Setting aside Religion?

photo of a stone cross

I was asked on Formspring.me: “Do you think it’s possible for a religious politician to put aside the teachings of their religious institution, and make decisions purely on evidence and for the benefit of the population as a whole?” What follows is an edited version of the answer I gave there. My immediate reaction was […]

What is a Fundamentalist Atheist?

I think the instinct—for lack of a better word—that draws people to act religiously can also affect people with no religion. While there may be no organised creed, there is organisation in a sort of tribal way. This may be in some way related to a …

What is your view on psychics who claim to be able to relay messages from dead relatives?

I don’t believe in it. I don’t know what I think about the afterlife entirely—it’s not something I feel I can know; but everything I have experienced, read and encountered leads me to believe that it’s the end of (at least) communication.

I don’t believe mediums can communicate with the dead, nor that they can receive information from those who have died. I tend to think of them as either showpeople or charlatans, and feel something beyond skepticism. I think it can be dangerous to make such claims, because it plays on the vulnerable and particularly on vulnerable topics. The loss of someone we know is one of our life-story’s saddest parts, and grief often overwhelms judgement: leaving us open to suggestion and trickery.

I think the claim is either nonsensical or despicable, and the people who make it are either vulnerable themselves or preying upon the credulous for control or money.

what is the point of decaff?

Clearly, the point, is for people who are negatively affected by caffeine to be able to enjoy the taste of coffee or tea.

Decaffeination leaches much of the flavour from tea or coffee, though, leaving it tasting washed out and watery. Decaff tea, to me, tastes papery and flat. Decaff coffee loses many of the higher and lower notes to the flavour, and ends up tasting somewhat bandwidth-limited. (That is, acids and sugars which, to me, taste high and low are reduced, leaving some general “coffee” flavours, but without much in the way of nuance.)

The temptation, with decaff coffee, is to brew it longer or with more grounds. This might help with the feeling of weakness or watery characteristics, but it also gives it an overextracted flavour, leaving it bitter and harsh.

To me, there is not much point. I don’t want to drink overextracted, watery coffee or papery tea, so if I don’t want caffeine, I tend not to drink either.

Is there something that US have and the UK should have/do it too?

I’m not entirely sure I understand the question. It’s pretty broad.

I think the US has things that make it what it is, some of them good, many poor; but a direct one-for-one swap would not—from my perspective—necessarily bring the benefits they might have in the US. There is, for example, a culture of respect for teachers in the US which I would have liked to have experienced here. Students, still, feel the need to listen to and obey teachers.

However, the things about the society which make this possible are myriad, confusing and far from straightforward. A general respect for authority does, seemingly, exist to a greater extent in the US. But the respect can also manifest as fear, as of police. I instinctively felt fearful around police officers in my home town, probably because I was stopped many times as a teenager for no offense. This has not happened since I moved to the UK, and the culture here seems to be one of the police (generally) respecting citizens.

This, however manifests itself in a state which imposes itself in different, less obvious ways, and a culture in education of active disrespect from students of teachers.

These are gross generalisations, but I think my most basic answer is that the differences are complex, and a simple move from one to the other couldn’t work.

Oh, except coffee… there is generally better coffee available in the US. Though, US influence has given some roasters here a good foundation for great beans too.

As a sort of foreigner, what do you think of this election campaign?

I’m not sure how to frame a response to this one…

I’ve lived in the UK for all but a few months of my voting-eligible life, and this is not the first general election I’ve been present for. I remember watching the Swing-o-meter and wrapping my head around marginal constituencies, door-to-door canvassing, and the implied outcome of an apathetic society turning out to be a surprisingly well-informed populous. So I’m not sure how foreign I feel, really.

I’d like to think I think of this election as anyone with an education and interest in the future would.

But what DO I think of this election?

I think that the parties are too strong. I watched my first Parliamentary reading a couple weeks ago, as the Digital Economy Bill became the Digital Economy Act through a process of washup and rush toward as this government hurridly tied off it’s loose ends. It was the first time I delved into the Whip system, and surprised myself by how incredibly simple it is: vote the way the party agreed, or your club membership will be revoked (along with your parking permit and gym membership, I like to imagine.) I was appalled that the Members of Parliament, elected to represent the best interests of their constituents, were simply corralled to put up their hands at the right minute, then sauntered off again to continue canvassing. I knew this kind of behaviour existed (I’ve seen Yes, Minister), but I wasn’t aware just how BAD and SHABBY the whole process appears.

