Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind


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Am I religious?

I have always thought of myself as religious and have no hesitation in saying so. As a young boy I accepted the existence of a God that in some respects resembled a loving and caring but absent father or grandfather. Perhaps this is understandable as in hindsight this God resembled my father (not in appearance, but as loving, caring and frequently absent).

Although a belief in the existence of God was was fairly widespread in Aotearoa New Zealand in the mid 1950s, I was not aware of any specific doctrine. I did attend Sunday School for a while when I was around seven or eight, and I enjoyed the stories we were told, in much the same way as I enjoyed stories such as Winnie-the-Pooh or Wind in the Willows or those of Hans Christian Andersen. In other words I understood they were stories, not factual accounts of real events.

At that time we lived in a small town of around 4,000 inhabitants and up to the time we left when I was fourteen I had never heard religious doctrine or beliefs discussed. The few times I attended a church service I’d hear a sermon, but I don’t recall hearing mention of Satan, hell, eternal salvation/damnation nor a requirement to believe in a literal resurrection of Jesus. Much of what I heard I would be equally valid for non-theists in that it essentially was all about the golden rule and, more importantly, how to apply it in difficult situations.

I was always suspicious that there were some things about God that were kept from children I was curious what that might be, but accepted that I would find out in due course. My belief that adults knew more about God was realised by the shocking story I heard during religious studies when I was around seven or eight. You can read about it in The day God spoke to me.

The incident didn’t change my understanding of God but it did lead me to understand that others perceived God differently. This was confirmed shortly after when I began to read the Bible. Not knowing any other way I started at the beginning – Genesis. I’ve told this story in Secret Bible reading.

Perhaps this is where I differ somewhat from others who have reached a similar conclusion. I didn’t abandon my belief in God. I abandoned any belief in the Bible. Perhaps it was because that vision/delusion I experienced earlier was, and  still is so real to me. Over the next few years I developed a belief closer to pantheism

I had no further contact with religion until the beginning of my teens. A Chapel opened a short distance from our home, and my mother encouraged me to attend Bible class there in Wednesday evenings. I believe this was primarily as a means of improving my socialisation rather than to progress religious education.

From what I remember, the discussions concentrated almost elusively on Jesus’ teachings and once again on how to apply the Golden Rule in our lives. The best part of Bible class was that every Saturday evening we would go to an event in the city, about 30 minutes drive away. Sometimes the events were religious rallies, which I felt were emotional nonsense, but often the events were things that typical teenagers would attend. Three, four or five cars would make the Journey to New Plymouth each weekend and I always made sure I sat next to a rather shy, but in my eyes very beautiful girl.

I continued to attend Bible class for about a year and then gave up. I told my parents that is was because they were teaching things I disagreed with (which was true), but if I am to be totally honest, I stopped attending because that girl had stopped attending.

Towards the end of my time at Bible class, some of the topics were getting rather deep into Christian theology. Topics such as the divinity of Jesus, the Resurrection, and substitutionary atonement had been introduced. There was considerable leeway in what was considered acceptable understanding. If I recall correctly many  of the stories in the Old Testament could be understood in a non-literal sense, as could some aspects of Jesus’ life such as the virgin birth. However it was clear that we were being steered towards a physical resurrection of Jesus and the concept of substitutionary atonement. The former I thought of as nonsense, the latter as an abomination.

That was my last exposure to the study of theology. Although I continued to have a view of God that wavered between pantheism and panentheism, that old comfortable image of God as a father figure would to pop up from time to time. This bothered me as my rational understanding of God didn’t match what I experienced. I was working in a vacuum as I felt I had no-one I was able to share my beliefs with. Even after I married, this was one topic I never raised with my wife.

My wife, like most Japanese are not particularly devout, and can slip comfortably between Shintoism and Buddhism as appropriate for any given occasion. I found this fascinating, but she was unable to explain to my satisfaction how one could hold two apparently contradictory beliefs at the same time. This was 20 or more years before the arrival of the Internet, and with a limited budget, the local library was my only source of information. It’s resources on religion of any type was extremely limited and on Shintoism non-existent.

I don’t recall any of the books or authors after all this time, but I do recall coming to the conclusion that was the genesis of what I believe today: God is unknowable, and if unknowable, there’s no certainty that he/she/it exists at all. From time to time I get flashes of insight similar to the one that occurred when God spoke to me in religious studies. But are they really something from outside (a supernatural force), a natural phenomenon that might be explained under pantheism, or something that is internal: part of being human? Just because they feel divine doesn’t mean that they are.

I decided that if God is unknowable then any understanding of a God we do experience is one we unconsciously construct ourselves from our culture, history and personal experience. If God exists, there’s no certainty that what we create is a reflection of that God.

So there we are. I doubt very much that there’s a deity, even more so one named Yahweh. Yet I experience what  Quakers call The Light, the small still voice that prods my conscience but feels separate from it. My beliefs are entirely compatible with with Quakerism as it’s practiced in NZ, and it’s where I feel most at home in a religious context.

In an ongoing discussion  on a post I made a few days ago, I was pointed to the Non-Belief in America Research Website where the typology of non-belief is summarised. It lists six types and I can identify myself in two of the types: Ritual Atheist/Agnostic and Seeker-Agnostic, yet I still consider myself religious and feel uncomfortable identifying as agnostic or atheist

While I’m comfortable with religious, I know many with whom I have had discussions on the Internet, jump to the wrong conclusion. If I say I’m religious or listen for the will of God, then it’s assumed I’m a Bible believing Christian. Inevitably the discussion is hijacked by those wanting to know what I believe or don’t believe about the Resurrection, or the nature of God or the infallibility of the Bible or why does God condone genocide, none of which are relevant to the discussion at hand.

I have considered using the term spiritual, but that seems to be associated with the occult and here in NZ with traditional Maori beliefs, so that’s just as likely to be misunderstood as religious.

I could identify myself as a liberal Quaker, but my concern with that is others will conclude all Quakers hold similar beliefs to my own. As Quakerism is a non-creedal faith, the last thing I want to do is give the impression that any other Quaker holds the same beliefs as I do. It can get rather tedious qualifying that my belief is not necessarily held by other Quakers. And again, identifying as part of a specific religious group risks a discussion being diverted to one about that religious group, especially if it’s as poorly understood as Quakerism. For most discussions it’s not necessary to identify with a specific faith group.

So dear reader, while I like the term religious, is it more unhelpful than it is helpful. If the former, what do you suggest instead? Please don’t offer confused or Weird. I’ve already considered and rejected them.

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Go Helen!

The UN has begun the process of selecting a new Secretary-General. Among the candidates is Helen Clark, a Former Prime Minister of Aotearoa New Zealand. I’m not biased, but of course she’s the best candidate for the post.

During the past week candidates have been given the opportunity to give an “Informal dialogue for the position of the next UN Secretary-General”. By all accounts our Helen gave a good account of herself. If you’d like to watch her presentation I have provided two links below.

Opening remarks only (10 minutes)

Opening remarks and Q&A session (2 hours 15 minutes)

Why did the President General Assembly addressing Helen as Mrs Helen Clark, when, if she’s being addressed formally she prefers Ms Helen Clark? UN Protocol or ignorance?

I’ve been asked before why I show disrespect for some public figures by using their given name only. In case anyone hasn’t seen my explanation, here it is: In typical Kiwi fashion, we refer to public figures we admire or respect by their given name only, and we often address them this way to (depending on the circumstances). Those we dislike are usually given their full name, without title, or if we really dislike them, just their family name.


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Misunderstanding a message

Over on The Aspirational Agnostic Eva has posted what was essentially the testimony she made to her church about her conversion to Christianity: Hopefully this will be the last time I talk about being an atheist. The post has been criticised both in the comments section of the blog and also wider afield such as here and here.

There are assertions that her story is little more than a pack of lies: her story doesn’t fit the facts. Yet when I read her story I most certainly don’t see it that way. To me it’s a story of her experience of the journey from scepticism to faith designed for a specific audience (the congregation). It is not a historical document consisting of documented facts set out in strictly chronological order. And to assume such is to make a grave error in my opinion.

The posts by Makagutu and Tidleb, along with many of the subsequent comments assert some aspects of the story are deliberate fabrications and are patently false. Let’s look at some of those claims.

Tidleb claims Eva lied when she wrote “I was an angry opinionated atheist“, and that those words were a slur of all atheists. His claim is that Eva has almost always been polite and considerate to believers and non believers alike. Yet he has been following her blog for only a few years. Her story starts out around 30 years ago, as best I can ascertain, long before WordPress, and long before he knew of her existence. Tidleb has absolutely no way of knowing what she was like that long ago.

I get that Tidleb is anti-religious, but to assume that everything that a religious person says is a lie is going too far in my opinion. His comment on Eva’s blog (originally deleted, but since restored) is there for all to see. He calls her testimony a lie and ripe with deceit. Apparently this deceit is that Eva intentionally vilified and misrepresented her previous non belief. Can Tidleb or someone else point out where she actually does that?

As to his claim that it was a slur on all atheists, I fail to see it. All Eva said was the she was angry, opinionated and an atheist. She clearly excludes her husband, family, and practically everyone she knows, all of whom are atheists. She does not claim or even imply that atheists in general are either opinionated or angry. In fact I see no criticism of atheism at all in her story. At worst, one could say that for her, over time, atheism didn’t provide what she felt she needed. Where does she state otherwise? Can someone enlighten me.

I’m going to assume that Eva’s statement that The God Delusion was her atheists’ bible is what I would call “poetic licence”, particularly in the context in which it was used. Certainly there was time between when it was first published and her conversion to Christianity in 2014 for her to have obtained a copy. Regardless of whether she actually has read it, she probably would have agreed with much of what it says.

The fact that she didn’t know where to obtain a Bible has been ridiculed. Why? Eva does not live in the USA. If her Native Tasmania is anything like Aotearoa New Zealand, then exactly how should one know where to obtain one? Specifically for this post, I checked the three bookshops in the town where I live (population 14,000) and could not find a Bible on the shelves in any of them. I managed to overcome my embarrassment and asked in one shop, and they directed me to a Christian Bookshop in a nearby city (population 70,000).

Twenty years ago, Christian bookshops were less common, and probably the only readily available source of Bibles would have been through a church, particularly if outside of the four major cities. What non-Christian would be comfortable obtaining a Bible from a church? As for a library, first your town needs to have one (not all do) and secondly, where would the Bible be kept? in the fiction or non-fiction section? Perhaps the reference section, not able to be loaned out? I don’t know, and I wouldn’t want to appear clueless by asking. The simple fact is that Bibles don’t jump out at you. You have to know where to look.

The fact that Eva didn’t know any Christians has also been called a lie. Let’s see, twenty years ago I only knew one Christian (outside my Whānau) and one Moslem. I knew two atheists. Now before anyone comes to the conclusion I only knew four people who were not family members, let me rephrase that slightly. There was one person (a work mate) who I knew to be a Christian, one person who I knew to be a Moslem (another workmate), and two who I knew to be atheists (one also a work mate). For all the rest, I had/have no idea what their belief (or non-belief) was/is. I didn’t ask, nor did anyone tell me. Belief or non-belief was/is something that is not discussed in mixed company if one is polite. By “mixed” I’m not referring to gender but people of differing religious persuasions. That is invariably the norm here, so one’s own religion is never discussed, although religion in general, and particularly some of its excesses might be. I presume it is much the same in Australia.

Makagutu made the comment “Her agnosticism, if real, was poorly informed“. Let’s be real about this. Eva grew up in a family, in which, like most antipodean households, religion plays little part, even in those which are nominally Christian. The only people overtly Christian that one might meet are the occasional Mormon or Latter Day Saints missionary, or soapbox nutter in the town centre. It’s easy to make the assumption that the message they bring is unhealthy. Very little time is put into thinking about theism vs agnosticism vs atheism. It doesn’t affect us and there is little reason to consider it. As a consequence whether one has a religious belief or not, very little though goes into understanding why one has those beliefs.

I appreciate it might be different for those in other parts of the world, but here no-one really cares what their neighbour believes, so long as it doesn’t impinge on their own beliefs. Regardless of what one believes, the majority of the population look favourably on other beliefs as being valid and worthwhile for those holding them. Those that hold to believing that only their own beliefs are true are a very small minority, and it doesn’t matter whether we are referring to religion, politics, economics, or any other human endeavour. Such fundamentalism doesn’t go down too well around here.

On Makagutu’s post, John Zande makes the observation “Saying she’d never read the bible is a little suspect“. In heaven’s name why? She came from an Atheist family, therefore it’s quite likely there was no Bible in the house. So where else would she be able to read one? At school? I’m not sure what the situation is in Australia, but in NZ public education is secular and it’s unlikely that Bibles would be available there. I know from my own experience, the only bible I saw until I was around 13 was a family heirloom that was kept with other family treasures and never opened as far as I know. I did start reading it secretly at about age 8, but that’s a story for another time.

Robert A. Vella Questions Eva’s motive for mentioning Life of Brian. Yes it’s a satirical religious comedy, poking fun at religion in general and Christianity more specifically. Watching the film was mandatory for anyone who was a Monty Python fan, regardless of ones religiosity. And in these parts, that would include half the population. (The other half couldn’t stand them). By itself the film is unlikely to change one’s ideas on religion, but if one held a negative view, as I did at the time, then it could easily reinforce those ideas.

Robert makes the observation “Even the stupidest people on the face of the Earth don’t watch comedies to learn about the Bible“. True, but Eva didn’t state that she saw the film for that purpose. So why does Robert make that statement? Is he really trying to imply that is why she watched it?. I have no doubt that she watched it to be entertained, just as I did some 35 or more years ago. One can hold a particular view, be it religious, racist, political, humanist and even economic, simply by absorbing assumptions held by those around one, without giving much though to the validity of those assumptions. To have a negative view of those who are different from oneself is common, and one needs to be mindful of the fact that much of what we believe comes by the way of “osmosis”, and not by giving those beliefs much thought. Surely this is why she thought the way she did. I don’t know when she saw the film, but in all likelihood is was a decade or more before she bought the Bible. A lot can happen in that time. I see no contradiction between watching life of Brian and buying a Bible. Why can’t the two go together?

Then Robert states he believes that Eva is trying to “sway the Monty Python demographic towards Christianity“. Really? I don’t see that, and I’m a devoted Monty Python fan. She doesn’t mention what her current attitude to the film is so it’s presumptuous to to make that claim. Perhaps, like me, she sees it as an observation about some aspects of the human condition and is therefore a worthwhile commentary. Besides, the testimony was specifically for the members of her church, who I assume don’t require swaying towards Christianity.

I gather Robert questioning Eva’s statement of “I knew no Christians” to mean that she had yet to meet the “nice elderly volunteer woman got us to colour in pictures of Jesus every week“. Surely this is taking literalism too far. That’s something I might expect from fundamentalists, but not anyone else. Perhaps if she has said “I knew no Christians at that time” would Robert have understood better? Certainly the example set by that volunteer was not one to endear Christianity to a non-believer.

Let’s look at the use of the term rampant atheist used by Arielle in a comment on Eva’s post. Tildeb took exception to this as being a deliberate slight by her, not only against him, but against all atheists. In other words Arielle is as guilty as Eva of spreading misinformation about the nature of atheists. Why does he interpret it so? Quite clearly Arielle is referring specifically to Eva and no one else. What is interesting is that Tildeb assumed Arielle was another Christian, but as we all now know she is in fact an atheist. It doesn’t appear that Arielle was offended by Eva’s comments, and if there were any smear on atheists, surely she should be more offended than Tildeb. Could it be that Tildeb’s assumption caused him to read more into those words than were intended?

Why has Eva’s testimony to her church prompted me jump in and comment on it. Well it’s not her post per se, but Tildeb’s reaction to it and the subsequent storm it has caused. It was brought to my attention by Makagutu’s post, and curious, I hopped on over to Eva’s blog. I have little time for claims that atheist are immoral or otherwise flawed. No more in fact than claims that the religious lie and deceive for their faith or are otherwise flawed. I was expecting to see a post denigrating atheists, especially as the title of Makagutu’s post was “Lying for god“, but try as I might, I just don’t see that.

Although I frequently fail to “read between the lines”, I can usually do so if I’m pointed in the right direction. Either there is nothing actually between the lines, or I’m being given the wrong directions. I’ve gone over Eva’s post many times today, and I’m leaning towards the former option. Is this really a case of lying for god or is it a case wanting to believe a Christian lied “because that’s what Christians do”?


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School production of Sweeney Todd brings a new level of realism

For some reason that I’m unable to fathom, Sweeney Todd is a popular school production here. Perhaps there’s something in the collective Kiwi psyche that leans towards the macabre, especially if it’s coupled with humour. Even Peter Jackson cut his cinematic skills in movies such as Brain Dead, Bad Taste, and The Frighteners before rising to world game with the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Any way, back to the school production at Saint Kentigern College. It seems that to make the show as realistic as possible, they really did cut the throats of two performers. Has a public performance of Sweeney Todd gone to such levels of realism anywhere else in the world? I can only commend the director and actors for their dedication to their art.

For full details of this brave venture into bringing realism in stage plays to a new level,  see this New Zealand Herald article.