Posted by: Andrew G | April 28, 2010

With or Without God – Gretta Vosper Part 2


As per my usual, this got to be more lengthy than I first wished. So, skim for the bold parts or trudge through according to your whim and available time. Below the quotes there are some final thoughts on Gretta Vosper’s book.

If we are to alter our self-destructive course, we must learn the lessons of our past and live by what we learn. Religious declarations and promises based entirely on speculation or individual experience or that claim a supernatural authority must be identified for what they are: we must refuse to grant them an authority they do not deserve. We have the right and the responsibility to draw the necessary line.

What the world needs in order to survive and thrive is the radical simplicity that lies at the core of Christianity and so many other faiths and systems of thought—an abiding trust in the way of love as expressed in just and compassionate living.

… This message carries its own authority. It needs no doctrine to validate it, no external expert or supernatural authority to tell us it is right. Love is quite demanding enough as a foundation, sufficiently complex and challenging without the requirement of additional beliefs, unbelievable to many. The church the future needs is one of people gathering to share and recommit themselves to loving relationships with themselves, their families, the wider community, and the planet.

Broad-vision change is not “new curtains” window-dressing change but real, deep down, “this is going to hurt” change. It can be liberating and refreshing, but it comes with costs. Without it, there is not only no future for the mainline church, there is also no need for one.

What is irrelevant, refutable, or simply wrong we have to consign to the historical record… Since humanity is a decidedly self-centred life-form, the sacrifice of what is no longer able to sustain or comfort us would seem to be a reasonable trade-off.

We don’t toy lightly with our lives.

It is time for humanists, atheists, skeptics and agnostics to see they share a common future with the many who are still comforted to their religious beliefs… We all have much to offer one another: not supernatural beings to who we can offload our problems, but spiritual tools and practices that can help us know and honour our shared and richly human experiences of life. [note – well, yea. But that’s what all the arguing is about, really. We are negotiating between conversations on how to find ways to trust one another…]

When a scientific paradigm’s day is done, it dies…Each of the major Christian paradigms that has existed throughout the history of Christianity continues to be found in one form or another within contemporary expressions of the faith. Not one of them has been entirely replaced. Dogma from each lingers, stalking any effort to bring new understandings, new ideas, and new beliefs to what continues to be referred to as a single monolithic faith—Christianity. Endeavouring to preserve our spiritual values, we hold on to the religious dogma with which they have long been fused.

… I know no proof of God beyond personal experience, and I cannot acknowledge that proof as substantial. Personal experience is the most often claimed reason for belief in God, Allah, Krishna, or Raven, but it is also the most often claimed reason for the lack of belief in those same deities—something those who claim their experience  is proof of God’s existence regularly fail to acknowledge. I prefer to acknowledge my ignorance in regard to matters of which I can have no reproducible evidence. Even when experiments produce results, I am wary of attributing cause or meaning to it. I know there exists a world beyond me—the “other”—but whether that other includes another kind of being, I simply don’t know. [note – heck of a thing for a preacher to admit to…]

Labels are, by their nature, exclusive. We listen to someone’s “beliefs” and slot them under a label, seeking to accept or reject them… Some readers may dismiss my thoughts because the label they will readily attribute to me is one they already object to having a place in the Christian Church. [note – I’ve had some fun with labels, even on myself, but this has reminded me of just how mindfully dulling the label thing is – as someone on Sabio’s Triangulations put it, a good thing to be is an a-‘label’-ist]

Sometimes being difficult is the only way forward. [note – this from a mother… hmm…]

For those whose absolute, unquestioned trust in that big God remains, no work need be done, except the many necessary explanations for why things often work out so very badly. But there are many who need something instead of that God, instead of that being who has proven unable or unwilling to rescue us not only from life’s challenges (disease, illness, senility, family problems, failed dreams) but, ultimately, from ourselves… God, writ large, has been lost; god, writ small, may yet disappear.

We need to be ruthlessly honest, to state who we are, what we believe or don’t, and what we don’t yet understand. We need to work together to discover new ways to find meaning in the world, new strength to engage its too inhuman systems, and new joy in the experience we call life. We have much on which to build. We hold deeply sacred beliefs about the value of life and the value of community. We hold deeply sacred beliefs about our responsibility for one another. None of these will be left behind. [note – I kinda like the last two words, since they have gained some meaning in certain fundamentalist camps]

It is crucial that we peel away the interventionist deity concept from our belief systems and face reality. We are the origin of blessing and curse in our world, not some otherworldly deity—not in Christianity, not in Judaism, not in Hinduism, not in Islam, not anywhere… I would argue that what nature doles out is neither blessing nor curse—it just is. How we deal with it, how we respond to it, how we pull ourselves and others out of it—either working together to survive or using each other to reap personal benefit, either welcoming others into our hearts or behaving bitterly toward them—that is where blessing and curse originate, not in global weather patterns and tectonic shifts.

Nothing is inherently good (not even chocolate). Nothing is inherently bad (not even chocolate). Yet, there are values I believe we must choose and on to which we must fervently hold.

… I learned many stories from the Bible but wasn’t forced to memorize its books. I learned to see Jesus as a wise and loving man who did his best for everyone, but I was left without that soul-galvanizing belief that he had died for my sins. I integrated his teaching about justice and compassion, but not the ones about everlasting punishment. The Jesus I as introduced to was so kind that, on a blistering cold day, out on the rink my mother had poured in our backyard, under the shadow of that awesome spire [of the church], he took time out from his otherworldly duties to teach me to skate.  Being a first-century Middle Easterner, his knowledge of skating was limited, of course, and I never did get very good at it, but his heart was such that he would be there for me when I needed him, and I knew it. [note -a cute taste of her writing]

On preaching: As long as the laity don’t have to think about it, pastors don’t have to talk about it. As long as pastors don’t talk about it, the laity don’t think about it. A tidy, mutually beneficial agreement.

Reflecting on her mother: When all is said and done, I might look back and wish that my mother had passed on to me her silver tea service rather than her penchant for saying what needs to be said. But truth be told, there is a lot more need for that irrepressible honesty these days than there is for silver tea services.

The interesting thing about logic is the strength of its breaking system.

Whether the earth gives birth to itself or a woman gives birth to a child, the world is never the same, no matter what happens or how things end up… Without the generative activity of this wild planet, it may just be that none of us would be here. But once we came into being, once we had pulled ourselves out of the primordial ooze, so to speak, all that activity wasn’t just the indifferent rumblings of a turbulent planet. No. Once we were on site, it got personal.

Because our worldview is plastic, not elastic, it can stretch, but it cannot return to its former shape. So when something has such an effect upon us that it changes our worldview, our consciousness is raised to a level from which it cannot return.

… people are moved to conversion by the power of their fears.

It gets complicated when those responsible for presenting the Bible as the authoritative word of God for all time (TAWOGFAT) in order to convert nations to Christ then try to tell people that only parts of it are true. And, if only parts of it are true, or if some parts contradict others, who gets to pick which parts are really, really true?

Even today, it is often easier to people to articulate what they don’t believe than to say what they do. [note – hence the popularity of criticism, a la Hitchens]

In the early church, the values of love, forgiveness and compassion drove the work and lives of those known as Christians. This is a legacy of the church, and it must once again become the agenda by which it chooses to live. No what we believe. Not our institutional survival. Our focus must be what we can do to challenge, edify, and support individuals as they seek to live virtuous and responsible lives.

The loss of religion as a whole, although it would rid the world of the negative aspects of supernatural faith, would also eliminate one of its most regularly accessed vehicles for presenting, upholding, and reinforcing the challenges that ethical living present in or complicated world… There are far too few readily accessible sources by which individuals are influenced to become caring, altruistic, and respectful humans with interests that extend beyond that of their own bathroom mirrors or backyard pools…. It is possible that religion can provide a values-based alternative to what popular culture provides but with neither the stigma of nerd-dom nor religious fundamentalism. [note – reminded me of Sam Harris and the Moral Landscape]

From Lloyd Geering: Secular society is a positive and logical outcome of Christianity distilled of its religious trappings and tribal preconceptions.

If we say “Jesus is Lord” in the reading or song, we might explain it as … “love is supreme”. Well, then why not say “love is supreme”? All the world can understand that. They can embrace it regardless of their beliefs. If “Jesus is Lord” means “justice for all,” then let’s say that… When what we are trying to say is delivered in ordinary language, not code, it has the best chance of being understood and embraced by those outside of the church and, sometimes surprisingly so, by many on the inside as well. [as a note of contrast – some people mean only “Jesus is Lord” when they say “Jesus is Lord”. It’s their in-group thing, which holds most importance, even over love and justice. But I do agree with Vosper on her point because not only is the language much clearer, but it also allows us to make the everyday words and experiences sacred. Simple, clear, everyday stuff is the most sacred to us, and to experience it as sacred is important… ok, to me at least…]

… while liberal/moderate Christians are generally content to give up the concept of hell, holding on to the concept of heaven still has great appeal.[no comment!]

On the Christian doctrine: [It] is grounded in a worldview that isn’t even about this world. It’s about a world yet to come, which doesn’t begin until after we die, and about which we know absolutely nothing.

You’ve no doubt heard the joke about having to be quiet when tiptoeing past the room in heaven where the evangelicals are because they think they’re the only ones there.

On the Bible and ignorance: Our ignorance is not only unwise, it is dangerous. It’s like signing a note your fifteen-year-old puts in front of you without reading it. When we present a book as holy, it’s texts as sacred, even authoritative, we must know exactly what it says because we are not only reserving it a special time slot on Sunday morning, we are endorsing what it says. And what is says is often frightening… anyone whose sole experience of the Bible is confined to Sunday morning or media presentations of it, anyone who does not know the context in which those words were written or the metaphors in which they have been plaited will only be able to read what the text says. That’s the problem. The text condemns itself. [note – why it is easier to criticize rather than learn the depths, even in terms of literary study over theological study.]

If the Bible is the baby that so many are afraid will go out with the bathwater, they need have no fear. It is not the Bible that must go; rather, it is the Word of God that must go. We do not, any of us—whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, Baha’i, Confucian, Jain, any of us – have a corner on what the word of God is, on what religious beliefs are universally authoritative for humankind. This we must confess. Those who recognize the Bible’s claim to be the word of God as the monster in the tub with the baby are those who must which it out before it does any further damage. [note on my first time through this book months ago, I just waved this part away as obvious. Strangely though, on my second reading this passage struck me as wholly revolutionary and so harsh for those in the religious world.]

There isn’t much one can say to negate some else’s experience of something. Even in the middle of an argument with one’s spouse, it is often prudent to acknowledge that his or her perspective or experience of you is different than what you may have wished to project, thereby conceding that it may, at least for them, be accurate.

… we find that we are now standing at the precipice created by our own arrogance and desire for self-gratification. Pointing to Jesus and telling people that he is our salvation is just not going to work. His words are dead to many people. The world has changed. The words don’t make sense any more, and shouldn’t. In trying to capture exactly what he said so that it could be brought into our time, we have found, quite by accident, that what he said has little power.[note – a minister wrote this?]

We like to think of ourselves as open-minded, but we are often this way only as long as the things we’re invited to think about aren’t things that require we change our worldview, opinions, or prejudices… Having an open mind within Christianity has, for much of its past, put one at a decided disadvantage. [Amen]

Opening our minds is hard work. We live in an anaesthetizing culture. What we should think is flashed at us in a variety of media every minute of the day, and we are virtual sponges for it. [note – That’s a load of rich, creamery butter (sorry, an almost random Homer Simpson reference…)]

Sometimes “burning questions” were those which, is asked, ended with you tied to a stake on top of a burning pyre.

Without creativity, nothing changes.

Almost every marketer in the world twists/bends/stretches the truth to make people believe claims that aren’t really being made at all. Furthermore, what is being sold is often not the product itself, but, rather the feeling associated with it. Exactly what is the core product of a cosmetics company? It isn’t a cream that will reverse the aging process and give you younger skin. It is the belief that you have c ontrol over the aging process. That belief is just sold in a bottle. [note – there are products for men now worried about their pretty faces…]

No, it will not be through naiveté that the church will progress.

All the perspectives that have come before ours have had their purpose, have brought meaning to whole generations of believers and continue to do so. Such knowledge must be honoured even as it is set aside.

The old story of redemption and acceptance is arrestingly simple and enormously powerful. Any new story that would replace it must be clear, simple, evocative, and… seek to replace the security of the old with the security of the new… The most compelling facet of the old story is its security. The most compelling facet of the new story is its seeking after truth.

Liberal Christians just don’t stand out in a crowd, if you know what I mean. [note – so true]

On preaching and challenging people: It is so extremely unsettling for some that, on occasion, they’ve pleaded with me to “just” say from the pulpit what it is they want to hear, even when we both know that neither of us believed it any more.

To be Christian, for me, is to do whatever it takes to bind me to a life lived in a radically ethical way. Considering how difficult that is and will always be, I’ll need all the help I can get. [Amen?]

As my son, Izaak, fasts during Ramadan in solidarity with his Muslim friends, they are each enriched by sharing a spiritual discipline that has the potential to be a profound opportunity for reflection on their place in the world. His efforts cannot be considered insincere by his friends as theirs cannot be considered of more or less value than his. Each must determine for himself if the spiritual tool is helpful in his efforts to live according to what he believes in the essence of their spiritual undertaking. [note – proud, progressive parent?]

Biblical accounts of anything and everything from creation through to John’s Revelation are currently experiencing the same process through which Aphrodite’s birth narrative has passed. Believed as true, for many centuries and by many people, they are now entering into the realm of myth where their application and relevance can become subjective. Loosed of the demand that they be believed literally, biblical stories become therapeutic in our search to understand ourselves and our place in the universe.

It is far too easy to project one’s personal, political, social, and cultural preferences onto Jesus. If you believe he was a feminist, you need to believe so because the examination of the evidence proves that he was, no t because you believe he was s good man and as a good man he would have been feminist. If we allow our personal prejudices to colour history, history is of no use to us. [note – come on Gretta! Delusion is extremely useful! Why are there something like 2 TVs in every North American Home?]

Had we never heard of the Good Samaritan, would we still not have discovered compassion?

Jim Dollar: We don’t need another doctrine of God to add to the pile. We just need to torch the pile.

P.D. James: Consolation from an imaginary source is not imaginary consolation.

… when we love, we experience and express our fullest humanity—our divinity.

Ignorance… is becoming less and less excusable as contemporary (and not so contemporary) scholarship is found to be utterly accessible in every sphere of life. [note – yay, interwebs!]

The concept of justice reaches far beyond just doing what’s right by one’s own people; it extends to everyone.

When it came to tools, my father was a pluralist.

With… a newfound humility, the church can offer a great deal.

On what the church could be: No other organization has [the] networking ability. No other organization has access to adults, many of whom are quite prepared to change their lifestyle if it is going to positively impact the world. [note – the Rotarians are making a run of it…]

If the church has the heart for consciousness-raising work, it certainly has the facilities. A quick internet search identifies 63 churches within a ten-minute drive of my suburban home and 514 within a ten-minute drive of where I used to live in downtown Toronto. In contrast, there are only half those numbers of public and private schools within the same distances… The church has ground level access to millions of people. And millions of aware, reflective, conscious people is exactly what this world needs. We just have to figure out how to get the message out to them.

Studies have shown that adequate parking and attractive washroom facilities are two of the most important things for which church “shoppers” look. Larger congregations may provide valet parking… A Dallas Morning poll recently found that 55 per cent of two hundred local churches accept credit and/or debit cards… The evangelicals, of course, mastered the art of the powerful sound-bite, evocative music, and visually engaging technology long ago. [note – is that sarcasm I smell in your tone?]

On progress: Once we figured [something] out, we kept improving on it. Once we nailed down the gospel, it stayed nailed down. [note – unless you’re Mormon, I guess… ?]

More and more, people don’t just want to be entertained. They want to be engaged. [note – typical woman, always talking about engagement… No seriously though, I think she could have even said people don’t just want to be assured or comforted or entertained. Am I wrong here, or is the role of comforter passing the church by as well?]

Perhaps community is exactly and only what we need to be. [note – Inclusive! The old community-centre idea, but without the “One of us! One of us!” chanting…]

What we have dreamt in the past have been dreams. They have enriched us and challenged us to seek out what we needed to survive. What we need now cannot be found in those dreams. We need to dream again, recognizing that our visions, ideas, choices, and challenges, all come form within us, not from somewhere else. We are our creators, and we have the challenge before us to create a future for this planet in which love, made incarnate through justice and compassion, is the supreme value.


Recommendations and Final Thoughts

This book is a heavy challenge to the Christian Church. Gretta, like a supernanny or something, is getting right in the face of the spoiled child in the middle of an overly-extended tantrum. She doesn’t raise her voice, she doesn’t make threats or promises. She does demand direct eye contact and respectful behaviour, and she knows you are capable of it.

One thing I’m a little dissatisfied with is how she addresses this question: So what makes you still Christian then? Why not just be Unitarian or humanist, etc? She is still tied to the tradition of the Christian Church; that part she does make plain when she brings up this very question herself and examines it. I would suspect that in terms of personal experience and belief, Jesus holds an extremely important place for Gretta Vosper. But at the same time, she is willing to be aware that to push her story on the world in fact undermines the message of radically ethical living. If this is the case, then the slight cognitive dissonance and integrity of personal restraint going on makes her all the more intriguing and interesting for me.

Ok, there is the whole radically ethical living thing that kind of bothers me too. Can we try to hit the mark on ‘ethical lives’ first before jumping so quick to be ‘radical‘?

This is some rescue. When you came

in here, didn’t you have a plan for

getting out?

Somebody has to save our skins.

Posted by: Andrew G | April 26, 2010

With or Without God – Gretta Vosper


My first intentions were to actually go see this author in action before writing this book review. But my intentions… well let’s just say they got carried away. Gretta Vosper is a community leader (minister in the United Church of Canada), an academic and a mom. And what better way to see how she practices what she preaches than to go to her community, the Westhill United Church? (Check out the website please. It’s actually kind of fun.)

