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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"There are some that only employ words for the purpose of disguising their thoughts." - Voltaire


A very bizarre take on religion:

A: There is nothing to stop someone from continuing in the tradition of his religion without believing in the myths of that religion. If I may pick a personal example, I am a devout and committed Christian and yet I do not believe in the existence of God and his supernatural buddies. There is nothing inconsistent about that. If I am asked, I acknowledge most readily that God probably doesn't exist because there is no evidence to support his existence. He's in the same boat as the fairies and unicorns, pixies and trolls. But I continue with the TRADITION of the faith. You see enough examples of bishops who do not believe in God all over the world.

I look upon religion as a human culture. I have sung Bach and Handel in the choir and when I'm singing the great music of the finest composers our species has been able to come up with, I am transported to a religious plane where I feel myself communing with God. It's the same when I play my musical instrument well - I feel I'm actually touching the face of God. That is a human emotion we all need to express through art. Or when I read Milton or Herbert or Yeats, I receive affirmation of the beauty of God. But of course, I know in my head that this is just a human feeling. We need a focal point for goodness and beauty and God is a convenient instrument for that purpose.

Religion has evolved to supply a human need. One need not deprive oneself of that need. But personally for me, to cook up the idea that God really exists is a bit of a tall order.

This is just the opinion of a devout Christian who knows in his head that God does not exist, any more than fairies do.

Me: Err, you mean you are a cultural Christian? Your description is not too different from what would be considered partaking in normal Western/Judeo-Christian culture.

But then there are cultural Christians like Bob Price who go to church and go through the ceremonies even though they don't believe in them. I assume you don't do this?

You'd be somewhere in the middle, then.

I think it's important to make the distinction between those who are culturally Christian and those who are Christian.

When you say you are Christian the meaning is entirely different from what you intend.

And I'm not sure that it is coherent to feel yourself communing with an entity you know does not exist.

A: A good example is this - everyone knows the virgin birth mentioned in Matthew's gospel is the result of a mistranslation. That famous alma-parthenos mistranslation. So, no intelligent Christian can possibly believe in the truth of the virgin birth. And yet we all say the Creed which affirms the virgin birth. Why do we do it? It's tradition. We simply acknowledge and "accept" this human tradition of the virgin birth, knowing that it arose from a gross mistranslation. It's like we are chuckling at ourselves for this error.

Let us say that for centuries, a group of people have been reciting a creed that includes the statement that "the sun is a ball of yellow cheese dragged through the sky on a chariot". Even though everyone knows that is not true today, we may still recite such a creed because of tradition. We smile at the thought of the errors our ancestors made and their ignorance too.

We should also consider the issue of harmony. We all have families and parents who practise the same religion. As long as it's an innocuous non-violent religion, I really don't see what harm there is in saying "I believe in God the Father, maker of blah blah blah". I can see how a dogged refusal to practise the religion can cause people close to us to feel upset...

Religion is purely cultural. You can practise the culture without compromising on your intellect...

Christianity is a lot easier because there are so many bishops and priests who don't accept God. I'm referring to the Church of England and the Methodist Church, both of which are filled to the brim with non-believing priests.

B: I got a question, (for u and myself). Will be be attending the church when ur parents are no more?
will you be asking ur children to attend church? You have a choice to make.

And culture thing not a very big circle for many of us. Its just our immediete family.

A: I will probably attend church still. It's different for me. I love music and when I was very young, I used to sing soprano in the boys' choir. We used to sing Bach and Handel and some of Bach's cantatas still bring tears to my eyes even though I don't sing soprano any more (thank goodness!). Today, I still play music in church. Music is very important to me. I will probably continue with church even after my parents have died because of the music.

I suppose deep down, all of us want to make our children clones of ourselves. Naturally, I would want my children to be rational in their thinking and by that, they have to be able to see how illogical it is to accept the God of the Bible as real. Or any other gods for that matter.

Once they can see God is not real, I would like for them to accept God as a symbol or the focal point of goodness and beauty in a poetic sense. So much of culture is tied to the God of the Bible...

I think the beauty of humanity lies in the diversity of our cultures and religion is very much a part of it. The ideal world is one in which everybody practises his own culture without believing in the legend behind it. Just imagine this - will Bali be as attractive as it is now if every Balinese stops his colourful religious practices? How can anyone honestly say that he finds the Land of the gods more alluring when it's become the Land of no god?

... Recently, my mother asked me if I had turned atheist. She remembered years ago when my brother told me not to take Christmas communion but I didn't want to be the only one remaining in the pew so he said he would sit with me and forego communion. My mother was most upset with that. She wanted all of us to take communion and I was happy to do so but my brother thought it would be a sacrilege because he's a bit of a mad fundamentalist. So, she took communion with my Dad and she was crying when she went back to the pew.

It's so unnecessary to make people unhappy just because of a tasteless wafer. If a Muslim friend is dying and he wants me to say a Muslim prayer so he will be assured that he will see me one day in paradise, I will gladly say the prayer just for his comfort. The same with a Hindu friend. Of course I will stop short of going through a circumcision or kavadi-carrying but a prayer just to please a friend is no big deal.

