Christianity

Frequently

Avoided

Questions

A letter to my Children, Grandchildren and Godchildren

Nick Mellersh September 2003

 

Introduction - How I came to write this letter 1

Table of Contents. 3

What use is becoming a Christian?. 4

If God exists why can’t we see him?. 5

Why does the church have such beautiful buildings and say such silly things in them?. 7

Why is Christianity anti-Sex?. 8

What are the reasons for supposing there is a God?. 10

Why doesn’t prayer work?. 10

Why does God let it rain on the sea?. 12

How do miracles and spiritual healing fit into all of this?. 13

Why are Christians so nasty to one another?. 15

Why all this about sin?. 16

How can a loving God allow so much suffering?. 17

Why is Christianity so hung up with death and crucifixion?. 18

Is religion a mind virus - a “meme”?. 20

Religions cause most of the wars don’t they?. 24

Would people be better without religion?. 25

What does a Christian have to believe?. 26

What do I mean by “God”?. 27

Why hasn’t Christianity made the world a better place?. 27

Is religion an “opiate to the people”. 29

Can’st thou draw up Leviathan with a hook?. 30

Is Christianity an illusion that man had better grow out of?. 31

Should nasty lecherous heterosexual journalists be sacked for attacking nice clean-living homosexual bishops?. 32

Is heaven more like an everlasting orgasm or an unending church barn dance?. 33

Does the author live up to his own advice?. 36

I’m (half) convinced, so how do I start?. 37

Introduction - How I came to write this letter

Dear Children, Godchildren and Grandchildren, “adopted children” and anyone else

 

This began as a letter, and still, in a sense, is a letter.  It is a “Christian Apology” a defence of Christianity addressed first to my children, grandchildren and Godchildren, and then to people who Jeanie and I might call our “virtual” or maybe “adopted” children, and finally to anyone who will listen.

 

Three things led me to write this:

  1. Godparents Sunday
  1. Meeting a Burmese Buddhist
  1. Mulling over the questions about religion that have worried me since I was a child.

 

Godparents Sunday (probably officially called something else) happens once a year and, on one occasion, probably about five years ago, it started me thinking.  Though I had stood up and promised to take care of the religious education of my Godchildren all I had done was give them the occasional birthday present.  My efforts with my own children were hardly better.  Never too late I thought, so here we are.

 

The Burmese Buddhist was another cause.  He gave us dinner when we were in Burma.  He was the father of two of Justin’s (my son’s) pupils.  Many Burmese men retire to monasteries when their children are grown.  This man had done something rather different.  He had written a complete description of Buddhism and he gave us a copy after the dinner.  It is very good too, and it made me wonder if I could do the same for my religion.  So this is also an attempt at that.

 

The last thing was that many of the questions on life and God that I had pondered as a child, had never been answered.  Time, I thought, to think them through.

 

So here it is a defence of Christianity in the form of a letter answering a number of troubling questions.  Some the questions are those that I had asked myself as a child and often continue to ask as an old man (though they tend to take a different form nowadays).  Other questions are ones that I thought my children and Godchildren and their contemporaries would ask.  This presumption is a bit dangerous; probably the questions you would ask are different from the ones that have occurred to me.  So, if you have other questions, ask them and I will give you the best answer I can.  This letter will go on the web, in due course, and your comments and answers will appear there, (anonymously if you wish) and may be paraphrased.  (I reserve the right to have the last word, of course.  After all it’s going to be my website!)

 

Finally the name.   Maybe it should be called “Everything Nick wanted to know about Christianity but didn’t dare to ask”, but I thought of that title after I finished it.  What I thought as I worked on it was “Christianity the Frequently Asked Questions - FAQ”.  It seemed a bit trendy, a good web name.  Then it occurred to me that most of the questions were ones that usually remained un-answered.  So I thought “Frequently Un-answered Questions”. “Aha now there’s an acronym that would appeal to anyone who shared my love of feeble jokes”.  And then a justification came to me.  Many of these questions, “Why can’t you see God?” for example, are basically unanswerable.  The best thing you can do is say “Oh F U Q!” (or do I mean “Oh bother it!”) and move on to something more profitable like trying to live the Christian life.  Then I thought better of the acronym (or chickened out if you like) and started to feel that the joke would offend more people than it amused.  So I changed the U to back to an “A” standing, in this case, for “Avoided”.  So here you have it: “Christianity – The Frequently Avoided Questions – a letter to my children and Godchildren”. 

 

I would love you to read the answer to the first question “What use is becoming a Christian?” and then move around the rest as you choose.   I hope you enjoy it.

 

Love Nick Mellersh

December 2003

Email: nick@mellersh.net

Web: www.mellersh.net

Table of Contents

What use is becoming a Christian?

The use of being a Christian is that it will improve your life.  “I come that you may have life and have it more abundantly,” said Christ.  That is the use and reason for becoming a Christian.  You will have more of a life.

 

The parody of Christianity is that it demands that you have a miserable life on this earth in the here and now in order that you may get pie in the sky in heaven, and that Christianity blinds you to the realities of the world by weaving fictional stories to comfort you. In fact the main message of Christianity is that you can live in the here and now with joy and purpose and without being blinded by (or, for that matter being blind to) the miseries of the world.

 

There is an enigma, a paradox about living in the world that we see more clearly as we grow older.  The world is in many ways a nasty and dangerous place to live in: millions starve; thousands kill one another.  Power, not reason, rules the world as the events leading up to the Iraq way have shown us all too clearly.  We who write and read this letter are the lucky few, well fed and prosperous.  But despite this our head still knows that the world is an evil place.

 

But our heart says something different.  The whole of the world we see about us from the heartbreaking charm of young children to the unfolding of a flower seems to be shouting something different.  Our heart knows that the world is wonderful, amazing and beautiful.

 

This paradox is the central problem of life.  Most people, religious or otherwise manage to duck it. We scrape through life, enjoying the pleasures, facing the miseries and not trying too hard to resolve the problem of why life is both joyful and painful as well as being short. Whatever we believe or don’t believe, we live a kind of religious life, clinging to the idea the good is what matters and trying to do good rather than bad.  “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” said Christ.  A few years ago I began to see part of what this means.  Common sense and observation shows that life is about more than staying alive and being healthy, gratifying the senses, or gratifying the ego.  If these things were all, life would be very different, and very much nastier. To me the job of the spiritual journey is to raise the unconscious and inevitable acceptance of God to a conscious one.

 

Christianity demands a lot of its followers, but it does not (no really it does not) demand that you “believe” something.  It demands that you do something, two things:  “That you love God with all your heart, and that you love your neighbour as yourself”.

 

Now your neighbour is easy to see and very often not easy to love.  With God it is the other way round. For love of God comes naturally to us, every time we react with joy to life we are loving God.  When Jeanie draws a particularly satisfying line that shows, perhaps, the beauty of a sleeping child, when I laugh aloud at a joke I thought of when I’m writing, that is loving God.  So the demand is that we should love the lovely and look for loveliness in our neighbour so that we can love them.  Not easy to do this all the time or even most of the time, but necessary always to try.

That is exhortation.  Here are some reasons for taking Christianity seriously.

What are the reasons for supposing God exists?

There are three pieces of evidence to suggest that God does exist and that Christianity is an idea that should be taken seriously.  They are:

 

  1. The persistence of Christianity
  1. The “clouds of witnesses”
  1. Personal experience

 

The persistence of Christianity is surprising.  It has lasted two thousand years and looks like lasting a few yet.  Sitting here in England, or Europe, or even America it looks at times to be on its last legs, but this has happened before.  My knowledge is far from comprehensive but certainly it happened in the very early days (when Christ was crucified) and for the next few centuries as it was continually persecuted, many must have thought it was the end of Christianity.  Doubtless the Reformation with the split of the one European church seemed the same.  And, in the nineteenth century, the theory of evolution seemed to many people (probably including Darwin himself) to sound the death knell for Christianity.  However, if Christianity is dying, it is taking a very long time to do it.  And if you include the Moslem religion and Buddhism and Judaism the majority of people in the world seem to be theists in some form or another.  (Except someone reminded me that most Buddhists don’t consider themselves theists, I’m sorry, but I still believe the majority are theists however you count it.)  There seem to be two reasonable conclusions to be taken from this. 

 

  1. That religion has got it right and there is a God. 
  1. That man is a very self-deceptive creature, and that all theists are wrong.

 

I prefer the former.  Man certainly is a very self-deceptive creature but it seems to me to beggar belief that we have been consistently self-deceptive for so long about something as fundamental as religion.

 

On to the second point, there are certainly clouds of witnesses.  Most lie anonymously in our graveyards, but there are thousands of other witnesses who make up the great artists, and poets, and thinkers of the past two thousand years of Western civilization.  Christianity has been the principal inspiration to these people.  A cursory glance at history shows that there are thousands of good men and women, probably more intelligent and talented than you or I, who are witnesses to Christianity.  Intelligence and talent do not make people right (that too is a clear message of history), but, none the less, it should give us pause for thought.

 

Finally there is personal experience.  Christianity cannot be picked up, critically examined and put down again as if it is something to argue about.  Like food it has to be tasted and tried.  This letter and these half-jokey questions are a way of encouraging you to try it.  Christianity lets you live in the broad fields of eternity where beauty and love can let you defeat the everyday misery and greyness of the world.  It lets you face the miseries of the world without despair.  It is a better place to live in.  I would love it if you would come and join me.

If God exists why can’t we see him?

This is the sort of question to which a teacher answers “Don’t be silly!”  And that answer, as I learned at school, is usually a good sign that you are on to something. 

 

After all, why should God have to be “discovered” or “believed in”?  It seems rather unreasonable.  After all you don’t have to “believe” in London or the sea.  You can just take the train, or get in a car, or even walk and see them for yourself.  Why should there be any more doubt about the existence of God than there is about these things?  After all God is supposed to be the biggest thing of all.

 

Perhaps, I should expand the question so it doesn’t appear so childish (though we might remember while we do it, that Christ often asked us to think and act with the candour of a child.)  Let’s express it as a good philosophical question.  If we are God’s creation and he wants us to worship him, why did he not make his existence irrefutable?  If your reaction to this is “But his existence is irrefutable”, thinking maybe of your personal experience of God, or of the final cause arguments or whatever, then please stop.  Now the existence of your hand is what I would consider to be irrefutable.  You can see it, touch it, feel it, smell it.  And if someone argues with you that it is not there, you can hit them with it.  The existence of God is not like that.  Yet why should it be that way?

 

The traditional answer to this question, in so far as there is one, tends to hover in the area of free will.  God has given us the choice of good and evil because it is the “best way”, and, to follow the extension of the argument, has stacked the odds against us still further by making his existence a matter of some doubt.  I suppose there is also an answer of a sort in Genesis.  The argument implied by Genesis is this; once Adam had turned his back on God and decided to go in another direction he was unable to see God.  And so, to generalize, you can’t see God unless you choose to.  It can be argued that not to see God unless we chose to is the ultimate in free choice and/or the ultimate punishment.  But all this seems a bit pat to me – a justification after the fact.

