Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind


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The country that most closely follows Qur’anic principles is…

I find little to distinguish the principles of secular humanism from those of most religions, and in holding that view I tend to find myself a target of the “fundamentalists” of both the religious and non-religious kind. In this regard, I’m probably typical of a relatively large section of those who call Aotearoa New Zealand home. It is important to note that I am referring to principles and not practices. The reason why will become obvious in a moment.

Way back in October 2015 I wrote a piece titled Animism is the established religion of Aotearoa New Zealand. Really? in which I was critical of an article by John Tertullian on MandM. He was of the opinion that there is only one “true” religion, and as a consequence all others must be false. When it comes to the environmental crisis we find ourselves in today, I see the reverence bestowed upon nature by Māori (and no doubt other cultures with spiritual/religious beliefs, which the West often perceive as primitive, and collectively label as animism) in which all animate and inanimate forms possess a “life force” or “essence” (called mauri in Te Reo Māori). In this country the concept of mauri is becoming a motivator for Pākeha as it has been for Māori in taking care of our planet. It is the principles, or essence of mauri that motivate us, not necessarily a specific set of beliefs about what it is.

Which brings me to the point of the post. The Islamicity Foundation owns the Islamicity Indices project, which according to their website:

The Islamicity Indices enable Muslims to focus on the indisputable source of their religion—the Qur’an—and are a continuous performance indicator of their rulers, governments and communities. The Indices also provide a simple approach to explain Islam to the non-Muslim world. With a better understanding of Islam in both Muslim and non-Muslim communities, peaceful reform and effective institutions will be more readily achieved in Muslim countries.

While I acknowledge that not every Muslim will come to the same conclusions as the Islamicity Foundation on what are the most important Quranic principles (supporters of ISIS and Al-Qaeda being glaring examples), my experience with Muslims in this country indicates that those principles are ranked highly.

“I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims;
I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but no Islam.”

 

Mohammad Abduh

Of particular note is the comment “The Islamicity Indices substantiate the observation that Western countries better reflect Islamic institutions than do countries that profess Islam and also provide the compass for renewal and progress in Muslim countries.”

I believe it’s important to understand that the principles underlying a belief system should not be confused with the institutions and practices of those who follow that system. While institutions, practices and dogma change with time and location, the principles or “essence” remain essentially the same. In fact I see a similar “essence” in almost every worthwhile belief system, be it spiritual, religious or secular.

So now, (with appropriate drum roll please) the country that most closely follows Qur’anic principles is…

Aotearoa New Zealand

I stumbled upon this quirky piece of information here, and then found dozens of similar articles following a quick search of the internet for verification. What I find interesting is that on many Christian sites, one statement of fact has been altered. In non-Christian articles we read:

New Zealand has no official religion and nearly half of the country’s 5 million people identify as Christian

Whereas in most Christian based articles we read:

The country of New Zealand does not have any official religion and close to 5 million of the people in the country identify themselves as Christian.

I would like to think that the more than doubling of Christian numbers in these articles was a case of human error by one writer of one article that became a source of information for all the rest. Or am I being too optimistic about the motivation of some writers?


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In the wake of Israel Folau’s homophobic comments on social media, and his possible sacking, I cannot place all the blame on his shoulders. He grew up withing a religiously conservative Pacific island community, where the views he holds is the norm. The question should be how should we respond to the dissemination such beliefs? Here is Bill Peddie’s take on the question.

IZZY’S LITTLE LIST A few days ago a congregation member of a local Pentecostal-type mega church told me that their whole congregation had recently prayed for my salvation. Their leaders had discovered that I had a liberal approach to the Bible and they were understandably concerned I might be leading others in the town down […]

via Izzy’s Little List — Bill Peddie’s website


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More lies, damned lies and statistics

From time to time I browse through older posts of bloggers that were written before I started following them. Recently I came across Exploring Reasons Why “Atheists” Have Extreme Moral Prejudice Toward Atheists by Victoria NeuroNotes. What tweaked my interest in the post was that Victoria had put one of the words Atheists inside inverted commas. I read her article and the study link to an article about a global survey on which she based her article, but I failed to understand the purpose of the inverted commas. So then I read the articles in the following study and studies links, but was still none the wiser, and somewhat confused, as the latter two links were findings on morality itself, whereas the first link is to findings on the perception of morality. Not the same thing at all.

