Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind


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My non-real God

Recently, I’ve been making a somewhat half-hearted attempt to tidy over a decade’s worth of archived files scattered throughout dozens of long forgotten folders on my computer and on CDs and DVDs littering storage space in my home office, and the basement/garage. Yes I confess. I’m a hoarder when it comes to digital data. One of the CDs I came across had a label in my handwriting saying Non-realism in religion. The CD must be pre 2008 as the files had been created by Windows applications. (I’ve been a Linux user since 2008).

The CD was damaged, and most of the files couldn’t be opened, but there was one good pdf file titled Non-realistic Christianity. Inside was this list:

  • Religion is about internal spiritual experiences, and that is all.
  • There is no world other than the material world around us.
  • There are no beings other than the living organisms on this planet or elsewhere in the universe.
  • There is no objective being or thing called God that exists separately from the person believing in him.
  • There is no ultimate reality outside human minds either.
  • We give our own lives meaning and purpose; there is nothing outside us that does it for us.
  • God is a projection of the human mind.
  • God is the way human beings put ‘spiritual’ ideals into a poetic form that they are able to use and work with.
  • God is simply a word that stands for our highest ideals.
  • God-talk is a language tool that enables us to talk about our highest ideals and create meaning in our lives.
  • Religious stories and texts are ways in which human beings set down and work out spiritual, ethical, and fundamental meanings in life.
  • Our religious talk is really about us and our inner selves, and the community and culture we live in.
  • Religious talk uses the familiar language of things that exist outside ourselves to make it easier for us to handle complex and subtle ideas.
  • Faith therefore isn’t belief in a God that exists outside minds.
  • Faith is what human beings do when they pursue ‘spiritual’ ideals.
  • Saying that someone follows a particular faith is a way of talking about their attitudes to life and to other people.

Somehow over the years I had completely forgotten about the use of the terms realism and non-realism in relation to religion, but a quick Google search provided a refresher and the probable source of the pdf file. It seems I’ve done a little editing (bold text) and one bullet point is missing, but otherwise they are the same. And the list does reflect what I perceive religion to be.

While atheism is where my head is, it’s not where my heart is. I don’t live in a purely logical and rational world – I don’t think anyone does, and for me, the reality of what I experience is either denied, described as delusional, or otherwise devalued by much of the atheist community – especially the online one. Delusional or not, I’m required to deny so much of who I am just to be accepted by society (that’s autism for you), that I’m not willing to deny that ‘spiritual’ part of me.

The essentials of non-realistic Christianity have been the cornerstone of my understanding of religion and God for all my adult life, although not as clearly defined as in the list above. In my search for a ‘spiritual’ home, I looked at various Christian denominations and at a variety of other religious and spiritual beliefs. Back in the 1970s and 80s I found small pockets of believers who held similar views to my own in all the mainline denominations, especially within Anglicanism and Methodism, but they were tolerated, sometimes grudgingly, rather accepted or welcomed. That lack of acceptance was a turn off, as was the liturgy and worship practice. Universal Unitarianism and secular Buddhism had some attraction, but, worship, in the case of Unitarianism, and meditation, in the case of Buddhism, were outside my comfort zone.

If I was conducting the search today, I dare say I would have stumbled upon one of the many mainline and independent congregations that welcome or embrace the essentials of non-realistic Christianity. I might well find one that I felt comfortable in, although their forms of worship probably would always be an issue for me. However I don’t doubt that I could find a religious community where I would be welcomed and feel at home in.

Today there are also a large number of secular/non-real/humanist organisations that are non-denominational/pan-denominational/pan-religious such as Sea of Faith New Zealand and St Andrew’s Trust for the Study of Religion and Society where I’d be very welcome and in many ways I’d be more comfortable than within a church community. A major reason for this is that while congregations within the churches embrace the essentials of non-realism, the various churches as a whole haven’t, (although some are getting close). Those darned creeds that they all retain are a complete turn off for me, and there is no way I could honour them. Unfortunately, groups such as SoF and SATRS didn’t exist, or were very thin on the ground when I began my search. Remember, this was well before the arrival of the Internet.

As it turned out, I did stumble upon a religious group that did meet my needs, was non-creedal, and had, over a period of some 350 years, developed an understanding of God that was not in conflict with the essentials of non-realism. That group was the first I had come across that did not have some expectation of how I should understand God, nor did they expect me to hold specific theological beliefs.