 

This argument seems to make God’s behaviour about as admirable as that of a sulky child, and if God is seen as behaving worse than man something must be wrong.  The argument makes God like one of those awful teachers unwilling to show you how to do anything because it is best that you “find your own way”.  (The next time anyone says that to you please reply.  “I don’t know about you, but I can only do things my way, using my own hands and brains.  I want to see your way so that I can judge it and improve my way.  If your way is so bad that seeing it can only make me worse, I suggest you stop teaching.” – but enough of my prejudices!)

 

“Why can’t you see God?” is a frequently avoided question because no one knows the answer.  The mystics seem to clutch at the edge of an answer.  Perhaps struggling to see God is in some way better than being able to see God without a struggle.  But I cannot understand why it should be.  That is one reason why this is called the Christianity FAQ, because faced with these questions we can only say “Bother” and get on with life.  Things are the way they are.  We cannot change them, and there is little point in agonising about it.  If you think the reason you cannot see God is because he is not there, see the answer to the question What are the reasons for supposing God exists?  If you believe in God’s existence but can’t understand why it is not “obvious” you’d better get used to the fact.  It is an unanswerable question, one of many and the best thing to do is to move on to try and live the Christian life.

 

Why does the church have such beautiful buildings and say such silly things in them?

Well the short answer is that the “silly things that are said in them” are the very reason why the buildings are beautiful. 

 

In England for the last thousand years (plus a bit more) Christianity has represented everything that people cared passionately about and thought of as the highest good.  The buildings have been used too to mark the rites of passage of our ancestors and, this too, has lent them sanctity and historical interest.  But it was the fact that they did represent people’s highest expectations and longings that led them to be used for these rites of passage.  So the reason for the holiness of church buildings comes back to what is said in the churches.

 

The short answer is, I fear, horribly condescending to those who have attended a service in church and found it means nothing to them.  So here is the long answer.

 

There are three ways that things said in church can seem incomprehensibly to people of good intention.  They are the language, the form of the service, and the message.  Or to try that another way: what is being said, the words that are being used to say it and the ceremonial that surrounds the words.  I’ll deal with the words used and the ceremonial first because that is the easier problem.

 

The language and ceremonial are strange for reasons that are a mixture of both bad and good.  Religion is something that people hold as sacred and unchanging and people like things because they are used to them.  This only becomes a bad thing when the old language keeps others out as well as comforting those who are already inside.  In so far as the language keeps people out it is bad, in so far as it comforts those inside it is good.  It’s a dilemma but not an impossible one to solve.  The language that you now find in church services has probably changed more in the seventy years of my life than in the three hundred years before it.  So the church has changed a lot. 

 

I sympathise a lot to people who find the shape of Anglican services difficult.  Some of the hymns are awful (though I have a sort of kitsch love for a lot of them.)  And the ideas of prayers and readings and confessions and sermons and affirmations that go between the hymns can often seem odd.  And the bobbing up and down and the bowing are to me best watched with closed eyes.

 

In fact services took a form similar to Anglican services today soon after the death of Christ.  The shape of most services can be summarised as follows:

 

  1. Greet each other and acknowledge to yourself and each other that you are here to recognize God
  1. Confess our sins and distance from God
  1. Learn a little about God from readings and the sermon
  1. Affirm our faith
  1. Pray for the world and ourselves
  1. Perhaps join in the communion – a mystical coming together with God
  1. Go out with new determination and a clean sheet after forgiveness.

 

All interspersed with a bit of singing that allows people to stand up and join in and give our joints a change and a rest.  Put like that it sounds fairly sensible, I hope. 

 

So the form and the language have a purpose.  It could probably usefully be made more user-friendly but it is language that describes the supreme mysteries of life and thus is not likely to be easy to understand, however everyday the words that are used to describe it.  So we use old language and well used forms of service partly because we are used to them, and partly because they have proved themselves over the years.  I would urge newcomers to bear with it, tell people that they do not understand this or that and, if they get a totally unsympathetic response, reluctantly to move on elsewhere.

 

Much more difficult is the incomprehensibility of the message.  The message of Christianity is not simple.  It is “foolishness to man” as (if I remember rightly) Saint Paul said.  What he meant is that it seems foolish if you look at it in a purely rational way.

 

The message is that God is love and that God intervened in the world through Christ to ensure that love would be triumphant.  It does seem, and is, improbably unlike the everyday world as we know and live it.  It is something that takes many people (such as me) years to begin to take in and understand.  But it is not necessary to understand it all at once. Necessary only to try to follow the commandments of loving one another and being loved.

 

So the answer to the question is that things said in church are at their heart not silly, and are hard to understand because they deal with high mysteries.  This church or the other may not do well at encouraging the newcomer who genuinely comes to learn.  But in the end it comes down to the newcomer not the church.  Life, like it or not, is a spiritual quest so keep trying, keep asking, don’t give up.  The beauty of great church buildings is just a reflection of the beauty of the message.  Keep trying and hoping to learn and, in time, little by little you will see the beauty in the message as plainly as you see it in the building.

 

Why is Christianity anti-Sex?

Two answers.  First Christianity isn’t anti-sex.  (Well there wouldn’t be any people without sex would there and it is not anti-people.)  Second answer.  Well in a way it is anti-sex.  There is a tension between sexuality and spirituality that can be seen in most of the major religions that have survived down to our times.  It is there in Buddhism, Judaism and Islam.  Maybe, in some of the older pagan religions it was not there and there was some kind of an alliance between sex and religion.  Maybe, maybe not.  It seems to me that these religions are dead and we will never know what it meant to practice them.  They are probably dead for the good reason that they did not serve the spiritual needs of their adherents.  Any modern re-creation of these religions is most unlikely to be anything like the original.

 

So back to sex.  Really the gospels say very little about it at all.  There is forgiveness for the woman taken in adultery and for Mary Magdalene the prostitute and little else at all.  From the gospel we can infer that sexual behaviour should follow the same rules of love and forgiveness that other behaviour does, but little more.  

 

There is a lot in the Acts and the epistles that more or less repeats the contemporary Jewish views on sex and plenty more in the Old Testament.  I believe that much of this should be questioned, doubted and probably jettisoned, particularly the parts condemning homosexuality.

 

There seems to be no hard and fast Christian view on sex or marriage apart from Christ’s statement “those whom God has joined together let no man put asunder”.  This is clearly against divorce but probably not absolutely so.  (How can we know whom God has joined together?)  Don’t be confused by those who would use religion to promote their own views.  If religion were to be judged on the behaviour of the worst of those who quote it, we would be better off without it. But that is no way to judge religion see Religions cause most of the wars don’t they? And Would people be better without religion?.

 

(A parenthetic paragraph on “Christian Marriage”.  This is ideally taken to mean the marriage of a virgin man and woman and no other sexual partners.  This seems to me quite a good idea though it restricts everyone’s experience.  (Not necessarily a bad thing.  There are some experiences we are much better off without – raping and being raped to are obvious examples in the field of sex.)  Having married in the times of sexual repression and moved in a few years to sexual liberty my impression is that the sum total of human happiness seems very much the same.  I must confess that when the birth control pill became available I imagined that all subsequent youth would live in some kind of sexual heaven –but things have not worked out that way.)

 

So back to the conflict between religion and sex.  There is a long tradition in Christianity and Buddhism and Islam of monastic orders that preached (and probably overwhelmingly practised) sexual abstinence.  They did this to get nearer to God.  It seems silly to throw this away as if it meant nothing, as if the teachings of Freud somehow mean that we have grown out of it.  There is a tension between spirituality and sexuality that will not go away.  While spirituality pulls us away from the animal, sex pulls us towards it.  We can all think of cases where indulgence in the animal to the exclusion of the spiritual has ruined lives (though it is probably more obvious in the case of over-eating or drinking than in over indulgence in sex.)  We can also think of people too who seem to have their lives ruined by inhibition.  Probably monasteries always had their share of such people and no doubt still do.  Remember St Simeon Stylites sitting on the top of his pillar for twenty years beset by visions of luscious wanton women.  A pornographic life if ever there was one.  But for every man or woman driven mad by the monastic life there must be many more who have benefited.

 

So back to the question “Is Christianity anti-sex?”  The answer is definitely no.  Christianity is not against sex.  It recognises that human beings are both spiritual and sexual beings, spiritual and animal beings to put it more fully there is more to being an animal than sex.  Christianity, along with many other religions has throughout history, to greater or lesser extents, seen virtue for some in abstaining from sexual activity.  No question that Christianity values the spiritual above the animal but that is not the same as being against sex.

 

This is a bit of an unsatisfactory answer.  But I can think of nothing that will add more to the debate.  My advice is to enjoy your spiritual life, enjoy your animal life too, the pleasures of sex, food, drinking, dancing and physical exercise.  Try to keep them in balance and, if you find tension between them, use it to learn more about yourself.  Do not let it become an occasion for misery.

 

Footnote:  Isn’t is a pity that on forms where they want to know if you are a man or a woman they no longer put “Sex?” enabling the feeble minded to reply “Yes please!”   I’m always tempted to put “Yes please” when I am asked for my “Gender”.  But I don’t suppose whoever read the form (probably either a computer or a teenager in a call centre in Delhi) would either find it amusing or see the point.

What are the reasons for supposing there is a God?

Over the centuries there have been a lot of reasons put forward for believing in God.  The most common one is the “final cause” argument.  This has many fine and elegant variations but boils down to the argument that the world is a very complex place and someone or something must have created it – that someone or something is then called God or gods.  At the moment this argument is rejected, usually as being unscientific.  I suppose the emotional reason for this is that science depends on evidence that can be seen (or more strictly measured) and God cannot be seen. (See If God exists why can’t we see him?- if that isn’t where you have just come from.)  A more respectable argument for the non-existence of God is that evolution provides a better justification for the existence of man than any of the creation myths.  The “scientific argument” seems to me to be slightly flawed; after all though man may be descended from microscopic life via the chain of animals, there still needs to be a beginning doesn’t there?  But it is a fruitless and unending discussion and one I am completely unqualified to answer.  So I don’t put some elegant version of the final cause argument, as a good reason for supposing there is a God.

 

There are three good reasons I believe:

 

  1. The persistence of religion – it keeps on being there.
  1. The “clouds of witnesses” – thousands upon thousands of good and clever people have fervently lived with a belief in God.
  1. Personal experience – you will know it if you try it.

 

These reasons are amplified in the answer to the question What use is becoming a Christian? which is at the start of these “frequently avoided questions”.  

 

Note:  None of the above is a “knock down arguments” so if you came here first thinking belief is the most important thing you may well have now decided you need go no further (join the majority). But the reason that this answer is not at the start of this book is that it is not important enough to be there.  Religion is a matter of experience and not of belief.  I try to explain this in the first answer What use is becoming a Christian? so I would beg for ten more minutes of your time while  you read that.  Then, if it pleases you, you can leave thinking “No need to believe in God, that’s another load off my mind”.  Remember, though, that the biggest load off our mind will be death.  In fact, as I get older you do begin to think sometimes a bit along those lines!  Death for example seems a good alternative to having to fill in tax forms every year.