That discovery bothered me because in my experience it’s not like Victoria to make this sort of mistake. Just as puzzling was that she doubted the accuracy of the study because it was contrary to her personal anecdotal experience.

The findings of the study didn’t match my own experience either, but for a different reason. I have not seen any evidence that either theists or atheists regard atheists as less trustworthy. Then I read the notes link and part of it fell in place. That article refers to the same study, and this sentence jumped out at me:

Only in Finland and New Zealand, two secular countries, did the experiment not yield conclusive evidence of anti-atheist prejudice, said the team.

So that explains why my experience didn’t match the conclusion of the global study. Kiwis really don’t care about the religiosity of their fellow citizens. It’s also consistent with a 2009 NZ survey that gave atheism and all major religions (with the exception of Islam) a 90% approval rating. Islam lagged well behind with an 80% approval rating. A similar survey in the US at the same time gave atheists a 64% disapproval rating. This is also consistent with the study conclusion that one’s opinion of atheists is strongly influenced by the beliefs of society in which one lives, regardless of whether one is or is not religious.

It was only after I started reading the comments that the penny finally dropped and I understood why Victoria put inverted commas around Atheist: Perhaps many of the so called atheists weren’t really atheists at all. Now where have I heard similar types of statements before? One atheist even suggested that some Christians might have deliberately lied to distort the findings. There’s even the example of one atheist accusing another atheist of not being a “True Atheist”(TM) because the latter participates in the activities of a UU church. Sigh.

There was another thread to the criticism of the survey, and that was in regards to the motives of the researchers, but this wasn’t really pursued very far.

My curiosity aroused, I decided to investigate the findings a little further. I did locate the paper involved, but wasn’t prepared to fork out precious funds to purchase the right to view it, so I had to settle for this Supplementary Information PDF document. In it, in Supplementary Table 4. Religious demographics (%), I found what I was looking for.

The number of Christians, atheists and agnostics are similar to other surveys I’ve seen for young adults in Australia, the UK and the USA (the only ones other than NZ that I have any knowledge of). The number of Christians are 41%, 20%, and 79% respectively, and the number of NZ Christians is recorded as 22%. Again consistent with other surveys.

What I find interesting is how those who are not religious self identify. At first glance, the US has more atheists than NZ (UK: 22%; Australia:15%; US: 4%; NZ: 2%), and far more agnostics (UK: 15%; Australia: 15%; US: 5%; NZ: 0). It’s when considering those who identify as having no religion that there is a clear difference between NZ and all other countries (NZ: 71%; UK: 27%;  Australia: 14%; US: 10%). Even in Finland, only 25% self identify as having no religion.

What I believe this shows is the relaxed attitude Kiwis have towards religion, and that includes those who self identify as being religious. Religion is a private matter, and it doesn’t intrude into the public domain. Neither believers nor non-believers feel threatened by the other. This is in stark contrast to the USA, where to me as an outsider, both sides seem to be in a state of siege.

As to whether some Christians lied about their beliefs to deliberately distort the findings, I very much doubt it. The supplementary document includes the questions presented to the students, and I think one would need inside information (or assistance from their God) to know the purpose of the questionnaire. That some atheists are willing to believe that Christians will deliberately lie to present their faith more favourably is so very similar to the belief some Christians have about atheists, and  supports the last sentence in the previous paragraph – that a state of siege exists. To be honest, I find this very disappointing.

