Monday, May 11, 2009

Should we “respect” religion?

We all know what it's like, we hear a long and complex story relayed by a stand-up comedian that contains tons of observational gems, funny anecdotes and an underlying gag that makes us laugh our heads off until we are nearly physically sick – then, the next morning when someone asks have you heard any good jokes lately you can't even remember the punch line. I often have similar failures of memory when talking with friends and the subject of the "rights" of the religious comes up.

In my experience, a lot of people (religious or not) I meet still hold the view that everyone has the right to believe whatever they wish and refuse to engage in criticism of any religion simply because seemingly "people believe it". As a rationalist, my own position is that religion should have no more rights or special respect in our society than any other human activity that is voluntary and self endorsed, like sports, rambling or civil war re-enactments. When confronted with this there are usually two paths that people take; they often use the "what's the harm" defence or they say "but think about all the good things religions do" As reasons to respect religion itself, both of these arguments are logical fallacies however it is always possible for people to find specific cases that superficially support their feelings, i.e. my 80 year old Catholic granny makes jam for charity, how can you possibly take a position against this?

Contrary to popular belief the general argument from rationalists like me is that anyone should be free to believe whatever they want as long as those beliefs do not directly harm others or can be proven to lead to harm indirectly however just because someone believes something, that concept or idea doesn't automatically deserve special respect or privilege from society in general or people that don't believe it. When you explain this most people are in full agreement because, well, it just makes sense; but they struggle to see how this applies to religion, there are a lot of points that need to be explored in order to understand why this does apply, and it is often difficult to get them all out unless you untangle them yourself first.

Here is the checklist of points that I think need to be bought out in order to give this topic a full and proper airing,

  • The meaning of the word "belief" needs to be clarified, what we are talking about here is generally the kind of belief that is unknowable, i.e. not based on a weight of evidence like a scientific "belief" in something like antibiotics, gravity or evolution etc. often people are surprised that these two types of belief are different and NOT equal.
  • Saying that religion shouldn't have special privilege isn't the same as saying there should be no religion; people who say football shouldn't have special privilege over rugby do not mean that football should be banned etc.
  • No one disputes that some kinds of religion are useful to some kinds of people, for example it is commonly understood that religion can comfort people at times of stress; however this has no bearing on either its truth value or its apparent need to hold a privileged position in society. Other things in our society are useful, for example sun-block; however we wouldn't expect Braun or Garnier to be given tax free status and a seat in the House of Lords.
  • Is it really religion that causes people to be "good", if someone donates to charity and is Catholic then does their Catholicism cause them to do it? How then do we account for non-religious people who donate to charity? Clearly this doesn't mean that religion is never the motivation for good deeds but it is important to understand that it is not necessary for people to be religious to do good things.
  • Respect should be offered to religious people as people without surrendering the right to criticise the ideas that they hold, this is no different from having friends who are conservative whilst voting labour yourself, it does not follow that a criticism of an idea is the same as a criticism of the person that holds the idea.

In order to support this line of reasoning you need specific counter examples, and that's where the problem lays, although there are thousands of examples, we seldom hear about them in mainstream press and I can never remember the specifics, however in this technologically advanced age where machines can do the "remembering" for us I thought I would start a bookmarking exercise and attempt to keep track of all the stupid things that are done as a direct consequence of a religious way of thinking, here are a couple of recent examples to get things started.

13 Year old denied treatment

Another child killed by religion

PS: Thanks to Jesus and Mo for the splendid cartoon, you can see more of these here


Oranjepan said...

Yes, the definition of belief needs clarification.

Belief is not knowledge.

Scientific (objective) proof and moral (subjective) proof have different standards of scrutability which make comparison difficult, especially where legal rights are concerned.

The strikes me as a case of the 'structuralist' vs 'agency' debate - fascinating stuff!

Maybe instead of attacking 'religion' you could more easily recognise the distinction between 'faith' and spirituality and the organised institutional heirarchies of groups of people.