 

Atheism, Ariel washing clothes at 40C, and death.  No there’s a life worth leaving!

Why doesn’t prayer work?

The short answer is that prayer does work, but often in a way that you don’t expect.  This may seem like a cop out to anyone who has prayed earnestly for someone they love to recover only to watch them die.  Or even for someone who has prayed that their headmaster might slip up on a banana skin only to see him step assuredly over it.  But it isn’t a cop out.  Please read on

 

The answer is complex.  First to get rid of two explanations that I do consider to be cop outs.  The first cop out is to say that God always answers prayers but sometimes answers “yes” and sometimes answers “no”.  This always struck me as a big cheat when I was a child and still does.  If the situation is as simple as that, God might just as well not answer it at all and give us the things he approved of without forcing us to think of and pray for them first.

 

The other answer is that Christ told us to pray “in his name” and some things you pray for are not in his name and so you don’t get them.  Thus, for example, you cannot expect a favourable answer if you pray for enormous riches - that will be bad for you, or pray for your boss to fall under a bus – that will be bad for him, and so on.  The end result of all this is that you are continually censoring your prayers and, if you consider that God is looking after your interests anyway, it is hardly worth praying at all.

 

So both these answers seem to me to nullify the use of prayer as a method of changing the world, and this “intercessionary” prayer is what most people mean by prayer, and particularly mean when they say prayer does not work.  Another problem is that these answers do not seem to tally with experience.  But more of that later.

 

A couple more detours before I try to answer the question.  There have been various studies trying to show scientifically that prayer works.  A typical way is to compare people who are prayed for in hospital with those that are not and see who have the better recovery rates.  Surprisingly enough one study, run in an apparently impeccable way, seems to show that praying helped.  It had proper double blind controls (nobody knowing if they were prayed for or not – and, on the praying side nobody knowing who they were praying for) and was very convincing.  I was surprised and have found a web address where you can follow this up if you are interested.  I don’t think this it is really relevant to the answer of this question but, as you may, I give you this address http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/prayer.html.  Please don’t swamp me with other experiments that showed the opposite.  I am sure there are plenty, but, to me, the idea of scientific testing is a sideline, as you will see if you stick with me. 

 

Last oddment and a strange story.  I was sitting up in Acres Down one day looking out at the sunset across the long view of dark pine trees.  I was just thinking “Wouldn’t it be nice if God gave a sign to show that he was there.”  Just at that moment “Bang” a shooting star shot across the sky.  Now this was a worrying experience.  There are two possibilities.  Either it was a coincidence or it was a miracle - an answer to prayer.  If it was a coincidence think of this.  You are sitting at the table and say to your neighbour to “Please pass the salt” and he does.  Now that isn’t a coincidence is it?  Well maybe it is.  Perhaps your neighbour would have passed the salt if you hadn’t asked.  You will never know but you are unlikely to think that this was a coincidence.  So maybe the shooting star was not a coincidence either.  Maybe it was a miracle.  But if it was a miracle it seems so absurd.  Did God set the star in motion millions of years ago knowing that it would coincide with my rather trivial and inconsequent prayer, in perhaps 2 million years, 200 days and thirty three seconds.  Why should God do that?   It is ridiculous to think of it as a miracle – but then if an immediate answer to a prayer is not a miracle what is?

 

Back to the question, my answer to the question is that prayer does work and this can be discovered by trying it.  You should pray for what your heart wants and not, in any way try and make it acceptable to God.  Be prepared to ask for outrageous things if that is what you want.  Be prepared to rage at God if they are not answered.  These prayers straight from the heart are answered.

 

How are they answered?  In different ways.  By praying from the heart you start to hear what you really want and by putting it in the context of prayer you will begin to see if your wants are ones you should pursue.  So prayer works at least by concentrating your mind on what you are praying for and making you aware of opportunities that can help you achieve it.  Often too it will lead to quite unexpected opportunities that are apparently “heaven sent”.  So try it pray for what you want and pray from the heart.  It is an experiment you can easily try.

 

Of course prayer is not all asking.  Intercession is the proper name for prayers that take the form of a request.  Prayer is becoming aware of God, starting to live in the present and enjoying the benefits large or small that you have.  So I recommend it.  I hope I have given a few useful suggestions about how prayer may work (concentrating your own mind, making you more aware of your surroundings, and getting unexpected help from somewhere).  I know I haven’t really made a convincing case that prayer does work, but you can do that by trying it yourself.  Pray for something now.

 

 

Note:  The website that discusses the experimental proof of the efficacy of prayer is run by a man with different views to mine.  Don’t be off put by his rather literal views on the truth of the bible.  The point of Christianity is to live the Christian life not to worry about the literal truth or otherwise of the bible.  God for sure is bigger than the bible.

 

Why does God let it rain on the sea?

You may think this is more a frequently unasked question than a frequently avoided one.  None the less it is a question that I asked as a five year old.

 

The point of the question is that rain on the sea is an awful waste.  After all, the sea is full of water already and there are lots of places, like deserts and things that need the rain really badly, so why does God waste it on the sea?

 

My mother found an answer for this, and, looking back, I must confess that it is both elegant and perceptive.  God let it rain on the sea so that shipwrecked sailors on rafts would have water to drink.  “But why didn’t God make the sea of drinking water?” I then asked.  My mother had a ready answer to this one too.  “All the best fish need salt water to live in, so God made the sea salt so we could eat delicious fish”.  I was either satisfied at that point, or realised that there was no point in pushing my mother further, and that is where the conversation stopped and I haven’t thought about it again for more than sixty years.

 

Now I do think about it, I am quite proud of both the question and the answer.  To express the question in a more general way it is asking if there is a loving God why didn’t he make the world more convenient for us.  There are lots of simple improvements that we can think of, and if he is so all mighty intelligent why didn’t he?  And there are lots of serious problems too like diseases and floods and earthquakes.  Why does God allow these?  My question was in fact the “problem of pain” writ small.

 

My mother’s answer was also one of the classical answers to the problem.  If you look you can see that the answer amounts to this “If you really understand the problem, you can see that God’s solution is the best one.”  

 

Perhaps in the end this may be the answer to such questions as mine and the whole philosophical problem of pain.  But I cannot believe that it is more than a small part of the truth. The truth seems to be that God did not make the world for our convenience or pleasure, and we don’t know why.  You can read more of this in the section “How can a loving God allow so much suffering?”  But meanwhile you can take the pleasure in the absurdity of my childish question and in the elegance of my mother’s ready answer.  I really love them both.

 

How do miracles and spiritual healing fit into all of this?

The short answer is - quite well in one way and quite badly in another.  Quite well because Christianity is where most of us come across the idea of miracles in the first place.  Quite badly because the Christian churches have from the very beginning had problems with the idea of getting in touch with the spirits of the dead (apart from Christ of course though we argue that he is not dead).

 

The long answer must begin with a discussion of miracles.  We pretty well know what we mean by a miracle but it is very hard to define and pin down.  A miracle involves some kind of breaking of, or exception to, the normal order of things.  Those who believe that there is no order of things except the natural order of things cannot believe in miracles.  Any apparent miracle must either be a mistaken piece of observation (some kind of mis-reporting, down right lie or exaggeration) or it must be an extension of the natural order of things that has not yet been understood.  However those who do believe in miracles tend to consider that miracles, though miraculous, are something very like the second definition above (that is an extension of reality that we do not yet understand). 

 

So arguments about miracles are usually fruitless (and for this reason particularly bitter.)  Both sides essentially believe in the same thing.  The argument is about whether an event is a mis-representation or an extension of the natural order.  The disbelievers tend to get trapped into saying that there can be no extension of natural order (or at any rate not in the direction that their opponents suggest).  This is plainly untrue as the things that are considered ordinary are changing very fast (faster now than at any time in history we know of).  The believers get completely frustrated because there is no amount of evidence that can convince their opponents that there has been a miracle.  Impasse.

 

I read, when I was still at school, that the Catholics defined a miracle as an event that increased faith.  Presumably an extra-ordinary event that increased faith.  This is probably only half what they say but it does seem to have some logic.  It is much easier to decide if an event increases faith than if it is actually “extraordinary” or not.  Catholics, I know, do have investigations into miracles and doubtless you can find out all about it on the net and then tell me.  (I’m writing this answer last and I’m finishing it tonight, come what may, so I won’t look for myself.)

 

So miracles are pretty hard to define.  Is all healing a miracle?  Is life a miracle?  Personally I feel that the answer to both these questions is yes.  But they differ from what we usually call miracles because they happen all the time.  Rarity is one mark of a miracle to most people.

 

So what of Christ’s miracles, the curing of the blind, the water into wine, the feeding of the five thousand?  I believe they happened, after all Christ must have been a remarkable person or he would soon have been forgotten.  The next question is why aren’t miracles happening now?  It seems to me they are

 

All of you to whom this letter is first addressed probably know how Jeanie was cured of severe liver damage (probably fatal liver damage) by an apparent miracle.  Jeanie had cirrhosis of the liver after living in a particularly polluted part of Greece.  She came home and was extremely ill.  She was sent to a spiritual healer by a friend of ours and was cured in a matter of weeks.  It is an extra-ordinary story.

In many ways it seems to support a belief in God.  For the healer, Paul Tandy, emphasises that it is a “spiritual healing”.

 

Paul is guided in his healing by spirits of dead physicians.  He can see them and they tell him what to do.  Sometimes he doubts them and he has discussions with them “Just asking him if he really means there.  Yes he does, it’s the lymph gland that’s blocked” or some such conversation.  Jeanie was cured by a Harvey Cushing who is a real historical person, and a distinguished doctor.

 

The whole thing is unbelievable really.  If the dead are still around why should they be interested in healing the living?  It doesn’t seem to make sense.  But the cures are there, in the big miracles or the small ability to lay his finger straight on the area of trouble Paul Tandy seems to have a supernatural ability.  And of course the Christian churches normally teach that the dead cannot return, so it looks as if this should be against Christianity rather than for it.  (Some people believe that it is the devil who is doing it to tempt people away from the true Christian faith.)

 

Me, I just admit to not knowing.  The cures are there so they must be taken just as sensibly as you would take an aspirin.  The miracles are around and probably always will be, though they are enigmatic and quixotic and as unlikely to get caught by scientific endeavour as flies are to be caught with our bare hands.  I stand up and confess to believing in a god who is almighty and everywhere (and totally in one particular place) and all at the same time.  I probably should not be surprised by the strangeness of miracles and the world about me – but I am.

 

And it all comes back to the same lesson.  Don’t get hung up by worrying about how such things can be.  Get on with living the Christian life.  And live it with some expectation of excitement because miracles do happen, the everyday miracles of joy and life and happiness, and the less common ones of amazing coincidences and miracle recoveries.

