Archive for June, 2013

Quiet times

I’m not writing anything much at the moment. In fact, I’m writing even more not much than I’d planned to.

It was a deliberate decision not to do any more work on the novel until after the wedding. Short stories and blog posts seem to have fallen by the wayside too, more or less by accident.

Part of me’s aching to get back to it, but it’s also really, really nice to not even be thinking about it for a while.

So it may stay quiet for a while on here. I’m still tweeting quite a bit though, about terrible films, and other people’s odd religious ideas, and what can possibly have gone wrong with Peter Hitchens. If that’s your sort of thing.

Read Full Post »

Here’s something I got told this week:

I fear your embrace of compassion is fleeting and ungrounded.

This was a pertinent comment in the context of a discussion about morality and religion, not just a weird, out-of-the-blue attack. The surrounding discussion was about God’s involvement in questions of moral behaviour, and what constitutes “good”.

In particular, it was being questioned how atheists can have any motivation to do good things, and proposed that, even if I seem to hold compassion for other people as a value for now, it’s a shaky and unreliable kind of morality if it’s not grounded in something.

Like belief in God, somehow.

No, I’m as confused as you are.

If you’re after a cast-iron, completely unmalleable, 100% guarantee that I am absolutely never going to have a change of heart that sends me on a rampage of cruelty and violence, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. But what bizarre inhuman logic makes you think religion allows anyone to make such a claim?

The idea that people who believe in a god, and believe that this god wants them to behave in a particular way, are people who can be unerringly relied upon to follow this god’s edicts to the letter, never letting let this semblance of moral behaviour waver for a moment, is simply not borne out by even a cursory glance at the history of the planet.

People who read the Bible and take it seriously also kill, steal, lie, covet, and adulter…ise? Adulterate? They do some adultery, whatever the word is for that. They know they shouldn’t, and they know it’s not what God wants, but it happens all the time. Otherwise asking forgiveness wouldn’t ever be necessary within Christianity, let alone one of its central foundations.

Sometimes religious people do these bad things because they’re twisting the teachings of their holy book to suit their own ends. Sometimes they’re just human, and fallible, and not always completely frightened into compliance by any given set of divine instructions.

And other times, people do adhere perfectly to their understanding of how God wants them to behave – but this behaviour is harmful and damaging and cruel to their fellow humans, and completely detached from anything a reasonable person with a shred of basic humanism or decency would recognise as “moral”.

My morality might not be absolute, but it’s based on compassion and a desire to do good for other people; a genuine consideration for conscious creatures and their well-being. Looking at the comparative rates at which religious and non-religious people do bad things, I don’t see any reason to suppose that “grounding” your morality in obedience to God is in any way superior to letting compassion and love themselves be the fundamental, grounding factors.

I’d be much more comfortable around someone who feels compelled to do good for its own sake, than someone whose entire concept of right and wrong is dictated to them by some external force – particularly an external force which they themselves proudly assert is beyond human understanding.

Read Full Post »


I think that to say, as Hitch did, that religion “poisons everything”, is overly harsh. As I’ve talked about, religion can do good things for people – nothing which can only be achieved by religion, certainly, but there are good things to be found in some isolated parts of it.

On the other hand, it poisons a lot. Enough that I’m not sure there’s anything that can be salvaged without removing it from a religious framework entirely.

Forgiveness is a wonderful thing, and in the right hands can even be a rather beautiful part of Christianity. Although there’s a lot of stuff in the “good” “book” (wait, why the second set of sarcastic quotes? nobody’s disputing that the Bible is a book) about vengeance and spite, it eventually gets on to some nice ideas about letting these things go, not holding a grudge, being magnanimous to your enemies and loving them even while there may be conflict.

Another positive and constructive addition to the world is the idea that anyone can repent, and be forgiven, of anything. It might not be as simple as uttering a few prescribed words of apology, but if you really mean it – if you feel sincere remorse, and your promises to be a better person in the future are heartfelt – then you’re never beyond redemption in the eyes of God. You can never go so far wrong that you can’t be brought back to the right side, if you really want it.