Well, whatever road those good intentions of mine may have paved, it has not been taken. Which is actually a shame, because I think she may have a church and a worldview that has some real integrity and some real future. So I reserve the right to go down that road in the future. And I’ll take my camera, because visual blog stuff is much more appealing than just my wordiness.

Technical Bits

With or Without God has just over 300 pages in the meat-n-bones of the book and is separated into seven chapters. Vosper includes an appendix, or toolbox as she calls it, for the changes she proposes to the church. The toolbox is probably the most interesting thing in the book. In it she illustrates the the power of language, especially in terms of literal vs metaphorical messages and inclusive vs exclusive wordings. She even offers examples of theistic and non-theistic blessings, invocations and otherwise churchy rituals, but they are robbed of their cloudy and vague secret codes and instead presented as spiritual gathering points. This toolbox is a demonstration that community can be built on mutually-assuring values as opposed to revelationbased stories or mystically-restricted loyalties.

There is certainly a smell of scholarship in her writing style, but it’s comfortingly padded with the warm tones of a devout mother. She is calm and expressive for the most part, but there are some charming little bracketed commentaries here and there punctuated with exclamations. What’s so surprising is that with such a motherly tone, firm but forgiving you might say, the actual weight of the challenge she puts before the church caught me by complete surprise.

The book is written with what I think is a very specific audience in mind. And I don’t fault Vosper for it in the least. I’m chagrined of course that it wasn’t directed specifically at me, but I can get over my own selfishness when it comes to an author’s intentions. This book is for the liberal church and a confrontation to address the changes needed in order to be a thriving voice of future spirituality while also embracing the intellectual progress achieved over the last century.

Evangelicals, fundamentalists, literalists and maybe even moderates might have a difficult time even using this book as a paperweight. For one thing, the forward is written by Bishop John Shelby Spong (a name that stirs up the worst kinds of challenges to literalists…). As well, Vosper takes as a given, for example, that the Bible cannot be the authoritative word of God for all time, in any way, shape or form at all.

The uninitiated, such as atheists, will likely not get through the first few chapters since the first half of the book is about recent church history, Sunday school curriculum changes and books from the last 100 years or so that the church really should not have ignored so much. This is kind of a shame. Vosper has, in my opinion, an offering that may just satisfy, as Ronald Aronson puts it, “the most urgent need [for] a coherent popular philosophy that answers vital questions about how to live one’s life.”


I’m going to change things a bit here.  Because Vosper’s audience and my audience are quite different, I’m going to try and put just a few sentences down about each chapter. This way it may give a sample of what she covers in the book, but also it might suggest different entry points for different people coming to the book . (Hey, if the Bible has taught us anything, we can certainly open a book now and start to read from the middle if we so choose, and even ignore parts that aren’t really useful…)

1. It’s Time

Vosper uses a few examples from her own experiences growing up in the church and wanting to study theology to show how change has been put aside in the liberal church, or at best, addressed in only a drapes-and-curtains kind of way. She uses the idea of ‘the elephant in the room’ to show how there is a kind of silent agreement between congregation and leadership to not bring up the dangerous issues around faith and language.

2. Constructing Christianity

This chapter is a brief history of beliefs. There is a careful timeline here of how we created belief, what use it may have been to ancients, and then the shifts particularly important to Christianity. She discusses the construction of creeds, early and recent, and looks at how each statement of faith was accumulated through different committees with different inclinations and politics.

3. Challenging Christianity

The two sides of the brain are used in this chapter as a kind of metaphor for how we have treated belief and religious practice. We can shut off one side of the brain and take part in the rituals in the church and feel good, only to later on shut off the other side and critically analyze the rest of our daily lives. I was personally tempted to suggest there has been a kind of mental circumcision on our brains when it comes to religious beliefs, but that’s my extension and not Vospers (I think…)

4. Liberating Christianity

Using Albert Schweitzer and Richard Dawkins as slightly improbable guides, , Vosper highlights and discusses a way forward through these essentials: an open mind, passion, creativity, intellectual rigour, honesty, courage, respect and finally balance (patience, perseverance and pace).

5. Reconstructing Christianity

Vosper addresses the Bible (“If it’s the authoritative word of God for all time, we’re in big trouble!”), the human being of Jesus, the use of prayer by promises and the meaning of rituals.

6. Responsible Change

In an interesting twist, Vosper actually looks at the necessity of seeing things literally, or at least the consequences of what happens when we read things literally and what happens when we dismiss things as metaphorical. She also suggests here the idea of the spiritual toolbox, where the church cannot be an exclusive answer, but rather one offering  in a world of available spiritual tools.

7. Crucial Change

Vosper gives some good examples of just how powerful and valuable the network of churches around North America can be. “Dunkin’ Donuts and Tim Hortons, should they wish to reach the full extent of their market, would be envious of the number of outlets the church has managed to establish in every kind of neighbourhood… it would be safe to say there is not a community in Canada or the United States of America that does not have a church of some kind in it.” This illustration can be taken globally too, if we are willing to include other faiths and practices…


When I first read this book, I had already shed most of my Christian leanings and so her ideas weren’t that stressful to me or even revolutionary. But now that I have entered back into the conversation, I see just how scary Vosper might be to mainline Christianity. And like I said above, it’s a shame. Stress can be positive. Change can be the best solution to problems that just don’t go away. As she puts it, she doesn’t want to get rid of the baby or the bathwater. She’s drawing our attention to the monster in there, the mammoth or very human devil we have put there, and she is asking for your help to lift it out and show it the door.

Posted by: Andrew G | April 23, 2010

Fun Friday – Just in Case!

I struggled to find something good for today. And so, in desperation I went to the comedian Edward Current. Beware, extreme sarcasm ahead!

In some ways, like Wade’s The Faith Instinct, it does act as  a kind of reminder  to focus on the important things.

So, what do you think?

Posted by: Andrew G | April 21, 2010

The Faith Instinct – Nicholas Wade Part 2


There is a bit of a problem when it comes to quoting from this book. Nicholas Wade uses a reference or quote in nearly every single one of his paragraphs! So, this book is a conversation between the writer and reader as much as it is between Nicholas Wade and the modern anthropologists , the keen archaeologists of today, the dead poets of the ancients, the recent statistics gathered about society and even the drummer from the Grateful Dead! So, if the quote starts with a name, it’s not really Wade’s words but instead his source, or as close to his source as I wanted to get at this point.

It’s kind of a demonstration of the effort and care the writer has put into the work, and I want to respect that by using his own words and his own sources. As usual though, I think I went too far again. So, I will try to bold the provoking ones and the interesting-but-short-and-pithy ones. Depending of course on your whims, scan through quick to get the end, or slog through at your own pace.

Emile Durkheim: The faithful are not mistaken when they believe in the existence of a moral power to which they are subject and from which they receive what is best in themselves. That power exists, and it is society… religion is first and foremost a system of ideas by means of which individuals imagine the society of which they are members and the obscure yet intimate relations they have with it. (note – Wade uses Durkheim a lot, so I thought I would start here)

In the face of daunting fears, of famine, sickness, disaster or death, religion has always been a wellspring of hope.

There is no church of onself. A church is a community, a special group of people who share the same beliefs.

Religion is almost always prominent in a society’s response to external foes..

Roy Rappaport: Surely so expensive an enterprise [as religion] would have been defeated by selective pressures if it were merely frivolous or illusory… Religion has not merely been important by crucial to human adaptation.

That the mind has been prepared by evolution to believe in gods neither proves nor disproves their existence.

Religious behavior can be studied for its own sake, regardless of whether or not a deity exists.

People survive as social groups, not as individuals, and little is more critical to a social species than its members’ ability to communicate with one another. Because of the primacy of language the effectiveness of the other modes of communication, such as religion or gesture, often goes unappreciated. Just as language is a system for communicating thought, religious behavior is a way of signaling shared values and emotions.

Practical morality is not universal. Compassion and forgiveness are the behaviors owed to one’s in-group, but not necessarily to an out-group, and certainly not to an enemy. (note- is this like the hardest challenge put to us by individuals like Kant and Jesus, to be radically ethical?)

Religions are powerful creators of social fact. And it’s not merely facts they create, but a binding emotional knowledge that these facts are sacred truths.

Communities would not gain the social benefits of religious behavior unless people had strong personal motivations to participate. And indeed religion is attractive because it does bring many deep personal satisfactions. It is the source of some of the deepest emotions of which people are capable, such as feelings of awe, of exaltation, of transcendence, of rightness and harmony with the world. It gives people hope in adversity, because the faithful believe that through prayer and ritual they can exert some measure of control over unpredictable disasters like disease or bad weather.

Hunter gatherer societies don’t run prisons or have a penal code. You’re either in or you’re out, and if you are ostracized your prospects of surviving alone in the wilderness are unpromising. Better learn quickly to fit and conform… Without a police force of prison guards or judiciary, in any case impossible for hunter gatherers, early societies achieved through religion both social cohesion and effective compliance with the dictates of an invisible government.

Morality is older than religion – its roots can be seen in monkeys and apes—and religious behavior was engrafted on top of it in the human lineage alone. Understanding how the moral instincts evolved makes it easier to see that religious behavior too has an evolutionary origin.

Edward O Wilson: The time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized. Science for its part will test relentlessly every assumption about the human condition and in time uncover the bedrock of the moral and religious sentiments. (note – philosophy, like any proud parent, is reluctant to give up the reins, but can find some satisfaction that biology is growing up and leaving the nest, as every child of philosophy eventually does. There is a long tradition of philosophy giving ground to other fields of study. And when they do come back, the bonds are all more mature, and all the more loving. If you love it, let it go…)

Edward O. Wilson: Sometimes a concept is baffling not because it is profound but because it is wrong.

Jonathan Haidt: Moral judgments appear in consciousness automatically and effortlessly as the result of moral intuitions… Moral reasoning is an effortful process, engaged in after a moral judgment is made, in which a person searches for arguments that will support an already made judgment. (note – best, simplest explanation of apologetics I have seen yet)

On arguing with someone’s moral intuition: The hope of changing his mind by reasoning is as futile as trying to make a dog happy by wagging its tail for it.

The fundamental moral principle of “do as you would be done by” is found in all societies, as are prohibitions against murder, theft and incest.

The surprising idea that people might be inherently moral was difficult for biologists and others to accept because it conflicted with the usual assumption that human nature is selfish. Even harder to swallow, for those not steeped in the concepts of evolutionary biology, was the assertion that something as precious as morality could have blossomed from the murky soil of strife and warfare. (note – irony and contradiction are wrapped around the very heart of human nature)

Hunter gatherer societies are organized on a very different principle—they are completely egalitarian. It was during the transition from male dominance to egalitarianism that religious behavior emerged. (note – cycle? Male dominance reared itself up once again in ecclesiastical societies)

Charles Darwin: Nor should we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong an perhaps an inherited belief effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake.

Hunter gatherers have no headman or chiefs, and no one is willing to give or take orders. Men like power and will seize it if they can. But if they can’t rule, their next preference is that no one rule over them.

Christopher Boehm: Weapons are great equalizers, and would have had the effect of flattening out the male hierarchy of a still apelike society. Another leveler would have been the cognitive ability of the weak to form coalitions against tyrannical leaders.

Lawrence Keeley:Warfare is ultimately not a denial of the human capacity for social cooperation, but merely the most destructive expression of it.

It is striking that, with both ants and people, evolution should have made cooperation and warfare two sides of the same coin… With ants cohesion is secured by shared chemical signals that regulate their behavior and by the high degree of relatedness among members of a colony. Neither of these factors is compatible with human physiology. This is why ants don’t need religion but people do.

Auguste Forel: The greatest enemies of ants are other ants, just as the greatest enemies of men are other men. (note – I think I would disagree. For me, the greatest enemy is always found within.)

Why should human sexual affairs or dietary preferences matter in the least to immortal beings living in a spirit world? The assumption makes little sense unless the gods are viewed as embodying a society’s moral authority and its interest in having all members observe certain rules of social behavior…Gods die when people no longer worship them. (note – so then, do societies die when Gods no longer care for them?)

Earning a poor reputation in a small society is a bad idea.

Those who readily acquiesced to the possibility of moralizing gods, and who lived their lives in fear of such agencies, survived to become our ancestors.

… religion became universal long before priests existed.

David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson: Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.

The insight explains why human nature is so contradictory, capable of both of the most sickening cruelty and of the most self-denying care for others: the roots of altruism and of aggression are inextricably intertwined in evolutionary history.

Sacrifice, prayer and ritual all have the same basic purpose, that of influencing the gods’ behavior.

It’s the sharing of information that binds a group of individuals together. This can be spoken information, but more important than words in the binding process is emotional information. This is conveyed by different, and probably much older, forms of communication than language. The vehicles of emotional information are gesture, such as dance, and evocative sounds, such as music, including wordless chanting and drumming.

Evidently chimps can conduct sophisticated coalitional politics without uttering a single word.

Geoffrey Miller: Group selection models of music evolution are not just stories of warm, cuddly bonding within a group; they must also be stories of those warm, cuddly groups out-competing and exterminating other groups that do not spend so much time dancing around their campfires. (note—We are Sparta!)

Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead: There have been many times when I’ve felt as if the drum has carried me to an open door into another world.

... The focus of their rituals is communal activity and needs, not individual psychic satisfaction…  primitive religions are little concerned with matters of theology.

In Protestant churches Sunday service may last an hour, and there is grumbling if the minister’s sermon goes on too long. But many aboriginal ceremonies lasted for days, with hours of singing through the night. An initiation ceremony performed by the Arunta tribe of central Australia in 1896 to 1897 “commenced in the middle of September, and continued till the middle of the succeeding January… (note – quote for my dad more than anything. He has commented on the length of sermons before. But, can you imagine the commitment and conviction needed for this?)

Emperor Vespasian, joking on his deathbed: “Vae, pute deus fio.” Drat, I think I’m becoming a god.

... adherents of the ancestral religion sough to secure survival in the real world; those of modern religions are more focused on salvation in the next.

… hunter gatherers had found what seemed to them a window into the realm of the supernatural. Through the window, it seemed, they could communicate with the spirit beings that controlled vital matters in the world of the living, such as the gift of children, or fair weather and fine harvests, or fortune and war. They seem not to have considered the possibility that the beguiling magic surface might have been no window, just a distorting mirror.

Zeno of Greece: The human intellect was the true temple and no others were needed.

Frank Lambert: When white Christians attend black worship services, they often comment on the power of the music and the ‘mystical ecstatic experience’ that transports the singers to the very throne of God.

Divination [through animal entrails for example] clearly had limitations as a means of communicating with the supernatural. (note – well, yea… clearly!)

With the advent of literacy, religious narratives could now be written down and studied. The sacred text became an increasingly prominent part of religious practice, matching the shift in emphasis from ritual to belief.

Pope Gregory: For it is undoubtedly impossible to cut away everything at once from hard hearts, since one who strives to ascend to the highest place must needs rise by steps or paces and not by leaps. (note – good attitude towards change?)

History, unfortunately, did not take the course the Bible’s authors had hoped for.

People often convert if approached by or through close friends or family members. Cold calls seldom succeed.

The Christians’ willingness to help one another was particularly noticeable in a society like that of the Roman empire which was severely lacking in social services.

Despite the occasional sparring with Pharisees depicted in the gospels, Jesus seems to have been a conventional Jew, observant of the Jewish law. (note – something just makes me smile about the description of  Jesus as a conventional Jew…)

The first known historical reference to Muhammad may occur on an Arab-Sassanian coin minted in Damascus in 690/691, depending on how the coin’s legend—muhammad rasul allah—is translated. “Muhammad is the messenger of Allah” is the obvious translation but another is “The messenger of God is to be praised.”

Religions may in fact be essential for social cohesion. No society yet known has lasted long without a religion.

… religion retains, even in modern economies, an essential role in establishing the trust on which all economic transactions ultimately depend… many intelligent Americans and Europeans have no clear idea of the complex institutions that underpin their own economies.

Robert Bellah (channeling Michel Foucault and Joseph Campbell, in my opinion): We are inclined to think that sacred texts, canonical texts, have in themselves an intrinsic meaning and are by nature qualitatively different from other texts, but this is in error. In fact, sacred texts must be read or listened to in the context of a community for which they are sacred: it is in the ritual practices of a living community that they become sacred. Ritual is the place where meaning occurs… The ritual of reciting the Lord’s Prayer reiterates the meaning of our worship of God.

When trust is high, social and economic transactions proceed easily and efficiently.

Religion induces so powerful an urge to trust members of the same faith that rational calculation can be swept aside. (note- especially  when it comes to bringing authority figures to justice?)

The issue is not whether atheists understand moral rights and wrongs but whether or not they will act on this understanding if they harbor no fear of divine punishment. (note – this experiment is kind of going on right now in some parts of the world)

Just as a vaccine may achieve what immunologists call herd immunity, by immunizing merely enough people to break a pathogen’s chain of transmission, religion can help create a moral community if enough people either are believers or behave as if they were… the morality of religions cannot be reduced to texts, especially ancient anecdotes that play no role in daily practice. Religions are based on rituals that generate emotional commitment to behave in certain ways.

Few human bonds are stronger than those of family, but the prophet’s dictates induced parents to abandon and exile their teenage children. Once the innate susceptibility to fear supernatural justice is triggered, people will go to almost any lengths to obey what priests or rulers tell them is the gods’ will.

Religion is no longer a comprehensive guide to daily life… Time and place are now predominantly secular, with the sacred often pushed into a tiny corner of both.

On Christianity with Constantine: As it began to share in the responsibilities of empire, the once peaceful church became habituated to the use of force in the state’s interest.

Far from beginning as a persecuted sect, Islam was shaped as a religion of empire… the religion specified only an Islamic state, not a separate church within it.

There are many Islams, just as there are many Christianities.

[Religion] is usually no more a cause of war than are weapons; both are primarily means of war. Even when the formal cause of war is expressed in terms of religion, the underlying motives are usually secular.

One of the most surprising achievements of the secular state, though it is generally taken for granted, is the ability to induce men to sacrifice their lives in battle without any explicit religious incentive.

… people in modern societies are probably easier to discipline and mold into a cohesive fighting force than were people in early societies.

… human nature is part angel and part brute. And individual may be either or the other, but societies and nations are inextricably both.

In the United States… religions must evangelize to survive, or competitors will lure away members of their flock. Americans switch religions (or denominations) with surprising frequency: no less than 44 percent of people profess a religious affiliation different from that in which they were raised.

Samuel Huntington: What is universalism to the West is imperialism to the rest.

Human societies have several kinds of linkage but religion is the only one that binds people on an emotional level, signaling who has common values and whose values are alien. Language and ethnicity can be split—a person can be bilingual, or half French and half Dutch—but religion confers an indivisible identity. It’s hard to be half Catholic and half Muslim.

Is religious behavior in fact unnecessary in the modern secular state? Should we thank the gods for their tutelage and bid them farewell? If history does not end in secularism, what is the future of religion?

Religion is about symbolic communication The sacred texts of the three monotheisms include themes that symbolize the values and traditions of each religion… But the assertions of historicity present a problem because they make it much harder for each of the monotheisms to adapt to changing times and needs… The fixed texts of Christianity and Islam have made both religions hard to update, and this in turn has led to clashes with modernity. In the long run, it would seem that both religions need to adapt to new knowledge or be undermined by it.

But is belief in a supernatural power—the stumbling block for many people in today’s highly educated societies—an essential feature of religion?

The role of human choice in shaping human evolution is far form understood, in part because it has been found only recently that culture can feed back into the genome… For generation after generation, people have passionately sought the better course for themselves and their families and their community and, despite many dead ends and reverses, they have in general attained it.

There is another cultural creation that stirs the emotions, conveys wordless meaning, and exalts the mind to a different plane. This strange parallel to religion is music. Like the propensity for religious behavior, the appreciation of music is a universal human faculty. Like religion, music is primarily a social activity, though it can be pursued privately too. As with religion, music draws people together. And religion of course draws heavily on music, from which it may once have developed.

Conservatism has its virtues. People like their religion to embody values and principles that do not shift or yield. (note – this kind of pained me to quote. But, I have to open myself up to wisdom once in a while…)

Religious behavior evolved for a single reason: to further the survival of human societies. Those who administer religions should not assume they cannot be altered… [Religions] are shaped in implicit negotiation with supernatural powers who when give instructions to promote society’s interests. Much of course depends on the craft and inspiration of the negotiators. But first it is necessary to understand that negotiation is possible.

Recommendations and Final Thoughts

The Faith Instinct is a book for students.  It deserves more time and care than what I can give it in just one week. Nicholas Wade tries to keep an inoffensive, factual tone throughout the book but the conclusions are uncomfortable and challenging to any uncompromising or implacable religionists that may look at it. Students enter in to student life with a willingness to grow and change through the challenge of fitting together new and old ideas. As Wade demonstrates with this book, the conversation around religion is getting richer and deeper but it is your participation in the ethical rituals that will decide the world’s grace and salvation, not your beliefs.

 Don't call me a mindless philosopher,
you overweight glob of grease! Now
come out before somebody sees you.

That's funny, the damage
doesn't look as bad from out here. 

Posted by: Andrew G | April 19, 2010

The Faith Instinct – Nicholas Wade


Nicholas Wade has some considerable credits to his name. He has been a writer and editor for such magazines as Science and Nature. He has also written for The New York Times and has at this point about six other titles of his own.

In a curious aside, not really related to this book, Nicholas Wade has moved on to bigger, woollier things — he is part of a group intending to recreate a woolly mammoth from genetic material. Here is the interview with Stephen Colbert (Comedy Network). For American readers, here is  a link to the video on Nicholas Wade’s own website (Comedy Central).

Technical Bits

The Faith Instinct is less than 300 pages long and broken into twelve somewhat evenly spaced chapters. Wade is using a wide lens right from the start, looking at world history and world religions, and drawing from a lengthy set of resources and cultures.

He is a scientific writer and the chapter titles give a little a taste of his style (examples: The Moral Instinct, Music, Dance and Trance, The Tree of Religion, The Ecology of Religion). Wade isn’t using the intricate, careful sentences of Jack Miles or the vocabulary-rich parry-and-riposte work of Christopher Hitchens. Wade remains even and tempered with objective sentences that communicate his successive points. He is exploring what is before him and, to use the phrase, following where the evidence seems to lead him.

As a note of caution, I would suggest that the reader would have to be at least comfortable with the idea of evolution. There are pages where the words ‘evolution’ or ‘adaptation’ come up in ever paragraph. This book is certainly not an attack on some worldview or anything, but it is a science-writer using  scientific explanations in order to understand how religion has changed and why religions endures.


Mea Culpa

I have to admit that at first I was reluctant to look at this book. I had a poor assumption that this was  a defense for specific religions. Let me say, in plain and simple terms, I was wrong. This book isn’t a persuasion so much as an exploration. It is an attempt to remove the filtering lenses of cultural bias, temporal assumptions or exclusive truths and examine what is really happening in the conscious, unconscious, emotional and intellectual activities bound up in religion.

Wade’s general idea is that we can look at religion the way we look at language or how we look at more directly scientific stuff like genetics. He wants to look at religion from an evolutionary perspective. It is an adaptation that has affected the way we gather as communities, share emotional bonds and distribute loyalties.

Wade relies quite heavily on the work of anthropologists and archeologists. He spends a great deal of time on the subject of hunter-gatherer societies and their rituals. Dance and music were of supreme importance in achieving trance-like states or transcendent experiences to commune with the supernatural.

The change to agricultural societies and then to city-states and nations led to a nearly systematic specialization from what Wade refers to as the ecstatic connection to the supernatural (where any individual could access the supernatural) to the ecclesiastical (where the divine could only be accessed through a priesthood with control of a sacred text). There was a shift in interests too. As Wade puts it, “adherents of the ancestral religion sought to secure survival in the real world; those of modern religions are more focused on salvation in the next.” But Wade does point out that in every religion there is an attempt to negotiate with the other power for some personal gain. The idea of a supernatural power is an extremely efficient way to regulate behaviour within a community.

Wade does a pretty good job in presenting a case for the evolutionary advantages of religion, in my opinion. But by no means is he advocating some specific religion. Drawing from archeological research and other sources, he does (with some cool, impersonal detachment) discuss the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For each he describes evidence that shows how each sacred text was a political piece of propaganda ‘created’ for specific rulers interested in expanding regional borders, creating national cohesion or establishing emotional solidarity.

He spends a great deal of time on the topics of ritual and community. There are some amazing, fascinating little illustrations on smaller and nearly lost cultures. The island-dwelling Trobriands near Papua New Guinea had a tradition of exchange for honour and prestige. Ceremonial armbands made from shellfish were given as gifts around the islands in a counterclockwise direction. Necklaces made from disks of a red shell were given as gifts around the islands in a clockwise direction. As part of the trade system, islanders would travel hundreds of miles on rough seas to carry out these ceremonial transactions. And in a number of years the armband or necklace would make its way around the islands as a gift back to the original owner. On the Island of Bali a complex system of farming, flooding and then burning rice fields was developed in order to control pests that could ruin the crop. By the gate of each flood canal is a temple, and all the coordination and timing comes from a central priesthood in continual communication with the farming groups.

What I found most interesting in Wade’s book is that he does not shy away from the contradictory nature of religion. In terms of evolution, the main measuring stick is found in an individual’s passing on of genes to the next generation. But with religion, the individual is compelled and even justified in sacrificing his or her own life for the benefit of the group or the higher power. Death can really cramp your chances of passing on your genes. But Wade addresses this by suggesting several explanations. In some respects, it is actually a control that allows balance. Overpopulation causes as many problems to the progress of a species as a lack of population. Also, such beliefs and demonstrations of self-sacrifice can be used as ways to identify loyal individuals and  ‘free-loaders’ (Wade’s term for people that take much more than they give). As a result, rewards can be distributed accordingly. As well, Wade suggests ways to look at the idea of group evolution. The community and the religion can carry on because of the sacrifice and loyalty of the individuals.

As I said earlier, Wade is mostly interested in ritual and community and the adaptive advantages gained from them. I tend to be more interested in symbol and story (as can be seen by my explorations on world religions in March). However, I can already tell that this book is one well-spring of information that I will be dipping my bucket back into again and again.

I will continue with The Faith Instinct on Wednesday with some quotations and a final wrap-up.

Posted by: Andrew G | April 16, 2010

Forgiving Fridays

One thing I could never forgive is a religion that produced no comedians.

I got this cartoon through an email from Dear Dad, but here is the link to An oldie  (2005 is old now??) but a goodie…

They are still coming up with good stuff. And, I really like their “rate-this” system (the choice of smilies below each image). I need to come up with something like that.  Easy feedback is better than no feedback.