 

Notes:  If you have never been to Paul Tandy, I recommend it.  Do it for the experience if for nothing else.  He is a tallish slightly chubby man of fifty or sixty who lives in a very suburban bungalow with a bright pink wall around the garden.  He used to be a gentleman’s outfitter and you can imagine him saying, “This is a particularly well finished trouser from our quality range”.  His treatment room has a couch, where you lie down, and fussy wallpaper and various picture of praying hands and statues of Buddha and crosses, a bit like the contents of spiritual car boot sale.  He used to have a “gonk” waste paper basket but now it has gone.  (Gonks were sort of 1960 doll figures.)  Paul runs his hand over you, pokes you where it hurts (in an uncanny way he finds the spot) and talks politics or the problems of the day.  On one occasion he told me about the whole of the trip from Poole to Brighton for about three quarters of an hour “then the A27 crosses the B225 near a signpost to Farnham, and there’s a very nasty corner.  You just come across the roundabout and then you go over the brow of the hill and there’s this very sharp nasty little turn to the left, and it’s full of traffic, even though it is a B road.  They must use it as a rat-run to Godalming…” and so on.  All the time I am thinking, “Look, I’m paying good money for this, start listening to those spirits will you and stop telling me things I don’t want to hear”.  So I ask him if he has found anything.  “Yes I think he (the spirit guide) is getting somewhere, … and talking of getting somewhere, last week I thought I’d never get to Brighton.  When I got to the A3 interchange just past….”.  And after all this you go out probably feeling much better than when you came in.  Very peculiar.

Why are Christians so nasty to one another?

One of my cousins is a very devout Christian and has been since she was in her 20’s.  She has devoted herself to the life of the churches she has belonged to, and she is intelligent and active.  No doubt she does wonders.  But it seems that every ten years or so the congregation of a particular church turn on her to the extent that she has to move house, move to another church and start again.  Meanwhile she suffers real torment.  “At least they didn’t crucify you,” I said to her to try and put things in perspective.  “It came pretty close” was her reply and there was no trace of irony in her voice.

 

It might be too much to expect Christianity to bring an end to war and poverty.  But surely it is not unreasonable to ask that small communities who have talked, sung, and prayed together about peace and love should treat each other with reasonable charity.  But very often, witness my cousin, they manifestly do not.

 

It is little comfort that small and large secular groups often behave in the same way.  It seems to be built in to all groups and be particularly noticeable in groups that are in some way devoted to doing what they see as good to the world.  At one end there is the example of the Communist party in Russia and at the other the small church groups that my cousin has been involved with.

 

John Newton – the man who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace” (yes, please put on my play about him!  Go to http://www.mellersh.net/ and click on Nick’s plays) believed that the devil made particular efforts to cause strife among Christians and particularly among the clergy.  Perhaps he was right, but in-fighting in secular groups is often just as vicious as it is among religious groups.  The belief that a cause is all-important sharpens the edge of religious and political controversy.

 

And to make matters worse, the problems are not just personal ones between a few feuding people.  Over the years the arguments have become huge and resulted in mass slaughter.  Catholics have killed Protestants in their thousands (and vice-versa). Smaller, long forgotten, sects have been victims of genocide. “Their bones lie scattered in the alpine mountains cold” Milton wrote of the Albigensians who had been foolish enough to question the real presence in the Eucharist (or some such) and had been slaughtered because of it.  And the Albigensians are only remembered because Milton wrote a sonnet about them; there are doubtless thousands of unsung and forgotten martyrs who died for long forgotten causes.

 

The answer to why Christians are nasty to each other is that they are sinful human beings the same as everybody else.  The answer to why the conflict frequently becomes so bitter and bloody is because the two sides both believe in the supreme importance of their causes (more of this in the answer to Religions cause most of the wars don’t they?)

The next question must be whether this bloody history, or (in the case of people like my cousin) these viciously bruising storms in teacups should disaffect us from Christianity.  The answer is “No”.  They are, like most sins, something to be bitterly regretted.

 

Christianity at least gives us a way of admitting the sin and moving on past it.  The in-fighting between Christians and Christian institutions is an unpleasant fact of an imperfect life led by fallible human beings.  But to let this conflict deflect you from the glory of the vision is to stumble at the first hurdle and give up.

 

 

Note 1:  “The real presence in the Eucharist” – this means that the bread and wine in the Eucharist are “really” changed into the body and blood of Christ.  Though it is quite unclear what this sentence means (particularly as the bread and wine still taste like bread and wine), thousands of men and women good, bad, and indifferent have been tortured and killed because they did or didn’t believe in this.  We live in a wicked world and men will seize on any excuse they can find to maim and kill each other.  If giving up religion would do anything to reduce such pointless cruelties it would be worth it, but it would make no difference see Religions cause most of the wars don’t they?)

 

Note 2:  Seems to me we should end on a lighter note, so here is one.  The sonnet about the Albigensians (or just possibly it was some other group) is one of the sonnets by Milton that I studied for my A level exam.  Except for the sonnet on his blindness they are deservedly largely unknown.  However Wordsworth said of them that used by Milton the sonnet became “a trumpet whence he blew/Soul animating strains – alas too few!”   “Alas too many” is what most of us who are forced to study the sonnets generally think.

 

Why all this about sin?

Sin isn’t anything to worry about too much.  It is a fact of life.  I read in a book by Shumaker, the “Small is Beautiful” guru of the 70’s, that the root of the word “sin” is from the word “miss’ and was used when firing an arrow at the bull’s-eye.  Most of us miss the bulls-eye most of the time.  The forgiveness of sin means that we can start again and take aim once more without carrying a big weight of guilt around with us – making us even more likely to miss the next time.

 

To an outsider Christians often seem obsessed by sin.  “Forgive us our trespasses” they tend to pray every day.  And the services, particularly if they are based on the old traditions, contain cries for mercy, and pleas to “restore those that confess their faults.”  The people praying this often do not seem like sinners at all.  Few are spectacular lechers or drunkards.  Hardly any are burglars or murderers and most congregations (in England at any rate) include no one who has committed genocide.  So the words can seem at one and the same time a ridiculous exaggeration of trivial sins (most of the congregation will have shouted at their families, been bad tempered in the morning or something of the kind) and also an insult to anyone unused to the words who feels (justifiably probably) that they have not sinned in the way that they understand sin.

 

To make sense of all this you have to understand what sin is.  It is a failure to live the perfect life that we should aim for.  Confession is admitting to the failure.  Forgiveness is an instruction to start again without the burden of pretence that we are perfect.  Thus forgiveness can often seem as much a burden as a benefit.  Often we want to give up rather than stand up and try again.

 

Sin, for the most part, is not the sins or excitements of the tabloid newspapers or of the great dictators and their henchmen.  It is more often a matter of impatience, bad temper, and settling for something that is not quite good enough.  So the talk of sin and the desire for forgiveness makes perfect sense in a weekly service.

 

There is of course a lot more to be said about sin, its appeal, its connection with sex and the sick obsession with sex that many religious people have or have had in the past.

 

Meanwhile you can see my play Lylee (findable on http://www.mellersh.net/,of course, when you click on Nick’s plays) on my further thoughts on forgiveness and redemption.  And if you think that this is all just an advertisement for my plays.  Well you are quite right, but, by heaven, they need it.

 

Note: Hypocrisy is the sin that churchgoers are most frequently accused of.  In so far as we are going to the church for the right reasons, this is a most unreasonable charge.  People who go to church are not saying that they are better than others.  Indeed they are trying to confess their faults and start again anew.  Hypocrisy is a difficult sin, but the first place to search for it is in your own heart and not in somebody else’s behaviour.  If you find churchgoers tiresome it is probably for one of two reasons or a combination of them.  Either they are tiresome (and some of them are) or perhaps you are annoyed that they seem to have something that you wish you had.  Join them, I say.  What Christianity offers is worth a lot more than having to deal with a few tiresome people.

 

How can a loving God allow so much suffering?

This is the question that has been asked again and again through the centuries.  And again and again through the centuries the idea comes through that despite all the apparent evidence to the contrary God really is a loving God.

 

The latest time we heard it is from Stephen Hawkins in his Dalek voice from his wheelchair.  “A loving God could not allow this much suffering”.  At last he has said something that the majority of us can understand.  Ironic that Hawkins, stuck so terribly in his wheel chair, should be the person we remember saying this.  Somehow his own suffering seems to give the argument more weight.  Suffering we think must make people wise.  And this is an argument often used to justify the apparent indifference of God to suffering.  “Suffering does you good” - that is the argument.

 

It’s always seemed a very bad argument to me.  Certainly some people seem to rise to great heights through suffering, despite of suffering in fact.  Nelson Mandela has gained his authority from years of imprisonment and there are many other examples today and in the past, and probably in our own acquaintanceship.  But certainly suffering does not do everyone good.  The chances are, when you look into the childhood of mass murderers you will find that they had a terrible childhood, beaten black and blue by their parents.  And amongst our own acquaintances those who are most unhappy are usually the ones who have suffered as children or adults.  No question of it, suffering does many people immeasurable harm.  It probably does harm to the majority who suffer, and good to only a tiny minority.  If suffering is a trial that we must get through, God can hardly seem loving to those who fail the test.

 

There have been millions of scholarly words spent on this subject.  But the same answer comes up again and again.  It is beyond human understanding.  Most of us would shrink from treating laboratory mice in the way that God appears to treat humanity.

 

The only argument that begins to make any sense to me is that we bring the evil upon ourselves.  Doubtless you are jumping to the some thought like “Well the people in Hiroshima did not wish the atom bomb upon themselves, did they?”  Or maybe you are thinking of earthquake, flood, or famine or crippling illness.  Well yes, but I said, “begins to make sense” so bear with me for a little while.  This seems like a bad answer but it may be a clue towards a good one that we can hope to understand some day.

 

The argument goes like this.  It is more loving to give your creation free will than it is to make them automata.  Free will means the choice of good or evil.  So evil is man’s choice not God’s.

 

It is certainly true that a lot of evil is man’s choice.  Wars are the classic and obvious case of self inflicted harm, but it goes right down the scale to getting drunk, bad temper, and swearing.  Health is another interesting case. The spiritual healer used by Jeanie and me (see How do miracles and spiritual healing fit into all of this?) claims that he can heal anyone if they want to be healed.  It isn’t “if they have faith”, but if they want to be healed.  Lots of the ill don’t want to be healed preferring the symptoms to the cure.  So think about this the next time you are ill or depressed.  And pray for healing or for the courage to heal yourself. 

 

And finally apologies for not having answered the question.  My only excuse is that I am not the first to have failed, nor, probably, the last.  The belief in a loving God comes from inner experience and conviction from the evidence of living.  It cannot be deduced from the evidence of history.

 

The idea that this world is full of suffering is a matter of fact not of opinion.  The reconciliation of the ideas of a loving God and a suffering world does not look possible in this life, though most religious people have evidence of both the love and the suffering in our own lives.  Perhaps we can reconcile the ideas in part by doing what we can to lessen as much suffering as we can in the world where it is within our control.

Why is Christianity so hung up with death and crucifixion?

