Tag Archives: Atheism

Secular vs. Religious Solutions for Europe: Tom Holland

First Things is a conservative intellectual Catholic magazine.  I read it for about a year when I worked with a very devout Catholic physician who challenged me to read it.  First Things authors, in my experience, love to show off their erudition, often at the expense of a coherent message.

I was surprised when The Browser, a nonreligious on-line article aggregator, recently recommended the First Things article “All the East is Moving“. The article is by Tom Holland  and its opening blurb it says, “No longer at war with Islam, Western Europe had less need to define itself as Christ­endom, and could favour secular values over religious ones. We have come to believe that secular values will always prevail in modern societies: Is it time to revisit that assumption?”   Later in the article, he supports his thesis saying, “We don’t have too much Islam,” as German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it, “we have too little Christianity.”

It is a long article with some interesting historical information but disappointingly little support for his main thesis.

Interestingly, I found an article in the British site, “The New Humanist” where the author, Alom Shaha, interviews Tom Holland (a historian, writer and broadcaster) saying , “Tom Holland is a Christian who – by and large – doesn’t believe in God.”

Shaha states further about Holland,

When I ask him if he actually believes in the existence of a god he replies “There’s a sort of nagging, god-shaped hole in the back of my mind and the simulacrum of a god that I use to fill it is a Christian one. I could read the account of the passion, go to church on Easter and feel this is true, feel that it is articulating truths that affect me far more profoundly than I could possibly put into words, I feel myself in communion with the vast inheritance of Christian faith, I find that moving and at moments like that, I think “is this what it’s like to believe in god?” However, he also tells me that “I have seen no evidence that would satisfy me that anything supernatural exists. I have seen no proof for god.”

Tom Holland, seems to identify with an idealized version of Christianity — and he says he does so out of gratitude for his upbringing and inheritance. Tom’s article at one moment shows he knows the problems in Christian history, at the next he blindly idealizes what Christianity has to offer.  Readers can see if they agree. 

Holland’s Christianity involves an idealized non-historical Jesus’ supposed Sermon on the Mount which can be seen when he says, “no text has done more to underpin the construction of a new and multicultural identity for the [European] continent than the Sermon on the Mount.”

But the Sermon on the Mount seems to be a mishmash of sayings (probably even prior to a supposed Jesus), some contradictory to other sayings and some just nonsense. Several authors have pointed out these problems with the Sermon on the Mount, but see this article for an example “Iron Chariots“.

Holland’s article talks about the fascinating connections between Tolkien, magic weapons and the Nazis.  So if you want to read a typical Catholic “First Things” article which shows off erudition, rambles a bit and all the while it does not show the best evidence for their thesis, read Holland’s article (a non-believer in god(s) but who embraces Christianity in his identity).  I actually enjoyed the Nazi and Tolkien stuff.

Questions for Readers:  Do any of you non-theist readers have a “ simulacrum of a god” that you use.  Holland does, and uses it to label himself a Christian.  What do you think of that move?

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“Do you believe in God?”: 4 meta-questions

Do you believe in God?” is a question we have all heard.  Most people take this to be a straightforward question, but readers know that I take every opportunity to discuss the unquestioned assumptions hiding behind common sense.

Here are four big activities hiding behind “Do you believe in God?”:

  1. You” (“You” are not who you think you are.)
  2. Believe” (Beliefs are not what you think they are.)
  3. God” (There are different sorts of contrary gods)
  4. ?  (The question is not asking for facts, but offering a signaling opportunity.)

Understanding these four meta-questions, can help unravel the illusion spun by the apparently simple question of “Do you believe in God?”

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The Panchatantra: Morality via Death

Violent PanchaTantra
Westerners often romanticize the myths of other lands while belittling their own scriptures. As I wrote here, the Hindu Mahabharata has far more death than the Jewish Tanakh (the “Old Testament”).  And in this illustration I show a few of the many stories from the Panchatantra, that use death and cruelty to teach morality. Ancient writers had a different world than ours – death was always a threat.