In a Medical Xpress article “Reminders of secular authority reduce believers’ distrust of atheists” we are informed that a majority of Americans would disapprove of their children marrying an atheist and would not vote for an atheist president. Compare that to NZ where we’ve had an atheist or agnostic government leader in 20 of the last 21 years and no one, including Christians are in the least bit bothered by it. I find the last paragraph in that article very compelling:

“There is evidence that gods and governments can fulfill similar roles,” Gervais says. People want the world to be orderly and controlled, but it seems like the authority that keeps people in line can be religious or secular. There’s some evidence that when people feel less confident in their government, they’re more likely to seek out religion. Norenzayan and Gervais find that in countries where the government is more effective and stronger, atheists are both more common and more trusted.

I think that the contrasting perspectives of Americans and Kiwis supports this hypothesis. So, what have I learnt from this exercise?

  • The trustworthiness that members of a minority group have towards fellow members is influenced by attitudes of those outside the group
  • That makagutu’s commentThere’s no difference between an ideologue of any ism” is absolutely true.

What I would like to know is why ideologues are a dime a dozen in America, but as scarce as hens’ teeth in Aotearoa New Zealand. Any suggestions?


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As my own faith tradition reminds me, the Kingdom of God is not some “other” place that good Christians “retire” to at some time in the future. It is here and now, or at least can be if we, as a community, make an effort to bring it about. We are all capable of making this world a kinder, more caring and equitable place, not by praying or expecting others, even God, to make it so, but by getting stuck in yourself.

As Kiwis, we haven’t done too well in many respects in Aotearoa New Zealand. As Bill points out in his post shared below, childhood poverty in Aotearoa has increased from 11% in 1986 to 25% today. As many prophets have warned (and I’m not referring to those who claim Biblical authority) we are starting to see the consequences of our joint inaction.

As these to quotes remind us, don’t expect God or your deity of choice to bow to your requests through prayer. Choose wisely the prophets you listen to, and then act accordingly to make this world a better place.

There is little point in praying to be enabled to overcome some temptation, and then putting oneself in the very position in which the temptation can exert all its fascination. There is little point in praying that the sorrowing may be comforted and the lonely cheered, unless we ourselves set out to bring comfort and cheer to the sad and neglected in our own surroundings. There is little point in praying for our home and for our loved ones, and in going on being as selfish and inconsiderate as we have been. Prayer would be an evil rather than a blessing if it were only a way of getting God to do what we ourselves will not make the effort to do. God does not do things for us – he enables us to do them for ourselves.” – Elisabeth Holmgaard, 1984
The sick and those caring for them have need of our prayers. But let us not imagine … that a few sentimental good wishes from a distance are all that is needed. Whenever we intercede in prayer we must be prepared for an answer which places a practical obligation upon us. A prayer is always a commitment.” – Thomas F Green, 1952

A few years back I recall a TV interview with a man who had survived 11 lightning strikes and lived to tell the tale. The lightning victim’s explanation was that God must therefore have some special purpose for him. I am afraid my cynical reaction was to assume that if whatever that man meant by […]

via Lectionary sermon for 18 November 2018 on Mark 13: 1-8 — Bill Peddie’s website


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What is religion?

It really depends on who you ask. I recall reading somewhere that someone had collected 27 “authoritative” definitions , and among those, there wasn’t a single definition that had no mutually exclusive definition.

Simple dictionary definitions will tell you that religion includes a belief in the supernatural, and while it’s true that most religions do to some degree, not all religions do. Wikipedia takes several hundred lines of text to tell you that the experts can’t agree on a universal definition of religion, but does present a range of definitions.

It does include one definition that I thought came close to the mark:

According to the MacMillan Encyclopedia of Religions, there is an experiential aspect to religion which can be found in almost every culture:

[…] almost every known culture [has] a depth dimension in cultural experiences […] toward some sort of ultimacy and transcendence that will provide norms and power for the rest of life. When more or less distinct patterns of behavior are built around this depth dimension in a culture, this structure constitutes religion in its historically recognizable form. Religion is the organization of life around the depth dimensions of experience—varied in form, completeness, and clarity in accordance with the environing culture.

