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On belief

June 16, 2011

Firstly, the quote was just intended to be a poetical flourish which went with the theme of my post.  No offence was intended, and I’ll try to be less poetical in future.

However, I will also say that I don’t think belief (in the religious sense) is a virtue.  Of course not – if it were, that would mean that those of us without it were lacking.

It probably is true that 98% of people have believed in religion of some sort.  It’s probably also true that a similar percentage have believed in astrology of some sort.  You would probably be quite happy to say that their belief in astrology was wrong or misguided, and view yourself as superior in some way to them (if only in being better informed).  Isn’t it okay for me to feel the same way about a different issue?

This is actually quite an interesting question.  I think that one of the reasons that religious belief is so common is because we have naturally occurring tendency to ascribe ‘agency’ or ‘personhood’ to inanimate objects and events, and also to view events as linked or causal when they are not.  This was evolutionarily advantageous to us – the caveperson who sees grass rustling and runs away, even though it isn’t a tiger, lives longer than the one who is stoical in the face of rustles which turn out to be a tiger.  Likewise, the dangers of failing to recognise the actions of someone in your tribe, or from another tribe, are much worse than the dangers of seeing intention where it doesn’t exist.  Failure to recognise an existing causal relationship (rustles -> tiger) is more dangerous than recognising a fake causal relationship (black cat -> bad luck).

You can see it in people all the time, saying their computer doesn’t ‘want’ to process their documents, or that their car knows what they are thinking, or that of course it rained, it’s a bank holiday.  They also remember positive coincidences (‘I was thinking about my sister, and then she phoned me!’), and ignore all the times they were thinking about her and she didn’t phone.

So the human mind has a number of inherent biases and blind spots, and religion is an outgrowth of these.  As is astrology, and any number of other superstitions such as belief in ghosts.

Note: this isn’t my reason for not believing, it’s my hypothesis about why religion is so common.

I don’t think people are worse (either morally or intellectually) for believing in religion.  I know plenty of clever people who believe.  I view this as being evidence of the nature of the human brain, not as a fault of the individual.

Nor do I think my lack of belief is evidence to consider myself superior.  Luckier, possibly, because I’m not devoting my life to something which doesn’t exist – but then believers clearly benefit from sense of community, purpose, security, etc., so in some ways they are luckier.

I don’t want you to lose your faith, because I know how much it would hurt you.  I just want you to understand a bit about my views.

And by the way, we’re all wounded.  Some people (successfully) find solace for their wounds in religion.  I’d just rather have whatever plasters I can make myself, however inadequate, than rely on the imaginary plasters other people tell me about.


Speaking of considering oneself superior, though, it is often religious believers who seem to think they have the right to tell others what to do.  You will note that there are no teams of atheists going door-to-door seeking converts, or giving sermons in schools, or speaking on Thought for the Day.  No Bishops of Atheism in the House of Lords.  No atheist weekly services, and no atheists trying to stop consenting adults having the right to choose who they marry.  However, there are religious people doing these things all the time.

There are religious people flying planes into buildings, cutting pieces off their children, giving up their worldly possessions in expectation of the apocalypse, forcing women to wear veils, and telling their followers to kill in the name of God (Christians as well – look at George Bush, or at Northern Ireland).

And they still go on TV saying they have the superior morality and the only way.


By the way, do you seriously think that two genealogies undermines the whole Biblical revelation of the character and purpose of God?

I think that contradictions in the Bible (of which that is only one example) prove that it is not wholly true.

Presumably you will agree that at least one genealogy must be inaccurate?  If so, though, how can you view the rest of the Bible as true?  If it’s all God’s Word, how can part of God’s Word be wrong?


Does that help you grasp what was saying initially about the attempts I have made, and continue to make, to inspect my world-view and test it both “outwardly” against facts and “inwardly” against experience.

Well, not really!  Let me try to restate it in my own words again, and you tell me if I’ve got it right or not.

You consider your faith holds up because you find that your internal experiences of prayer, etc., and your external experiences in the world, do not contradict it.

Did I get it right?

If so, how does that work when you look at the reasons I gave (in my second post) for not being a Christian?  Or when you ask other people to believe?  Your internal experiences are evidence for you, but not for others – to communicate with others you need external evidence.


some responses – and a challenge!

June 12, 2011

I don’t agree that doubt is the opposite of faith, within the religious community. In fact I endorse and facilitate open sessions for people within the Christian faith community to air their questions and uncertainties, because I believe (interesting word!) that our faith grows through questioning, and deepens through exchange with other believers and non-believers.