 “If Christ had been shot, would all the Christians go round with little golden guns hung around their necks?” Jeanie often asks me this and it does make you think.  Surely it is Christ’s teaching that matters not the fact that he was killed?  And supposing he hadn’t been killed what then?  Supposing Judas Iscariot had changed his mind?  And anyway, is Judas a villain or a hero for betraying Christ?  Supposing Jesus had married Mary Magdalene and gone off and founded the Knights Templar (as some people actually believe).  Supposing, more probably, that, like Buddha, he had lived to a respected old age as a teacher and then floated off to heaven?

 

These are all question that I struggle with and cannot find a satisfactory answer to.  It is interesting to know that some churches do treat Judas as a sort of hero and he is, I have been told, sainted in at least one.  It is probable, it seems to me, that if Judas had not betrayed Christ someone else would have done, there must have been lots of people who knew who Christ was and could have done with 30 pieces of silver.  (And anyway betrayal seems pretty much peripheral to the story, surely Christ could have been arrested without being betrayed by one of his followers.  Maybe Christ and the world cannot mix and his appearance in the world made his death inevitable.  That really is as close as I have got to an understanding of the subject.

 

If you find the same problem, I fear you are not going to find much help in this answer.  The “party line” is that Christ through his death became  “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the world.”  An interesting sentence and still more so when we remember that every word has been weighed and fought over and men have been killed for not thinking it was maybe not “perfect” (which here means “finished” and that the sacrifice needed to be continued by them).  Others, probably had their eyes put out, or worse, for doubting if it was an “oblation” – a word I have never understood. (I will now look it up: see the notes at the end.  We might as well learn something in this answer.)

 

So to return to the subject. The standard teaching is that Christ had to pay for sin through his death.  And also, more comprehensibly, that he defeated death by rising from it.  Why then at that particular time?  Why Judas? Why should Christ’s death be anything more than an additional one in the litany of millions of unjustified murders judicial and non-judicial that besmirch the history of the world?  All I can tell you about that is that there is a grand phrase in theology called the “scandal of particularity” which, I imagine, addresses these problems of “Why then?” “Why the Jews?” “Why Jesus?” And so on. (Yes I’ll put the definition of “scandal” as used there at the end as well.)

 

But that is not much help when the real question is why the emphasis on the crucifixion.  (I don’t think I can write the next paragraph without upsetting believers and annoying non-believers at the same time, but it is the best I can do.)

 

The answer seems to me to lie somewhere in the idea of Christianity as a myth.  (Myths aren’t necessarily untrue, they are just mythic - meaning that they have a meaning above or below or beyond the obvious external story.)  Christ’s story would not mean much without the shepherds and wise men at the beginning, and Caiaphas (the nasty high priest) and the scourging and crucifixion at the end of his earthly life, and the rising from the dead.

 

So am I suggesting that Christ had to die just to make Christianity into a good story?  To tell you the truth, I do seem to be getting perilously close to this but I believe I am saying something different and better.  What I am saying is that myths have a truth of their own that underlies or over-arches (or something) our everyday understanding.  “The heart has its reasons that the reason knows not of,” said Pascal (a somewhat better known Christian apologist than me.)  Whether he was talking of the same things as I am, or the mysteries and miseries of sexual love (as is usually assumed), I wait for someone else to tell me.

 

Christ’s crucifixion seems to make sense at an emotional level.  It has a real meaning to the millions who have take bread and wine in communion services.  What I seem to be getting round to is saying you’ll just have to take our word for it or try it yourself.

 

This, I fear, is the most unsatisfactory answer so far.  But do not imagine that the Christian life is one spent wrestling with paradoxes and problems such as these.  It is a life spent trying to love God and our neighbour as our self.  The story of Christ’s life will over the years do much more to support you than confuse you and the bread and wine in the communion service will become in time, as the prayer book says, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”.  At this stage of my life this is the best answer I can give you to this question.

 

 

Notes: Words: “Oblation” turns out to be rather a disappointment; meaning no more than an “offering”.  I’m sorry I looked it up, I always hoped it was something much more exciting.  “Scandal” comes from the Greek meaning stumbling block and presumably has this meaning in the “scandal of particularity.” Oh yes, and “particularity” here means a particular place, this one or that one rather than the other or rather than everywhere.  I liked the phrase when I cam upon it, mostly because it showed me I was not the first person to wonder about these things.

 

I suppose I hoped that oblation meant blotted out – a bit like obscured only more so.  “I’m just going down to the pub to get oblated”, you might say.  But in fact “oblate” means flattened at the top and bottom like the sphere of the earth.  And while I’m maundering on, why should Greeks have a word for “stumbling block”.  (Apart from the fact that Greeks had a word for everything as the saying tells us.)  What did these Grecian stumbling block look like, and did they put stumbling blocks in front of the doors or what?  “Did you hear that, Socrates, it was the postman tripping over the stumbling block again”?

 

Is religion a mind virus - a “meme”?

 

Well you know that the answer is going to be “No” even if you are not sure what a the question means or what a “meme” is.  So maybe the question should be put in another way.  Is there an answer the objections to religion put by the meme theory? 

 

Briefly the meme theory says:

  1. Religion is a bad idea that resembles the worst sort of chain letter.  It survives mostly because it offers rewards to those that spread it and punishments to those that do not. 
  1. Religion can usefully be compared with a computer virus because:
    1. It spreads by contact 
    1. It replicates itself
    1. It is harmful to those who believe in it.
  1. Religion defeats reasoned rebuttal by elevating faith above reason.

 

The answers in brief are:

  1. That although religions have used promises of rewards and punishments in a manipulative manner, these are not at the heart of religion and a wholly insufficient explanation for religion’s universality.
  1. Religion like all other useful ideas is spread by contact and replication in people’s minds.  Therefore the pattern of spread does resemble that of a virus (human or computer).  The idea that religion is harmful is dealt with in other of these answers.  It is a value judgement with which I profoundly disagree.  My view is that it is one of the glories of life.
  1. Far from rejecting reason, religious people believe that reason is one of the great glories of man but that it is subservient to experience and the validity of religion is confirmed by experience not reason.  (Sometimes religious people have valued dogma over experience.  “Scientists” have notoriously done the same, arguing, for example, that meteorites could not possibly have fallen from the sky, or that all rainbows must always be the same colours or that the moon was too far away to affect the tides.  It’s human nature to err.)

 

I fear the rest of this answer is going to be a long haul and it must begin with a short description of what the meme theory is.  (Not too biased I hope!)

What is the meme theory of religion?

“Meme” as far as I can discover from quite a lot of time spent trolling the net is a word with two separate but related meanings. 

First meaning of meme

The first meaning was this.

 

A “meme” was an idea with some sort of a “hook” that ensured the mime’s own replication.  This hook was not related to the usefulness of the idea, and, for religions, the hook was that the believers had a duty to spread the idea and would be rewarded if they did and punished if they did not.  A meme was the mental equivalent of a chain letter that offered great rewards to those who spread it and terrible punishments to those who did not. 

 

Because the meme did harm and spread by contact it was called a virus of the mind, and because it replicated itself it was compared to a computer virus.

 

Thus in this use “meme’ provided an explanation of why non-useful ideas such as religions have taken such a hold on mankind.  This usage is the one found in Richard Dawkins Viruses of the Mind (at http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/Dawkins/viruses-of-the-mind.html) and is the one I am principally concerned with in this answer.  There is however a second related meaning of “meme”that makes arguing my case difficult

Second meaning of meme

The word “meme” has moved on from the rather restricted meaning described above to take on a more general meaning.  Now “meme” is used to mean any idea or set of ideas that is passed on from one generation to the next. . (This second meaning seems to have come from the work of Dennett and probably his book “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” – I haven’t read the book merely reviews of it on the net so do not know.)  A “meme”, in this formulation, can be anything from how to make fire to a religious belief.  Memes are proposed as a kind of mental enhancement of evolution enabling ideas rather than genetic traits to be passed from parent to child and thus helping mankind to become the dominant species by collecting skills and knowledge.  The word has even spawned offspring “memetics” the study of memes and “memeplex” a collection of self-supporting ideas. 

 

It is plain that religions are memes or memeplexes in this definition because all ideas are memes, so I will discuss it no further.

 

That then is a brief summary of the meaning of meme and the ideas that it carries round with it.  The meme idea also comes with a lot of baggage and this is partly what gives it its appeal.

 

The baggage that comes with the meme theory

The main baggage that meme comes with is that this explanation is in some way “scientific”.  It is not.  There is no evidence that memes exist.  Nobody has pinpointed a meme in the mind let alone connected its existence with religion.  The theory of memes is just that – a theory.  It is just a possible explanation of the religious phenomenon and can only be argued on its probability or improbability.  How you judge its probability seems to me to depend on how you judge the probability of the existence of god.  If you consider the existence of god to be an impossibility you will believe the most plausible explanation that does not allow for the existence of god however good or bad the arguments.  So the remainder of this will either be preaching to the converted or to the unconvertible.  Never mind, I will plough on.

Memes as an explanations for the persistence of religion

The meme theory, as presented by Dawkins, is an attempt to explain the persistence of religion.  To step back a bit there are five logical responses to the argument about the persistence of religion.

 

  1. That religion may have persisted for a long time (like the idea the earth was flat) but now mankind is growing out of it.
  1. That religion persists because it is in the interest of the powerful to ensure that it does.
  1. That there is something in man that makes us susceptible to religion and that this is a crippling fault (the meme theory and its precursors and successors.)
  1. That the idea of persistence of religion is not true. (Or, at any rate, is greatly exaggerated.)
  1. That there is truth and/or usefulness in religion – basically that religion persists because it is true.

 

Most non-religious people believe argument one and support it as necessary with arguments two three and four.  Religious people believe in argument five.

 

Argument 1 I have covered in the question” Is Christianity something man had better grow out of?”. 

 

Argument 4 does not merit much response.  Certainly there is a lot of religion around at the moment and there has been throughout recorder history.  Of course it may all be ending any minute now but the persistence of religion is something that can sensibly be ignored or denied.

 

Arguments 2 and 3 contain some obvious truths.  I deal with argument 2 in “Is religion an opiate to the people?”  So now back to the meme argument

 

The arguments against the meme theory

The meme argument seems flawed to me in several ways

  1. There ain’t no such thing as a meme.  “Meme” is merely a postulation about how religious ideas might be spread.  The pretence that the meme theory is in some way “scientific” is a fraud.
  1. The rewards and punishments aspect of Christianity is peripheral to the main message.  Christianity is centrally about living the holy life and approaching God.  Christianity is spread because those who practice it find it to be worthwhile and so they try to encourage others to join them.
  1. The comparison with computer viruses is not helpful.  Computer viruses are deliberately designed by people to make mischief.  There is no evidence that any successful religion has been designed in such a way. 

 

All good ideas have the aspects of a computer virus that the meme theory highlights.  A good idea is particularly well suited to be received by the human brain and is passed on because it is useful.  That is the reason that religions are spread.