I liked this definition because it doesn’t assume sacred tomes, deities, creeds, an afterlife or anything of a supernatural nature. For me its weakness is in the use of the phrase “historically recognizable form“. I’m not sure that all religions today would conform with a historically recognisable form of religion. And it makes no allowance for future forms that religion might take.

However, Sir Lloyd Geering has come up with a simple, short definition that, according to him, covers all religion, past, present and future. His definition is:

A total mode of the interpreting and living of life.

Sir Lloyd explains:

Everybody who takes life seriously, in my view, is taking the first steps in religion. And this definition of religion, fortunately, covers all the types of religions we’ve had or will have in the future, because it recognises that religion is a human product. Religion is what we humans have evolved in our culture to enable us to make meaning of life, and to live together in the most harmonious way.

The clip below is from a discussion with Sir Lloyd Geering at Auckland Museum’s LATE at the Museum Innovation series in 2010. It’s moderately long at 20m 13s. Sir Lloyd starts speaking at 3:14 if you’d like to skip the introduction. He discuses what is meant by “the divine”; the problem with the word “God”; what religion is; the rise of “popular atheism”; NZ secularism vs US fundamentalism; the Green movement as a type of religion; and much more:


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The Last Western Heretic (Part 5)

Previous parts of The Last Western Heretic can be found:

Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3  |  Part 4

In this segment, Lloyd Geering argues that the Resurrection is symbolic and not real.


Transcript:

The Christian faith has always focused on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, but the crucifixion by which Jesus died nailed to a cross is an event open to historical investigation in a way the resurrection has never been.

When the Apostles first claimed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, they meant that God had raised him from the Underworld of the Dead to the Overworld of Heaven. That’s mythical or symbolic language. He belongs to the way people then saw the world. What was historical was the impact that Jesus had made on them. It convinced them that neither he nor his teaching could ever really die.

This conviction came to be expressed in all sorts of stories. One of them said that his tomb had been found empty, and the body had gone. When people began to take the story literally, it gave rise to the further story of his Ascension. That said that Jesus rose bodily into heaven and disappeared behind the clouds. And in the fourth century, Christians decided they knew the exact spot where that occurred, and built a church on it. Faithful pilgrims came and marvelled at the indentation on the stone said to be the last footprint Jesus left on earth.

But the stories of the Resurrection and the Ascension, if taken literally, make no sense at all to us in our scientifically shaped view of the universe in which we now live. The heavenly places to which Jesus supposedly rose or ascended have simply disappeared from reality. That’s why the resurrection and the Ascension of Jesus can be adequately understood only in poetical or metaphorical terms, and no one said this better then the Scottish theologian Gregor Smith. He said “until Christians feel free to say that the bones of Jesus may still lie in Palestine they had not really understood the resurrection“.

Now I agree with Gregor Smith, and said so in an article I wrote for the Easter edition in 1966 of the Presbyterian Journal. Inadvertently it sparked off a controversy so widespread that it culminated in the so called heresy trial in which I was charged with doctrinal error and disturbing the peace of the Church. There was a unfortunate misconception about what the debate was really about. The doctrine committee treated it as a question of did Jesus rise from the dead or not. Now that’s not what I was denying. I never said Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. I said what did it really mean to say he rose from the dead. The things got worse the following year because I was asked to preach at the inaugural service of the Victoria University academic year, and in the course of this I questioned whether we humans have immortal souls. And this once again raised the question of what happens to us when we die. Is there such a thing as life after death? And because of what has happened the year before, things exploded immediately. At this stage in 1967, everybody up and down the country, not only in the churches but even in the bars and round [the livingroom] were discussing what happens to you when you die. So it’s a period of great excitement really. Very interesting in many ways. I wished I hadn’t quite been the centre of it, but nevertheless it was good to have such theological talk going on. And that, of course, eventually led to the so called heresy trial at the end of 1967, when two of my critics brought charges of doctrinal error and disturbing the peace of the church against me.

“It is therefore submitted that the assembly should consider these matters and clarify the situation by determining whether the points of doctrine apparently denied by Principal Geering are, or are not, of the substance of the Scriptures, and if professor Goering admits that he cannot affirm such beliefs, or if he will not do so, and does not help to restore in the church the peace and unity which he has disturbed, then this assembly should censure him in an appropriate manner.”

“I would like to suggest that what my accusers have been pleased to call the Peace of the church is more properly called the sleepiness of the church, and we should be thankful to God that it has been disturbed.”

“The faith of Principal Geering: this faith of cultural development and discovery is nothing but an intellectually conceited mockery of the real Christian faith. What we would like to know (and it is important because of the very great influence which he exercises from his official position) is wheher Professor Geering himself believes within the New Testament and the Christian hope that when this universe is no more, Christian believers will continue their personal life in the presence of the Living God?”

“What are we to make of death? We learn the answer to this by turning back to the heart of the Christian faith. It was not the dead Jesus who was acclaimed as risen but the crucified Jesus. Some people seem to think that Jesus went willingly to the cross because he knew that within 36 hours he would rise in glory. That I believe to be a grave travesty of the meaning of the cross Jesus was ready to give himself completely, and he did not give himself completely if he expected shortly to live.”

People in the churches and the pews often had little idea of what was going on theologically. The reason for that is that the church didn’t have any kind of organ within the church to disseminate theological thought. The sermon isn’t the proper place to do it on the whole. The sermon is meant to be inspirational.

“Naturally I hope the assembly will see its way clear to dismiss these charges and express no less than full confidence in the way I have been dealing with the position of responsibility entrusted to me. It has been reported to me that there is a rumour circulating that I intend to resign because I’ve been offered another post. There is no foundation for this. I doubt if any church would want me and at the moment. Even if there were a choice I would prefer to serve the church from which i have received most.”

the General Assembly as is its practice is to act as a kind of judge and jury, listening to the charges and then deciding what to do about them. And they eventually decided that the charges have not been proved, and so they dismissed the case and and I was in effect exonerated. But it didn’t really satisfy, of course, my critics who were a very vociferous kind of group and so the attention went on.


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What is Christianity?

At the  SoF (Sea of Faith) conference in 2000, Lloyd Geering gave a presentation titled “Christianity Minus Theism”. In it he asks what is Christianity:

  • Does [the term ‘Christianity] refer to ‘the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints’? (Jude 3)
  • Do we mean, for example, the belief system expressed in the creeds and confessions of the church? (including the doctrine of the Trinity?)
  • Does Christianity consist of living a sacramental life within the authoritative institutional structure called Mother Church?
  • Is the essence of Christianity to be found in accepting Jesus Christ as ones’ personal Lord and Saviour?
  • Does Christianity mean accepting uncritically a set of ancient scriptures as the written record of what is ultimately true?
  • Or does Christianity consist simply of a set of moral values by which to live?

He follows up by stating: “Various groups at one time or another have promoted one or more of these definitions, as the essence or sine qua non of Christianity”. As an example, the religious tradition with which I am associated, would, in general, consider that none of the definitions (with perhaps a modified version of the last one) are necessary. On the other hand, the church to which my son belongs believe that the fourth and fifth definitions (accepting Christ as Saviour and the Bible is true) are absolutely essential – one cannot be a Christian otherwise.

Geering elaborates by stating “Modern historical research has made it very clear, however, that there has never been a time when all who confessed to be Christians (or followers of Jesus) shared exactly all the same beliefs. The New Testament phrase ‘the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints’ was itself part of the developing Christian myth, that faith consists of embracing a set of beliefs which are permanent and unchangeable. Christian beliefs have changed and diversified through the centuries. Today, more than ever before, Christianity has no definable and eternal essence on which all Christians at all times, or even at any one time, agree. It is misleading, therefore, to use the term Christianity in a way which implies that it names some objective and unchangeable essence or thing, such as the theistic belief in God.”