Doubt, for me, is more a recognition that, so far, I have not fitted everything together with no loose ends. Let’s take one example from the Christian canon. I don’t know exactly what happens at the moment of death. There are plenty of Biblical clues, lots of useful images, but there is no blow-by-blow account of the journey of the spirit once the body has stopped functioning. There are thoughts such as “today with me in paradise”, suggesting an instant arrival in heaven; but these have to be put alongside images of everyone arriving simultaneously in some celestial court of judgement, where the “sheep” and “goats” will be divided (incidentally, on the grounds of their behaviour not their creed!). I personally can live with uncertainty – call it doubt? – about this issue. It doesn’t seem to me to matter greatly which is is going to happen to me!

Accepting, knowing, believing

I accept that the light from the sun takes about 8 minutes to reach earth. That’s what I’ve been told by people who have researched it, and I’ve seen no substantive argument against.
I know that I am Kate Towner’s biological father. All sorts of factual data could be brought forward to substantiate that statement (not least the similarities of personality!). I know that no amount of rational analysis will overturn that fact.

I believe that Jesus of Nazareth said “I am the way, the truth and the life” (although of course he said its equivalent in either Greek or Aramaic). I have done my best to do the research myself – including visiting the British Library and seeing for myself the oldest New Testament manuscripts they hold there, and talking to an expert in that department. But my sense that this is true is not just from that research – it is linked to my prayer life, and to my spiritual journey, where my experiences are consistent with that belief.

By the way, do you seriously think that two genealogies undermines the whole Biblical revelation of the character and purpose of God? I think in current quantum mechanics we are asked to hold more than two apparently “opposites” simultaneously – for example the absolute nature of the speed of light, and yet the weird “twinning” of particles moving away from each other at twice that relative speed!

Does that help you grasp what was saying initially about the attempts I have made, and continue to make, to inspect my world-view and test it both “outwardly” against facts and “inwardly” against experience.

A challenge
Your title, taken from from one of your favourite authors, really surprised me! Are you trying to be provocative and offensive, or do you really think what the title says is true? If the former, that does seem to be stepping aside from the spirit in which we undertook this dialogue! Prodding, yes, that I expect; provoking maybe from time to time; but deliberate offence is surely not on!

So let’s assume that somehow you put the title there because you hold it to be true.
Then you have surely stopped working by your own rules! The title opens with the bald statement that belief is a wound. That is a value judgement, not a bit of rational analysis! And a pretty damning judgement, which consigns about 98% of the human race that have lived so far to the category of “wounded”, and posits some amazing superior group – do you belong to it? – which is not wounded in this way, but instead has some esoteric “knowledge”. That sounds like the basis of most sects and the majority of cults!

Belief is the wound which knowledge cures

June 6, 2011

[Title quote from Ursula K LeGuin.]

I’m glad you put the word ‘belief’ in quotes as it applies to me, because it is a word with multiple meanings:

1. something believed; an opinion or conviction: a belief that the earth is flat.
2. confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof: a statement unworthy of belief.
3. confidence; faith; trust: a child’s belief in his parents.
4. a religious tenet or tenets; religious creed or faith: the Christian belief.


I have, it would be idle to deny, a lot of beliefs in sense 1.  I have opinions and as you have probably noticed I am usually quite happy to state them.

I definitely don’t have beliefs in sense 4, as you know.   I probably have some beliefs in sense 3, although I am no longer a child.  I believe, for example, that Britain for all its faults is a basically decent place to live.

Sense 2 is the interesting one.  I imagine you’d agree that your religious beliefs fall under this as well as under sense 4?  They are not, as far as I know, immediately susceptible of rigorous proof, although feel free to disagree if you like.

In religion, belief (sense 2) is often counted as a virtue, and doubt as a vice.

I think this is one of the flaws of religion, and one of the weaknesses of a religious world view.  Belief in this sense is something to be avoided, not to be sought.  I think the ideal would be to hold opinions only to the degree to which they are justified by evidence.

Of course no human lives up to that fully.


I’m afraid I still don’t fully understand the nature of your claim about your beliefs, sorry.  Are you saying that you are confident in your faith because it holds up in the darkest hours?  Or because you have examined it a lot in the darkest hours?  Or something like that?  Please can you go on restating it until I understand!

The thing is, I am sure that your faith gives comfort to you and to others, and that you are confident when you speak to people about it that you are giving them the best you can.

However, wouldn’t you agree that people also find things comforting which are not true?  I am sure that Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs etc. get comfort from their faith as well, and also that those faiths are taught by well-meaning and convinced people.

But you think those people are wrong, despite their conviction and despite the comfort it gives them.

What makes you different?

You said that Christianity is “a philosophically valid world view that can be tested against all other faiths and philosophies, and put alongside other “explanations” of the world we experience, and shown to be internally consistent and strongly coherent. ”

Firstly, the Bible contains many contradictions.  For just one of many examples, there are two different and separate genealogies given for Christ in the Bible, in Luke and in Matthew, and these are mutually inconsistent and cannot both be true as written.

Secondly, my post on why I am an atheist set out several contradictions in Christianity (or what I take to be such).  Care to explain why I’m wrong?

You also said the following:

To be a Christian believer means, I think, to acknowledge one’s need of God – to accept that without God’s help I will remain self-centred (and sinful); that by God’s grace through Jesus Christ I can be not just given strength day by day but also set free from sin and death.
So to become a Christian requires an attitude of heart and mind that are willing to admit their limitations and to submit to a greater wisdom.

 (Contrary to appearances) I don’t think of myself as the fount of all wisdom, and I accept that I have many limitations.  But if you are asking me to accept (and submit to) a greater wisdom, you have first to demonstrate that it exists, and secondly that it is worthy of my obedience.

By the way, sin is sort of an empty concept for me.  I believe in human level stuff like cruelty or error or selfishness, and I believe that they are bad, but the word ‘sin’ makes a lot of assumptions I don’t buy into.

my beliefs – and your “beliefs?

June 4, 2011

Thanks Kate for the kind comments about the good that I do in the community – but that wasn’t the point I was trying to make!
That section of the post was about the way in which my faith, my world view, comes under test because of the circumstances in which I find myself working.
I claim that, for example, God has a loving attitude towards humanity, and that Jesus is portrayed throughout the Bible as a Good Shepherd – he cares for the young and tends the lame etc. That’s a great theory, one might say, and in a vacuum would be a nice, warm, comfortable faith to hold.
Why I was mentioning bereaved parents was that, in my work context, I come up against extremes of suffering and depths of pain, and naturally at times like that I have to re-evaluate what I believe, for two reasons. First, because I want to be honest and whole-hearted – I want to know if what I believe is true, at it simplest level. So I have to look at, in my head and in my heart, what I mean by saying “Jesus is a Good Shepherd” to make sure that I do still hold it to be true, even when seeing a broken-hearted young couple in depths of grief. And second, I need to re-assess my belief so that what I say to such a couple is not a pack of lies, not a “pie-in-the-sky” fabrication, but is something which they might test and come to rely on in their need. If I offered them something that was trite and which I knew to be false I would be not only lying, but I would be making a tragic situation worse!

To try then to answer some of your questions – and to throw in the odd challenge myself!

Yes of course at one level it is fair to say that I posted “It works for me” – but then that is what you put in your “Why I am …” you in effect said that you are happy with your world view. We would expect no less of each other.
But I would also claim that the Christian world view that I hold is not just subjectively tenable, but I would make a stronger statement – that it is a philosophically valid world view that can be tested against all other faiths and philosophies, and put alongside other “explanations” of the world we experience, and shown to be internally consistent and strongly coherent.
Then you ask “How might I persuade someone to become a Christian?”, which is a different question again. Saying that it is a valid “world view” is of course important – I wouldn’t, and neither would you, go about trying to sign people up to something we knew to be false! You won’t find me shouting “Join the Big Society – it works!” or “Follow Hereford United – they are the greatest football team in England”
For someone to become a Christian they don’t need to accept every word of the Bible, or to try to reconcile in their minds the claims of string theory over against images in John’s vision of heaven in the book of Revelation. To be a Christian believer means, I think, to acknowledge one’s need of God – to accept that without God’s help I will remain self-centred (and sinful); that by God’s grace through Jesus Christ I can be not just given strength day by day but also set free from sin and death.
So to become a Christian requires an attitude of heart and mind that are willing to admit their limitations and to submit to a greater wisdom.

Now a question for you!
Where do you stand on the “Atheists have beliefs of their own” debate? I know that Dawkins has been quoted – and I don’t know if this is true or not – as stating that he favours the “multi-verse” interpretation of the Big Bang processes, and that he has been challenged to defend why this is not a “belief” – so far I think he has done so without convincing anyone!
I know you “believe” in, for example, honesty at work, and the universal right to freedom of political expression – and from our long discussions on the subject, that the world-wide internet community doesn’t need regulating!
Are these beliefs?