Anyway, should churches receive tax exemptions and seats in the House of Lords?

Evading the question slightly, should educational research facilities receive massive government subsidies and seats in the House of Lords?

Why should we favour calculation over instinct, when recent events are proving moral certainty to be equally -if not more- valuable to our collective well-being as our ability to grasp and manipulate science?

Follow the rules, or follow the light?

Steve Borthwick said...

Thanks for your comments O;
You are spot on when you say that "belief is not knowledge", that is a really critical point and often misrepresented by religious leaders IMO.

I would answer your question about religion and politics with a strong “no” i.e. in my view churches should not be tax free (apart from their charitable endeavours) nor should they have any more political influence than the women’s institute or Reading football club. Lobby with everyone else by all means, but unelected representation no way.

As for educational or research grants then I would say “yes”; science (or at least the application of it) pervades every aspect of our education, well-being and prosperity and if that isn’t what government is supposed to engage with and protect then I don’t know what they are for (other than use our money to pay for their swimming pools of course!)

Should scientists have influence, again yes, the reason is that our universe is very complex and science is hard; however it represents the only human endeavour capable of explaining reality. Because of this sometimes you need to study things for many years in order to gain a full understanding, politicians don’t have that luxury so we frequently need specialists to provide information so that decisions can be made by *elected* officials who aren’t necessarily expert (medical ethics would be a good example of that).

You raise an interesting point about the distinction between faith and spirituality, the reason I am critical of both is that personally I see no difference; it seems to me that both are systems of modelling reality that are not based on evidence and therefore not falsifiable. If that is correct then it means that “anything goes” and if any system of thought is able to prove “anything” then it proves nothing.

We all experience human solidarity, fear, awe, love, wonder etc. so what does spirituality actually mean? I have searched high and low but never found a single example of “spirituality” that was not grounded in our evolutionary heritage.

Your last point is an important one and a very good question, i.e. why should we favour calculation over instinct; well, there is a really simple answer to this and it’s that on balance science works and faith doesn’t.

Think of it in terms of odds, not certainty or rules. Human instinct is utterly crap at getting things right, history is littered with monstrous gaffs perpetrated by people following their “instinct”. Of course this doesn’t mean that people don’t occasionally get lucky or that a scientific theory can be found to be wrong, both these things are to be expected but our overwhelming experience is that planes don’t drop out of the sky, the Earth does go around the Sun, we don’t go to bed hungry and we live twice as long as 99.999% of our forebears.

It wasn’t instinct, faith or spirituality that achieved this.

Oranjepan said...

I don't disagree with a lot of what you say but I think you are taking aim at a false target.

You mention how many mistakes have been made by people in the name of their religious beliefs, but you don't mention those made in the name of science.

For me the problem is uncritical following of dogmatic faith, not faith per se.

It seems to me that uncritical faith in science as the source to every answer is equally misguided as any uncritical religious faith.

There are plenty of things which science does not have any answer to, and more specifically science does not provide a moral framework to suggest whether what is possible is in actual fact desirable.

Perhaps you could answer why, if science and religion are incompatible, many scientists are religious.

Every different discipline must be understood on its own terms, so saying science is the only academic discipline capable of explaining reality seems to me to show a limited conception of what that reality comprises.

The ultimate problem for science is that there remains limitless unknown variables which it can't account for and this makes any definitive calculations unreliable.

Even so I also think you unnecessarily generalise about what religion is. For example how does your attack square up against 'godless' buddhism?

Steve Borthwick said...

O, Thanks for your reply, as ever some very thoughtful questions that exercise my grey matter!

In terms of mistakes made in the name of science I’m sure there are some although I must say that I can only really think of mistakes that were made by not doing proper science rather than in the “name of science” (i.e. science is not a belief system) Anyway, my point was not so much about trying to chalk up a tally of wrong doings on either side but more that there is a clear logical pathway between faith and doing really dumb things, in fact practically anything (God commands me to stone your daughter to death for having sex outside of marriage etc.), and because there is no basis in evidence how can it be refuted or be shown to be objectively wrong? Therefore as a practical way of living it seems fundamentally flawed to me, faith is not so much a virtue in my mind more of a road block to us really progressing as a species and in some cases a dangerous delusion.

Re. Dogmatic faith in anything, absolutely agree, which is why I don’t say “ban religion” I just say remove it from the schools, law and government, and remove it’s special privileges that’s all. I differ with you in that I think faith is a problem for the reasons above. I think of “faith” in the context of religion as a system of believing things about the universe without evidence and principally based on dogma that is un-falsifiable; in other words, putting up with infantile “non-explanations” of reality when often perfectly good ones exist.

I agree uncritical faith in science would definitely be a bad thing, that’s not what I am advocating or what science is like; science by definition is hugely critical of itself, it is set up that way. The fastest way I could get a Nobel Prize, lots of cash and high prestige would be to prove Darwin or Einstein wrong (for agreeing with them I get nothing), but critically the only way I can do that is by providing evidence. Now compare that to the way religion works and rewards its followers; this is why you get so much division and fragmentation in religion, the concept of change and improvement is not built into those systems, i.e. there is no such thing as Muslim physics or Catholic chemistry.

Re. Science doesn’t know everything; you are absolutely right, there are probably more things we don’t know than things we do, but equally does that mean religion does know these things? For me this is what’s great about science, we say “yep don’t know that, let’s find out” rather than, “crap we don’t know what causes disease, therefore god is punishing us”, is that a satisfactory answer? Science is not trying to provide a moral framework, (ethics maybe) religion does try, do you think religion succeeds? A large number of people would say that the 9/11 hijackers were very moral men, they just didn’t share our flavour of morality, so why then is religion any better than anything else at defining objective morality, I would argue it isn’t because no such thing exists, morality is man-made. Surely evidence shows us that morality evolves along with the society, for example treating women as property, holding slaves, death for blasphemy or apostasy etc. are all warranted in holy books like the Bible and the Koran but considered immoral now, how come?

I don’t know why some scientists still believe in God, it’s a mystery to me, studies show that the majority of scientists don’t, but there are a few notable exceptions, a trite answer would be that childhood indoctrination and social/family peer pressure are very powerful things; a more scientific answer would be that the human brain is easily able to compartmentalise ideas and tolerate contradictions, perhaps that’s what’s going on. Interestingly there are scientists right now doing scans of brains trying to answer some of these questions, it’s really interesting work so perhaps one day we will have a proper theory of consciousness that explains this.

What other reality do you know about then (apart from the House of Commons)? Postulating that there are other disciplines capable of explaining reality but not saying what they are or providing examples is just being a contrarian, show me the money (or at least suggest a mechanism). Seriously though, why should I respect an idea just because someone else believes it; would you take that approach with politics or sport or music or indeed any other important aspect of our lives except religion?

Unknown variables; it’s not a problem for science; science just says we don’t know, but we’ll work on it; religion on the other hand just makes shit up, sorry O but that approach explains nothing and has no value to anyone except (critically) the clergy IMO.

Buddhism is an interesting one, I wish I knew more about it; everything I have read is that it’s a pretty decent philosophy so long as you drop the mythology parts. I’m all for that, live and let live etc. but I feel I live a pretty fulfilled, and I like to think good, life without the need for anything supernatural and so personally I would need a lot of convincing that anything like this is necessary. I’m with Douglas Adams on this when he said “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

Oranjepan said...

I was thinking more of things like testing cosmetics on animals, the development of the nuclear bomb and experiments of Dr Mengele as examples of science practiced outside of any moral framework.

Special privileges are most definitely a bad thing which is why I don't think science deserves any favoritism either.

What's most interesting about the scriptures of ancient religions is that they were conceived as collections of knowledge at that time, they are some of the best primary sources available to us for the events described in them. I find it impossible to consider excluding those facts from our historical understanding of human society and the way it developed, particularly as there remain conflicts still over different interpretations of the consequences of actual history.

I agree that it would be nice to start over with a clean slate and for people not to fight these old battles again and again, but that's unrealistic when separate claims of legitimacy compete on the basis of the evidence provided in those sources.

For me the scientific method should be used in fields like ethnography, linguistics and archaeology to provide additional evidence which will resolve those conflicts, because such deep conflicts simply will not be buried.

I guess this discussion is headed that way, so can I ask you about the ongoing Middle-East conflict? Would the arabs and israelis love each other if we just nuked Jerusalem and abolished religion? I don't think so, but how then is a peaceful region to be constructed?

Steve Borthwick said...

I see the gist of the examples you give but I think you have to agree that it’s not “science” as a separate political entity that sanction and create these things, ask yourself, who commissioned and paid for the development of the nuclear bomb and who’s finger was on the button, was it not a “Christian” president and a “Judeao-Christian” congress? As for Mengele (and Hitler), you have to question their sanity but clearly bad/mad people do bad things and use whatever tools are at their disposal, science, religion, politics or whatever. The difference is that religion warrants things like prejudice against women and homosexuals whereas science does not, science warrants nothing it merely attempts to explain reality.

I kind of agree about special privilege but I think science, especially pure and medical science should be supported financially and materially in the same kind of way that the National Health Service is, i.e. it delivers benefits to everyone and so should (with proper safeguards)be helped to do that; why not? There is also the question of supporting our economy and the best way to do that, it may sound harsh but there’s probably not much call for theology graduates on the world market (especially since they don’t pay tax).

Absolutely agree, we should teach our kids about faith, its legacy and its limitations, I believe that *comparative* religion should be mandatory on every syllabus; it would be a shame to waste the positive and cultural aspects of these myths. Unfortunately it is typically the faith based sector of our education system that subverts this picture and remains bent on indoctrination not education, even now my kids get told at school that Genesis and the flood are TRUE even when the authenticity of these stories was debunked hundreds of years ago. Clearly religion and specifically Christianity (in the UK) is part of our heritage and we need to preserve it in the same way that we preserve Chaucer, Dickens, Constable, Turner and the Sex Pistols, however, like that great morality tale "Oliver Twist", it doesn’t make it true.

It would be nice to start over wouldn’t it, clearly we can’t, if I ruled the world education would be the key, start with evolution, start teaching it at 5-6 years old. My goal would be to get the majority to finally realise and accept that genetically there is no such thing as “race” that we all come from the same ancestor and none of us are “special”; the hope would be that kids grow up with a different perspective on humanity and life than most do now. Teach the scientific method, rational and critical thinking, teach the kids how to think, not what to think. Teach comparative religion, point out that ancient scripture is not “evidence” of anything other than ancient people made initial stabs at morality, philosophy and science, but got most of it wrong; we live in hope.

I think that science is addressing these subjects, the neuroscientist Sam Harris is someone who does work in the field of understanding the neurological basis for faith, i.e. what happens to brains at the chemical level when they contemplate God or meditate for example, interesting stuff. My own field of work in related to linguistics, we’re trying to get machines to analyse and understand written text, more semantics than linguistics I suppose, but related. Ethics, especially in the medical field is well covered in science, there are courses in it, modern archaeology has always employed the scientific method and things like the Turin shroud dating was fascinating and perhaps the kind of thing you are alluding to.

The Middle East – big topic, I agree with you the solution is not more violence; the Americans don’t help either IMO the Jewish lobby in the USA is far too powerful and unreasonable (and predictably religious!). I really hope that Obama can capitalise on the momentum he has and the fact that he has some Muslim heritage, the fact that a theocratic regime (Iran) is on the brink of acquiring apocalyptic weapons scares the crap out of me. Here are a couple of starters for 10 that I would consider,

1) Encourage/bring on an age of “enlightenment” within Islam (the new atheist movement is trying, I must say in the teeth of opposition from our pathetically appologetic government)

2) Push the Israelis into a non-optional two state deal; if they don’t comply take away their F16’s.

3) Sanction non-secular states because they are oppressive and perpetuate the problem.

It must be possible, look at Northern Ireland, I never thought that would pan out like it has.

Oranjepan said...

Hmm, a favorite quote comes to mind from Indiana Jones: "Archaeology is the search for facts - not truth. If it's truth you're looking for, Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is right down the hall."

I think you touch on a good point about the lobbying power of groups - they create a collective political will.

I don't have a problem with people who choose to freely associate, my problem is what such groups choose to advocate. So I find it impossible to oppose religions, just what their adherents promote.

In this it looks to me like you're jumping the gun and concluding prematurely that religions necessarily promote things you disagree with - a position I find hard to fathom.

Where it comes to solutions to the middle eastern situation religion cannot be separated from the final settlement because primary religious sites are involved.

I found it particularly interesting to discover that the temple mount is supposed to be the location of Abraham's refusal to sacrifice Isaac and the founding site of the dynastic home, so ownership of that place is effectively as important as any further territorial rights in the region.

Similarly the centre of St Peter's square in the Vatican is the exact historic location of St Peter's crucifixion, which makes it a special place for the whole of the Roman church and therefore gives all Roman Catholics across the globe an interest in preserving access rights which was not possible while the Papal state remained a significant temporal power.

My solution to the arab-israeli conflict would therefore be to hive off the old city of Jerusalem to a separate religious state and make the surrounding country a 'union of holy lands' administered by a representative secular parliament.

I don't think it is possible to find a lasting solution which simply dismisses concerns and issues - even where we might individually disagree with them.

Immigration is another topic which stirs up similar divisions, but whether or not anyone thinks immigration is a good or a bad thing the consequences of allowing (or refusing) immigrants entry must still be dealt with.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that disagreements (over religiosity or immigration etc) are not the foundation of problems, rather that they are the manifestation of an imperfect reality which we have yet to fully grasp and have yet to find adequate policies to resolve in a way which everyone finds acceptable.

It makes no difference to me what is in the heart of my neighbour, only how their behaviour affects others.

Why waste time being intolerant of others (perhaps irrational) beliefs? More even than free trade, free speech or freedom of association, freedom of conscience is a higher truth which requires defending.

Steve Borthwick said...

O you clearly have a more generous spirit than me (I mean that in a metaphorical sense of course);

I think your quote is excellent you have hit on something really important, truth; we’re all looking for it I suppose. For you faith seems less impactful than it does for me, I have perhaps a stronger distaste for religions that peddle lies as truth, indoctrinate, threaten, extort, bully and intimidate others into bowing down to them, for me they are akin to oppressive political regimes. I am passionate about the truth, I want to understand it and derive significant meaning in life from seeking it out, it really matters what is true for me, I care much, much less about what people “believe”. I am also not a relativist; I don’t believe there are many “truths” do you?

I don’t think that religions necessarily promote things I disagree with, but I would use the example of Hezbollah; I think we would agree to disagree with their apparent philosophy of violence but it is also a fact that they provide the best (free) health care for ordinary people in Lebanon of any of the constituents there, does that make them ok, tolerable even? I would say not.

You are right about the significance of the sites in Jerusalem, but what if those beliefs are plain wrong, what then, after all they can’t all be right and some would say none of them are; people are essentially dying for a piece of real-estate. I think this is where we differ in view point; I look at that place and conclude that there is a problem caused by a system of thought called faith. Correct me if I am wrong but you seem to see a difference between the problem and the system of thought that creates it, I can’t understand that. Religion *is* the foundation of the problem because it mandates a system of thought called faith that makes ridiculous situations like this possible in the first place. It would be wonderful to turn the whole place into a theme park and just get on with life, but faith makes that impossible, my rational brain therefore concludes that faith is the thing that needs to be criticised.

See my latest post for what I think about Catholicism or more precisely pompous Catholic clergy.

Like you I really don’t care what other people believe but I do care how they think because if they use faith then anything is possible, anything can be justified and that’s scary, like a dormant virus just waiting for its moment.

I think you perhaps contradict yourself in the last paragraph, you say prior to it that you care about the behaviour of other people but don’t care what they believe (paraphrasing), but what if their belief warrants them to be intolerant of you, do you still not criticise what they believe. I think it’s OK to be intolerant of intolerance.

Oranjepan said...

Hmm, this is where it gets messy.

Are religions monlithic masses of singular opinion directed from on high, or are they a body of swirling opinion which is given voice by members of the hierarchy?

Within each religion there are massive divides.

For instance within Islam there are the three main Shi'a, Sunni and Sufi sect with numerous schools of thought below that. Within Christianity there are different communions (eg the Anglican, Orthodox & Coptic churches) which accept the authority of different patriarchs, and there are infinite doctrinal and theological differences between denominations at lower levels.

So I find it hard to accept the assertion that 'this religion says this, that religion says that'.

Look at the threatened schism in the Anglican communion over homosexuality and wmoen priests. These practices are more similar to those of completely different faiths elsewhere.

So it might be said that there is more overlap between different faith systems than there is unity and harmony within any.

In which case we must ask again 'what is faith?'

Is it more a cultural identity (as Dawkins accepts)? Is it therefore possible to change or choose your faith? In which case is it possible to be religious and disagree with the preacher's intentions?

I would say that this is essential to counter the habitual incitement of radical clerics, as exemplified by Moqtada al-Sadr (though they exist in all faiths and countries).

It is not enough to be intolerant of their intolerance - it is essential that you are able to show an alternate path.

If you are homeless or living in poverty in a disease and drug-filled ghetto - whether it be along the Oxford Road or in Baghdad - the idea that anything is possible and that you can raise yourself out of those conditions is a good thing.

I live in hope that our government will one day get things more right than wrong - unless I can sustain that then what good is it bothering to comment or vote?

From my perspective take faith or leave it, the real targets are those people in powerful positions, who actually make decisions over things which effect our lives, not their beliefs.

Which political belief system do you prefer? Democracy might seem to be corrupt and unworkable, but does science have an answer for how we should organise our society? Are you be prepared to be dictated to by a selection of Oxbridge dons?

Belief comes in all shapes and sizes, and just as the claims of the religious might be unfalsifiable, your or my belief that one way or another is better is unverifiable without the wisdom hindsight.

This may sound like a contradiction, but I think it actually exposes the essential paradox we require to function.

For me truth IS logically paradoxic.


Obviously you aren't a worshipper, but I'm interested to know whether you think I am, and if so, which - I hope I've sown enough doubt in your mind to open you to the possibility...

Steve Borthwick said...

Wow, we have covered a lot of ground haven’t we, thank you for putting the effort in and sticking with it I have really enjoyed it.

Religions aren’t monolithic, absolutely agree, as I think you said in a previous thread everyone you ask about what they believe gives you a different answer, so what does that mean. I think it is strong evidence that religion is man-made, not absolute and as a mechanism for providing truths about reality utterly flawed because of that.

I don’t think religion speaks with one voice, clearly there are a spectrum of points of view stretching from Buddhist to fundamentalist, the underlying thought that I have been driving at though is that they are all based on some concept of faith, that is, believing something without evidence, i.e. believing things to be true based on revelation, authority or tradition. I think that this is what propagates all the layers of stupidity and dogma sitting above, as well as the good stuff. It is this core concept that I rally against most of all but sometimes that manifests itself as an attack on the actual dogma itself however I don’t for one minute think that one size fits all.

Cultural identity is part of it, I agree with Dawkins on that, culturally I am a Christian I can’t avoid it, I don’t see it as a problem though, as Dawkins says it is perfectly possible for an Atheist to derive enjoyment from singing hymns without the need to believe their meaning.

Interestingly I tend not to focus my attention on the hate mongers like Moqtada al-Sadr, although clearly they are often the route into discussing the underlying problems. I’m more interested in tackling the reason why a community of people fall for it, you and I wouldn’t fall for it but a whole lot of people would; perhaps if we could solve that problem then we can make some progress. Simply banning the guy from speaking seems pointless as like buses another one will be along in a minute. Why do people fall for it? I think it’s because “faith” in those communities is celebrated and admired, reason would serve them better IMO. I’d be interested to know what you think about the recent Geert Wilders affair, should be have been allowed to speak? I think he should have; not because I agree with him but because from a rational perspective he hangs himself whenever he opens his mouth, however if you look at what he says through the lens of faith he is either a hero or a devil.

In terms of providing an alternate path, I really think education and the seeking of knowledge and skill is it, science being a major branch of that dealing with understanding reality, but also the arts of course. I believe it’s this that can provide the hope that you mention, the fact that there is nothing off limits in terms of what we can know thrills me, and provides inspiration. The problem is that this path requires hard work, science is not easy and not everyone can reach the dizzy heights, is that a problem? Perhaps it is, but faith on the other hand requires no effort and most often delivers a false sense of achievement, for example what is achieved by hammering nails into the hands and feet of Philippino teenagers or slapping your head until it bleeds?, faith stops the conversation dead and it is easy to see why it is so pervasive because of that; perhaps I am being naïve about this and clearly some manifestations of faith are benign.

Science is not democratic, it goes with the evidence and not the majority, I would not suggest science is a way we should organise our society. I think the political systems we have now provide better models, rational thinking however is much more relevant and it disturbs me that hardly any MP’s have scientific backgrounds but I can understand why.

For me the truth is the truth, not paradoxical at all, but then again I think about truth in a scientific sense, i.e. something that represents our best effort at the time based on the evidence we have and not absolute, more akin to legal truth I suppose.

Are you religious? Honestly I hadn’t thought about it, I don’t think you have a science background but I’m less sure about religion. Perhaps you are, your last comment suggests it. If you are then I think you are definitely at the enlightened end of the spectrum, a lapsed Catholic maybe (really I have no clue) I do know though that few religious people I know could have a debate like this and hold the tone at such a civil and constructive level. Have you sown any doubt, no sorry you haven’t, but I do now understand your point of view much better from the insights you have generously provided and traffic has increased, so hopefully other people have enjoyed the exchange of views as much as I have.

Oranjepan said...

Absolutely - this is an excellent exchange of views and I'm enjoying it too.

I have to say the idea of a big tooth fairy in the sky is ridiculous to me, but equally that there is an underlying unity running throughout all existence seems undeniable.

I don't know what I call it, but I accept some describe this 'unity' in religious terms and others describe it in secular terms (for example a mathematician might try to use algebra).

All I can say is that I have had a number of spiritual experiences which have silenced me as they filled me with a certainty of some kind: meeting a partner, standing in front of a great painting, eating a fantastic meal, watching a classic goal scored before my eyes, watching peace come over a relative as they die, climbing a steep mountain after looking over a huge cliff, hearing a heart-rending song.

These are all pilgrimages of the soul which have defined and enhanced my life, imbuing it with meaning, things I will remember till my dying day - I can only hope that others experience similar moments when the realisation of the truth, beauty and tenuousness of life can be comprehended.

It's only when we recognize these moments that we can know we have learnt something worth sharing and make the world a better place. So whatever we call them and however we contextualise them are really only secondary matters - all disagreements can be overcome.

Steve Borthwick said...

O, I totally agree, what we call experiences like this is merely semantics, awe, wonder, excitement, inspiration are all human universals; sadly to often hijacked by religion IMO.

Here is a wonderful clip of Stephen Fry talking about this exact same thing and he can express himself with an elegance far in excess of my pathetic scribblings, leaving me to just say "what he said"...

Stephen Fry on Life without God

Elizabeth said...

Fabulous discussion. I've really enjoyed reading this.