Which is all marvellous and commendable. Until religion proceeds to completely fuck up its own ideas.

You can be forgiven all your sins… but you’re still damned if you don’t say enough obsequious things to the right god. No matter how good you are all your life, if you didn’t have enough of the right kind of faith, you’re eternally worse off than someone who acted with none of your virtue but made up for it by seeing the light in their final moments. For all that forgiveness and grace and such are important in Christianity, they’re dwarfed by the overwhelming importance of blind, worshipful obedience to your lord and master.

And they don’t extend more than a moment past death itself, obviously. If you made the wrong choices and want to sincerely repent once the gates of Heaven are already closed to you, sorry pal, you’re outta luck. The forgiveness stand is shut to you. Forever. Shoulda done more sucking up before the deadline.

Oh, and make sure you don’t blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, because that one’s unforgivable. It doesn’t directly harm or impinge on the freedoms of other people in any way, but God’s ego is fragile enough that that’s the one thing which’ll make him irreparably sever all ties. This forgiveness shtick can only go so far, after all. And some things are more important. Things like doing exactly what you’re told at all times.

I’m not saying this is the only interpretation of Christian doctrine, but it’s a popular mainstream one. Many practising Christians do manage to filter the good stuff out pretty effectively, and act with commendable humanistic morals. But religion’s not their ally in those circumstances. It just endorses some nice ideas we could have come up with anyway, and infects it with pernicious tyranny and vengefulness.

Read Full Post »

I’d like you to imagine two hypothetical scenarios.

In the first, a child is suffering. He’s in an extremely disadvantaged part of the third world. He’s six years old, and has depended on his mother all his life for food and nurturing and basic care. She’s now dead of malaria. He’s lost, and tired, and the hunger that’s accompanied him all his life is gnawing at him stronger than ever and there’s nobody to look after him.

In addition, God exists.

That’s scenario the first, okay? Don’t worry about the implications of that last bit, or think anything through in too much detail. A child is starving, as many children truly are, and also there is a god. The Christian one if you prefer, but whatever. Okay? Keep that hypothetical in mind.

Now imagine the same child, same suffering, same anguish and confusion and despair. Another human being in the same desperately miserable situation as described a few moments ago, in the same cruel, uncaring world.

And there is no god.

That’s the second scenario.

Now, you might have an idea as to which of these two pictures paints a bleaker view. That’s an interesting discussion – is it worse knowing there’s no-one to turn to for help, or seeing the one you could turn to allowing this to happen? – but not for today.

Here’s my question: When imagining the plight of the kid in each scenario described above, did you find yourself only giving a shit about one of them?

Did you feel saddened and motivated to help one of the children described above, and feel a strong compassion for him and desire to act morally by him – and find that the other just left you cold and unbothered, with no particular incentive to do anything about it?

Do you, in other words, only care about suffering and want to alleviate it if God exists? Is your compassion for other humans contingent on an all-powerful third party? Does the truth of one particular religion or another have any bearing on whether the plight of such a child sickens you and makes you determined to change it?

I expect your answer is no.

If I’m right, congratulations: you now understand how atheists can have morals.

But if I’m wrong… then, well, you have an odd system of deciding what is and isn’t a moral outrage, and I entirely fail to understand your process of thought.

I’d love to know what it is you’re using to decide whether or not a suffering child is “a bad thing”. For me, and many others, it’s pretty straight-forward, and can be judged largely in isolation. Whether or not we believe in God doesn’t really come into it. We just witness suffering and are moved by it. We want children not to be starving to death, scared and alone in a harsh world. Saving innocents from that fate is a sufficient end in itself.

God might be important to you, but I’m not sure why his opinion is the only one you care about when there are kids suffering and dying right in front of you.

You really are allowed to just love people and care what happens to them, you know. Even if there is no god and no afterlife and it’s all finite and bounded and there’s no ultimate arbiter to reward or punish you for getting it right or wrong.

