticians and academics accept that it is one of the more reliable such measures). Every week, about 5 million Christians attend a church, about 2 million Muslims attend a mosque, about half a million Hindus attend a mandir, about 300,000 Sikhs attend a gurdwara, about 150,000 Jews attend a synagogue and about 150,000 Buddhists attend a temple, a monastery or a centre where devotional practices can be undertaken. But what of the other faith groups in the UK, small though they are numerically? For example, what of the Bahais or people who subscribe to faiths such as Chinese Religion (a complex fusion of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism which is sometimes called Buddhism for the sake of simplicity), Rastafarianism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Shintoism or Animism (which assumes many forms, especially in parts of Africa and Asia)? And what of people who subscribe to the various forms of faith known collectively as Paganism? In fact, the North-East has a number of well-known Pagan “centres” such as Allenheads and north Northumberland. Note, also, that a leading follower of Paganism lives in Newton Aycliffe. She has campaigned to have Paganism taught alongside the other religions which maintained schools in England and Wales must teach to pupils and students (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism).

Surveys and censuses suggest that religious commitment is higher than attendance at houses of worship because:

  • attendance at houses of worship is not the only way that commitment to religion manifests itself;
  • many people say that they have a religious commitment because they have been baptised in a church or married in a house of worship, or because they occasionally attend an act of worship, perhaps during a major festival such as Easter, Christmas, Wesak, Divali, Eid-ul-Fitr, Pesach or Baisakhi;
  • although most people seem to retain a belief in God/gods/supernatural forces creating/shaping the cosmos, etc., they may not feel that organised religion shares the same idea that they have about the divine/spiritual, or that organised religion pays homage to the divine/spiritual in an appropriate manner;
  • many people lie about their religious affiliation.

Surveys and censuses may exaggerate the true level of religious commitment in the UK – we are said to be among the most godless of societies, but still some way behind our Scandinavian neighbours who are acknowledged to be among the most atheistic peoples on the planet (North Korea, which is even more godless than the Scandinavian nation states, is a special case, of course, in that it is technically an atheist state in which religion is discouraged, sometimes brutally. There is evidence that a very small number of courageous North Koreans subscribe to Korean Shamanism, Chondoism, Buddhism and Christianity, but the great majority of North Koreans define themselves as atheist or agnostic. Only Chondoism has official status in the nation state) – but religion is still a potent force in the nation state. Note, for example, that:

  • the Anglican Church is still the established church;
  • the monarch must be a practising member of the Anglican Church;
  • legislation passed through the houses of parliament a few years ago making it unlawful to discriminate against people on the grounds of their religion or belief;
  • it still counts in many parts of the UK if you have a faith commitment (c.f. the persistence of sectarianism in Northern Ireland, western Scotland, Glasgow, Liverpool and even some parts of the North-East. Thankfully, sectarianism is less of a problem now than it was even ten years ago);
  • there are approximately 7000 faith schools in the UK (out of a total of nearly 21000);
  • a third of all maintained schools are faith schools (the vast majority of such schools are Anglican or Roman Catholic, but a small number are Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Greek Orthodox, Seventh Day Adventist or belong to the Religious Society of Friends/the Quakers, etc.);
  • about 600 faith schools are secondary schools (again, almost all such schools are Anglican or Roman Catholic);
  • of all the academies now open, a third have a faith designation;
  • when a moral or ethical issue is debated, the opinion is always sought of those who have a faith commitment;
  • some faith groups are very competent when campaigning for causes dear to their hearts and know how to ensure that their points of view are listened to/heard;
  • in some schools across the country, creationism is taught as fact;
  • in maintained schools, RE must be offered to all pupils and students from Reception to age 16 or 18 (but parents can withdraw their children from RE);
  • in maintained schools, a daily act of collective worship must be provided to all pupils and students. According to the law, the act of collective worship must be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character” (parents can withdraw their children from acts of collective worship, as can sixth form students. But, according to the law, schools should provide withdrawn children with an alternative act of collective worship which isn’t “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”).

Earlier, we learned that there are many different religions represented in the UK today. However, it is important to realise that, within each religion, there may be divisions/schisms/denominations that should be acknowledged. Take, for example, Christianity. Even in Darlington, a borough of about only 100,000 people, we have:

Anglicans, Assembly of God Pentecostalists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Eastern Orthodox Christians (c.f. St. Cedd’s Eastern Orthodox Chapel, West Auckland Road), the Religious Society of Friends/the Quakers, Methodists, Plymouth Brethren, Roman Catholics, Salvationists, United Reformed Christians, etc.

But on the margins of Christianity we also have:

Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-day Saints (the latter two in numbers that are statistically significant locally).

Darlington

Darlington, United Kingdom

If we were discussing Newcastle-upon-Tyne we would also draw attention to Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian/Coptic Christian, Seventh Day Adventist and Lutheran communities.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

Within some denominations there are divisions that make co-operation problematic. There is a world of difference, especially in terms of practice, between, say, services in St. Cuthbert’s in Darlington’s town centre (a traditional “mainstream” Anglican church. Such churches are sometimes dubbed the home of the “frozen chosen”), St. James the Great (a Forward in Faith church more Roman Catholic than the Roman Catholic Church) and an Anglican church where charismatic elements of worship prevail (such churches are sometimes dubbed the home of the “happy clappers”). A few years ago, the congregation at St. James the Great split (relatively amicably) and about half the congregation eventually relocated to a church in Gainford as part of the Personal Ordinariate of our Lady of Walsingham, which was established in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI to allow Anglicans to enter full communion with the Roman Catholic Church while retaining much of their heritage and many of their traditions (the Ordinariate has appealed to Anglicans, but in numbers smaller than originally anticipated, worried that the Church of England would eventually ordain women as bishops, which it eventually did, of course). But differences in belief persist, even among the remaining Anglicans. For example, some Anglican congregations remain opposed to the ordination of women (because of biblical example and/or tradition) and to homosexuality (because of how they interpret scripture), while other Anglican congregations are energetically supportive of the former and cannot understand why there is such a fuss about the latter.

Similar divisions/schisms/schools may exist in other faiths. Thus:

within Judaism there are Haredi Jews (sometimes called Ultra-Orthodox Jews. C.f. Gateshead), Hassidic Jews (Hassidism is a product of Jewish mysticism dating back to the medieval period, but, today, in their belief and practice, Hassidic Jews are not far removed from Haredi Jews), Modern Orthodox Jews, Reform Jews and Liberal Jews, and

within Islam there are Sunni, Shia, Sufi and Ishmaeli Muslims.

Especially in Islam, you encounter within some sects/schisms a range of views/approaches to life not dissimilar to the range of views/approaches to life within a Christian denomination. Sunni Islam is a good example of this. The great majority of Sunni Muslims incline toward a pragmatic live and let live outlook on life in general, which means that they are not dogmatic and tolerate diversity. But a minority of Sunni Muslims have been influenced by the austere Wahhabi ideology of Saudi Arabia with its inflexible outlook on life shaped by a literalist interpretation of the Qur’an. Wahhabism has strongly influenced groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and we all know what Taliban rule did for individual and civil rights generally, and women’s rights more specifically, when the movement held power in most of Afghanistan.

Jewish Burial Plot, Carmel Road North Cemetery, Darlington

Jewish Burial Plot, Carmel Road North Cemetery, Darlington, United Kingdom

Darlington may be a fairly small town, but its population is ethnically mixed and, as a result, its faith diversity is perhaps greater than many people imagine. Beside having a multiplicity of Christian denominations, and various groups on the fringes of Christianity which increasingly prefer to be defined as distinct religions (this is especially so of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-day Saints), we have Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and followers of various manifestations of Paganism (c.f. in particular Druidry). The Atisha Buddhist Centre, the Sikh gurdwara and the mosque all welcome visits from groups/individuals in the wider community and regularly engage in events designed to foster mutual understanding. Sadly, our synagogue on Bloomfield Road very rarely opens – the Jewish community is in terminal decline – but a visit to the beautiful cemetery on Carmel Road North reveals not one but two burial plots for the town’s Jewish dead, thereby confirming that Darlington once had a significant Jewish presence. All the town’s small number of Hindu families have a shrine in the home in front of which they can engage in ritual worship/puja twice a day, but, if they wish to worship in a mandir assisted by a pandit, they must travel to Middlesbrough or Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

By the way: an interesting statistic from across the UK. Today, well over 2000 churches have predominantly black or non-white congregations. Yes: Christianity, the religion intimately associated with the UK for the last 1400 years, is increasingly sustained by people who originate from nation states in Africa, Asia or the Caribbean. White people in growing numbers are turning their backs on organised religion or joining one of the religions which have been brought into the UK by migrant communities. Sheffield has been identified as the city where whites are most likely to convert to Islam, and a group such as ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness, perhaps better known as the Hare Krishna Group) is almost wholly dependent on white converts to sustain its membership/public profile. Moreover, although the Bahai faith has its origins in modern Iran and reached our shores in significant numbers only in the early 1980s when persecuted Iranian Bahais fled their homeland following the Islamic revolution led by Khomeini, the great majority of UK Bahais are white converts. The North-East of England has emerged as an important area for the Bahai faith nationally.

ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

P.S. If anyone wishes to write about the rich diversity of religion and belief that exists in their home town/locality/region/nation state, by all means do so and send me the result: it may be worth uploading to the blog. Alternatively, if someone wishes to write a post devoted to explaining what their religion or belief is all about (perhaps in terms of beliefs, practices, approaches to moral decision-making, sources of authority, etc., etc.), by all means do so! Such posts will, if nothing else, contribute to mutual understanding – but, where appropriate, please support what you say with reference to scripture, key texts, reputable research, historical evidence, etc., etc.

P.P.S. Yes, I know we are lucky to have a lively humanist presence in the North-East of England. My links with the humanists are mostly via North-East Humanists itself, but I also know some members of the British Humanist Association. A post about humanism would be welcome at some point! It’s a belief system which does not get the exposure it deserves (but humanists frequently engage with interfaith endeavours in a highly constructive manner).