  1. The contention that Christianity prefers faith to reason is largely untrue.  To me, and I believe to most who try to practice religion, the divide is between reason and experience not reason and faith.  The scientific and the religious lives both have the danger of preferring dogma to experience, and of treating received teachings with more reverence than they deserve.  At its worst this leads people to kill and torture in the name of science or religion.  As sinful beings we have constantly to watch for the danger of this.

 

Finally I know I am not going to persuade anyone who is pre-disposed to prefer the meme theory to the idea that there is some great truth in religious experience..  I would just say that the meme theory seems a pretty miserable choice.  The choice to me seems to be between regarding mankind as a flawed machine incapable of shaking off bad ideas if they come packaged the right way, or as a being capable of rising to the glories and triumphs of religion.  I recommend the latter.

Notes:

Memes, chain letters and Buddhism.  The idea of explaining meme by comparing them with chain letters seems to me to be extremely astute.  I wish I had thought of it but I did not I found it at http://home.btclick.com/scimah/memes.htm.  A defence of Buddhism claiming that, unlike Christianity and Islam, Buddhism is definitely not a meme, because it makes less of rewards and punishments and the spreading of itself.  There is probably some truth in this.  But the essay is tiresomely smug. Buddhism has a very long history and the belief that it is free of malpractice of one kind and another during all this time must be wishful thinking.  The belief that Buddhism is practised as some rather aesthetic spiritual exercise can plainly be seen to be nonsense by anyone who had visited Burma where the temples resemble fairgrounds and everyone is continually buying off the Nat spirits with offerings.  A lot of the appeal that Buddhism has for spiritual westerners is probably that the legacy of Buddhism is far enough away to be safely ignored. (And also it is in no way our fault so we don’t have to come to terms with it as we do with the legacy of Christianity!)  In fact this rather smug essay is part of a good site that is worth exploring.

 

A bitch about Dawkins:  I must just have a little bitch about Dawkins’s essay which I consider to be a shoddy piece of work dishonestly argued.  Of course dishonest arguments do not mean that thesis is wrong (or where would religion be?!) but they should give us pause to think.  These are my main objections:

·              Dawkins begins with emotional talk of a six year old girl about to be deceived by horrible memes and equally horrible “nuns and mullahs” (see the first and last paragraphs).  I rather doubt this child’s existence.  I particularly doubt whether six year olds generally believe in Father Christmas and am sure they do not “believe in Thomas the Tank Engine”.  Children learn very early to distinguish the animate from the inanimate.  It is an odd six year old who believes that steam engines can really talk and think.  It is a sloppy writer who embeds his arguments in such an improbable pull on the readers’ heart strings.

·              Dawkins makes much of arguments about the “real presence”.  This means nothing to most people who practice Christianity.  While I acknowledge that Dawkins can fairly pick and choose the places where he disagrees with religion, this concentration on a marginal but contentious issue seems like a deliberate and tragic misunderstanding of what religion is about.

·              Dawkins includes a whole section (the numbered part within “Section 3 The Infected Mind”) which is built on the pretence that medicine recognises the existence of the meme and has methods of diagnosing it and prescribing a cure.  Though he admits that it is “imagination” at the start, he continues for such length that the reader is easily lulled into the belief that he or she is reading some kind of factual analysis.  This is a rhetorical device much used by dishonest propagandists.

Religions cause most of the wars don’t they?

The quick answer is No.  Most “religious wars” are waged for very different unreligious reasons, mostly because of greed - lust for territory or gold or power.  For us in England the classic example is the Irish conflict.  The Catholics do not wish to bash the Protestants and vice versa because of some obscure argument over the real-presence at the Eucharist or the literal truth of the Bible.  What they both want is the power and influence that the Protestants took from the Catholics many years ago.  The Protestants want to keep what they have and certainly don’t want the Catholics to have the chance of doing the same back to them as they have done to the Catholics.  This can be seen through all the religious wars – from the wars that spread Christianity and Islam, through the Crusades to the protestant and catholic wars in Europe, the English Civil war, and, I imagine, the wars between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

 

The belligerents dress themselves in the clothing of religion but there is always some mundane reason behind the war.  If the belligerents did not have religion to justify their wars, they wouldn’t stop fighting, they would quickly find something else.  The propagation of a master race, or the rights of man, to use two twentieth century examples.

 

Christianity preaches peace and had done for the past two thousand years and more.  It cannot be blamed for wars fought in its name.

 

However this answer is a bit glib.  “Look” people can say, “There are all these wars and all these people citing religion as the cause of them.  It won’t do just to say that all these people have misinterpreted their religion.”  So I come to the long answer. 

 

The long answer to this question is much more complicated.  There is a connection between war and religion.  Much of the imagery of Christianity is warlike.  “Soldiers of Christ arise and put your armour on” we sing.  Or, at any rate, we used to sing.  We talk of the Church Militant here on earth.  Similarly Islam talks of the “Greater Jihad” the holy war to overcome the evil in one’s own soul

 

It seems to me that the reason behind this is that the things we fight about are the things we hold most dear and religion must be the thing we hold most dear if it is anything at all.

 

On talk radio I once heard this “controversial” talk show host chairing a program about whether people would be better off without legs.  His argument was that if people didn’t have legs they wouldn’t be able to get up and fight each other.  This seems to me very like the argument that the world would be better without religion.  The world would be much more peaceable if there were only cows and grass, no religion there, and even more so if there were only rocks and stones.  Being human means caring about things, this means religion and war.  Being other than human is not a choice we have.

 

The belief that religious wars are a reason to stay well away from religion is really a piece of lazy thinking.  There is however a more serious and more general question though “Why have people who profess a religion of love and peace failed so obviously to secure it?” I try to address this and allied questions under the heading Why hasn’t Christianity made the world a better place?

 

Would people be better without religion?

Sure as hell most of us know someone who we think would be better without religion.  Someone who bullies us about giving up our lives to Christ.  Or sickens us with their smarmy piety.  Or someone whose behaviour seems totally contradictory to the creed in which they claim to believe.  But even this is hard to prove.  The person who bullies us about Christ would probably, where he or she not Christian, be bullying us about dieting or recycling.  The pious would be teaching us about racism or feminism or some such.  Religion, perhaps, encourages people to feel self-righteous about their beliefs but then so do other strongly held creeds.  The idea that such religious nasties would be better off without religion is probably mistaken – they would just be different.  They would certainly be better off if they did not have their particular character faults.  But that is true of all of us and curing these faults or “sins” is one of the things that Christianity can lead us to.  C.S. Lewis argues in one essay that religious nasties would be even worse without religion – he might be right, but I doubt it.

 

But that is a diversion.  This question is usually asked on a general rather than a personal basis and needs another sort of answer.  People who ask this question assume that it is possible to live without religion.  Often they assume that religion is withering on the vine and suppose that the quicker religion disappears the happier we will all be.  Marxists called religion the “opium of the people” and probably any that are left still do.  It is a forceful allegation 

 

There are two strands to the argument one is that religious beliefs are untrue and that it is plainly bad for people to believe is something that is untrue.  The second strand is that religions divide as much as unite people and that these divisions have caused misery and will continue to do so until religion is dead.  I try to tackle this second argument in answer to the question Religions cause most of the wars don’t they?

 

So, I’m lost aren’t I?  The point I am trying to get round to is that people would not be people if they did not have religion and that religion goes along with the territory of being human.  Stones don’t seem to have religion, and in some ways they can be fairly said to be better than people.  There’s another question as well “If the events behind the religion are untrue is it still worth following the religion?”  For Christianity the answer must be no.  If Christ never existed or was not the son of God there would be no possibility of commending it even if it has done a great deal of incidental good.  With Buddhism perhaps this is less true, which is what makes it more appealing to some people.  The Bo tree can be reasonably taken as a symbolic story.

 

So where are we?  My answer to the question is that people would be worse without religion.  They would be less without religion; they would not be people without religion.

 

The argument that religion is a necessary part of being a person is supported by the fact that religion has been an important part of almost all cultures both ancient and modern.  It has a host of witnesses of good Christian men throughout history and in our own lives and by the fact that it is a constant inspiration to great art and great achievement.  Do not imagine that the millions of people who seem to live happily without religion undermine all this.  There are millions who live happily without art but that doesn’t mean Shakespeare didn’t have something.  All of us have a yearning for art and a yearning for religion.  Encouraging both of these will make us better people.  And it is more important for religion than it is for art.

 

What does a Christian have to believe?

At the moment the answer is “Not much”, (particularly if you are an Anglican).  The reasons for this are partly historical but really it is the way things should be.  Christianity is not about belief it is about living.

 

“I can’t believe in God!” people say with a thoughtful, self-satisfied smile.  The reply they seem to expect is something half way between congratulations and sympathy.  “Congratulations, you have passed a difficult and important intellectual test!” would maybe hit the note they expect.  The reply I would like to give is “More fool you.  Try acting as if you did, and you will have a good chance of understanding it”.  I don’t say this of course; I am reduced to quiet mumbles expressing as much scepticism as I dare depending on the person and the situation.  As I am pretty much of a coward, this is usually not much.  Perhaps I should be a bit bolder, and maybe I might add that anyone’s belief or disbelief in God make no difference to God’s existence or otherwise.

 

So to get back to the question “What does a Christian need to believe?”  It seems to me to boil down to three things.

 

  1. You must accept the possibility that God exists and behave as if it were true.
  1. You must accept the idea that Christ and his story are one of the ways we have of getting to God.
  1. You must accept that God’s power is in some way accessible to you in prayer.

 

Then you must act these things out.  These things, as you see are more about behaviour than belief.  If you are like me, you will find that after a while the idea of belief and disbelief seem somehow irrelevant, and that is because they are.

 

So the only belief necessary is the belief that the idea is worth trying.  The other beliefs may or may not come in the fullness of time.  People that tell you that this or that particular belief is essential have yet to realize the full breadth and scope of the glory of Christianity. If they question you about it, just tell them they will reach understanding in time.  (Try not to annoy them when you tell them so, that would just be a step back for both of you!)

 

 

Note 1:  The relatively low importance given to belief at the moment is, as I understand it, partly to do with the crisis over evolution and scientific ideas.  The existence of man with no obvious explanation for how he got here used to be the “knock down argument” in favour of God.  Evolution provided at least a mechanism that could explain man’s existence without having to imagine a God.  A lot of people reacted to evolution the way the woman in the Ariel advertisement reacts to the news that Ariel kills bacteria at 40 degrees centigrade “Ariel takes care of washing hygiene – that’s another load off your mind”.  “Evolution takes care of the need to believe in a divine creator – that’s another load off our minds” (presumably the biggest load off our minds will be death – but that’s another story). 

 

The reason Anglicans are more liberal about what they believe is again partly historical and because of centuries of political fudge, but none the less is a blessing.The Anglican Church began with a political fudge when Henry VIII wanted to marry another wife and saw the chance of selling off the monasteries.  Odd that anything that began so badly should turn out so well.

 

 Incidentally, you used to be able to become a Unitarian without professing any belief in anything at all; they stopped this when they thought (probably correctly) that the Communist party was infiltrating them.  Nowadays, I have been told, you have to say you believe in God before they let you become a Unitarian.