It’s a pretty feeble kind of love that isn’t worth your effort any more without those conditions.

Yes, I’ve been finding theists to chat with on Twitter again. Some of them continue to baffle me.

Read Full Post »

Why does God get to be the one thing you have to believe in before you’re allowed to see any evidence?

I’m getting bogged down in that thing about “believing is seeing” again. Have faith and the way will be shown to you. Put your trust in the Lord and you’ll feel the truth in your heart. Even atheists can find God if they just open their hearts to him and accept his presence.

In other words, if you start believing now, for no reason whatever, then you’ll be provided with a reason to.

What’s struck me recently is that I can’t think of a single other question, in any other field of study, where this kind of excuse-making is necessary.

If you drop something and watch it fall, it doesn’t matter what you believe about the laws that govern the force of gravity. Your object will act in accordance with those laws, and in so doing will give you hints as to what they are.

Reality’s good like that. It doesn’t care what you think. It just gets on with its own business. It just is. Reality doesn’t wait and hide, until you agree to have blind trust in it, and only then agree to give a demonstration of E = mc2 in action.

And yet God is often claimed to be a special case. Again and again, atheists are advised that if they just believe as hard as they can, by force of will, then in a complete reversal of the rules of cause and effect and basic logic, they will become aware of the reasons to believe as a result of their belief.

Which is kinda weird, isn’t it?

I mean, I suppose it could just be a fact about the character of this all-powerful tyrant demanding our fealty. It may be that God’s personality is such that he deliberately chooses to hide from anyone being rational, and reveals himself only to those who’ve already bought into his claims based on no evidence at all.

That could be the kind of dick your god is, I guess, though that claim itself doesn’t seem to have much supporting evidence. At least, none he’s chosen to share with me.

But the way some Christians make it sound, knowledge of God is in an entirely different category of information than literally any other kind of thought processes humans are capable of having. Despite God’s omnipotence, and despite all the dramatic healing and sea-parting and genocide he used to demonstrate his presence with, the responsibility is apparently on us to set the bar much, much lower for him than any other human endeavour.

If you want to know about reality, you go and test it, and base your beliefs on what the evidence indicates. But with God? You have to believe first, and then you get the evidence. Or not, if you weren’t believing properly. Or something.

(Even Christians who use the above arguments would, I suspect, have problems with applying the same approach to any gods other than their own. But guys, if you could suspend your faith in Yahweh for a sec and just believe in Ganesha real hard and let him into your heart, you’d finally have a chance to see all the evidence that you’ve been blind to all this time. C’mon, what’s stopping you? Is it maybe the same thing stopping me from “just believing” in your god? D’ya think?)

Doubting Thomas is an example of a religion explicitly rejecting the whole notion of basing your beliefs on what really exists. He takes a position antithetical to faith in the Bible, and is denigrated for it, despite his methods basically being that of rigorous science: he’s skeptical of an outlandish proposition, investigates the evidence, and updates his position based on new data. He doesn’t believe that Jesus is really back from the dead after crucifiction, but then has a poke at the guy’s hand-holes, and changes his mind.

But then Jesus completely fucks up the moral, by saithing unto him:

Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

Repent of your common sense, foolish mortals. Accept improbable claims at face value before there’s any evidence for them. That’s how to make Jesus love you.

Of course, there’s one simple way to explain all this, one reason why the evidence for God’s existence might depend on your own expectations and beliefs at the time – besides God being a malevolent ass, I mean.

The observer effect is a real thing, after all. People behave differently in experiments when they know they’re being scrutinised, and researchers’ reports of their observations is demonstrably affected if they’re told what result they’re meant to be looking for. If you’re primed to see a particular result, or to view some aspect of the world through the lens of God’s work, then you’re more likely to encounter evidence that seems to support your idea, than if you didn’t have this pre-existing “belief”. This could explain why the observations might depend on the observer’s state of mind.

But that would imply that God is just a set of psychological conditions inside people’s heads. And he’s got to be more than that if he’s so powerful and worth all this worship, right?

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: