Monthly Archives: December 2006

When smart people believe in God

There is nothing an atheist likes more than a really dumb or hypocritical believer.  And, let’s face it, they’re not hard to find.  In fact, finding that George Bush Jnr. has strong religious convictions is kind of reassuring – he is not one of us!  But what do we do with smart people with spiritual faith?  And what if they are smarter than us? 

Apparently Einstein believed in  “Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the harmony of what exists.” His interest in science came about as a consequence of a desire to learn how God had created a harmonious universe.  That is, he wanted to give a scientific rationale for his “uncertainty principle,” for his belief that “God does not play dice”  

He famously said, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” 

Well, Einstein wasn’t a fool by any stretch of the imagination and neither are all those who have faith.  Yet it does seem de rigueur to assume that those with faith are somehow mentally deficient and/or lacking the courage to face an existence beyond this earthly one.   

Is this really true?  Of everyone with faith?  Or are such criticisms of faith actually predicated on a distaste for religion, that most tangible and flawed manifestation of belief?  Religion has historically been linked to power and, therefore, is invariably dominated by men and subject to the manipulation and abuse that power breeds in all institutions.  The list of misdeeds to which we can attribute at least some religious impetus is pretty impressive, even if we just look at Christianity:

                          ·         The Inquisition

                                           ·         Various Pogroms

                          ·         Witch burning

                          ·         The Crusades (extra points for involving two religions!)

                          ·         Various and many wars

                          ·         Sexual abuse of children by clergy  

Even if we lined up some of the achievements of religion (and there are some), it remains a good target but, in the end, an easy one. 

Perhaps faith in God, however, is different and more problematic.  How do we deal with the fact that intelligent people are believers?   

And is atheism – demanding as it is of infallible evidence of God – merely the product of a limited ability to conceptualise beyond the obvious?  

Poor old William Golding, the Nobel Laureate, got an unforgettable lesson in religion.  When he was a child in WW2, he relates in his autobiography, he was sitting in school watching a Spitfire fly low over the fields outside his classroom window.  Suddenly the scripture teacher was standing before him asking sternly, “What did I just say to the class, William?” 

“I don’t know, Miss.” 

Bringing her hand across his face she said emphatically, “God (slap) is (slap) love (slap).”

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A Private Execution

“Jane was then taken out to Tower Green, inside the Tower of London, for a private execution. With few exceptions, private executions applied to royalty alone; Jane’s private execution occurred at the request of Queen Mary, as a gesture of respect for her cousin. John de Feckenham, who had failed to convert Jane, stayed with her during the execution. Jane had determined to go to her death with dignity, but once blindfolded, could not find the executioner’s block. She had begun to panic when an unknown hand, possibly de Feckenham, helped her find her way and retain her dignity in the end.”  (Wikipedia) 

Lady Jane Grey was only 16 years old and more the victim of royal intrigue than its perpetrator.  The picture and story have always interested me on a number of levels.  But what strikes me most is her calmness in the face of certain death, the strange conjunction of barbarity and dignity, of cruelty and kindness.  De Feckenham’s strange human gesture in the face of  inhumanity.

The painting can be viewed as a metaphor for life with many of its themes  condensed into one savage moment. We are all condemned to death and we all make choices about how we will face that death and the moments leading to it.  Those moments are, of course, now.  Will I face the end with dignity and, if not, whose unseen hand will still my final despair?    

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What’s that got to do with love?

Arkin poured some milk into Drew’s mug, lifted the dirty kettle and splashed the hot water onto the heaped spoonful of coffee.  He indicated towards the young mechanic sitting sullenly against the workshop wall.  “Don’t worry about Monkey,” he said. “We call him that because he does bugger all but hang around all day.”

 

The other men had moved out into the stark light of the mine site.  They were looking at something in the back of Jake’s truck.

 

Arkin threw a cigarette lighter at Monkey and it bounced off the corrugated iron wall.  “Ignore him,” Arkin said. “He’s been miserable ever since his girlfriend shot through.”  He bent down towards Monkey with his hands on his knees. “You was in love, wasn’t you, Monkey.” 

Drew began to feel himself at the centre of something that had been staged for his benefit.  He began to resent Arkin.  The foreman turned to him.  “Bloody love.  Another victim of the Christmas Club.”

 

Drew found himself saying, “What’s that?” and immediately wishing he had not been drawn so easily into Arkin’s play.  He felt complicit in something that he could not define.

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All Along The Watchtower

When the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons came knocking on our door, my mother was always ready.  A quietly religious but deeply unassuming woman, she must have appeared an easy mark for the well-dressed missionaries at the door.  Within minutes of listening attentively to their discourse, however, she would reappear with her own annotated Bible and soon be in earnest debate.  Discomfited and unable to sustain any telling hits on her my mother’s own gentle but unshakeable faith, the Jehovahs were soon beating a platitudinous but nonetheless humiliating retreat for the front gate.

 

Although she always denied it, I am sure it was my mother’s sport, the only wilful form of sin in which she indulged and one I’m sure her God forgave her.

 

Later, I moved to the big smoke and, far from the prying eyes of my small town, set about on the seduction of a friend of my sister who was staying for a week from the East.  Each night I would prepare a sumptuous feast, replete with wine and candles.  And each night, perhaps alerted by my mother, the Mormons would arrive.  They insisted it was to say grace but somehow they lingered long enough for leftovers.  It started as a bit of a joke but it soon wore thin. One night they asked me to say a little prayer; I prayed they would never return.  When they went outside, someone had stolen their bikes.  They never came back.  So, you see, God does move in mysterious ways – and sometimes on a bike.

 

Anyway, I am much more relaxed about God’s door-to-door salesmen these days.  I realise now that they think I am going to Hell and they are trying to save me.  And they do it in the sure knowledge of hostility, rejection and abuse.  That’s more than I have ever done for people in my street. 

One thing you can say about atheism, it sure is easy, sure is short on sacrifice.

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