That group was the Quakers – the Religious Society of Friends in Aotearoa New Zealand, (Gifted the name Te Hahi Tuhauwiri – “The faith community that stands shaking in the wind of the Spirit” – by the Maori Language Commission). Now before anyone jumps on me and says that non-realism is unchristian, and Quakers most definitely are Christian, I’m going to say hold up a minute, is it important or even relevant? Let’s consider the second part of the statement (Quakers most definitely are Christian)

Are Quakers Christian? There’s about 350,000 Quakers worldwide, and the majority are Christian and it would be very difficult to distinguish them from many other evangelical, fundamentalist Christian denominations. Evangelical Friends can be found in Africa (there’s more than 130,000 in Kenya alone) and the Americas. They have churches, clergy, creeds, articles of faith and believe the Bible is the Word of God. They are hierarchical and (especially in Africa) patriarchal. They are the youngest and most successful (in terms of numerical strength) of the various strands of Quakerism.

There is another strand of Quakerism which is somewhat more difficult to pin down. Often referred to as liberal Quakerism, it can be found in the UK and Ireland, Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, Canada and parts of the USA. Liberal Friends have no clergy, creed or articles of faith, lack hierarchical structure and have had a belief in the equality of the sexes since the foundation of Quakerism in the 1600s. They value their Christian roots, but as to whether or not this strand of Quakerism is Christian, depends on one’s concept of what Christianity is. Their numbers are small – possibly 50,000 worldwide, with around 1,400 in NZ.

Personally it makes no difference to me whether or not Quakerism is Christian, but in the context of New Zealand, it fits comfortably in the liberal/post modern wing of Christianity, even if it’s considered somewhat “peculiar”.

Now I come to the reason why I was motivated to write this article. I hear and read far too often, a section of atheists who claim that all religion is harmful. If this is true, then the religion practised by Friends, even liberal Friends, is harmful. Try as I might, I can find nothing in the beliefs and practices of NZ Friends and Christians at the liberal end of the spectrum that is harmful. Of course, it’s possible that being religious myself, I’m blind to seeing the harm I’m causing, and if is the case, is it possible for me to recognise it? I suppose it’s possible…

but unlikely.

On the other hand, it could be an atheist plot to discredit religion and bring disorder and immorality to the world. That’s definitely the claim of some Christian extremists. But I can see no evidence of that. There is no organised atheist movement. In fact, non-theists within religious groups are far better organised than atheists. Perhaps atheists are opposed to particular forms of religion. That, I could understand, but when I have put the proposition forward, I have been knocked back: All religion is harmful.

As I understand it, their argument is that religion and critical thinking are always incompatible. Perhaps, because I’m religious, and take my religion seriously, I’m incapable of critical thinking. It would also mean that I am incapable of seeing what harm my beliefs are doing to me, others, and society as a whole. So, if my religious beliefs and practices, and those of my fellow believers are harmful, can someone please point out to me where they are harmful, or at least point me in the right direction. If on the other hand, my religious beliefs and practices, and those of my fellow believers aren’t harming myself, others or society, the argument that all religion is harmful must be false.

I have no argument with atheists. After all atheism is part of my beliefs. My argument is with those who believe all religion is harmful. I’ve heard argument that religion has evolved along with the development of human thought, possibly as a result of seeking patterns and explanations for what we experience. Perhaps religion also helped in the development of cohesive groups. Whatever the reason, a great many of us still seek some form of religion or spirituality. I’ve heard that it could be as high as 9 out of 10 people. That seems rather high, but what seems apparent to me is that a significant number do desire and seek some form of religion or spirituality.

Census figures show a continuing decline in religious affiliation. What they don’t show is is that the number who hold religious or spiritual beliefs remain fairly constant. While those who believe in a deity have declined in number, other forms of spirituality have increased. Worldwide, the number of religious adherents continue to grow, although not as fast as the total population. It doesn’t appear that religion is going to disappear any time soon. This being so, rather than seeking the disappearance of religion, perhaps a more productive course would be to seek a change in what religion is. Don’t let up on religious privilege where is exists. It has no place in in modern society.

I’m not targeting any one with this ramble. I’ve found it helpful for me to share what I’m thinking with others, as feedback helps in clarifying and modifying my beliefs. Sometimes it’s with family or friends. Sometimes it’s within my religious community, or another community. This time it’s I’ve put it out to the blogosphere.


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When you criticise Christians, you criticise my Mum

Over the years that I have been involved with the blogosphere, I have often jumped to the defence of Christians – especially when when statements begin with “Christians believe…” or “Christians do…”. The last few weeks have given me cause to reflect on why I have jumped to their defence when in hindsight it would have been more prudent to “keep my mouth shut”.