... I love music and one of the greatest things about Christianity is the fine music that the greatest composers on this planet have written for a non-existent God. I have no problem with singing God's praise. It's the height of our culture and it's in praises to God that we find the finest works of art from paintings to music to literature. The analogy [of the Bible being as gory as] a gladiator's fight is incorrect because the Christian God is an impotent, innocuous and non-existent God. There is no gore. There may be stories that are violent but it's no more violent than Little Red Riding Hood which has threats by the big bad wolf to eat up the Grandmother. The good thing is, like Little Red Riding Hood, the stories in the OT are largely fictitious...

I don't normally think of my own religion as real, if you know what I mean. It's like going to church on Christmas day or attending a Christmas party and singing about the Star of Bethlehem, the wise men, Mary and Joseph, the Virgin birth, the stable, etc and all of a sudden, people ask me if I REALLY believe these to be absolute truth, ie historical truth. Of course not!!! But it's not something we normally say. To me, it sounds inappropriate to tell everyone it's all just a fable or a legend. The Holy Trinity was cooked up AFTER Jesus and the concept was finetuned over the next few hundred years so that even great Christian leaders such as Origen became a heretic retrospectively.

Anyone who has a passing knowledge of Church history would know all that. Of course the church tries to pretend that what they have come up with over the centuries has always been believed but it's very obvious to anyone that that is not true. It's just that we have to be polite not to contradict the teachings of Christianity today. It's normal to just follow along while knowing that the teachings aren't correct.

I know perfectly well that my religion hasn't got a leg to stand on if you turn on the search lights of fact and truth. I know the whole concept of God will simply crumble to dust when exposed to the light of truth. Religion and absolute truth can never get along. Religion belongs more in the realm of poetry, music and the arts. That's why I say it's purely cultural.

From my experience, the greatest mistake my fellow Christians make is to think that God is real. I mean in the sense that they believe he really exists as a separate entity. Of course I would agree that God exists as a symbol or as a representation of something or as a poetic metaphor and in that sense, he is real but that is a different thing altogether. To many of my fellow Christians in Singapore, God is as real as the one-horned rhino in Southern Nepal. They really believe that he exists as a separate living, intelligent being.

Me: I still don't see why you describe yourself as a "Christian" and why you consider yourself to have a "religion".

If you go by this reasoning, someone can be a Christian and a practitioner of traditional Chinese religion and the gods know what else - all at the same time.

Which should strike you as counter-intuitive.

If I am passionate about Classical Mythology and love to look at paintings and sculptures describing the various tales and stories, and even sacrifice a heifer for fun occasionally, this does not make me a follower of Zeus.

A: What you have said is what I'm always told when I'm in atheist forums. They insist I'm not a Christian. But surely whether I am a Christian or not must be determined by the prelates of my church. Is that not right?

I have informed my Bishop about my stand and I am still given office in church. I have in fact been told by one pastor that there are bishops who believe even less than I!

My name still remains in the rolls of the church. I receive Communion. I submit to church authority and say the creeds more than willingly. I follow the Liturgy with all my heart. I even serve in one of the ministries - of course not the teaching ministry.

I'm not a member of any organisation which is frowned by the church. I don't practise traditional Chinese religion but like I've said in another email, if a friend who's dying asks me to pray to the Chinese gods for his healing, I will do it in his presence just to bring peace and comfort to him.

By all accounts and all records, I am a Christian.

D: "By all accounts and all records, I am a Christian."

Cultural-Christian, I get. Charming solidarity, sing-a-long holidays blah-blah-blah.

But "Christian"? By your really broad against-the-grain definition, so are all of us.

A: Of course not. Most of you aren't Christians. You don't say the Creeds (at least you won't do it willingly), you don't say prayers, follow the Liturgy in church, take the Eucharist, kneel at the altar, etc etc. I'm of course assuming that most of you are atheists but I may be wrong. [Someone else] certainly will kneel, genuflect, pray, chant, sing etc. But how many of you really will do all these things? And submit yourselves to the teachings of the church?

My definition of "chistians" isn't broad at all.

Me: If I:

- wear Red Clothes during Chinese New Year
- give unmarried children Red Packets for luck
- eat nian gao during Chinese New Year (remember that the sticky cake is supposed to seal the kitchen god's mouth shut so he cannot tell on you)
- have a picture of the Monkey God in my home because I think it's well-drawn
- hang a bagua because I think it makes my house look good
- go to a Taoist fortune teller for fun
- eat vegetarian food on festival days because I am used to it
- appreciate the moon and eat pomelos during the mid-autumn festival

Am I a practitioner of traditional Chinese religion?

Again, a minimal definition of religion is "a belief in spiritual beings" - and not cultural practices...

This reminds me of how in Japan they like to hire Westerners to pose as priests - when some of these Westerners aren't Christians and they certainly aren't ordained.

If external behavior were sufficient to determine one's "religion", there wouldn't be very much difference between an actor acting as a Christian and a Christian who goes through the motions but doesn't actually believe them.