 

Note 2:  One of the texts that cause problems is the saying of Christ that “I am the way the truth and the life … it is only through me that you can come to the father”.  The unwise (and the inexperienced) interpret this as meaning that only Christianity (and often only their own particular brand of Christianity) can bring you to God.  Anyone who has met a Moslem or a Buddhist, who is clearly much closer to God than they, knows that Christianity is not the only way.  What this text must mean is that all people who approach God, whatever their particular brand of religion are approaching God through Christ, realise it or not.  In the same way everyone who washes in water uses some sort of emulsifier be that emulsifier whether it’s Dove, Lux, or Bromley’s. God is not bound by man-made boundaries.

What do I mean by “God”?

 

Now there’s a question but it’s one someone asked after reading the first draft of this and I’m finding it really difficult.  I will therefore keep it short so at least the answer will have one merit.

 

What I mean is a higher being who is in some way responsible for us and to whom we are responsible.

 

In this world what you see is not what you get.  Maybe what you feel is what you get and most of us feel that there is something more than the material.

Why hasn’t Christianity made the world a better place?

The answer to this has got to be that Christianity has made the world a better place, but it has done it mostly at a personal level rather than at a “political” level.  Certainly it has bought comfort and joy to millions at a personal level.  However sceptics may think that any comfort is at the cost of the comforted deceiving themselves.

 

No doubt that the world is vastly more comfortable for many of its people than it was in Christ’s day.  But wars, starvation, murder, injustice and torture are still a part of the everyday life of the world.  We cannot look at history and think of the BC years as years of incredible misery and the AD years of ones of steadily improving goodness.  So if the death and resurrection of Christ was a turning point in history why can’t we see the difference?

 

There is a case to be made that Christianity has improved the world on a political level.  Various freedoms and rights are generally accepted as being necessary and to a greater extent they are followed, perhaps more than they were one thousand or even one hundred or fifty years ago.  It can be plausibly argued that the world is getting better, and it is certainly true that Christianity has been one of the motivating forces for much of this improvement.  However this is just a case, it can equally plausibly be argued that the world is a worse place, it’s probably true that there are more people starving now than ever before for example.  Whatever side you are inclined to take in such an argument, there is no question that the world is still a nasty place for millions of its inhabitants.  The best that can be said for the influence of Christianity is that the world would probably have been even worse without it.  (“Be still my soul, the Lord doth undertake/To guide the future as he has the past” so goes the emotional hymn much loved by Welsh choirs.  All my life, every time I’ve hear it since I was about twelve, I have thought “let’s hope God does a bit better from now on”.)

 

I am no exception to the rule that old people traditionally find it hard to think of the present as better than their childhood.  What has improved?  At the personal level dentistry is certainly better – so much so that having a tooth fixed is no more painful than having the tires changed on your car (except you are attached to your tooth.)  At the political level we have certainly had no big wars since my childhood but it looks now as if we were maybe just having a rest.  The two big social improvements I have seen in the legal system are the ending of capital punishment and the legalisation of adult homosexual practise.  Christianity can claim little direct influence in either of these (though I would hope that Christian attitudes paved the way towards it.)  In the nineteenth century, Christianity certainly played a part in the spreading of education in England and (probably) elsewhere and in the abolition of the slave trade.  Here and there bright patches can be found, but, overall, the battle against evil still goes on as much at the social or political level as it does at the personal one.

 

Every Christmas we sing in one of the carols “Beneath the angel train has passed two thousand years of wrong  … O hush your noise, you men of strife, and hear the angels sing”.  The men of strife seem to have paid little attention to the angels for the last few years, and the clock is now counting up to three thousand.  More years of wrong are in prospect.

 

So why has Christianity seemingly failed, and if there has been an improvement at the personal level why does this not show through to the political one?   I wish I knew.  The answer must be that Christ did not put an end to evil, just gave us the chance and the method to defeat it.  Living the Christian life has never been easy and most of the battle is inside us not outside in the big political world.

 

Is this a good answer or a convincing answer?  No it is not, it is simply the best I can do at the moment.  Just remember that we are the foot soldiers in the battle against evil.  We have our job - to live by love in our own lives and trust that things will turn out for the best.  No point in denying that this apparent failure of Christianity is a really difficult question.  No point, either in getting so worried about the problem that we stop trying to live the Christian life.

Is religion an “opiate to the people”

 

Here’s a poem that is pleasantly politically incorrect:

 

The Llama of the Pampasses you never should confound
(In spite of a deceptive similarity of sound)
With the Llama who is Lord of Turkestan.
For the former is a beautiful and valuable beast,
But the latter is not lovable nor useful in the least;
And the ruminant is preferable surely to the priest
Who battens on the woeful superstitions of the East,
The mongrel of the Monastery of Shan.

 

Even in my youth this poem shocked me a little as we had, by then, started to try and understand other religions apart from our own.  However it is fun it and, to get to the point, the accusation in the Marxist heading is that Christianity battens on the woeful superstitions of the West.

 

There is a bit more to it than that.  The Marxist belief is that religion is used by rulers to keep themselves in power and (here is the contentious bit I suppose) so prevent the workers from inheriting some sort of earthly paradise.

 

The first part of the charge is well made.  Rulers have used religion to keep themselves in power and will continue to do so for as long as it works.  Just as they will continue to use anything and everything else from patriotism to embezzled money or aid dollars given to the “war o terror” which for some reason seem to end up just killing the poor. 

 

We Anglicans are in no position to argue that religion is not used to support power The Anglican Church itself is an invention of Henry VIII to keep himself in power and to continue his dynasty,.  (Despite its unpromising start the Anglican Church has become, in all its glories and absurdities, much more than a political convenience. This is because of the faith and lives of its millions of adherents and, I suppose, divine help.)

 

So to come to the quick answer: - Yes religion has been used as an opiate for the people but it is much more than that and anyway people need an opiate now and then.

 

That’s the short answer.  In some ways the long answer has been given by the failure of the Soviet and Chinese experiments.  There is much nonsense written about these failures, which were far from complete.  However it is hard to make the case that an atheistic state brought an earthly paradise to its citizens.  It was no more successful at that than our states or, for that matter, avowedly theistic states.

 

(I must say I never expected quite such a spectacular collapse of Marxism, but no doubt if you ask Marxists you will discover they did.  The one great thing that all Marxists have in common is a conviction that they can foretell the future and, despite appearances, were doing so all the time.  Dubious post-hoc reasoning is not the preserve of the religious!)

 

I deal with the question of whether religion does more harm than good in the section Would people be better without religion?  But there does seem to be a little more to add on whether religion is an “opiate”.  Sometimes, of course, people need opiates and religion is a traditional one that has helped people deal with death and misery throughout history.  Religion should not be despised because it is a pain killer any more than aspirin should be.

 

Christianity both allows us to know that we are loved, and encourages us to love others.  Being loved is the best opiate.  We see it at it’s plainest when a weeping child is kissed better by its mother. As long as being loved does more than puts us to sleep to deaden the pain but leads us on to loving, Christianity is doing its job. 

 

Notes:  The poem is by Belloc and can be found with much more on the net. The best source seems to be http://rcatholic-l.freeservers.com/belloc.html  The poem was written before the first world war sometimes.  Belloc is most famous for his cautionary tales “Matilda ho told lies “ and so on.  I loved them as a kid.  I don’t know if Llama’s ever were lords of Turkestan but rather doubt it.  Whether the new oil-rich Turkestan is better served by its current rulers (ex-communists who quickly converted to Islam after the collapse of the Soviet Union if I remember rightly) I very much doubt. 

Can’st thou draw up Leviathan with a hook?

Now here is an easy question at last.  I can’t draw up leviathan with a hook… but I know a man that can.  In fact the poor old leviathans (whales to you and me) have been so often pulled up with a hook that all sorts of whale species are now pretty near extinction.

 

But the question was a rhetorical question.  It was part of the answer given to Job by God when Job complained of the evil done to him despite Job’s being a thoroughly good man.  (Job is a book in the bible that tries to explain the suffering of the word using a fable about a good man who suffered all kinds of miseries.)  To the readers of the book at the time it was written (and for maybe two thousand years thereafter), the possibility of fishing a whale out of the sea seemed an impossibility.  The point of the question was that it was a reminder of the power of God and the powerlessness of man (of Job in particular.)  The meaning is that there is not much profit in questioning one so powerful that he could create the world and all the marvels in it.  It was more appropriate to wonder at and fear his power.

 

Since the time the book was written man’s power has increased enormously.  We can draw up leviathans in their thousands.  Move mountains if we want to.  Breed new species maybe, certainly destroy all human life with a bang.  Evolution has provided us with at least a half decent reason for ignoring the old argument that there must be a God because something intelligent obviously made the world.

 

All this has changed our relationship with God.  We no longer quake at the thought of him, though maybe we should.  Talk of “fear of the Lord” seems at best strange and at worst treasonable when we should be talking of the love of the Lord.

 

But the answer to Job’s question about why God behaves so apparently unreasonably and unlovingly, remains the same today as it did then.  We simply do not know why and cannot produce a reasonable explanation.  We have to leave it to God and hope that in some other place, and in some other way we will one day understand.  We have learned how to draw up leviathan with a hook, but we have not learned why a loving God should allow so much evil in the world.  We’d better get used to the fact and get on with the job of reducing the evil in so far as we can.

 

To repeat the joke from the top of this letter, that is why I have called this set of questions and answers the Christianity FAQ.  Faced with questions like this we can only say, “Bother it” and get on with our lives.

 

Is Christianity an illusion that man had better grow out of?

I came across this quote in a book yesterday by a Southern black man about his childhood in a deeply religious home in Mississippi.  “There were more violent quarrels in our deeply religious home than there were in the home of a gangster, a burglar or a prostitute.”  This is the sort of thing that makes me think that maybe the world would be better off without religion; maybe it is some ghastly evolutionary glitch that we can at last put behind us.  It’s loss may leave a bit of a hole, the longing for something more than the everyday would no longer have an outlet, but if the long tide of human misery that has been brought on the world in the name of religion can be stemmed, then maybe it is worth the loss.  Particularly if there is no truth in religion and it can be given up with as little pain and longing as the belief in Father Christmas.  It may make for a pretty dreary life, but there are worse things than dreariness – or so we tell ourselves.

 

I suppose the conclusion that I have come to is that religion like, say, genetic engineering or atomic science, is powerful and dangerous stuff and that man has no more choice of giving up religion than he has of giving up science.  (Co-incidentally soon after I found the quote at the start of this question, I was told that the American constitution was, in essence, way to control religion by placing a secular state as the final authority.)

 

In fact there is plenty of misery where religion has been rejected.  I don’t pretend that this is a knock-down argument but it is true.  (If religious or non-religious people were obviously happier or more successful or had more fun than the other group there would be no need for this discussion, and life would be a lot simpler.)

 

My belief is that the soul makes its way towards God naturally like rivers make their way to the sea and that there is no helping it or getting away from it.   Religion is capable of so much harm because it is capable of much good, because it is powerful.  We (Christians, theists, atheists, nothingists and all) must continually look at our behaviour and check whether our beliefs are leading us to do harm in their name.  Hypocrisy is as enduringly human as religion and we must fight it - most importantly in our own hearts.  Religious belief is not some pre-requisite of hypocrisy and those who accuse churchgoers of hypocrisy should first search their own hearts for signs of it there.  (And wonder if it is not some kind of envy that is leading them to make this judgement.)

 

So to return to the question, is religion a “good thing” or a “bad thing”?  Would that there was an easy answer but there is no way of totting up the pros and cons of religion and coming to some conclusion.   Because if we come to the conclusion that it is a bad thing it won’t go away.  Nor will we ourselves be immune from hypocrisy cruelty or unhappiness or any other form of evil.  The evil, I believe, will still be there although occasionally it will take a slightly different form.  In answer to this question I can only refer you to the original piece on Christianity and its benefits and do no more than assert my faith that the benefits (seen at a personal level by millions and millions throughout history) must certainly outweigh the miseries that have been inflicted in the name of religion.  And that, if religion were not there, the benefits would disappear and the miseries would merely be inflicted in some other name.

 

Note 1: Quote at head of this question is from:  Black Boy by Richard Wright Harper and Brothers 1937.  A book well worth reading.

 

Note 2:  My predecessor as Church warden comments about the soul naturally making its way to God “…If this is your belief so be it but the church's view is that this world is a testing place for the soul, and that those who pass the test with flying colours will gain heavenly bliss, those who pass without flying colours will first have to endure a time in purgatory, and those who fail go to 'Hell', which is generally understood to mean a place without God, or nothingness.  We can do nothing without God's help, which means we cannot pull ourselves up by our bootlaces unless God helps us.” 

 

Actually the church’s position is somewhat less clear.  (Thank goodness our Anglican love of fudge gives us ways of avoiding getting caught in impossible logical traps!)  What hell means and whether it’s “forever”, is a big argument.  There is a strong strand of belief that for it to be so would be a failure of God’s plan of salvation. 

 

Also there is built in contradiction in the two ideas that the world is a testing place AND that we can do nothing without the help of God.  If both these are true, the world must be more a testing place for God than for us.  He’s trying to save us, we can’t save ourselves, not many people are being saved; who do you blame, the almighty or the miserable sinners?  OK, OK so we have to want to be saved, the argument would go, but it takes God to make us “want” to be saved and so the conundrum goes on ad-infinitum.  We don’t understand it because it is incomprehensible unlike the idea that the soul flows towards God like water to the sea, which we can experience.

 

Should nasty lecherous heterosexual journalists be sacked for attacking nice clean-living homosexual bishops?

The answer is: no – the nasty journalists should be forgiven for they “know not what they do”.   I mean this quite seriously.  Journalists, the very people who consider themselves so knowing, (perhaps even because they consider themselves so knowing) seldom grasp what the job they are doing actually is.  The job of the journalist is not to give the news, it is not to entertain the public by repeating and amplifying the gossip, it is not (or only incidentally) to increase the circulation of the paper they work for, it is, quite simply, to gain power for themselves and the people who employ them.  (This may sound slightly paranoid, but it is true.)

 

Because journalists’ weapons are words and pictures, their route to power is through persuasion and they must aim to become the authority on morality and judgement.  Anyone else claiming to represent authority and judgement inevitably becomes their enemy.  The church, claiming to represent a higher source of morality, is perhaps above all the force that must be kept in a place of inferiority.  This accounts for the consistency with which the church is attacked whenever an opportunity arises.  The attacks of the media upon the church should be taken with a large pinch of salt.  Beware particularly the attacks of the press on hypocrisy.  Hypocrisy is a sin we all suffer from and our responsibility is to root it out from the soil of our own souls before we gleefully point to it in other people.  Newspapers are huge temples built upon hypocrisy.

 

Priests from the humblest curate to the grandest Archbishop or Pope are human, and consequently prone to sin.  So my attitude is that priests who fail to live up to what we hope of them should be accepted where they do not harm others and treated with the normal means of the law where they do harm.  Becoming obsessed with homosexual priests or child abusing priests, or proud priests or hypercritical priests or thieving priests is a distraction from living our own Christian lives.  Try to avoid it as much as possible.  Act forcibly when you need to, to prevent bad priests harming their flock be they pinching their money or their bottoms or buggering their children.  But do not let it interfere with your faith or your life bad priests are an ever-present part of life but they are hugely outnumbered by the good ones.

 

Whether homosexuality is a sin at all is a matter of argument.  I doubt it myself though some feel very strongly that it is.  But that is a separate question.

 

Nasty ill-intentioned journalists and many nice well-intentioned ones are going to continue to love stories about wicked priests.  Let them enjoy their fun, remember that the bad priests are a minority and get on with the real hard job of living a Christian life.  That is my thought on this matter.

 

 

Note:  If you read this for an answer to whether I approve of homosexual bishops.  I do.  Just as I approve of red-haired ones and others with peculiarities that have no effect on their job as a bishop.  The biblical condemnation of homosexuality seems to me to be an expression of the time and place where that bit of the bible was written.  We have the responsibility for deciding for ourselves about sexual morality.  We cannot shuffle off our responsibility onto the bible.  The first question is whether our attitude matches the commandment to “love our neighbour”.  The next is to see if it makes sense to us.  Then, maybe, we should look in the bible to see what the wisest of the Jews thought some two thousand years ago and make up our mind whether we agree.

 

Is heaven more like an everlasting orgasm or an unending church barn dance?

More like the former I would guess (and hope … I think).  I say this because orgasms for certain are very much in the “now” and that seems to be one thing people always say about eternity.  But, to tell the truth, I have no idea of the answer and mostly included the question because it amused me.

 

The idea of heaven and an after life is something that still mystifies me.  Thousands of years casting down golden crowns upon a glassy sea, as promised in Revelations does not seem my idea of fun. (Especially when you can’t even go to the seaside on a day trip – “there will be no more sea” remember. - except the glassy one, I suppose).  It is hard to imagine anything that you would really like to do forever.  (In passing, one of John Newton’s hymns says “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, Bright shining as the sun, We’ll have more days to sing God’s praise, Than when we first begun”.  So others obviously do not have the same difficulty as me.)

 

 I remember my Aunty Von’s description of heaven given while she was bathing my sister and me, probably in answer to some question about death and what happened to our bodies.  ‘God will say “Do you want a new pair of legs then?” and will reach out for a fluffy bit of pink cloud and roll it up very tightly and blow on it and make you a brand new pair of legs, then, when he has made you a whole new body, you’ll be able to go off and run around all over heaven just like new.’

 

But despite the charm of this description, I still have problems and I’m not the only one.  The idea of heaven, hell and the after life is one that the contemporary church finds hard to grapple with.  This was not so in the past when the idea of a reward and a rest and the chance to meet your loved ones seemed perfectly natural.  Contemporary thinking, on the other hand, emphasises the idea that heaven is in your mind and here and now.  I remember the clergyman at the Christening of one of Wendy Jackson’s baby’s. “ It was wonderful” she said “I could just see my mother smiling down on us from heaven, couldn’t you?”  The clergyman looked distinctly embarrassed, muttered something incomprehensible and tried to move the conversation on to safer ground. 

 

Hell seems easier than heaven.  Hell is the absence of God and this idea has been around for a long time.  The devil in Marlowe’s Faust says when he appears in the world and is asked how he escaped from hell replies “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.” 

 

But heaven?  Forever?  What’s heaven for?  Do we really need it as a reward for living the good life?  Robert Browning said, “Man’s reach must exceed his grasp or what’s heaven for.”  He might have meant that heaven would give him the chance to do a final edit on his Complete Works.  But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and presume he meant that our longing for something more than we could achieve in this world showed that we were in some ways fit for heaven.

 

A final reminiscence.  When we were at Alysoun Cheroff’s once around the piano we sang this lovely song.  It is a dialogue between God and someone who has just arrived in heaven.  It goes like this.

God: Sit down Sister!

Sister: No I can’t sit down.

God: Sit down sister

Sister: No I can’t sit down, cos I’ve just got to heaven and I want to look around!

 

It seems like somewhere between the song, Robert Browning, Auntie Von and Wendy Jackson there is something that the heart responds to.  And also there are countless thousands who, unlike me, and probably you, have had a short and miserable life in this world and do seem to deserve a heaven.  But to give a sensible answer to the frivolous question at the top of this essay, heaven is beyond our imagination so it is pointless spending too much time imagining what it might be like.

 

Notes:  “People say about eternity” I happily wrote at the start of this answer.  By “people” I mean the mystics and such like who are more likely to know than the rest of us. Julian of Norwich maybe, though my knowledge is not enough to know, but I have been told this about eternity being in the “now” in countless sermons so I presume this is the way it is.

 

Last night I tried the internet to see if I could get any good quotes on eternity for you that backed up my confident assertion.  I found this from Blake, a mystic for sure but certainly not an orthodox Christian.

… he who kisses the joy as it files
Lives in eternity's sun rise.

 

Also, searching for “Christian + mystic + eternity” I found:“Eternity Hair And Body Wash ... Christian Dior's Men Fragrances 6.8oz. ..., Mystic Perfumes”... God and Google move in a mysterious way and here is proof, if you needed it, that the Almighty is in favour of fragrant males.  Personally, I take it as a sign that he favours homosexual bishops.

 

Does the author live up to his own advice?

No.

 

 

 

 

For an explanation of why I can answer “No” without either feeling a complete hypocrite or sinking into despair see Why all this about sin??

 

Note:  “Complete hypocrite” is a stupid kind of phrase.  Most people are partial hypocrites “incomplete hypocrites” I suppose.  Incomplete hypocrites pretend they are something they are not - but usually have some sort of a claim to be.  Complete hypocrites should claim to be something outrageous that they could not possibly be.  “That man’s a complete hypocrite, he goes around saying he’s an extra-terrestrial chimpanzee from the future with an IQ of 5.5 million.”

I’m (half) convinced, so how do I start?

Now I’m reaching the end of these questions, it occurs to me for the first time, that maybe I will convince (or half convince) some people.  So I should at least suggest to them how to start.  I’ll keep it short.

 

  1. Start trying to live by the two great commandments.  Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself.  Start with either commandment if you can’t manage both, one flows from the other. 
  1. Start praying.  Again from your heart.  Don’t pray for things you feel you “ought” to pray for.  See the answer to Why doesn’t prayer work?
  1. Start going to some church.  It is just like callisthenics really.  It will keep you spiritually fit.  Don’t be starry eyed about your fellow worshippers.  They will be people with faults like yourself, maybe their faults will be worse than yours and for sure you will find their fault easier to see than your own.  But don’t despair even the worst of them will have something to teach you, if you can bring yourself to learn. Christianity is for turning sinners into saints, you, your fellow worshippers and the rest of mankind. 

Start with a good joyful heart.  It’s a great journey.

 

Love from Nick Mellersh

 

 

 

© Nick Mellersh 2003

Email: nick@mellersh.net

Web: http://www. mellersh.net/