My mother was a devout Christian who believed very much in the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. She had a very strong moral code, and nothing, absolutely nothing could ever allow her to break that code. I realise now that so much of the criticism of Christians is generalised to include or to imply inclusion of all Christians. And that would include my Mum. And those claims are so much not what my Mum was.

The observant reader will have noticed that in the previous paragraph my mother is referred to in the past tense. She died in the early hours of last Tuesday morning and her funeral was held last Thursday. On Monday my siblings and I, with our partners, will scatter her ashes and those of our father into the Whanganui River from the river bank that adjoined my parents’ home of forty years.

Unlike the rest of the whānau, I feel no sadness or loss at her passing. She was more than half way through her 97th year and had had a very good innings. Her death is as natural as the passing of the seasons and the blooming and fading of a flower. I do have some unease about the morality of the process of dying that modern medicine raises, and her death brought that into focus for me, but that’s a matter for discussion at another time.

I’ll confess that I don’t understand why friends, family, acquaintances, and complete strangers feel sadness or grief at Mum’s passing. What emotions I feel are sympathy for those who are experiencing that grief and not knowing what I can do in the circumstances. I feel somewhat helpless in this regard as I know my putting a rational slant on the event will only make things worse for them.

Getting back to the subject of this post: Generalisations can be both inaccurate and hurtful. “Christians are judgemental”, that’s not my Mum. “Christians think they are somehow better”, that’s not my Mum. “Christians believe homosexuality is a sin”, that’s not my Mum. “Christians proselytize”, that’s not my Mum. “Christians can’t distinguish beliefs from facts”, that’s not my Mum. “Christians believe atheists are unethical or untrustworthy”, that’s not my Mum. “Christians believe it’s okay to shame someone who holds different beliefs”, that’s not my Mum. “Christians believe other faiths are wrong”, that’s not my Mum.

So what was she like? As I mentioned, Mum had strong moral compass, but in all my years, I’d never heard her use the Bible or her religious beliefs as a justification of her views. She may well have got some (perhaps most?) of her values from her religious beliefs, but it was from her that I developed my own philosophy which loosely says “if the Bible is the only source of authority for a particular stance then it’s time to change the stance”.

As the most wayward of us siblings stated during the funeral service, Mum was his confidant, counsellor, adviser, moral guide and friend. Even today if he is unsure of whether he is doing the “right thing”, he considers what Mum might think about it. Of course, knowing what is the “right thing” doesn’t always mean that he will do it.

Mum’s method of guidance was by example. We were never judged, no matter what the transgression. We were encouraged to learn and discover for ourselves what values we should aspire to, even if those values were different from her own. For her, differences in the way we perceive the world were part of the rich tapestry of life.

For Mum, love was never conditional, and even though we were far from being a demonstrative family were all knew and felt that love. Punishment of any kind was virtually unknown. Justice was always restorative, never retributive. We were encouraged to discover for ourselves why something might be right or wrong. But for Mum, knowing the difference was not enough. It’s our duty, as far as we are able, to right wrongs and to fight injustice wherever we find it – even if that meant being on opposite sides from each other.

To me, my Mum exemplified what the Christian message is all about. Although I can’t say that theology was irrelevant to her (she had a firm belief in life after death, and Jesus was her Saviour, for example) it was the spirit, the broad brush strokes, of the message that were important to her.

If I were to believe in a deity, it would be modelled on my Mum and my Dad. Although they were poles apart on religious belief (one being Christian, the other having something close to agnostic atheism), they shared almost identical values and practices. Those values and practices I see as being prevalent in the Christian community here in Aotearoa New Zealand. Sure, there are exceptions, and the Destiny Church and Gloriavale are extreme examples, but on the whole, Christianity here, with varying degrees of success, preaches and practices those values that so clearly shone through my Mum.

The sense of justice and compassion that I learnt from my parents – especially my mother – causes the hair on the back of my neck to raise whenever I hear comments that tar all members of a particular group with a wildly inaccurate generalised brush that at best applies to a very small subgroup. I don’t care whether the group being generalised is religious, atheist, LGBTQ+, ethnic, cultural, or even Morris dancers. Don’t do it.

And when you include all Christians as being a horde of Bible-worshipping, homophobic, fundamentalist, Evangelical bullies, you’re including my Mum. Back off. She, like most Christians in this land, is anything but.

By all means, be critical of religious privilege, or attempts to impose belief on those who do not hold them. Be critical of bigotry and intolerance, be it religious or otherwise, but please don’t claim or imply all when you really mean some or a few.

Finally, if you care to comment on this post, please avoid offering your condolences or expressing sympathy/regret for my loss. I feel no loss, and while it was necessary to hide my irritation at such expressions in the neurotypical world in which I must live, this is my blog, my world, and that requirement does not apply here.


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The Last Western Heretic (Part 2)

In this first clip, Professor Lloyd Geering makes the point that since the Enlightenment, everyone is a heretic as we are all free to think for ourselves – we are all free thinkers – and make our own choices accordingly. As he points out “We are encouraged to think for ourselves” [3:08], but who are the “we” he’s referring to?

The nation of Aotearoa New Zealand had its formative years at the height of the Enlightenment, and this country has always had a significant number of individuals and leaders who were Free Thinkers, atheists and agnostics, as well as those of assorted religious traditions. Our isolation from the rest of the world meant we developed an individualistic attitude to living, with a very egalitarian attitude towards authority.  Certainly there’s no doubt that Professor Geering is referring to Kiwis when he says we are encouraged to think for ourselves, but to what extent can the same be applied to other nations – especially when it comes to religion.

From this relatively remote corner of the world, I see vast regions of the globe where people seem to be discouraged from thinking for themselves – especially in the way of religion. I blink in amazement when American bloggers, while confessing their atheism anonymously online, are extremely reluctant to come out to friends, family and community about their lack of faith for fear of a backlash. Reminds me of those being reluctant to come out as gay in the 1970s and early 80s. I would like to think their fears are more imaginary than real, but the stories told are too consistent  for that. Perhaps after the dark ages being brought on by the Trump administration, America will make a more rapid swing towards liberalism.

Early on on the clip, Professor Geering describes his understanding of God – not a supernatural being, but a set of values that include truth, justice, love and compassion. On that matter, he and I agree completely.


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The Last Western Heretic (Part 1)

231px-lloyd_geering2c_2011

Lloyd Geering
By Schwede66 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Hello children. Once upon a time, long, long ago (1967 to be precise) the peaceful existence of the inhabitants of the Land of the Long White Cloud was disturbed when a professor who was the principal of a theological college declared that important Christian stories were really myths. The land was disturbed, not by the message contained in the proclamation, for a sizeable proportion of the population already held similar views. No, the disturbance was caused because of the public nature of the pronouncements, and by a member of the clergy no less!

You see, up until that time, theology was a subject that had to be avoided at all costs. No one spoke openly about what they believed, for there was sure to be someone who would disagree vehemently with those beliefs. The people of the Land of the Long White Cloud were mindful that bringing theology into the open would be a recipe for discord, as would discussing politics. So they chose to discuss other important matters such Rugby, Racing, and Beer instead.

And so children, for more than two years, debates over the Resurrection, the divinity of Jesus, the Creation, whether mankind had an immortal soul, and much, much more, could be heard in sports clubrooms, local pubs, in the work place and on radio and television, and even on picnics! Discussions could be heard everywhere across the Land of the Long White Cloud. Yes, you could even hear such discussions in churches.

The open discussion frightened some of the laity of the Church, for like narrow minded people everywhere, they wanted their beliefs to be the only beliefs allowed. So they plotted to have the professor, removed from office. After much scheming, and with the aid of just one member of the clergy, a plot was hatched and charges were laid in the General Assembly of the Church against the professor. Those charges were “doctrinal error” and “disturbing the peace and unity of the church”, which were as close to charges of heresy that they could find.

Now children, it may seem strange in this modern day, but back then, the trial was broadcast live on national radio, and up and down the Land of the long White Cloud, people stopped to listen to the progress of the trial. And as we all know, the outcome of the trial was very much an anticlimax, because the charges were dismissed as being unsubstantiated.

Slowly, the discussions returned from religion to the more worthy causes of Rugby, Racing, and Beer, and the good people went back to keeping their own beliefs to themselves, just as it always had been. The professor started publishing his ideas in books and magazines, which were read avidly by some, and ignored or burnt by others. And so peace once again returned to the Land of the Long White Cloud. But…

Some of the plotters weren’t satisfied with the decision of the General Assembly and they continued plotting and scheming to do away the the good professor, but as we all know children, they didn’t succeed. And the professor became a highly sought after public speaker, within Christian churches and other religions and within humanist and secular groups as well, and where, to this day, even though he is 98 years old, he continues to advance the causes of a non-theist, secular Christianity.

But children, even though the plotters didn’t succeed, they keep on scheming. They still want their version of the Christian story to be the only permissible version. So how do you know a plotter? Firstly, they are not very good at keeping their plans secret. They usually call themselves Fundamentalists, so that’s a dead give away. But the most telling way to recognise them is to listen to what they say. If someone tells you that their stories are true and everyone else’s are lies, then you will have found one.

The above story is not necessarily the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but it’s my story and a close enough approximation. Unlike Trump’s press secretary, I’m not going to claim that it’s “alternative facts”. First and foremost it’s a story. Second, It’s more or less how I remember the event, and after fifty years, my recollection of the event must be tainted by later memories. Thirdly, it’s my blog and I’ll darn well tell the story my way.

For Non Kiwis, the Land of the Long White Cloud is a translation of Aotearoa, the Māori name of New Zealand. The professor is Lloyd Geering, who at the time the controversy broke out was the principal of Knox Theological College and an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand – the church which tried him for heresy. He will celebrate his 99th birthday in February.

While my own beliefs had already been formed along similar lines by the time the controversy broke out, Professor Geering provided me with the resources I needed when justifying my beliefs to others. I was still a teenager at the time, so was lacking in confidence, while he was a few years older than my mother. I guess I would identify Sir Lloyd as being my most significant religious mentor.

I know many Christians (and atheists for that matter) in other parts of the world will fail to see anything Christian in his message, but here in Aotearoa New Zealand secular and liberal Christianity is well accepted, even within the mainline churches. What liberal/secular Christianity has done is push those with pre-enlightenment beliefs into the extremes of Fundamentalism and evangelicalism, which has seen some growth as a consequence. However, such groups still make up a very small section of the Christian community, and likely to always remain so.

I have found a series of Youtube videos compiled from a 2007 Television One documentary on Sir Lloyd Geering.  I plan to link to these in parts 2 to 11 of The Last Western Heretic. with my own comments where appropriate.


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Believe in UFOs? You’re round the bend!

Not so long ago, an acquaintance and I happened to be joking about superstitions, when out of the blue the following conversation arose.

HIM: Do you believe in UFOs?
ME: Yep.
HIM: Seriously?
ME: Seriously. Don’t you?
HIM: You don’t really believe there’s little green men from Alpha Centauri fly about in the sky, do you?

The penny dropped. We were talking about different types of UFO’s.

ME: What makes you think they’re green? They could just as likely be fluorescent mauve, don’t you think?
HIM: You’re taking the piss!
ME:  Kinda.

I then had to explain that by UFO I simply meant an aerial phenomenon for which an adequate rational explanation has yet to be found. When such an explanation is found, the phenomenon will no longer be a UFO.  Most UFOs stay as such for short periods of time before an satisfactory explanation is found. A few such as the Kaikoura Lights still haven’t been explained to my satisfaction, but I’m sure that whatever they were, there was no cover up conspiracy to hide the existence of little green men in flying saucers. It’s most likely a natural phenomenon. but the official explanation of squid boat lights seems a little too simplistic to me as the lights were seen from an aircraft and tracked on radar. My guess is that the squid boat explanation sounded more “knowledgeable” than “We don’t have a bloody clue at this point in time“. Conjecture can be fun if it’s not taken too seriously.

A similar reaction occurs on the very rare occasions I’m asked if I believe in God and I get a surprised look when I answer in the affirmative. Actually it’s just occurred to me that the question is usually posed in the negative: “You don’t believe in God, do you?” Perhaps we in Aotearoa New Zealand are even more secular than the pundits claim.

No, I’m not convinced that there are any deities, especially the wrathful, vengeful God portrayed in parts of the Bible. But I do frame the concept of agape as God, and I admit that at times (although less so these days) I tend to bestow upon the concept “human/divine” qualities such as a will (as in the Will of God) and the ability to prod (the small still voice). Concepts such as the light and every person having that of God within have meaning for me. There’s no way I could explain these concepts in a purely rational way as I find my language skills rather inadequate for such a purpose. Perhaps the best I can do is say that they are a means of sharing very complex ideas in a few words with those whose experiences are similar to mine.

So when I say I believe in God, I have a specific concept (not a supernatural being) in mind, and not necessarily what the questioner meant. Perhaps next time I’m asked, I should reply with two questions of my own:

  1. What do you mean by God?
  2. What do you mean by believe in?

For those not familiar with local expressions:
round the bend: going insane/crazy
taking the piss: to ridicule


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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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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”?