Response to Dad

June 1, 2011

So far this has been interesting, but we haven’t got very far into the meat of the debate.

So, to stir things up a bit:

What I get from Dad’s words so far is that he is a nice guy, loves his family, loves the world, loves God, etc., but I knew that already.

Dad, I get that being a Christian works for you.  But then what?  If it doesn’t work for me, do we just agree to disagree?  What would you say to convince me (or anyone) to believe?  What is the underlying logic of your faith?

Why I am a Christian

May 21, 2011

I enjoyed reading Kate’s account of why she is an atheist. I was particularly pleased to find no real surprises in the account, which suggests that she and I have managed to keep the conversation going pretty well over the years.

There are several things in Kate’s account that I am longing to follow up as these conversations continue, but I won’t snatch at them – and that is not the purpose of this post anyway. But I will say that I thought Kate’s definition of the mainstream view of the Christian God was a good working basis for this debate.

Why I am Christian is because the world-view contained within the faith gives the best coherent “fit” to both my intellectual search for truth and my experiential (emotional and spiritual) journey through life so far.

As I said in my earlier post, I was brought up with a Christian world-view, and with a personal Christian commitment, but that both of those have been reviewed and renewed on a regular basis. Over the past 51 years – since my first remembered “personalising” of the faith that I had “inherited”- clearly my reading and study have informed my understanding of the world, and indeed of the universe. Equally obviously my life experience has widened since my upbringing in south London.

What I have found is that whenever I have encountered new experience, or come into contact with new ideas, these things have enriched by Christian journey rather than derailing me from it. So my faith today is in essence the same as it was in West Croydon Baptist Church when I was baptised by immersion aged 17, but my response to the core truths is worked out through a mind that has been shaped by many strands of input, and through a personality that has similarly been moulded by life (which for me of course includes the life of prayer and worship and fellowship).

And yes there are challenges on both fronts! Kate raises the problem of pain. When shouted at by a father as he has just seen his second child die a cot death just months after a similar death of his first child I am confronted with this one! And when, despite much prayer and study and thought I still find myself being impatient and judgemental, and therefore not very much like Jesus my Lord, I am challenged by my inconsistencies.

But they are challenges which actually drive me deeper within my Christian faith, rather than lever me out of it.

For example, my study of relativity back in 1969-72 broadened my enjoyment of the universe that I live in, and actually enriches my Christian worship and discipleship (by which I mean my daily attempts to apply the teachings of Jesus). St Paul wrote about how the world around us displays some of the power and nature of the Christian God , and practically every day my life is brightened by that thought.

And my struggles to remain patient and humble whilst working within the structures of the Church of England make sure that I have enough material within myself to work with and work on that I don’t spend (on a good day!) too much of my time trying to organise other people’s lives for them, or have too much energy left for criticising their behaviour.

As I said earlier, I’m looking forward to coming back to some of the things Kate said about atheism, and some of the things she said about the Christian faith. But for now I’ll stick with what I was tasked with – why I am a Christian – because the Christian faith gives a coherent account both of the world I live in, and my life as I live it!

Why am I an atheist?

May 18, 2011
tags: ,

Quick note first: When I say I’m an atheist, I mean that I do not believe in anything which I would call a God or gods.

Part of the trouble with this whole question is that the definition of ‘god’ is very nebulous and slippery.  People use it to mean big-supernatural-dude-in-the-sky, but they also use it for object-of-worship (as with a statue or sacred tree), or for member-of-a-pantheon.  Even within big-supernatural-dude-in-the-sky, there are several options – there are many world religions, which all worship different gods and define god differently.  There are also philosophical definitions, such as the First Mover, or the being than which no greater can be conceived, or the source of morality.

So, there are a lot of potential gods out there.

I can’t disprove all of them because it would take too long and is utterly pointless, since the definition shifts all the time.  Therefore I am what is called a weak or agnostic atheist: I say that I don’t believe in god, rather than saying I believe there is no god.

Most of the things people call God or gods, I just don’t have any reason to believe in them.  Or any good reason.

As an example, take Thor, the Norse god of thunder.  There is evidence, of a sort, for his existence, because we hear the thunder.  However, hearing the thunder doesn’t cause me to believe in Thor because thunder is adequately explained in other ways.

However, there are some gods which I do believe exist, but I don’t believe they are gods.  Pantheists believe that the universe is god.  I believe that the universe exists, but I don’t have any reason to call it god.