For giggles, I followed as the reverend suggests, and reread Matthew 4:6. Well, the whole chapter really. That’s a lesson from Christopher Hitchens actually (since this week is about his book). In the introduction of his book he talks about how the Bible lessons from his school-days gave him the starting practice  of  literary criticism and the importance of context. (And,  I just thought it would be a delightful contradiction to end this Atheist Week with a look  at scripture. 🙂 )

Jesus and the Devil go walking in the wilderness. The Devil challenges Jesus:  change these rocks to bread,  jump from a tall height, worship me instead of God.  Jesus, though flattered by the attention, refuses each advance.

Matthew 4:6, more specifically, goes like this (depending on the translation of course):

And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.

Jesus gives a response: “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”

Now, testing your Lord God in certain ways is maybe ok (for examples, check these sources). But outright tempting, well in modern terms, is not safe. I have a friend that says, “Don’t tease a bear.” And it’s fairly obvious why — sometimes, the bear gets you.

(I think there is a passage where God openly asks, through a prophet I think, to be tested. Trust Him, do as He instructs, and your crops will grow and the rains will come. I can’t remember the passage, but I will get cookies for anyone that has the passage handy.)

So what’s the lesson for today? How about we ease up on our guardian angels? And maybe even God for that matter? They have a lot of work to do. It’s a good time for us to step up and take better care of each other.

(Main source used: the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible. Yea, they even make Bibles for skeptics! That’s how serious Bible-study can get!)

Posted by: Andrew G | April 14, 2010

God is Not Great – Christopher Hitchens Part 2


In looking over Monday’s post, I realized I didn’t really give much of a summary on Hitchens’ points. I hope the following quotations address some of the missing ingredients, or if anything, demonstrate his style and  illustrate his convictions. He is committed to the daunting task of changing people’s minds through argument. I will ask you this though: is he successful or merely challenging?

(Even after editing, this is much longer than I first intended. The short pithy ones are worthwhile if you are only doing a quick scan. Otherwise, slog through or just skip to the end, depending of course on your whims…)

The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant from his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted.

Religious faith is, precisely because we are still-evolving creatures, ineradicable. It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other. For this reason, I would not prohibit it even if I thought I could. Very generous of me, you may say. But will the religious grant me the same indulgence? (note – good of Hitchens to admit religion will likely never die out, but does he have to do it in this high-minded way?)

As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments that I have touched upon. Religion poisons everything.

… religion does not, and in the long run cannot, be content with its own marvelous claims and sublime assurances. It must seek to interfere with the lives of nonbelievers, or heretics, or adherents of other faiths. It may speak about the bliss of the next world, but it wants power in this one… And it does not have the confidence in its own various preachings even to allow coexistence between different faiths.

But the literal mind does not understand the ironic mind, and sees it always as a source of danger.

The nineteen suicide murderers of New York and Washington and Pennsylvania were beyond any doubt the most sincere believers on those planes. Perhaps we can hear a little less about how “people of faith” possess moral advantages that others can only envy.

The human papillomavirus (HPV) has long been known as a sexually transmitted infection that, at its worst, can cause cervical cancer in women. A vaccine is now available – these days vaccines are increasingly swiftly developed – not to cure this malady but to immunize women against it. But there are forces in the administration who oppose the adoption of this measure on the grounds that it fails to discourage premarital sex. To accept he spread of cervical cancer in the name of god is no different, morally or intellectually, from sacrificing these women on a stone altar and thanking the deity for giving us the sexual impulse and then condemning it. (note – a number of Hitchens’ illustrations take this form)

In Ireland alone – once an unquestioning disciple of Holy Mother Church – it is now estimated that the unmolested children of religious schools were very probably the minority. (note – Hitchens might have, but I have not checked into the source for the statement’s accuracy)

The ignorant psychopath or brute who mistreats his children must be punished but can be understood. Those who claim a heavenly warrant for the cruelty have been tainted by evil, and also constitute far more of a danger.

The connection between religious faith and mental disorder is, from the viewpoint of the tolerant and the “multicultural”, both very obvious and highly unmentionable. If someone murders his children and then says that god ordered him to do it, we might find him not guilty by reason of insanity but he would be incarcerated nonetheless. If someone lives in a cave and claims to be seeing visions and experiencing prophetic dreams, we may leave him alone until he turns out tot be planning, in a nonphantasmal way, the joy of suicide bombing. If someone announces himself to be god’s anointed, and begins stockpiling Kool-Aid and weapons and helping himself to the wives and daughters of his acolytes, we raise a bit more than a skeptical eyebrow. But if these things can be preached under the protection of an established religion, we are expected to take them at face value. All three monotheisms, just to take the most salient example, praise Abraham for being willing to hear voices and then to take his son Isaac for a long and rather mad and gloomy walk. And then the caprice by which his murderous hand is finally stayed is written down as divine mercy. (note – for some reason, I wrote in the margin beside this passage “ahhh, the art of interpretation…”)

Who but a slave thanks his master for what his master has decided to do without bothering to consult him?

I simply laugh when I read the Koran, with its endless prohibitions on sex and its corrupt promise of infinite debauchery in the life to come: it is like seeing through the “let’s pretend” of a child, without the indulgence that comes from watching the innocent at play.

… the fanatics are taken early from their families, taught to despise their mothers and sisters, and come to adulthood without ever having had a normal conversation, let alone a normal relationship, with a woman. This is disease by definition.

Christianity is too repressed to offer sex in paradise – indeed it has never been able to evolve a tempting heaven at all – but it has been lavish in its promise of sadistic and everlasting punishment for sexual backsliders, which is nearly as revealing in making the same point in a different way.

One of the very many connections between religious belief and the sinister, spoiled, selfish childhood of our species is the repressed desire to see everything smashed up and ruined and brought to naught. This tantrum-need is coupled with two other sorts of “guilty joy”, or, as the Germans say, schadenfreude. First, one’s own death is canceled – or perhaps repaid or compensated – by the obliteration of all others. Second, it can always be egotistically hoped that one will be personally spared, gathered contentedly to the bosom of the mass exterminator, and from a safe place observe the sufferings of those less fortunate.

Many religions now come before us with ingratiating smirks and outspread hands, like an unctuous merchant in a bazaar. They offer consolation and solidarity and uplift, competing as they do in a marketplace. But we have the right to remember how barbarically they behaved when they were strong and were making an offer that people could not refuse.

If one must have faith in order to believe something, or believe in something, then the likelihood of that something having any truth is considerably diminished. The harder work of inquiry, proof, and demonstration is infinitely more rewarding, and has confronted us with findings far more “miraculous” and “transcendent” than any theology. (note – I thought this was an interesting re-use of the words)

It is because we evolved from sightless bacteria, now found to share our DNA, that we are so myopic.

From a plurality of prime movers, the monotheists have bargained it down to a single one. They are getting ever nearer to the true, round figure. (note – Cute, Christopher, cute…)

We must also confront the fact that evolution is, as well as smarter than we are, infinitely more callous and cruel, and also capricious. (note – careful, let’s not make it into a demon…)

On the Ten Commandments: No society ever discovered has failed to protect itself from self-evident crimes like those supposedly stipulated at Mount Sinai.

Then there is the very salient question of what the commandments do not say. Is it too modern to notice that there is nothing about the protection of children from cruelty, nothing about rape, nothing about slavery, and nothing about genocide? Or is it too exactingly “in context” to notice that some of these very offenses are about to be positively recommended?

On Prophetic writing: If it should seem odd that an action should be deliberately performed in order that a foretelling be vindicated, that is because it is odd. And it is necessarily odd because, just like the Old Testament, the “New” one is also a work of crude carpentry, hammered together long after its purported events, and full of improvised attempts to make things come out right.

… religion arouses suspicion by trying to prove too much.

All religions take care to silence or to execute those who question them (and I choose to regard this recurrent tendency as a sign of their weakness rather than their strength.)

On Muhammad: It was noticed even by some of his wives that the Prophet was capable of having a “revelation” that happened to suit his short-term needs, and he was sometimes teased about it. (note – again, I haven’t thoroughly checked the source on this…)

Mecca is closed to unbelievers, which somewhat contradicts its claim to universality.

… exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence.

The colossal volcanic explosion at Krakatoa in the late nineteenth century provoked an enormous swing toward Islam among the terrified population of Indonesia. All the holy books talk excitedly of floods, hurricanes, lightning, and other portents. After the terrible Asian tsunami of 2004, and after the inundation of New Orleans in 2005, quite serious and learned men such as the archbishop of Canterbury were reduced to the level of stupefied peasants when they publicly agonized over how to interpret god’s will in the matter. But it one makes the simple assumption, based on absolutely certain knowledge, that we live on a plant that is still cooling, has a molten core, faults and cracks in its crust, and a turbulent weather system, then there is simply no need for any such anxiety. Everything is already explained. I fail to see why the religious are so reluctant to admit this: it would fee them from all the futile questions about why god permits so much suffering. But apparently this annoyance is a small price to pay in order to keep alive the myth of divine intervention.

