The Virtuous Light

 

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The hardest look ever exchanged.

The darkest message ever conveyed.

The loudest screams nobody heard.

The deafening silence that left them disturbed.

 

Before they sleep and out of fright,

the people quietly pray:

“There’s nothing there, oh how I wish,

please keep the light away.

For it opens all doors, removes all shade

and obliterates the grey.

We once were blind,

now no one’s fooled, regardless what they say.”

 

 

 

 

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The Smallest Prayer in the Cosmos

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Put yourself in his shoes. He’s small. There’s electric pain in the elbow that hit the wall you went into. Recognise how hard it is to separate out the physical sensation from how you feel. You hurt.

Every Sunday you go to church with your mum and dad. He’s well liked, they say she’s shy and “you must take after your mummy”. Everyone sings songs and two little girls in dresses shove each other at the back of the room. We all bow our heads to pray. You close your eyes tight because it doesn’t work if your looking. All the children go out. In Sunday school there’s a story about Jonah and a whale and God was angry because Jonah tried to run away. You like Sunday school, you like the stories and God helps people. On the wall there’s a poster with footprints and another one that says “faith can move mountains”.

It’s Tuesday, P.E. day and you’re running out of excuses. You say you don’t feel well, your tummy hurts. Your teacher looks at you funny and sends you to the office. You can’t do P.E. If anyone asks about the bruises again he’ll get angry. Your mum will get in front of you like last time…your eyes water and you try to think of something else while waiting quietly for lunch time.

You like Lego and you’re sat in the living room building an aeroplane. You want to make a machine that will shrink you like on T.V. so you can fly to Disneyland. The plane has boosters so you can go fast and you’ll probably have a dog too. “I’ll fix the damn thing myself”. Your train of thought is derailed. The washing machine’s broken and you recognise that tone of voice. You go cold, you want to leave but you don’t want to move. The phone rings, he answers it, it’s okay.

At bedtime you say your prayers with your mum and when she’s gone you say the real ones. “Dear Jesus…”. You don’t want mountains to move or water to turn into wine. What you want is for him to stop hitting her and maybe if you believe hard enough, if you close your eyes tight enough and press your hands together, God will do this for you. But he doesn’t. It doesn’t stop. Maybe God answers other people’s prayers but not yours. Not when you need it.

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This story is fictional, although it is probably less so for some than others. It was inspired by a discussion I had a few months ago where I was struck by just how inadequately phrases like “abusive environment” convey their meaning.

Can Will be Free?

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The idea of free will is both enabled and hampered by the understanding that we live in a universe of causes and effects. Without cause and effect, how could we hope to exercise free will? However, in a universe of cause and effect how can we be sure that our will is free from the influence of complex causal relationships? We generally engage with causality in a fairly loose way. I might say for example that I was late for work because the traffic was heavy or my energy bills have increased because oil is more expensive. In so doing I’m simplifying causality by failing to account for all of the factors. We also tend to consider snapshots of action. Yes, I might be late because traffic was heavy but the traffic might be heavy because someone’s car stopped working. Their car might have broken down because the owner failed to get it serviced etc. etc. along numerous causal chains. Our ideas about will and free will are also pretty fuzzy but seem to center on conscious choice, self-determination, independence and action initiation e.g.:

Will: “the faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action.” (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/will)

Will: “the faculty of conscious and especially of deliberate action; the power of control the mind has over its own actions” (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/will)

Free will: “the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion.” (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/free-will)

Free will: “the ability to decide what to do independently of any outside influence” (http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/free-will)

If we agree that “will” is a word we use to describe the mechanics of decision-making and action-initiation in a person then perhaps we can say that “free will” is a word we use to describe the operation of decision-making and action-initiation in a person without external influence.

Let’s consider a scenario where I place my hand on a hot surface and rapidly withdraw it. The act of withdrawing my hand is a reflex, an involuntary response. Sensory nerve impulses travel from my hand to my spine and motor nerve impulses are sent from my spine to my arm. There is no processing in my brain, no thought nor decision-making. We can comfortably say that there is no free will involved in this process. Let’s imagine another scenario. I’m sitting in a park and I suddenly become aware of a dark, rapidly moving shape approaching me and I dodge it. I look at the object and realise it was a ball. Here a stream of basic visual data is very quickly processed by my brain. The processing determines that there is a risk the shape will hit me. There is an instinct that such an occurrence could be a danger to me and a message is sent from my brain to my limbs to move. When the potential threat has passed I take the time to identify the shape. Things happen too quickly for me to consciously consider the situation, there is an imperative for action and there is no space for free will. Now imagine that I see the ball approaching me from some distance. Since my instincts don’t tell me I’m in immediate danger, the problem of the ball shifts to my consciousness. I identify the shape and it’s likely characteristics, consider potential ways to act that may involve imagining outcomes, lock in the decision and act, perhaps attempting to kick the ball, catch it or simply moving. Of the three scenarios, the last seems to be the one where free will could occur and what sets it apart from the other two scenarios is consciousness.

The conscious component of choice-making involves considering a problem with regard to your knowledge, understanding and experience. It involves drawing on your experiences and it’s coloured by your emotions. You draw on these and your imagination to predict a course and then behave. This is not a seamlessly conscious process but appears to involve shifting parts of the problem in and out of consciousness. It feels seamless though, so it may be that our brains furnish us with a consistency of experience that isn’t really there. Humans are very good at spotting patterns and quickly acquire an appreciation for cause and effect. Recognising patterns of cause and effect allows us to predict outcomes, which means we can act with intent. When we act with intent and correctly predict the outcome of our actions we feel that we have control. If I pick up a pen and write my name I can feel confident that there are few factors outside my control that might cause my goal to fail. I feel I have a lot of control. If I pull the lever on a slot machine and hit the jackpot, did I do that? I certainly played an essential part but I appreciate that there are many determining factors outside my control so may choose to call the outcome lucky. The more control I feel I have the more I believe I am exercising my will.

It might be useful here to draw attention to the distinction between believing I have free will and it being true. By way of an analogy, when I was a teenager I used to play video games with my younger brother. He was too young to play against me but wanted to join in so I would give him an unplugged controller, play against the computer and pretend he was playing too. He believed he was playing the game. He thought he was controlling the character on the screen but there were factors at play that he was unaware of. Similarly, if there is free will it’s constrained by factors that we perceive and others we don’t. If our wills were immune to influence then advertising would be a waste of time and money. Awareness of some of the factors that influence our decision-making can cause us to feel more in control or help us to realise that we aren’t, but perceiving the chains that bind you doesn’t make you free. If we are aware that we may be subject to influences that we don’t perceive, how can we ever be certain that we are exercising free will?

If there is free will then it’s boundaries are determined by where we choose the delimit the individual. If we decide to view a person who has been schooled in approaching particular problems in particular ways as distinct from and responsible for the application of that schooling then we might say free will exists. My inclination though is to say that we each have the ability to make decisions and initiate action but that it is not possible to do so without external influence. There is a conceptual relationship between cause and effect, decision-making, action-initiation, perceived control and responsibility. There comes a culturally appointed time in a person’s life when they are considered to be responsible for who they are what they do. We don’t view young children as responsible because we don’t credited them with an understanding of the implications or their acions but understanding is a relative thing. There is often a fog at the edges of our decision-making into which causal links disappear from view. The clearing in the fog that surrounds us can give the impression of self-determination but if we choose to examine closely our beliefs, knowledge and strategies we’ll find the external influences. Free will as it is currently defined probably is an illusion but that doesn’t diminish what is means to be human. You can and will exercise choice, it just isn’t free from external influences.

 

 

The Power to Define

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So many of the discussions I encounter about religion centre on the power to define and so many of the disagreements revolve around assumed understanding. Let’s take for example the statement “The Bible is the true Word of God”. On the face of it this is a disputable but fairly straight forward claim, which implies a true or false answer. Either the Bible is the true word of God or it isn’t. We should avoid the immediate temptation to engage with a claim on its own terms and take a moment to think about the implied knowledge that is seeking tacit acceptance. This example refers to “the Bible”, but which Bible? There is an assumed understanding that there is only one Bible but this a mental abstraction of all Bibles, which obscures the many variations between versions and translations. The example also refers to “Word of God”, but which god? We might assume Christian but what does that mean? Many groups identify as Christian, include Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and each have a different Bible. Of course Jewish and Islamic holy texts are based on the same sort of source material as well. The embedding of assumed understanding in linguistically simple claims can be used as a means of setting the parameters of a discussion but I think in most cases it happens unintentionally. I think that someone making such a claim may do so from an ingrained perspective that they have difficulty transcending. Clarifying the detail of a simple claim is a useful way to raise consciousness.

I’ve noticed, as I’m sure many will have, a lot of discursive struggle around the word “atheist”. This has particularly to do with how it’s defined, who has the power to define it and the consequences of definitions. It is interesting to note that dictionaries differ in their definitions, ranging from “do not believe in God” to “lack beliefs in gods”. This is interesting because it reflects the embeddedness of certain assumptions in cultures. It can amount to the defining of atheism through monotheism and raises questions over who ought to be defining atheism? Many arguing from a religious perspective represent a view that atheists deny their god(s). Conversely, many atheists represent atheism as a state of having no beliefs that gods exist. I have encountered quite a few posts that either implicitly or explicitly frame atheism as a belief system that claims a Christian god doesn’t exist. Having thus defined atheism the argument will proceed with a declaration of how it is impossible to disprove their god and so atheism is illogical. So you see, the power to define is extremely significant in discussion. If person A is allowed to define person B then they can in essence silence discussion from the outset. I’m sure many will have seen this video clip of an interviewer asking for views about atheists from people in Turkey. Some of the words used to describe atheists are: animals; not human; ignorant; infidel; liars. We should approach any clip with scepticism, especially if it shows a consistent and extreme view from a small sample. The point to take away though is how easily a component of a person’s outlook can be redefined and swollen to be the entirety of their personhood.

“New Atheism” is a phrase I keep seeing and to which any number of beliefs and behaviours seem to be attributed. It’s often used to refer collectively to the works of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Never mind that these authors offer quite different perspectives, they are lumped together and associated with charges of racism, hate, fear-mongering and intolerance. Writing in The Guardian, Jeff Sparrow portrayed New Atheism as:

“…a movement too often exemplified by privileged know-it-alls telling the poor that they’re idiots. But that’s only part of it. For, of course, the privileged know-it-alls are usually white and those they lampoon the most are invariably Muslim”.

Notice how Sparrow made New Atheism a socioeconomic issue or the way he introduced race then invited readers to regard “Muslim” as a race. Unfortunately, an accusation of bigotry doesn’t have to be qualified or evidenced for it to do damage to reputations. Consider the course of events following Ben Affleck characterising Sam Harris as racist on the Bill Maher show. All it takes is for a popular celebrity to get the wrong end of the stick and it provides an excuse for people to no longer engage with Sam Harris’ arguments. I wonder if “New Atheist” is just a conveniently ill-defined phrase that facilitates the grouping and dismissal of heterogeneous views that some just don’t want to engage with. In other words, a way to deny people a voice and silence debate. In my view it’s probably more useful and honest to discuss specific behaviours and beliefs than it is to refer to analytically dubious categories of people.

I’m big on discussion and enjoy talking through and challenging people’s ideas. I think critically engaging with each other in an honest way is a useful means by which we can broaden our view of the world. Part of that is appreciating the implications of the power to define and the presence of assumed understanding or knowledge in claims about the world. Being aware of these helps us prevent discussion becoming too narrow and can help us avoid misunderstandings arising from assumption.

Embarrassed about God

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While eating my lunch the other day I was gingerly approached by a guy in his late teens who, standing next to me, with his head turned down and feet shuffling, said in a tone of voice designed not to travel: “My church are praying for people in the area. Do you know anyone who needs praying for?” His embarrassment was palpable. It was the sort of embarrassment that any degree of empathy makes contagious. After politely telling him that I’m an atheist, he walked away looking visibly relieved. The incident recalled to my mind how I felt when school friends learned I went to church or the embarrassment I used to feel on behalf of members of the congregation who would start speaking in tongues. I felt that way automatically. I had no control over it. I was embarrassed on behalf of others because I sensed that social norms had been broken. I was embarrassed for myself because I felt my school friends would consider me stupid. Why stupid? Because I couldn’t give a good enough account of my beliefs. I knew there was a lot about Christianity that didn’t add up but dealt with it by not dealing with it.

I’ve encountered arguments suggesting atheists are smarter than the religious. I’ve also seen the contrary, that only the most intelligent scholars can understand holy texts. I’m not convinced much is achieved by arguing about IQ. In my experience those who hold religious beliefs do not do so as a result of extensive study into multiple explanations of existence, where the most robust is selected. Some may arrive at their beliefs this way but I suspect that many religious people know comparatively little about other religions or choose not to see how similarly justified they are. I imagine fewer still attempt to engage critically with their own religious ideas. Whether there are compelling rationales for holding religious beliefs or not, as a church-going school kid I had difficulty accounting for my beliefs because they were based on emotion not on reason. My inability to explain my beliefs and the consequent embarrassment were because I believed teachings that appealed to emotion but I didn’t possess the oratory artistry to communicate them. I had no answers to questions about the logistics of the story of Noah’s ark, why the plagues of Egypt weren’t in the history books or why the Bible should be considered any more true than the holy books of other religions. I had school friends effortlessly poking holes in what was supposed to be the word of God. That was embarrassing.

Embarrassment is of course a socially conscious emotion. It has to do with social conventions and our perceptions of how we will be judged by others. Where a religion gets to determine social norms in a particular context, there will probably be less embarrassment when openly discussing and practising that religion. The following clip showing a child named Bethany “receiving the holy ghost” strikes me as profoundly odd. Watching it makes me feel awkward, embarrassed, honestly a little angry but also hopeful. There’s a moment at 1:26 where Bethany’s sister walks into the frame, looks at the camera and shyly rejects an invitation to join in. A hand can be seen guiding her back towards her sister. She waves to the camera and backs out of the scene, clearly embarrassed by the circumstances. I grew up in a fairly secular society and attended a school where the kids had quite a mix of backgrounds. It was against this backdrop that I really began to reflect on how ridiculous some of my beliefs seemed and how odd some of the rituals were.

The experience of embarrassment feels bad so we tend to want to avoid it. This social mechanism keeps us consistent with the group. In extreme circumstances this can have an homogenising and isolating effect but where an influx of new group members is permitted and where there exists a plurality of ideas, embarrassment can serve a useful purpose, showing us when we are out of step with our peers. It has nothing directly to do with truth since majority beliefs and values are not true by virtue of their popularity but it can be understood as a kind of collective-aware course correction. It can also help highlight beliefs and behaviours that are worth reflecting on. Thinking about our embarrassment can help reveal assumptions and values that are so normal that they are only rendered visible through their transgression. If you feel embarrassed, why? Do you feel defiant of embarrassment and what does that mean? Where something might be odd or cause embarrassment in a one context, why is that not the case in another? Have you ever felt embarrassed about God?

Demon Possession

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Demon possession isn’t a topic that comes up often in conversation but when it does I’m still a little shocked that it’s something people believe. It’s an idea that’s found in many religions and feels like it that belongs to the Iron Age, to a time when it was our best guess at understanding illness. Surely the notion of possession has been consigned to the ever-growing “historical context” that’s excused when examining our holy books. But it isn’t. I recall an acquaintance who insisted that we are all possessed with demons. He is now a minister. An otherwise bright woman I know believes, after attending a lecture by a Catholic exorcist, that the internet is a conduit for demon possession that targets children. Several other people I know have suggested that “messing with the occult” (which can include reading Harry Potter) or celebrating Halloween invites the Devil in. Even members of my family expressed concerns about my investigating witchcraft and Spiritualism while studying social anthropology. The people in these examples were Christians and in the UK Christianity and Islam provide much of the narrative framework for demon possession. The belief system through which possession is realised is interesting because the possessed often recognise its authority.

I’m a big fan of the Exorcist, both the book and the film. It’s a well told story with iconic cinematography and a fantastic soundtrack. When we think of demon possession and exorcism we imagine neck-twisting, spider-walking, levitation and projectile vomiting. Many actual exorcisms have been captured on film. Those who are thought to be possessed exhibit behaviours ranging from blasphemy and vocal intonations, to screaming, thrashing and flailing. Some instances of possession and exorcism are similar to faith healing. A person stands before the congregation defies the power of the religion and priest, gets exorcised and is welcomed back into the flock.

The woman in this clip was part of a Christian community who believed she was possessed because she used to tell fortunes using tarot cards. The exorcist (Bob Larson) guided the woman through a sort of confession that ends in invocations, screaming and freedom from her burden. This is fairly typical of possessions and exorcisms caught on camera. It doesn’t bear a lot of resemblance to the horror movie representation. In order to find this credible you need to believe that the body and mind are separate, that there is a realm of the immaterial and that the immaterial can impact in the material. You would have to accept that aspects of the immaterial world are hostile to people and control them. You need to believe the proposition without questioning the mechanics. Conversely, you might reach the conclusion that the woman felt guilty (was made to feel?) and as though she didn’t belong, she wanted to belong , found a mechanism to do it and did it.

Leaving aside the assumptions one has to accept to be swayed by the idea of demon possession, let’s spend a moment thinking through what a demon achieves by possession. The idea is that a demon seizes control of a person who has neglected their religious observation. In some religions a person can be possessed regardless of their religiosity. What do demons do with this control? It seems that they replicate the symptoms of mental illness in people. One of the difficulties of believing that demon possession is real and that exorcism might be a good way to deal with it is that it can offer a bad explanation and solution for the behaviours of already vulnerable people. Where a person is in distress it might not be appropriate to respond by trying to cast out demons. Perhaps what they need is a safe space and professional help. Another consequence is the temptation for believers to demonize those who are different to them or hold views they don’t subscribe to. A good example is provided by the street preacher Jesse Morrell in a video showing the angry reaction to his preaching at Gay Pride in Houston. Morrell spreads his view that homosexuality is immoral and characterises a man who argues with him as hateful and possessed. There is something extremely sinister and potentially dangerous about the kind of mindset that literally demonizes. It’s a mechanism by which one can dehumanise and disassociate. It’s the removal of the demonized from the same mental category as the demonizer.

Of course I’m not suggesting that everyone who believes that demons are real or that people can be possessed are bigoted but I do think it’s an idea that is routed in a fear of unknowing. For a person who believes in spirits and demons, the night really is fully of terrors. Magic, witchcraft, astrology and fortune-telling are viewed as efficacious and powerful antecedents of possession. Demon possession looms in their imagination in the neck-twisting and levitating representation rather than the variety recorded by Bob Larson. The irony is that while fearing control from the murky unknown, those who credit demons and possession as real are arguably allowing their view of the world to be shaped by ancient superstitions.

On the Writing of Deepak Chopra

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I had intended to write generally on the topic of pseudo-profundity and bullshit. The subject was discussed last year by Pennycook et al. in their article “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit“. Put briefly they argue that pseudo-profound bullshit involves using buzzwords to make statements that are syntactically plausible and give the impression of imparting profound knowledge, while actually communicating little or no meaning. They suggest that bullshitters are motivated by a wish to impress and bullshittees are inclined towards uncritical belief. A name that inevitably arose in connection with pseudo-profound bullshit was Dr. Deepak Chopra. The mini-bio that accompanies Chopra’s writing includes the claim that he is a “world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation” and states that “The World Post and The Huffington Post global internet survey ranked Dr. Chopra #40 influential thinker in the world and #1 in Medicine”. Just allow that to sink in. He currently has about 2.8 million Twitter followers. A significant number of people take him seriously and the marketing of his ideas has made him very wealthy. So instead of writing generally about pseudo-profundity I would like to take a look at Chopra’s current work.

Diving straight into his most recent post entitled “How the Universe Solved the Hard Problem by Intent” we’re immediately told that consciousness is a secret, that there is a reason for this that can’t be explained and that consciousness is responsible for its own secrecy:

“For some inexplicable reason the most common element in every possible experience–consciousness–has kept itself a secret.”

It turns out that the Wikipedia entry for consciousness is over 10,000 words and has 162 references, so even in plain terms it isn’t as mysterious as it’s made out to be. Suggesting that consciousness can engineer its own secrecy implies that consciousness has consciousness. It’s treating consciousness as an entity rather than a property of an entity. He goes on to suggest:

“If we were unconscious, the world would literally disappear in a puff of smoke. This obvious fact implies something that isn’t so obvious: Maybe consciousness and the world appeared at the same time.”

This unsupported “fact” simply isn’t true. People are unconscious from time to time and world continues just fine. We can be fairly confident from geology and archaeology that the world pre-dates people. What Chopra is getting at here is his view that reality is a kind of collective mental projection. He proposes that:

“A cosmos devoid of consciousness isn’t conceivable, and yet the reason for this exists completely out of sight.”

If it feels like it’s hard to get at the meaning of the sentence quoted above it’s because it is hard. Most writers seek to communicate their ideas as clearly as possible but the literary style Chopra uses frustrates quick comprehension. You can restructure the sentence to make it easier to read: We aren’t able to see the reason why we can’t imagine a cosmos without consciousness. We can see from the restructured sentence that although a bunch of words are used, not much meaning is communicated.

I’d like to pause here for a moment to let you know that Chopra is a licensed physician and former chief of staff at a hospital in the United States. He isn’t shy about using his title M.D. when promoting his ideas. Keep this in mind while reading the following quote from the same blog post:

“The difference between being blind and being able to see lies in the mechanics of how the brain processes sunlight—that much is clear. Yet the step in the process that matters the most, converting sunlight into vision, is totally mysterious.”

According to the RNBI age related macular degeneration is by far the biggest cause of blindness in adults in the UK. The WHO cites glaucoma then macular degeneration as the biggest causes of blindness in the world. These are conditions of the eye not “mechanics of the brain”. Chopra is just plain wrong about blindness and sight but arguably worse is the fact that the assertion is coming from someone identifying himself as a medical doctor.

I could go sentence by sentence, assertion by assertion through the whole post but the point is that Deepak Chopra puts across vague points using vague language in a pattern that can appear to some to be profound but in fact carries little meaning. When encountering a statement that looks complex but profound, the actual profundity of a statement can be assessed by breaking it down and looking at its parts. If Chopra just wants people to be impressed by him and people want something impressive-sounding to believe, what’s the harm? Okay, well we might object to the idea that the money that finds its way into Chopra’s pockets could be better used to solve concrete issues. Maybe we feel that as a medically trained professional Chopra could be making a tangible, beneficial difference. We could take issue with the notion that the sorts of ideas he circulates are used as a basis for alternative “healing“. In fact Chopra is sponsoring the Consciousness Field Project that is investigating the potential for transmitted intention statements to enhance peoples’ lives.

“The intention statement is imbued by the team during deep meditation into a crystalline electronic device and broadcast thousands of times each day to participants.”

The project is also partly funded by participants who will each contribute $33 a month (a total of $600). I think this is the first study I’ve seen that charges people to participate. If anyone feels that they need some pseudo-profundity in their life, the satirical wisdom of Chopra website can generate some for you for free.

We Are All Born Atheist

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That’s right, even the zealous, the pious and the most committed of religious characters were born without any beliefs in gods. As Richard Dawkins points out in “The God Delusion”, children don’t have religions their parents do. We are born without knowledge of our culture, without an understanding of social stratification and without superstition. Children don’t inherit characteristics of social division, they are labelled with them. We ascribe them to them. They have to be learned and are invariably taught. In fact a quick search for “Christian preschool” will return a host of results for places children from 2 to 5 years old can learn about Christianity  while learning to grip a pencil, identify colours and count to 20. Hazel’s Christian Preschool  takes the view that…

“Through creative exploration and “hands on” approach, each child is supported emotionally,cognitively, physically, social growth and foundational opportunities to know God as our loving creator and friend.”

Which apparently works since one happy mother wrote:

“This is the absolute best Christian Preschool! I moved my 4 year old daughter from another Christian preschool because I didn’t feel like her faith was growing. On her very first day she started praying on her own!”

4 years old?! Also, I’m not the sort to judge grammar and spelling too harshly. I’m sure I make mistakes and typos all of the time, but then I’m not an educational institution or teacher. The Hazel’s (Hazels? hazel’s? Hazel’s?) Christian Preschool  site is filled with glaring language errors that should warrant more concern than the growth of a 4 year old’s faith.

This Religionising of children’s education is not particular to Christianity of course, but common to many religions. This quote from littlecaliphs.com makes the point for me:

“We strongly believe that early learning exposure of Islam in children will leave a long lasting impact in their life towards realizing and accepting that Allah is their Lord and Sustainer, Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) is their teacher and role model and Islam is the way of life.”

They’re right of course. If you teach children from a young age that magic and gods are real, if you reinforce the idea that specific holy books are indisputably factual, then those children are more likely to grow up believing whichever religion they have been taught.

A parent’s concern with their young child’s religious education comes, I believe, from a good place. If you think eternal torment is in store for non-believers and rich rewards for believers, then you want to make sure that your nearest and dearest are on the path to a happy ending. There’s a difficult (and upsetting) question religious parents no doubt ask themselves about what would happen to their child in the afterlife if they were to pass away. According to Islam, all children of Muslim parents who pass away before reaching puberty go to paradise. The question of what happens to children of non-believers has many answers in Islam but judgement on the matter is usually reserved. Back to the Bible, a Christian website, tackles this difficult question by suggesting that all children go to the Christian heaven by default until they are able to understand right and wrong (legally 10 years old in the UK). After the age of 10 they had better be committed Christians though. There seems to be some appreciation that young children aren’t intellectually mature enough to be judged on religious beliefs but in what sense are children who have just hit double digits free or able to make an informed decision? If they have been taught religion as fact since they were toddlers then the extent to which they are “informed” is disputable.

Regarding the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit there are no easy answers. On the one hand it seems reasonable to teach your kids about your religion if you’re a parent who whole-heartedly believes that it’s in your child’s best interest to learn about your beliefs. On the other hand, where that belief manifests in narrowly restricting a child’s social interaction, instilling intolerance and depriving educational opportunities, the implications start to look less harmless. The fact is parents aren’t formally trained in the craft of parenting and the home lives of children vary. It may be that a child’s home life is dominated  by religion but school should be a space where they genuinely can acquire the intellectual tools to make informed decisions. Nowhere should a school be teaching religion as fact or presenting one religion as superior to others. If after learning about religions as part of a broad curriculum that is centred around language, maths and science, a child grows to decide (when they are mature enough to do so) that they believe and wish to follow a particular religion, then they have made a meaningful choice. Conversely, choosing to believe the only choice you’ve been given is no choice at all.

 

Narrative and Identity

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“Once upon a time…”, the familiar phrase introduced to us in childhood lets us prepare ourselves bodily and dispositionally for an anticipated tale. It’s a deeply embedded cue to listen attentively and engage your imagination. Narrative and imagination go hand-in-hand. We visualise places we’ve never been and form emotional ties to characters that don’t exist anywhere but the page. We root for a protagonist and empathise with their suffering. When they encounter a problem we feel that we are right there with them. When they overcome what seemed like impossible odds we feel joy and exhilaration. When we finish reading, listening or watching a well told tale, the story leaves its mark on us. The seeming ubiquity of storytelling as a method of enculturation hints at narrative being one of those demarcating features of humankind even if the cultural content varies.

Whether we intend it or not, stories are a means by which children acquire an understanding of the cultural norms in their society and build up a picture of how the world works. Except good doesn’t always triumph over bad, big romantic gestures don’t magically fix relationships and wishing on a star can’t make a person from a puppet. It turns out that narratives are not a great source of accurate, dispassionate fact. We ought to learn when stories bump up against contrary experiences that they often fail to reflect reality, yet the influence of some stories is difficult to shake. When I was a student for example my class discussed the “one true love” notion of romance that figures quite prominently in fiction. Despite virtually everyone recognising the fallacy of this idea both from experiential and logical perspectives, many were unable to resist its emotional appeal.

Narratives are not just mechanisms for distributing culture. Stories help us to make sense of our place in the world. This happens in the telling, reflecting on and retelling of many short stories about ourselves. The tone of the tale shifts depending of who you’re telling and how you feel. In the case of introspection the audience is yourself. The role of narrative in the construction and affirmation of identity is nowhere more clear than where there is a shift in identity. Take for example a religious transformation in a person. When an individual has undergone a religious change an historicising of the self often occurs. A person reflects upon their past and evidence is identified that affirms the transition that has taken place. These artefacts of their history are narrativised and become some of the many anchoring points in their changing identity. This is not to imply that there’s something synthesised or fake about about their identity. These are real events in a person’s life as interpreted by the person. What this sheds light on is that identity is not the sum of one’s experiences but is deeply connected to key points in one’s life. In other words, identity doesn’t necessarily relate the facts of a person’s experiences but the stories they tell communicate something about who they are at a point in time.

A good example of the role of narrative in religious identity can be found in a video interview of Richard Dawkins by Howard Conder for Revelation TV*. In the interview (29:25-41:43) Conder describes some key moments in his religious life that for him lend weight to his beliefs. As with any collective, religions have in-group narratives. Where a person aligns with and/or wishes to be accepted by a collective, they’ll deploy narratives that are consistent with the group. Conder’s anecdote includes themes around initial scepticsm, submitting to the will of God, experiencing physical manifestations of the spiritual, others witnessing immaterial phenomena and a miracle of someone rising from the dead. These are all themes that are consistent with his religion’s in-group narratives and hold credibility in that context. I’m not suggesting that Conder was lying about his experiences but rather that he had experiences in a religious context, that were interpreted through his understanding of his in-group’s religious narratives and he consequently attached special significance to these. In the same sense that alien abduction stories, ghost sightings or accounts of spirit channelling tell us something about the teller rather than something about the world, Conder’s story is about his beliefs.

What I’ve tried to convey very briefly is that narrative plays a significant role in distributing culture and constituting identity but is not a particularly accurate way of describing or explaining the world. Narratives have patterns and structures that are not necessarily a good match with the way things happen or work and are susceptible to nuance and emphasis. Even when we can see that a message conveyed through a narrative poorly reflects our experience we can be coerced by our feelings or our sense of belonging. Is it any wonder why some people feel under attack when religious claims are challenged if their identity is wrapped up with beliefs that underpin those claims? The more a person’s identity is anchored to experiences that are narrativised to give religious significance, the more the integrity of their personhood depends on the defence of their religion.

 

 

*I was hoping to link to the original video but was unfortunately unable to find it on the Revelation TV YouTube channel.

Belief in Absence Vs Absence of Belief

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When encountering claims like “atheists believe x” or “an atheist would say y” I often find myself unable to resist the urge to add my view to the discussion. This generally involves pointing out that atheism is an absence of belief in gods. Responses vary from “you’re a God denier” to “believing there’s no God is the same as not believing God exists”. It seems that although I’m trying to be clear about my view of what an atheist is I could be clearer.

I’d like to start with two quite different definitions of the word “atheist”.

Merriam-Webster:

“…a person who believes there is no God.”

Oxford Dictionary:

“A person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods”

To some people these definitions are for all intents and purposes the same but they’re in fact quite distinct. One difference is the notion of lacking belief. I prefer the word “absence” over “lack” since “lacking” implies that something is missing, while “absence” conveys non-existence or non-location. Another difference is between notions of believing something negative and disbelieving something positive .

Let’s pretend that my mind is a basket and beliefs are objects. I might believe for example that things I drop will fall. I can represent this belief in gravity as an apple and place it in my basket. Then perhaps someone makes a claim that ghosts exist. This can be represented as a bed sheet and I’ll exclude it from my basket because I’m not convinced by their evidence, that’s to say I disbelieve their claim. I’m then told that Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist. I can represent this belief as a toy dinosaur and place it in my basket since I’m convinced by the suggestion that if we can find whales in an ocean we ought to be able to find Nessie in a lochSo in my basket (mind) I have an apple (gravity), a dinosaur (Nessie) but no bed sheet (ghosts). I believe in gravity, I believe the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist and I have no beliefs in ghosts existing. My holding a negative belief (Nessie doesn’t exist) is not the same as the absence of a positive belief (ghosts do exist). Likewise, the belief the gods don’t exist is not the same as the absence of beliefs that they do.

Merriam-Webster’s definition that an atheist is “…a person who believes there is no God” is an example of a negative belief. People who are atheists may hold negative beliefs about specific gods but this isn’t a function of their atheism. Atheism has no evaluative tools or framework that might be used to form a belief about gods. There is no atheist epistemology. We notice that Merriam-Webster capitalise the “G” in God so they’re referring to something by name rather than a class or category. Their use of the word “God” is in the singular so we’re dealing with the god of a monotheistic religion. The assumption of the inherent legitimacy of monotheism and the creation of a false binary of only being able to believe God does or doesn’t exist is glaringly obvious and dishonest. The Oxford Dictionary definition does a much better job but could be improved by substituting the word “lacks” and removing the superfluous word “God”. Monotheists are aware that there are other gods. The reason they refer to their god as “God” rather than by the god’s name (where it’s known) is a mixture of cultural normalisation, aversion to blasphemy and elevating their god above others. In the last sense saying “God” is a sort of shorthand for “the one true god”, which has no bearing on the meaning of the word “atheist”.

After thinking about belief of absence and absence of belief, and considering this distinction in relation to the two dictionary definitions above, the following is perhaps a clearer way for me to phrase my position on what atheism is:

Atheist: a person who has no affirmative beliefs in the existence of gods.

Atheism: an absence of affirmative beliefs in the existence of gods.

The descriptive power of the word “atheist”, like “theist”, “monotheist” or “polytheist”, is quite weak since it’s an encompassing word. It offers a way of expressing the absence of beliefs that are sometimes assumed to be present. It says nothing about how beliefs are constituted or by what means decisions about beliefs are reached. Yet it’s a useful word that deserves to be protected from being defined through a monotheistic lens.