So in order for me to become a theist, I would have to be convinced firstly that something existed, and secondly that it was reasonable to call that thing a god.  So far nothing has passed that test for me.

What is atheism?

As above, atheism is a lack of belief.  Because I do not believe in any gods, I am not a theist, and therefore I am an atheist.

Atheism is the absence of belief in gods.

Atheism is not a religion, just as it is ridiculous to say that ‘not collecting stamps’ is a hobby.

Why I am not a Christian

However, many of the people who may read this are probably Christian, and certainly Dad is, so it makes sense to address the Christian God in particular.

Strange as it may seem, I immediately hit the same problem of definition.  When you ask people to define the Christian God, they either think it’s obvious, or they say ‘as described in the Bible’, or they say that God is so far beyond our understanding that he cannot be defined.  None of this is terribly helpful, particularly as the Bible can be contradictory.  It also makes things harder, as whenever one addresses one definition of God, people always come out and say ‘oh but God’s not like that’.

Anyway, I’ll go with the following for simplicity.  Mainstream interpretations seem to agree that the Christian God is all of the following:

  • Creator and sustainer of the universe and everything in it
  • All-good, all-powerful and all-knowing
  • A Trinity made up of Father, Son and Holy Ghost
  • Sent Jesus to die on the cross to save us from our sins.

I know plenty of people calling themselves Christians who don’t believe one or more of the statements above, but I have to start somewhere.

So, why don’t I believe in this particular God?

Firstly, I don’t see any particular need to think that the universe has a creator and sustainer.  Just as the existence of thunder isn’t evidence for Thor, the existence of ‘creation’ isn’t evidence for the existence of a Creator.  Everything we have discovered in the universe so far works by natural processes.  Science hasn’t discovered everything, but it’s a very good process for getting closer to the truth.  I don’t think that relying on a 2000-year-old book written by a bronze age society is going to be a better option.

Secondly, the idea of an all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing God doesn’t fit with the nature of the world as we see it.  If I were to become aware of a child being abused, and had the ability to stop the abuse, it would be absolutely repugnant of me to choose not to stop it.  However, we are asked to believe that God knows about every abused child in the world, is able to stop the abuse at any time, but for some reason does not.  Such a God is far less moral than I am and thus is not worthy of worship.

[People sometimes answer that God does not intervene because he wishes us to have freedom – but a God who could not both protect the child and give us freedom is not all-powerful.]

Thirdly, the Trinity is pretty incoherent, and poorly understood even by Christians.  It’s not even stated clearly anywhere in the Bible, but derived from interpretations of other statements.

Fourthly, the whole idea of Jesus’ death and resurrection to forgive our sins doesn’t make sense.  We are asked to believe that God created humans, set up a situation in which they would be tempted to sin, was surprised and hurt when they did, and is unable to forgive them despite being all-powerful.  However, he is able to forgive them if one part of Himself is born and lives as a man and dies on the Cross, but is only dead temporarily.

Even the existence of Jesus is not universally accepted, let alone particular details of his life.  It depends on writings dating from, at the earliest, 30 or 40 years after his death.

If we take a modern-day death as a parallel, that of Princess Diana, we can see how rumours and competing versions of events swirl around.  Her death occurred only fourteen years ago.  Even in our information age, and with the benefit of CCTV and forensic evidence, the nature and cause of it are still subject to interpretation, and claim and counter-claim.  The early Christians knew much less about Jesus’ life and death than I do about Diana, but we are still asked to accept their writings as evidence.

My own view is that Jesus (or some other religious teacher) probably did exist at that date, and preached to crowds, claimed to perform miracles, and irritated the Roman authorities.  However, stories of his life have much in common with stories about other religious leaders or other deities.  For example, Dionysus shares many of the properties of Jesus (virgin birth, water into wine, descent into hell for three days, etc.), but the Dionysus legends were recorded earlier.  So my opinion is that when early Christians wrote about their saviour, they incorporated aspects of other legends and traditions.  They would also, being human, have incorporated wishful thinking, and reinterpretations due to hindsight.

There were also many competing traditions and stories around Jesus’ life, and they were only winnowed and codified into the Bible we know much later on.  I would see this more in terms of particular political factions winning than in terms of divine inspiration and truth.

Certainly arguments couched in terms of Bible verses are really not convincing.

So I’m an atheist.  I don’t believe in the Christian God or in any other god I’ve ever heard of.

Over to Dad.  Why is Dad a Christian?