There are three clubs, all fighting a terrifyingly expensive popularity contest: all struggling to appear the most like someone You and I might want to be friends with. None seems to realise, of course, that You and Me are different, have widely divergent lives, tastes and perspectives; and that none has a chance in hell of appealing completely to both You and Me, so they split the vast differences by trying to appear as least like someone both of us might hate. The result being very little substantial discusion of policy and potential consequences of slightly-different political machines, with the focus going instead to well-rehearsed catchphrases.

Individual MP’s are discouraged from standing out, and indeed, probably don’t want to for fear of coming under intense pressure from their Whip, the tabloid press or Jeremy Paxman. This is illustrated by the fact that my local MP, a Mr. Phillip Dunne (Conservative), replied to my concerned letter with one which was identical to one sent out to a friend from a different constituency. Indeed, his letter expressing his concern and the evils of a future Labour government was a replica—verbatum—of one sent to many others across the country. Writing to your MP is like asking for a copy of a printed policy list.

None of the parties seems to exist in the present world. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that someone might, for example, Google a few lines from their heartfelt letter to find thousands of results showing the same words coming back to them; because the Labour MP’s did exactly the same thing. It’s all a reflection of committees to which we’re not invited.

The parties seem to be driven by a somewhat shadowy aristocracy, and the well-connected and powerful of the world are as present here as they are in other “democracies”: Murdoch, Mandelson, and other kingmakers. But I think the real problem is that we’re all asked to choose between three closed-door groups.

We could perhaps make a difference to the future of the country by joining one of these groups, I suppose. I guess if enough “normal” people were to be well-enough qualified to raise informed objections, and listen to the other sides of problems; we might, slowly etch our own individual influence into the fabric of our particular club. But we won’t, mostly. Because we’re already occupied with the choices we’ve made, and we don’t feel particularly drawn to a life of defending our view under ever-increasing scrutiny. The clubs attract the clubby, so we shouldn’t be surprised that most politicians appear similar. They’re a self-selected population of like-minded or like-skilled individuals, and the outcome is a similar-seeming facade.

That sounds extremely cynical, like it doesn’t matter what we do. I don’t believe that’s true, but I do believe that the system’s various checks, balances and inertias prevent us from impacting it very heavily.

Maybe this heavy machinery is a good thing. Maybe they stop radicalisation and the “balance” may be some sort of stabiliser?

So, I’m not sure WHAT to think about this election. Judging from the conversations I’ve had with colleagues and friends, and from the perspectives on programmes, I’m guessing that’s not a particularly foreign state of mind, either.

The Enlightenment was centuries ago. Why do you think people still cling to outmoded ways of explaining the world, such as religion?

I don’t see history as linearly-progressive. I believe we learn much from our past, and value history. Our story is an accumulation of our thoughts, our lives and our predecessors’ ways of living: and it contains many, many truths. We don’t always learn from the past, and often forget what used to be known. There have been many darker periods in our stories when we acted foolishly despite the “progress” of generations. So, I do not see any thought as “outmoded,” especially in the context of its time. That’s not to say I don’t think some things should change (we SHOULD learn from our past), and so learn to treat women as equals—a lesson we still have not learned—to be careful with our resources, and to test practices to see which ring true (i.e. homeopathic remedies).

Nor do I see the Enlightenment period as anything that was a total disregard of religious thought. I am not an expert, and most of my historical interest lies further back (I love reading/learning about Anglo-Saxon England, for example), so I’m probably not very well qualified to answer your question. But that period is full of beautiful writing and interesting ways of thinking (such as existentialism). Some even embraced traditional stories and truths (Søren Kierkegaard, for example). So, different ways of thinking took a precedent over past, but no total divorce occurred.

I have a difficult time with the tone of this question, I must confess. It feels superior, as if we (or he/she for having asked it) is so much better than our predecessors. We’ve conquered religion! We don’t need to “cling to outmoded ways”.

It sounds hubristic.

We live in a world where we are slowly destroying our own climate through greed and disregard. We, in the past 100 years, have amassed more than enough destructive power to obliterate the surface of our planet. We fight open-ended wars with remote-controlled devices and fill our minds with thoughts of fear, and death, and destruction. We are less egalitarian than many civilisations from our past: looking back at the Saxons, who—even owning slaves—seem somehow less politically crippled than we seem to be now. We watch gladiatorial displays in which losers are humiliated and scorned and winners enthroned, for a short time, in our media and consciousnesses. We grow enough food to feed the planet and more, yet people starve, and the difference between the world’s richest and poorest seems bigger than at any time in our story. And, for the first time in decades, we are leaving our children with fewer years to live than ourselves.

I’m afraid I don’t see this current reality as superior to all that’s past, and I don’t rush to disregard something because it is not currently fashionable.

I hope that we do learn, and that we learn to dismantle the structures of religion which allow terrible things to happen behind sacredly-closed doors. And I hope power people wield through controlling thoughts and feelings as with religious dogma lessens.

But I do cling to many ways of thinking. I don’t think the world would be better without faith. Without the embodiment of Love, nor the teachings of selfless giving I learned as a kid.

Regarding atheists…

No, I haven’t mistaken, though I do wish whoever you are had read my response in its entirety. I did not say that atheism *is* a religion, I said that atheists “can be religious themselves.”

I don’t really want to get into an impassioned, anonymous argument about atheism and deism. I feel the world confirms my rational belief in design and benign order. I believe that selfless love is a better way to live than pseudo-altruistic opportunity, and that God exists. I don’t call all atheists evil, nor do I think their belief system inferior to mine. I disagree with it, and I have experienced a God of Love greater than my own doubt (which is often the greatest thing in my own life).

I do, however, think that there is a religion of atheism. To me, religion is evident whenever people flock to an order (and hierarchy, perhaps) to be exclusive. They tend to disparage others. The implied insult—that I, as a believer in God am superstitious—in the question makes me wonder whether the questioner may have religious tendencies him/herself.

What thing or things can a religious person do that an atheist cannot?

I don’t know, sounds like a clinical trial might be in order?

I’m uncomfortable with the idea of religion, and that discomfort is growing into something akin to distrust.

I sort of see “religion” as a way to organise faith and belief into a structure. Traditionally, this structure has been a default in many cultures—because the organised belief and faith were heavily integrated into the social structures too. In the West, this tradition has become eroded. I don’t see this as bad in itself. It may prove to be hugely good, because it makes a person’s faith their own responsibility and maybe allows for a stronger connection with Love. Religion can get in the way of faith, and in the way of Love, especially if the structure of the religion is particularly authoritarian or the ideas closely controlled.

I do believe in a loving, creative God, and I follo the teachings of Jesus, but I’m uncomfortable with the structures and manifestations of “religion”. The way I see it, I think, is that if God is infinite and also benign (Loving), then those who want to Love, and those who question will ultimately find Love somehow. Religion might limit this questioning, and limit our own understanding of Love.

That’t not to say I don’t see truth in religious teaching, or that I am a complete non-traditionalist (my instinct is to embrace tradition, though my conscious thought is conflicted where I don’t see the truth in a tradition). Some traditions are good, or contain good or are useful or are beautiful. I think the ones which are narrative rather than proscriptive are most close to Love, at least for me.

So, I might surprise you by saying perhaps a religious person can hide behind an institutionalised version of the truth to justify not thinking for themselves?

Oh, I also think many athiests can be “religious” themselves, by the way. If the profound belief that nothing beyond their potential state of empirical knowledge becomes a structure, then it resembles nothing more than religious thought-laziness. So, be athiest, be religious, but don’t hide behind either. Be you, and I pray you find Love.

How badly do you want an iPad?

The iPad is something I’m more curious about than lustful for. I want to see how it works, how it feels to use and what difference it’ll make to the way I do things.

I’ll be interested to see how it does at conferences, for example. Whether the format of a tablet is a useful thing to have due to weight and room.

Also, I want to see how media is rendered and if it really does change anything about the way I interact with content.

So, not hugely badly, but I’ll be happy to try it out. I imagine it might grow on me though.