I agree entirely, which might explain my irritation when I see bloggers claim Christians believe X, or Christians oppose Y or Christians do Z. Such statements are grossly inaccurate. If one wants to make a statement about a group of Christians, identify the group instead making a generalised and inaccurate claim.

Lloyd Geering suggests we look at Christianity not as a unified whole, which clearly it isn’t, but with this metaphor: “I suggest we think of Christianity as a stream of living culture flowing through the plains of time. Sometimes, like a river, it divides into substreams and sometimes it is joined by other streams. As it flows onward it gathers new material from the banks it passes through. Sometimes the fluid material in it crystalizes into more rigid objects. Sometimes it drops these objects and other forms of sediment it is carrying along. There is a tendency for people to regard the visible objects in this cultural stream, such as the priesthood, episcopal government, creeds and even the Bible, as being of the essence of the stream. In fact they have less permanence that the stream which carries them along.”

He then finds it timely to be critical of those who oppose changes in Christian thought: “Through church history people have attempted to reform the church. Their critics have warned that they are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. That is a misleading metaphor. Christianity has no permanent and absolute essence. There is no ‘baby’; there is only the bath water, or what is preferably called the on-going cultural stream, broadly known as Judeo-Christian.”

I do like his use of the baby and bathwater metaphor. There is no baby! This where I feel both Christian Fundamentalists and New Atheists make the same mistake. They both see a non-existent baby and then draw polar opposite conclusions.

The full transcript of Lloyd Geering’s presentation can be found here.

 


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God is not real

In her book The history of God, Karen Armstrong, a former nun writes:

When I began to research this history of the idea and experience of God in the three related monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I expected to find that God had simply been a projection of human needs and desires. I thought that ‘he’ would mirror the fears and yearnings of society at each stage of its development. My predictions were not entirely unjustified but I have been extremely surprised by some of my findings and I wish that I had learned all this thirty years ago, when I was starting out in the religious life. It would have saved me a great deal of anxiety to hear – from eminent monotheists in all three faiths – that instead of waiting for God to descend from on high, I should deliberately create a sense of him for myself. Other Rabbis, priests and Sufis would have taken me to task for assuming that God was – in any sense – a reality ‘out there’; they would have warned me not to expect to experience him as an objective fact that could be discovered by the ordinary rational process. They would have told me that in an important sense God was a product of the creative imagination, like the poetry and music that I found so inspiring. A few highly respected monotheists would have told me quietly and firmly that God did not really exist – and yet that ‘he’ was the most important reality in the world.

Professor Sir Lloyd Geering, noted New Zealand theologian and writer, would concur with the claim that “God did not really exist – and yet that ‘he’ was the most important reality in the world“. To him, God is the embodiment of our highest ideals, and not some supernatural being. Of course, Sir Lloyd would say that most Christians aren’t monotheists at all, but Trinitarianists, but that’s for another post (perhaps).


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Lloyd Geering: on God

For me, God referred to the mystery of life that could not be grasped by the human mind. But more recently I have come to realize that God does not name a reality in the cosmos at all. Rather it is a humanly created idea. It belongs to the human thought-world. It is a word by which we have tried to make sense of the physical world we live in.

This idea of God has a long history, which the remarkable scholar and former nun Karen Armstrong has written up as “The History of God”. God is an idea that has played an extremely important role in our evolving culture. It supplied an ultimate point of reference. It was the idea of God as creator and unifier of the universe that led to the rise of modern science, when mediaeval theologians tried to discover what they called ‘the ways of God’ by conducting experiments. It was they who laid the foundations of today’s empirical science.

But we also associated with this idea of God the values of love, compassion, honesty, and truth, because we find these make such moral demands upon us that they clearly transcend us. And though the idea of God had its beginning in our mythological past, it remains a useful word to refer to our highest values. As the New Testament asserts, “God is love”.

Lloyd Geering, 21st May 2017 sermon at the Community of Saint Luke Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand