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Just an amusing beach anecdote from World Youth Day: I met one of our seminarians who has just got back from Rio. They had a fantastic time with the Westminster group. I said to him, ‘Where were you staying’? And he said, ‘On the beach’. So I said, ‘I know you were all on the beach, but where were you staying for the other days?’ And he said, ‘On the beach!’ It seems that the Westminster crowd, instead of slumming it in the suburbs, were in a hotel right there on the beach itself, and they slept out on the beach for the vigil not because they needed to but just to get the vibe.

Anyway, that’s not my beach quote. Apparently the pilgrims got chatting to an atheist at the airport on the flight out to Rio. It was a friendly conversation, but they spooked him when they said that there was a big Catholic festival in Rio and that lots of young Catholics were flying out to participate. His response: ‘Oh well, I’ll just avoid them by staying on the beach the whole time’.

That’s my beach quote!

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As I think about starting my new work in university chaplaincy, I’m even more interested than I was before about what it’s like to be a young person in the UK today, what questions young people have, and what they do or don’t believe.

So I was drawn to the headline on the YouGov site: ‘British Youth Reject Religion’. I’ll copy the main points below and you can come to your own conclusions:

Religious figures have the least influence on the lives of young Britons – and more say religion is a force for evil than a force for good

In the 2011 Census, 59% of the population described themselves as Christian and only a quarter reported having no religion. But a new poll of young people for the Sun by YouGov finds that the place of religion in the lives of young Britons is smaller than ever.

YouGov asked 18-24 year olds which figures have influence on their lives, and religious leaders came out on bottom: only 12% feel influenced by them, which is far less than even politicians (38%), brands (32%) and celebrities (21%).

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The reputation of religion amongst young people is actually more negative than neutral: 41% agree that “religion is more often the cause of evil in the world” and only 14% say it is a cause for good.

When asked if they believe in God, only 25% say they do. 19% believe in some non-Godlike “spiritual greater power” and a further 38% believe in no God or spiritual power whatsoever.

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Amongst believers, the most represented denominations are Church of England (13%), then Roman Catholic (9%) and Muslim (4%).

The low influence of religious leaders doesn’t surprise me, because so few young people have real human contact with them. But I’m really taken aback by the 41% agreeing that “religion is more often the cause of evil in the world”.

You can see the full results here.

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Personification of a Virtue by Antonio del Pollaiolo

Personification of a Virtue by Antonio del Pollaiolo

In case you missed these, here is Alain de Botton’s list of ten virtues unveiled in his Manifesto for Atheists.

1. Resilience. Keeping going even when things are looking dark.

2. Empathy. The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person.

3. Patience. We should grow calmer and more forgiving by getting more realistic about how things actually tend to go.

4. Sacrifice. We won’t ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don’t keep up with the art of sacrifice.

5. Politeness. Politeness is very linked to tolerance, the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, can’t avoid.

6. Humour. Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it’s disappointment optimally channelled.

7. Self-Awareness. To know oneself is to try not to blame others for one’s troubles and moods; to have a sense of what’s going on inside oneself, and what actually belongs to the world.

8. Forgiveness. It’s recognising that living with others isn’t possible without excusing errors.

9. Hope. Pessimism isn’t necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.

10. Confidence. Confidence isn’t arrogance, it’s based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we ultimately lose from risking everything.

Why these? Why now? Robert Dex explains:

De Botton, whose work includes a stint as a writer in residence at Heathrow Airport, said he came up with the idea in response to a growing sense that being virtuous had become “a strange and depressing notion”, while wickedness and evil had a “peculiar kind of glamour”.

He said: “There’s no scientific answer to being virtuous, but the key thing is to have some kind of list on which to flex our ethical muscles. It reminds us that we all need to work at being good, just as we work at anything else that really matters.”

My own response, which I sent to the Catholic Herald last week:

I like this list of virtues. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s certainly helpful. It prods you into making a sort of ‘examination of conscience’, and reminds you that there are other ways of living and relating and reacting.

There are obvious borrowings from classical philosophy, the great world religions, English manners, and the self-help books that line the shelves at WH Smiths.

Apart from the obvious absence of ‘God’, they don’t seem to have a particularly atheist spin.

If both believers and non-believers lived by these virtues, the world would be a much happier place; there would be less shouting and more laughter; relationships would be more stable, and we’d get more done in an average day. That’s surely something to celebrate!

But Francis Phillips thinks there is an implicit Pelagianism at work here:

I understand why de Botton is preoccupied with the concept of a virtuous atheist and I do not mock him; indeed I take his yearning to counter the supposedly superior claims of Christianity very seriously. It is a noble ideal and society would indeed be happier and more civilised if more irreligious people of the “Me-generation” were to reflect on his ideas. But just as that selfless quiet heroine of the Great War, Nurse Edith Cavell, realised that patriotism was not enough, so a noble and enlightened atheism, however fine its aspirations, is not enough if individuals or society are to be regenerated or renewed.

The reason, as Catholic theology teaches us, is sin, original and personal, our own and Adam’s. We are not strong enough by ourselves to be good (as opposed to “nice”) without the grace of God. Politeness and resilience – indeed kindness and niceness – are not virtues in themselves; they are attractive characteristics of some people by nature; the rest of us have to fight against being “horrid”, like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead.

It is Pelagianism (and de Botton strikes me as something of a neo-Pelagian) to think we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and achieve virtue on our own.

Do you like them? What’s missing?

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There have been lots of reports about the 2011 census statistics for religious affiliation, and how they compare with a decade before.

icons by scjody

Here is the actual summary from the Office for National Statistics:

The question on religious affiliation in the census was introduced in 2001 and is voluntary. The order of the main religion groups by size did not change between 2001 and 2011. Those affiliated with the Christian religion remained the largest group; 59 per cent (33.2 million) of usual residents in England and Wales.

This is a decrease of 13 percentage points since 2001 when 72 per cent (37.3 million) of usual residents stated their religion as Christian. It is the only group to have experienced a decrease in numbers between 2001 and 2011 despite population growth.

The second largest response category in 2011 was no religion. This increased 10 percentage points from 15 per cent (7.7 million) of usual residents in 2001, to 25 per cent (14.1 million) in 2011.

The next most stated religion in England and Wales was Muslim with five per cent (2.7 million) of usual residents stating their religion as Muslim in the 2011 Census; an increase of two percentage points since 2001 when three per cent (1.5 million) of usual residents stated that they were Muslim.

And the table:

England and Wales, 2001 and 2011, all usual residents

Thousand, per cent
Religion 2001 2011 Change
Number Per cent Number Per cent Number Percentage point
Christian 37,338 71.7 33,243 59.3 -4,095 -12.4
No religion 7,709 14.8 14,097 25.1 6,388 10.3
Muslim 1,547 3.0 2,706 4.8 1,159 1.8
Hindu 552 1.1 817 1.5 264 0.4
Sikh 329 0.6 423 0.8 94 0.2
Jewish 260 0.5 263 0.5 3 0.0
Buddhist 144 0.3 248 0.4 103 0.1
Other religion 151 0.3 241 0.4 90 0.1
Religion not stated 4,011 7.7 4,038 7.2 27 -0.5

The report goes on to look at the regional variations.

Between 2001 and 2011 the percentage of residents affiliating themselves with the Christian religion declined in all England regions and Wales.

The highest percentage, 68 per cent (1.8 million) of people who responded that their religion was Christian was in the North East. This represents a 12 percentage point decrease on 2001, when this region also had the highest percentage of people who stated that their religion was Christian. London had the lowest percentage of usual residents stating their religion as Christian in both 2011 (48 per cent, 4.0 million) and 2001 (58 per cent, 4.2 million).

London had the highest percentage of all other religious affiliations except Sikh; Muslim (12 per cent, 1.0 million), Hindu (five per cent, 411,000), Jewish (two per cent, 149,000), Buddhist (one per cent, 82,000), and other religion (less than one per cent, 48,000). The West Midlands had the highest percentage of people who responded that their religion was Sikh (two per cent, 30,000).

These are huge changes. How does one react? For a completely unrepresentative but still interesting range of reactions see the Telegraph blog page, where Damian Thompson is depressed (‘It cannot be said too often: the default position of people born since 1980 is agnosticism or atheism‘ – his emphasis!); Christina Odone still manages to find hope (Headline: ‘2011 census shock revelation: Christianity is still the majority religion, and Britain is still a God-fearing country’); and atheist Tom Chivers wonders what it means for the nation’s ‘moral capital':

What’s worth saying, though, is that as well as the (in many people’s opinion) negative social attitudes it [religion] can entrench, it also has clear and well-documented social benefits. Communities based around a local church (or mosque, or synagogue) are more likely to know each other, more likely to help each other in times of crisis, generally more likely to behave in socially positive ways.Religion, according to the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, builds up “moral capital“: norms and practices that encourage cooperation within groups, by making people think of themselves as part of that group, rather than an individual. Some of those norms and practices (avoiding pork, or eating a biscuit that represents the Son of God) might seem bizarre to outsiders, but they bring the group closer together. It’s the flip-side of the us-and-them attitude; religion might or might not be bad for your attitude towards “them”, but it’s generally good for your attitude towards “us”.

Not that it’s exclusive to religion, of course. Regular social contact with your neighbours, the building of social and moral capital, the creation of a group in which you subsume your individuality and can work for a common good, can all be achieved in other means: it might sound a bit flippant, but football supporters might feel something similar. The British Humanist Association, which runs church-like regular meetings for humanists, and groups like the Quakers, with their emphasis on community rather than the “religious” side of religion, could build social and moral capital without the need for God or the supernatural. But the point is that right now, as Haidt says, that “religious believers … are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people” (in the United States, at least). This needs to be acknowledged. If religion really is waning in this country (and it seems to be: the number of Muslims is growing, but nowhere near fast enough to replace Christianity), then the challenge for atheists, humanists and others who think it’s possible to be good without God is to build a way of bringing communities together as Christianity has in Britain for centuries.

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Whenever there is a media debate about morality, social values, the culture wars, etc, it’s often assumed that the religious voice is a so-called ‘conservative’ one. But the recent Faithful Citizens report from the think-tank Demos presents evidence that people who belong to religious groups are instead more likely to take a left-of-centre position on a range of political issues. There are implications for Cameron’s Big Society too, as people of faith are more likely to volunteer and be politically engaged.

This is from the Demos website:

Religiosity has always been closely associated with conservatism: the Church of England is sometimes described as ‘the Conservative party at prayer’. In the United States, the Republican party and the religious right have become increasingly interdependent, but a similar trend has not occurred on this side of the Atlantic. This report, based on original analysis of the Citizenship Survey and the European Values Survey, investigates the different relationship between religion and politics in the UK and Europe.

The report presents two key findings. First, religious people are more active citizens – they volunteer more, donate more to charity and are more likely to campaign on political issues. Second, and more counter-intuitively, religious people are more likely to be politically progressive. They put a greater value on equality than the non-religious, are more likely to be welcoming of immigrants as neighbours and when asked are more likely to put themselves on the left of the political spectrum.

Based on this, Faithful Citizens recommends that progressive politicians should work with faith groups on issues which they are particularly engaged, including immigration, women’s rights, international development, the environment and youth work. Faith group members, the report argues, will be key to any future, election-winning, progressive coalition.

Jamie Doward writes:

The report found that 55% of people with faith placed themselves on the left of politics, compared with 40% who placed themselves on the right. The report also suggests that people with faith are more likely to value equality over freedom than their non-religious counterparts. It discloses that 41% of people with religious views prioritise equality over freedom, compared with 36% of those without faith.

The report, based on an analysis of the European Values Study, also finds evidence that people who belong to a religious organisation are more likely to say they are very interested in politics, to have signed a petition and to have participated in a demonstration.

The psychologist Oliver James got the debate going by suggesting that religious people are less likely to be left-wing than others, but this doesn’t seem to follow.

The writer and philosopher Alain de Botton – whose latest book, Religion for Atheists, examines the consolations of faith for those who do not believe – argues that the internal dynamics of religions often confer progressive views on their followers, who find themselves at odds with today’s free-market society.

“The progressive side of religion springs from their frequent reminders to live for others and to concentrate more on the wellbeing of the group than on the happiness of the individual,” de Botton said. “In this sense, religions run counter to the implicit philosophy of modern consumer capitalism.”

I haven’t read the de Botton book. He seems to be saying, putting it more simply, that religious people are on the whole less selfish than non-religious people, and that less selfish people are more likely to be progressive/left-leaning/anti-capitalist. Do you agree?  I’m sure there are one or two non-religious people, and one or two conservative/right-leaning/pro-capitalist people, who would like to take issue with these assumptions.

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Geothermal map of the Netherlands!

Many Dutch Christians are letting go of traditional beliefs, but holding onto the idea that there is ‘something’ out there, something just above the surface of reality, something more. Robert Pigott explains:

Professor Hijme Stoffels of the VU University Amsterdam says it is in such concepts as love that people base their diffuse ideas of religion.

“In our society it’s called ‘somethingism’,” he says. “There must be ‘something’ between heaven and earth, but to call it ‘God’, and even ‘a personal God’, for the majority of Dutch is a bridge too far.

“Christian churches are in a market situation. They can offer their ideas to a majority of the population which is interested in spirituality or some kind of religion.”

To compete in this market of ideas, some Christian groups seem ready virtually to reinvent Christianity.

They want the Netherlands to be a laboratory for Christianity, experimenting with radical new ways of understanding the faith.

Much of this is led by the Dutch clergy, many of whom are professed agnostics or atheists.

The Rev Klaas Hendrikse can offer his congregation little hope of life after death, and he’s not the sort of man to sugar the pill.

An imposing figure in black robes and white clerical collar, Mr Hendrikse presides over the Sunday service at the Exodus Church in Gorinchem, central Holland.

It is part of the mainstream Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN), and the service is conventional enough, with hymns, readings from the Bible, and the Lord’s Prayer. But the message from Mr Hendrikse’s sermon seems bleak – “Make the most of life on earth, because it will probably be the only one you get”.

“Personally I have no talent for believing in life after death,” Mr Hendrikse says. “No, for me our life, our task, is before death.”

Nor does Klaas Hendrikse believe that God exists at all as a supernatural thing.

“When it happens, it happens down to earth, between you and me, between people, that’s where it can happen. God is not a being at all… it’s a word for experience, or human experience.”

Mr Hendrikse describes the Bible’s account of Jesus’s life as a mythological story about a man who may never have existed, even if it is a valuable source of wisdom about how to lead a good life.

His book Believing in a Non-Existent God led to calls from more traditionalist Christians for him to be removed. However, a special church meeting decided his views were too widely shared among church thinkers for him to be singled out.

A study by the Free University of Amsterdam found that one-in-six clergy in the PKN and six other smaller denominations was either agnostic or atheist.

None of this is new. When I was studying theology as an undergraduate in the 1980s (before going to seminary) various versions of this ‘agnostic Christianity’ were on offer. I wonder whether the attraction this kind of worldview is rising or declining in our present culture in Britain.

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I gave a talk at the weekend about providence. Is it true that God has a plan for us? Is it true that he guides all that happens within creation, and all that happens within our own individual lives? I wasn’t so much looking at the theology or philosophy of how God ‘acts’ in the world, but rather at the instinctive ways we tend to view things when we are struggling to make sense of events.

I think there are three ‘default’ positions about providence, all incorrect; and we usually fall into one of them even without realising it.

First, there is the idea that God is simply not involved in the ordinary events of life. Everything is random. There is consequently no meaning or purpose in anything that happens. There is no plan. This is an atheist, materialist position; but it’s subconsciously held by many Christians – at least at the level of their psychological reactions to things. It’s pretty bleak.

Second, there is the implicit assumption that as a rule things are random and meaningless and out of God’s control, even though he’s there, in the background. He leaves things to unfold in their own way; and every now and then he steps in to ‘intervene’. I don’t mean through miracles (although they could fit in here); I mean the idea that God only acts on special occasions, when he takes a special interest in something; and that he is fairly detached and indifferent the rest of the time.

I think this view is quite common in the Christian life. We battle on with life as if we are in a Godless world – the structure of our life is to all extents pagan. Every now and then we pray for something specific; every now and then we have an ‘experience’ of God helping us, or doing something particularly important or unexpected, and we are grateful for that and our ‘faith’ is deepened. But in a strange way this gratitude reinforces the hidden assumption that God is actually not present and not actively concerned for us all the rest of the time.

The third faulty view of providence goes to the other extreme. In this case we believe that God is indeed in control of all history and all events. We believe that everything has huge meaning, that everything reflects God’s loving and providential purposes – which it does. But for this reason we want to over-interpret the significance of every single event. Why is the train three minutes late? Why is the car in front of me green and not blue? What’s the significance of me spilling my coffee or waking before my alarm goes off or bumping into you in the street yesterday? This kind of reflection can become a form of superstition; a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

It’s true that all these small events are part of God’s providential purposes; and it’s also true that sometimes these small events can have a huge significance for someone. Small and apparently ‘chance’ events lead someone to meet their husband or wife for the first time, or to discover their vocation, or to take a different direction in life.

But here is the theological/spiritual point: not all events are of equal significance; and we won’t necessarily know which event has a particular significancefor us at any moment, or what it’s significance is.

So this is the fourth way, and I think the correct one, of interpreting providence: Everything is in God’s loving hands. He is over all and in all and present to all. Everything does have a meaning, a place in his plan. But we can leave God to do the interpreting and understanding. We won’t always understand, but it makes a huge difference knowing that he understands, that he knows what he is doing. Our response is to trust and to hope; and actively to entrust all that we do and all that we experience to him.

Sometimes, for his reasons, we get a glimpse of why something matters and what it means in the broader picture; and this is very consoling. Sometimes, especially in moments of decision or crisis, we need to come to some clarity about whether something is important for us personally, or for the Church, or for society – and this is why discernment is so important in the Christian life. So trusting in providence does not mean becoming passive or indifferent or fatalistic, or ignoring the call to take responsibility or to work for radical change. It doesn’t mean God takes away our freedom. But our fundamental knowledge that God knows what he is doing and is doing everything for our good takes away the existential anxiety that afflicts the pagan heart, and the obsessive curiosity that afflicts the superstitious mind.

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