What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

Shakespeare has much more moral salience than the Talmud or the Koran or any account of the fearful squabbles of Iron Age tribes. (note – well, minus the anti-Semitism and anti-lawyerism… ok, really I just don’t have that much affection for Shakespeare, but that’s me…)

There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb. But in general I feel better, and no less radical, and you will feel better too, I guarantee, once you leave hold of the doctrinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking.

Jesus, it is true, shows no personal interest in gain, but he does speak of treasure in heaven and even of “mansions” as an inducement to follow him. Is it not further true that all religions down the ages have shown a keen interest in the amassment of material good in the real world?

In March 1826 a court in Bainbridge, New York, convicted a twenty-one-year-old man of being “a disorderly person and an imposter.” That ought to have been all we ever heard of Joseph Smith, who at trial admitted to defrauding citizens by organizing mad gold-digging expeditions and also to claiming to possess dark or “necromantic” powers. However, within four years he was back in the local newspapers (all of which one may still read) as the discoverer of the “Book of Mormon.”

Determined women like this [Mrs. Harris] appear far too seldom in the history of religion.

Phenomena can be explained in biological terms. In primitive times, is it not possible that those who believed in the shaman’s cure had a better morale as a result, and thus a slightly but significantly higher chance of actually being cured? “Miracles” and similar nonsense to one side, not even modern medicine rejects this thought. And it seems possible, moving to the psychological arena, that people can be better off believing in something than in nothing, however untrue that something may be. (note – wow, but maybe this is as far as Hitchens is willing to go?)

A young black pastor names Dr. Martin Luther King began to preach that his people – the descendants of the very slavery that Joseph Smith and all other Christian churches had so warmly approved – should be free. It is quite impossible even for an atheist like myself to read his sermons or watch recordings of his speeches without profound emotion of the sort that can sometimes bring genuine tears. Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in response to a group of white Christian clerics who had urged him to show restraint and “patience” – in other words, to know his place – is a model of polemic. Icily polite and generous-minded, it still breathes with an unquenchable conviction that the filthy injustice of racism must be borne no longer.

The god of Moses would brusquely call for other tribes, including his favorite one, to suffer massacre and plague and even extirpation, but when the grave closed over his victims he was essentially finished with them unless he remembered to curse their succeeding progeny. Not until the advent of the Prince of Peace do we hear of the ghastly idea of further punishing and torturing the dead.

… a high moral character is not a precondition for great moral accomplishments. (note – I really like this. It’s simple enough to be a mantra, and still achievable for human beings, while not being a license necessarily for do-whatever-you-feel-like stuff. It focuses on the possible action, not the team you play for.)

When Dr. King took a stand on the steps of Mr. Lincoln’s memorial and changed history, he too adopted a position that had effectively been forced upon him. But he did so as a profound humanist and nobody could ever use his name to justify oppression or cruelty. He endures for that reason, and his legacy has very little to do with his professed theology. No supernatural force was required to make the case against racism.

… to reject the belief is by no means to profess belief in nothing.

Children who have felt cruelty know very well how to inflict it. (from an elder of the Acholi people – note – one of the simplest and most nightmarish truths of the human condition. And all the more reason we must make this world safer for them.)

“What is the reflection of a mind discarded?”

Hitchens on Buddism: A faith that despises the mind and the free individual, that preaches submission and resignation, and that regards life as a poor and transient thing, is ill-equipped for self-criticism.

On Abraham’s burial site: To this day, religious people kill each other and kill each other’s children for the right to exclusive property in this unidentifiable and unlocatable hole in a hill.

An easy way to spot an inhumane killer was to notice that he was guided by a sincere and literal observance of the divine instruction.

An offering of a virgin or an infant or a prisoner was assumed to appease the gods: once again, not a very good advertisement for the moral properties of religion.

The Dalai Lama tells us that you can visit a prostitute as long as someone else pays her. (note – what??? I couldn’t even find a source cited for this one. Any help with this one would be greatly appreciated.)

… one may choose to be altruistic, whatever that may mean, but by definition one may not be compelled into altruism.

The obsession with children, and with rigid control over their upbringing, has been part of every system of absolute authority. It may have been a Jesuit who was first actually quoted as saying, “Give me the child until he is ten, and I will give you the man,” but the idea is very much order than the school of Ignatius Loyola. Indoctrination of the young often has the reverse effect, as we also know from the fate of many secular ideologies, but it seems that the religious will run this risk in order to imprint the average boy or girl with enough propaganda. What else can they hope to do? If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.

… not all conceptions are, or ever were, going to lead to births.

… it is useless to look for consistency in the covenants that people believe they have made with god.

All that the totalitarians have demonstrated is that the religious impulse – the need to worship – can take even more monstrous forms if it is repressed. This might not necessarily be a compliment to our worshipping tendency.

Our species will never run out of fools but I dare say that there have been at least as many credulous idiots who professed faith in god as there have been dolts and simpletons who concluded otherwise.

… there is nothing to be feared in death, and in the meantime all attempts to read the gods’ intentions, such as studying the entrails of animals, are an absurd waste of time. (note – I somewhat agree. There is nothing to fear in death unless you put something there yourself.)

Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.

Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important.

It is within the compass of the average person. The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected. The pursuit of unfettered scientific inquiry, and availability of new findings to masses of people by easy electronic means, will revolutionize our concepts of research and development. (note – no offense, Chris, I’m with you somewhat… but if you use vocab like this, the average person will likely tune you out and go off seeking something more comforting and easy… we are our own worst enemies, after all…)

Recommendations and Final Thoughts

I’m a little rundown and weary after this book. Imagine a short but intense session on a cycle machine — you didn’t hurt your knees at all, but you certainly burned the calories and worked some good muscle groups. The exercise of this book is worth it if you are up for it. The religious folk might get pretty offended by some parts, and feel all the more awkward by the end. Christopher Hitchens holds nothing back but by the end seems to suggest we can all be pals… if you are willing to see things his way or at least let go of absolutism. Those already on his side will likely get more out of this book and feel all the more vindicated because of it.

Sorry about the mess.

Posted by: Andrew G | April 12, 2010

God is Not Great – Christopher Hitchens


Christopher Hitchens is as much a personality as he is a writer. I have watched a few of his talks, a few of his debates and maybe one or two of his interviews before getting to this book.  So, while reading I could hear in my head his accent and inflection steeping each page with his flavor of wit. I think it affected my impression of the book, for I feel this book is as much about its author as it is about “How Religion Poisons Everything.” He has been an editor, contributor and critic for Vanity Fair and other magazines. He is a prominent figure in the “New Atheist” brand and has several books to his name that explore such figures as Thomas Paine, Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa.  I think critic really is the best word for him – his gifts are analysis and evaluation.

In offering a personal opinion (wildly unrelated to the scope of this book review, really), I think it might be difficult to be a friend to Hitchens. I get this sense he would simply and fearlessly call you on every hypocritical act you do and every inconsistency you hold dear (regardless of his own foibles, should he have any). But, if by some grace he he did think of you as a friend, his loyalty would be serious and his attacks upon your enemies would be fierce.

Technical Bits

Hitchens draws from a wide scope of resources — from Ladies’ Home Journal to Plato’s Dialogues to government websites to C.S. Lewis to Malcolm Muggeridge to newspaper websites to even himself (of course). It’s a brilliant appr0ach, really. This is how the modern mind works, in my opinion. Smarty-pants school-type people don’t have a monopoly on good thought. In fact they never did, but it’s taken a while for the secret to get out. Hitchens has a set of  stethoscopes on the pulses of a lot of different readers, and he really enjoys being able to go from one style of criticism to another with his  fluid writing. He has quite a heavy vocab, though, and he isn’t afraid to let fly.

The book is less than 300 pages and can be a quick run of a read. It is broken into 19 chapters with title-names that range from whimsical (A Short Digression on the Pig; or, Why Heaven Hates Ham) to blunt (Religion Kills) to suggestive (Does Religion Make People Behave Better?)

This book is a demonstration of the fun Hitchens has with words. Some sentences are long and winding and careful in leading the reader to the author’s point. But when he wants to punch you, you feel the jab in three or four words.


Hitchens is certainly taking stabs at what he feels is a gross injustice upon humanity. There is a sense from Hitchens’ writing that he has felt personally offended by the abuses of religion and abuses of authority within religions.  But, if Hitchens is going to be offended about anything then he is certainly going to take it more personally than maybe he needs to, it seems.

The subtitle, “How Religion Poisons Everything” is really what the book is about. The title, “God is not Great” is just a clever way to market the thing. Hitchens in fact seems to have no real beef with God whatsoever. And I would consider this another brilliant move by Hitchens. Atheist or theist, it is a difficult and overly egotistical chore to criticize the unknown with any accuracy. Opt for the easier targets when given the choice.

Hitchens does not spend a lot of time going deep, but he does cover many of the wide issues, historical and modern, in world religions. Earlier I mentioned that when he wants you to feel his punch, he gives it to you quick. However, while reading the book I kept feeling as though these were strafing blows and not finishing strikes. It’s almost as if Hitchens has taken a cue from the ancient Mongol cavalry of Ghenghis Khan — keep cutting at the enemy’s flanks until the body caves in upon itself. And at the moment when the enemy collects its breath and is ready for rebuttal, change your direction, deflect and taunt from a safe distance until another opening is available. I don’t think Hitchens has the technical or theological or scientific backgrounds to take the spear deep into the heart of those he wishes to criticize for the killing blow, but he had made it clear that he can keep his head on his square shoulders and his butt on his agile horse.

I remember watching one of his talks on television with my parents. Hitchens was going step-by-step through the inconsistencies of the Old Testament’s versions of a moral code. He was focusing on Mosaic Law and the Ten Commandments.  Hitchens was demonstrating how the law appeared in many different forms and was focused not on morality but on property and subservience and so on. My dad commented afterward something to the effect that “Everything he said was brought up 50 years ago when I was in Theological College.” A similar thought kept coming up as I went through this book. Hitchens is putting together some ideas that really have to be addressed, but a lot of this has been said before. These fights have already been fought. Maybe not in today’s public arena, but certainly there are fields stained with these arguments already.

I’m playing with these battle ideas because of Hitchens’ own final words:

We have first to transcend our prehistory, and escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars and the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection. “Know yourself,” said the Greeks, gently suggesting the consolations of philosophy. To clear the mind of this project, it has become necessary to know the enemy, and to prepare to fight it.

And this is my personal ho-hum about the book and Hitchens, to an extent – he isn’t offering any satisfying solution, yet. To be fair, this book is a call to arms rather than a tender for a reconstruction project. Hitchens is doing what Hitchens does best, so I can’t fault him on that. But in the end I don’t know if the reader is going to find much new from this book. It’s a great read, it’s a fun way to catch up on the criticisms of institutionalized religion, or to sharpen your teeth if you are on either specific side of the conflict. It is not a great antidote, however, to the poison it describes. Hitchens would rather gather the hunting party to kill the beast than collect a sample for the lab or even dress the weeping wounds.

I will continue with God is not Great on Wednesday with some quotations and a final wrap-up.

Here is a link to the google sample of the book.

Posted by: Andrew G | April 9, 2010

Fun Friday

I may not always listen to my dad, but I know wisdom when it comes in advice-form. This week has been a bit heavy, and so today’s post is a bit lighter.

Julia Sweeney mentioned Tom Lehrer in one of her youtube vids, and so I looked him up. He is completely new to me. I’ve never heard of him before.

It surprised me a little at how the headlines may have changed since Tom’s day, but the news isn’t really that different. Hmm.


If you know much by him, what would you recommend?

Or, what’s your favourite religion-themed tune?

(Always good for a smile, one of my favs is Monty Python’s Always Look on the Bright Side of Life…)

(Beware, language…)

Posted by: Andrew G | April 7, 2010

God: A Biography – Jack Miles Part 2


I gleaned pages and pages of quotes out of this book by Jack Miles. I hope this small sampling either entices you to glimpse at the book or encourages you to keep exploring the depths.

[note – these are likely best read kind of Proverb-style.]

A man can give away his fortune, but not his history or his character.

Religion – may be seen as literature that has succeeded beyond any writer’s wildest dreams.

He is a household word; he is, welcome or not, a virtual member of the Western Family.

God is no saint, strange to say.

Unless the viewer’s imagination is carried offstage into the life for which there is no direct evidence onstage, the play dies with the protagonist. A character understood to have no life offstage can have no life onstage.

We have this ongoing assessment of people we live and work with… and we do it with God as well.

In art, typically nothing is left to chance. In the real world, chance accounts for a great deal.

The Hebrew language of the Bible has no word for ‘story’. [note- personal opinion here, but this may account for people today having a really poor understanding of the role of story]

God doesn’t seem to want servants, worshipers, lovers. He wants an image.

Narrative is fond of deception stories.

Everything for the Lord God hangs on obedience to his deceptive command.

He is like a director whose actors never seem to get it right and who is, as a result, often angry but who doesn’t, himself, always know beforehand what getting it right will be. When the actors get it wrong, he too gets it wrong until, finally, they get it more or less right, and he calms down enough to admit it.

God is the kind of living question mark a wholly prospective character. No history, genealogy, past, backstory… Past is what makes human characters coherent and interesting.

Circumcision, from the start, has had everything to do with foiling the divine murderer.

Morality has been… the price of peace and the basis of civilization.

If God’s goal is to make mankind in his image then morality, ultimate for God, must be ultimate for mankind.

The profound originality of the divine-human pact in which both parties complain endlessly about each other has too rarely been acknowledged as such. [note – God the creator of irritation?]

The Bible never speaks of the brain.

But the unique power of this classical Hebrew narrative is that it deliberately does just that which tends to make us impatient. Taking the Tanakh {hebrew Bible] on its own terms, everything in it really happened (history), its outcome is of enormous personal consequence for each and every reader or hearer (religion), and, page by page and sometimes line by line, it has the unmistakable confidence and artistic panache of a living literature (fiction). There is no reversing the evolution of the modern mind. We shall never know this unity again. No historian, no preacher, no novelist can ever re-create it – can ever again, that is, be all three at once. But by an effort of the imagination, we can experience in this central text of our literary heritage the unity as it then was. [note – although this is lengthy, I think this quote is is so important. Miles explains out the modern situation so well but without getting too offensive or too harsh]

There is an enormous difference between the God of our fathers and God our Father. To this point in the narrative and, effectively, for a good while after it as well, God is the God of our fathers and not God our Father. The Lord God – without a spouse – has created the world, but he has not fathered it forth. He spoke it into existence, and that mode of creation has rightly been seen as a deliberate repudiation of the sexual modalities otherwise so common in world mythology. One may say, of course, that, metaphorically or figuratively speaking, he fathered it. But to say this is to point up another, perhaps equally momentous charge—namely, the change from literal to figurative language.

When none of the ‘right’ ways of saying a thing is adequate, we choose a ‘wrong’ way so as to have access to some deeper rightness that we desire.

God… has no social life and no private life, no life among other gods, and no self-exploratory intellectual life. He is simply not that kind of being. His only way of knowing himself seems to be through mankind as an image of himself. What can his next move with mankind be, his centuries-long effort with the Abrahamic covenant having ended in apparent failure?

The Lord finds a way… by making a change in himself.  [note – biggest lesson ever? Hey, if God can change, then we can certainly try]

God, the cosmic orphan, only one of his kind, in some respects borrows all his knowledge and all his observations through the experiences of his image, his self-created image.

In Isaiah [God] knows Israel is assailed by doubt. Up until now His concern has been with the foreskin, with land, only recently behavior, not with the imagination or with worry.

It is no exaggeration to say that, to judge from the entire text of the Bible, from Genesis 1 to Isaiah 39 the Lord does not know what love is. As well, God takes no to little pleasure in anything or anybody.

God is in the condition of a man who has beaten his wife and thrown her out of their house. She had turned herself into little more than a common whore, humiliating herself as well as him, consorting with the most repugnant of their neighbors. He was endlessly patient with her, sending one intermediary after another to remonstrate with her and warn, but to no avail: She was sunk in her vice. And so, at length, he threw her out: Let the neighbors do what they want with her; he is finished with her.

Or so he thinks. An action that ought not to have brought any surprises in its train, given that it had been foreseen, repeatedly predicted, and understood by both of them from the beginning as the inevitable consequence of this kind of behavior, does bring a means to love her. He discovers that he had never truly loved her before. He takes her back; and whether or not she has changed when he does so, he has unmistakably changed. There is an utterly new tone in his voice. [note- wow…]

God is as disappointed in his people as they are in him.

[On the book of Job] It is necessary to think somewhat less about Job and his plight and somewhat more about God and what we might call His embarrassment.

Job refuses to accept mere physical power as the criterion of moral integrity… Job changes the subject by bringing God’s righteousness into question. As a result, God must now find a new understanding of Himself.

If God occasionally becomes a demon mankind must disobey him. If God is capable of testing mankind by masquerading as a demon, then paradoxically mankind can only please God and pass the test by defying God.

Nothing that literature contrives, after all, is so artificial as it’s endings. Real lives never end with artistic finality.

Solomon is an example of what Jews should not do.

Job is the supreme image of God’s desire to know God, for he accepts his suffering, but he does not accept it silently; he is not resigned to having no explanation for it. [note – Job never really gets a full explanation…]

Western civilization is descended equally from Athens and Jerusalem, and we routinely speak of both kinds of tragedy.

His is the restless breathing we still hear in our sleep.

Recommendations and Final Thoughts

Jack Miles can really dissect an ancient text. There are enough good ideas in this book to go around for believers, non-believers and curious explorers. His style might put a few people off, but it will draw in others all the more. I’d compare him a bit to the Alec Guinness version of Obi-wan Kenobi — a smooth and calm, inoffensive mastery over the situation. He is leading his audience, the young Luke, along a specific path but at the same time comes off as utterly benign.

Jack Miles certainly doesn’t settle any arguments. But he does offer a good perspective and a good direction in order to make some sense of the Western story of God.

You have taken your first step into a larger world.

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