A: But I'm not acting. I come from a long line of Christians. I was born into the faith. It's not something I adopt for fun or for photo-taking (which is presumably what the Japanese you mentioned are looking for). It's my identity and the cultural identity of my family. I do not know of a single ancestor of mine who does not belong to the church. There is no acting at all.

D: When you can pick and choose what makes a "Christian", prayers and whatnot.

Why can't anyone else?

I can define it as "walking towards a church on Sunday" and I am sure we all do it on Sunday. Note: walking towards church is a subset of "walking towards a Church in sight", which is a subset of "walking into a Church", which is a subset of....

A: I was brought up an Anglican and Anglicanism is according to Richard Dawkins the most innocuous and intellectual form of religion. But unfortunately for me, the Anglicanism practised in the church I used to go to with my parents is different from the Anglicanism practised in Singapore. For some very strange reason, Singapore Anglicanism is a bit like American fundamentalism. I couldn't believe it when I read that Josie Lau and her "charismatic" friends who believe in miracle healings and voices from God are Anglicans!!!...

In America, there are Methodist churches that have excluded God from the services. I attended one where the only mention of God was in the liturgy which is fine. The sermon was all about how to be a good neighbour. You won't believe how progressive Christians can be outside of Singapore...

Your list of Chinese culture sounds interesting but I bet you made up some of them. I'm sure pomelos aren't eaten at the mid-autumn festival, or are they?

... I mentioned an incident in my life when my brother told me not to take Christmas communion. When we got home, my mum had a long argument with us. I told her I wanted to take communion but my brother stopped me. My brother said I was an atheist and should not take communion. Anyway, my mother called our vicar some days later and he questioned me. He said he did not see how I could be prevented from taking the Eucharist. My brother said belief was all that matter. He said I was prepared to recite the Creeds. He said "belief" can vary from time to time depending on a person's mood. He also said nobody really can have a 100% belief in something like religion. It always varies. He said no communicant should be denied the communion. He administered Christmas communion for me there and then, to the outrage of my brother.

... I can't have a Creed that is not in line with the Nicene Creed. The UUs do not accept this Creed. If there is a death in my family, I will not feel comforted if the funeral is not conducted by the church. I must have the name of the Holy Trinity invoked. I've seen a dear uncle in grief over the death of his wife and even though he didn't believe God really exists, he sought comfort in the funeral service and the constant reminder that the dead in Christ shall rise again.

I know in times of extreme grief and bereavement, I will be just as weak and I will seek solace in God and the funeral service.

I look upon religion as a human right. We have the right to be comforted where logic and reason are sure to fail us. Our species has developed religion for our comfort for tens of thousands of years and I'm not about to give it up. For me, there is comfort in a God fashioned after the Christian tradition. Another person may find more comfort in Allah or Buddha or Vishnu because that is the tradition he was brought up with.

Me: I've seen a dear uncle in grief over the death of his wife and even though he didn't believe God really exists, he sought comfort in the funeral service and the constant reminder that the dead in Christ shall rise again.

I've read this line a few times and I still can't grasp the concept

If you know something is not true, how can it comfort you?

Is it because you're lying to yourself on some level?

Or is your meaning that someone is comforted by a familiar ritual and ceremony, even if it has no real meaning?

All this reminds me of a marriage where a couple have fallen out of love, but are still nominally married and go through the motions of married life, even kissing each other (having Congress too, if you like) - but not feeling anything at all for each other.

Which strikes me as incredibly sad.

A: I found your email amusing not because you are wrong but because that is the usual answer I get when I talk to atheists. Mind you, I'm not saying you are wrong at all. You are absolutely right but human emotions don't work according to pure logic.

Let's say someone dear to me has died and I'm naturally devastated. I know that's the end of the person's life and I'll never see him/her again. Death has robbed me of that person.

The Order for funerals is very comforting. The words of Scriptures are familiar. We are reminded of how Christ's resurrection trumps death. Death, where is thy sting? Your family is with you and you share that special bond as you participate in the funeral service. You know millions of people have invoked the same name of our Triune God. Because Christianity is such a common religion, you share the same religion in this hour of grief with most of humanity. It may be someone really talented like Michael Jackson or beautiful such as Princess Diana but all of them were buried with their loved ones calling on this same God.

I acknowledge it is a weakness but I do find comfort in religion when I'm really in the depths of misery. I might even convince myself that the deceased is now in the arms of Jesus and even if it's hard to really believe it, the image of someone I love in the arms of Jesus is so powerful it's bound to offer me some comfort. And we don't live alone. What about younger children in our families? Saying that so-and-so is now in the loving arms of our Lord can only have a good impact on kids psychologically. I know it will make me feel better.

I saw an atheistic funeral service order in Dawkins' link once. Frankly, I found it very depressing because what I find comforting - this triumph over death and the comfort that God and the angels give - is sadly lacking.

I suppose in the end it really shows how different we all are. Some are comforted at the thought of a non-existent God while others are content to have a funeral service without religious elements. That's the beauty of human diversity.
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