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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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”?