When I first began to explore the Panchatantra, I read these stories to my daughter.  She was quick to point out how horrible all the murder morality was and didn’t want to hear any more. So now I am alone to explore this book academically. 🙂

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Your Death Theology

death-cult-leunigThe horrors of fundamental and even of moderate Islam are obvious. But when Christians criticize the supposedly sacred ideas and writings upon which these Muslim’s support their horrible ideas (the Qur’an and Hadith), the Christians’ ignorant irony is laughable.  The above cartoon by the famous Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig captures that same tragic irony that I also expressed in my 2010 post “Your God is weird!”.  Death theology, Exclusivist theology, Tribal theology and all such wrong thoughts must be fought constantly — sacred or secular.  Freedom from stupidity is not a right, it is the tenuous fruit of constant effort.

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False generalizations about “religion”

Generalization_FailureReligions around the world nurture conflict and are used as tools for great suffering and nonsense. But religion can also be used in wonderful ways.  So to generalize about religions as “good” or “bad” is a mistake.  Further, it is a mistake to speak about spiritual and religious traditions as if there existed some coherent, unified, uncontested, unchanging or pristine version of that tradition. Sure, speaking of such an idealized form may be a useful heuristic tool but it is loaded with mistaken notions which become obvious after only the least bit of inspection or dialogue between people who disagree. This error is common with both religion prescriptionists and anti-religion atheists.

Why is this a mistake? Above in my diagram I tried to capture six main factors that make such generalizations sloppy at best.  Below are the explanations:

  1. Times: Historical Varieties of Religion: Religions change over time. So instead of overgeneralizing, we have to specify exactly what time period we are talking about.  But for the reasons given below, that is usually not enough.
  2. Places: Religion Changes by Locality : Catholic Christianity in South America, Italy and the USA vary widely. Even though they may identify a the same sect of Christianity, they have very important differences. Sure, someone may think they share some “essentially” common elements to allow generalizations — but those who hold these faiths may disagree with the lack of importances you put on their differences.
  3. “Beliefs”: Multivalent “Belief” & Many-Selves: The notion of “belief” is complex. Both the beliefist religionists and the hyper-rational atheists imagine a much more solid thing called belief. We all hold beliefs that contradict each other. We even hold incorrect beliefs, which we nonetheless, use in healthy ways when understood in the web-of-beliefs in which they complexly exist. See my posts on Many Selves and Beliefism.
  4. Sects: Wide Multitude of Religious Sub-Sects: From Snake-handling Fundamentalists in West Virginia to Mormons in Idaho to Episcopals in Massachusetts the flavors of Christianity vary widely.  Their beliefs, practices and exuberance vary a great deal.
  5. Lived Religions: Variety of Individuals: When a person talks about their “religion” what they are talking about often has little to do with the doctrines their religious professionals would want them to confess. Instead, they are discussing their “lived religion” which includes identity, social relations, tradition, good luck religion, imagined moral framework, holidays and rituals or comfort medicine. And when you ask the individual, they may not only be uniformed of the very religion they identify with, but even hold heretical views or practices (often unbeknownst to themselves). Heck most religious folks don’t even believe a lot of what they confess.
  6. Nebulous Meanings: Vague Definitions of “Religion”: Even among scholars, there is not agreement on definitions of “religion”.  It is used in multiple ways by speakers. And when people use it in a general way, they are imagining some very specific form and practice of religion which their generalization overshoots. See my post on Defining Religion.

You may feel you have sufficient objections to any one of the above bullets and thus feel justified in your essentializing, reifying and objectifing some spiritual or religious tradition in a general way, but you need to consider all the bullets and their interactions. Propagandists and prescriptionists are not interested in this complexity — usually because they feel it cripples their mission, but this blog is about complexity and clear thinking, not convenient rhetoric.

Conclusion:

To begin, when speaking of any Christianity, use adjectives to specify which subset you are talking about. But even then, realize that you can not list enough adjectives to be careful enough. So, be careful in your generalizations and try to reflect on why you are generalizing, essentializing and reifying such an abstract notion.

Vehement, anti-religion atheists are committed to disparaging the word “religion” and so all the subtlety above is mere distraction from their mission. They will not give in an inch — nothing will stop their unscientific gross over-generalizations. Though the above information is common sense among most anthropologists and sociologist who would never generalize about religion. These atheists ironically care not for a scientific approach when it conflicts with their evangelical efforts.

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Onegaishimasu: A Traveler’s Superstition

OnegaiIn Japanese, “onegaishimasu” literally means “honorable-favor-will-do”. A better translation may be: “You are about to do me a great favor and I want to thank you ahead of time.” I love the word because there is no real short, succinct, standard equivalent of politeness and humility in English for the situations where onegaishimasu is used.  Consider these situations for instance:

  • Someone offers to help you edit your paper for you, as you gratefully hand them the paper, in Japanese, you say, “Onegaishimasu”.  What would you say in English? “Here, thanks.”
  • You are at a post office and you hand the clerk a package to be weighed, stamped and sent on its way. As you had it, in Japanese you say, “Onegaishimasu”. What would you say in English? “Please”?  (yawn)

Well, I live in the USA now and miss the word, but I do use it in one situation — right before leaving my home on a long trip.  Just before driving off in my car, I will put my hands together in gassho and say, “Onegaishimasu”.   I could imagine a Shinto animist saying this to call forth helpful spirits for the favor of protection — sort of a good luck prayer.  But for me, in my head, I am thanking ahead of time those who will be on my path and myself for our efforts to make the trip safe.  It is a reminder to me to be aware, careful and grateful.

Questions to readers:  So, am I being superstitious in a stupid way and just rationalizing it?  Share thought you have before long trips that verge on being superstitious — or religious.

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Click here for more of my posts on superstition.

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Divination: Stupid or Wise

JiaoBeiBoth in mainland China and Taiwan Taoist temples, I frequently saw people praying and then throwing little wooden blocks of wood (jiao-bei 筊杯 ) on the floor repeatedly.  The blocks were cresent-moon-shaped and flat on one surface and round on the other.  The Taoist petitioners used the jiao-bei divination to ask a question of the gods who answered the questions by influencing the wood blocks.

The supplicants could only ask ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions. If one block landed flat-side up and the other down the answer was ‘yes’ (“sacred jiao”), both down meant ‘no’ (“negative jiao”). If one block landed on edge, the throw was null and void  and must be repeated because the gods did not understand the question.  If both flat sides were up, the blocks would roll and appear to laugh — this is called “laughing jiao” which means the gods are amused at the statement put to them because of one of the following:

  • The question is not clear enough.
  • The divine reply is not sincerely sought as the questioner has already decided what to do.
  • The questioner knows the time is not ripe for the matter posed and yet still wants to seek divine direction.The question posed is therefore considered irrelevant.
  • The questioner already knows the answer, is just looking for reassurance, and the consultation isn’t necessary.

This last option reminds me of the mental subtleties Christians go through while seeking answers to prayers to their God when they don’t think they got the answer they sought for.

Stupid, right? Silly superstition, right? Well, I’ve always wondered how stupid it really is. I certainly don’t think gods are talking through the sticks, or through any such divination or augury method but perhaps there is some utility beyond the false beliefs. For instance, see my I-Ching post for one possible benefit of divination — cooking tofu in our mind juices or how vague readings help us to see behind parts of our minds otherwise hidden — creative insight.

Aeon magazine just published an article called “How to Choose” which discusses another possible explanation for the utility of “stupid, superstitious divination” methods besides my “creative insight” version. The author, Michael Schulson points out that many phenomena in life are somewhat random and that for those processes, using a systemic choice method may carry biases which harm the outcomes. In other words, reason can sometime hurt us. Well, good reasoning may tell us that a random choice would be the wisest, but this in not the sort of reasoning we usually do. Ironic, eh? For more details, you may enjoy Schulson’s article.

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Notes:

  • HT to Cris, at Genealogy of Religion, for writing on the Aeon article.
  • See my post on this Zulu movie where I labeled the divination used by a Shaman as “nonsense”. In the movie, the sick person (AIDS) blows on bag of bones that shaman read as a disease caused by anger and ordered a stupid prescription. So, yeah, often divination is stupid. But maybe my post helps you see the adaptive reason it evolved or persists.

 

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