Thursday, 31 January 2013

Godless Christians

New Lamps for Old         Posted by Arthur Palmer      1 Feb. 2013

There are some good Christians who are alarmed at what they see as a lamentable abandonment of age-old understandings of the faith. In my youthful days the Student Christian Movement was often patronised or dismissed as the “Slightly Christian Movement”, because it sought new metaphors and fresh ways of relating inherited concepts to the secular world we live in now. The resistance continues.
We owe a debt to writers like ian Harris who use modern language to give voice to concepts and stories that have Christian roots, and speak to our day and age.  Traditional Faith language still speaks to some, but few of our secular citizens find inspiration and energy for living in the language of yesterday.
Ian Harris’s writing will often appear on this blog.
         Godless Christians      Ian Harris     Otago Daily Times    Jan. 25, 2013

British actress Helen Mirren and Astronomer Royal Martin Rees are poles apart in their life paths and achievements, but they share a very modern trend in religion: they are Christians who don’t believe in God. Not so long ago such a perspective would have been unthinkable. Yet today many who regularly go to church (and many more who do not) would agree with Mirren and Rees. I know ministers who lean the same way.
For some it’s a position they’ve come to as they wrestle with their understanding of the world around them, in which traditional definitions of God no longer compute. Others have a lingering sense of being Christian, but it has more to do with cultural identity than theological perception.

Such identity appears uppermost for Mirren, who said this month: “I can't help being Christian because I was brought up in Britain and the morality of Christianity is part of the fabric of this country – but I don't believe in God. I do believe in treating other people as you'd want to be treated and being empathetic.”  That echoes the comment of Baron Rees, who describes himself as “a churchgoer who doesn’t believe in God”.  “I share with religious people a concept of the mystery and wonder of the universe and even more of human life, and therefore participate in religious services,” he said. “And of course those that I participate in are, as it were, the ‘customs of my tribe’, which happens to be the Church of England.”

Clearly, Mirren and Rees affirm a religious identity that has left behind a theistic concept of God.
That raises one of the key questions facing Christianity today: Can a person claim to be Christian if he or she doesn’t affirm the traditional Judaeo-Christian view of God as a personal being existing in a supernatural world, overseeing life on this planet, and intervening in it directly from time to time?

That, however, is not the only view of God open to us today. Religious ideas evolve along with everything else, and 21st-century Christianity doesn’t have to accept uncritically the formulations of past ages, though many Christians will continue to find security and purpose within them.

Before theism, different societies created a range of gods, each with its own niche in the scheme of things, to provide a sense of security in a world full of uncertainty and peril. Among them were gods of nature, such as the sea, weather and harvest; gods of tribes and nations, as of Israel and Rome; gods of peace, love and war. They met people’s spiritual needs and, importantly, were at one with the knowledge of the time.

Then came the monotheistic challenge, which reduced the many gods of polytheism to one all-encompassing deity. This God possessed all the positive attributes prized by people everywhere, with no restriction of space, time and mortality. Uppermost were infinite wisdom, infinite power, infinite love, and a supreme will. For hundreds of years this God met people’s spiritual needs and dovetailed with the knowledge of the time.

In our own era another shift in religious thinking is under way, and to many it is most uncomfortable. American Episcopal (Anglican) Bishop John Spong sums it up starkly: “The God we have defined theistically is simply no longer believable.” Traditional Christians will dispute that, but others will cheer him for saying what they have been groping towards. Either way, it is no wonder that millions in the West are quietly letting that theistic image of God go, with censuses recording a continual rise in those who tick the “no religion” option.

That is an inevitable trend, since church teaching over many centuries has identified God indelibly with theism. It leaves people who no longer find this persuasive with nowhere to go. Is it time, then, to rule off on God? Not at all!
Spong goes on: “As a human idea, theism can die without God dying.” There is a way of thinking about God beyond the real and objective being of traditional theism.

It would mean going back to basics and acknowledging that every idea of God is a human creation – and human creativity lives on. In the modern world it is therefore open to us to reconceive God as a powerful symbol – indeed the most powerful symbol we are capable of – in a way that reflects not only core elements of every major religion, but also a secular understanding of the world.

I shall suggest one way of doing that next time.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The UK Census

Ian Harris                    Otago Daily Times                   Jan. 11, 2012

How things change! Before the latest British census, taken in March 2011, humanists and atheists were loud in their protests about a question asking: What is your religion? They argued that the wording assumed people had a religion when in fact they might not –even though the first option offered was “no religion”. So the British Humanist Association ran a campaign urging those of no religion: “For God’s sake, say no.” Excuse me?

The humanists feared that if too many people answered “Christian”, this would be used to justify public spending on church schools, services and chaplaincies. That happened after the 2001 census (the first time a question on religious identity was included) recorded 72 per cent of the population of England and Wales as Christian. The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science devised a counter-strategy, commissioning a survey of people who had identified as Christian in the census to probe what they meant by that. It found a lot of fuzziness. Only 31 per cent of the Christian sample said they ticked the box because they tried seriously to follow the teachings of Christianity, while 50 per cent did not think of themselves as “religious” at all. Outside of a church service, 37 per cent never prayed, 15 per cent never read the Bible – and 49 per cent hadn’t been to church in the preceding year.

When the census results came out last month, those atheist forebodings turned to whoops of glee. The tally of Christians in England and Wales had slipped from 37.3 million to 33.2 million, while those of no religion had soared from 7.7 million to 14.1million. As a proportion of the total population, Christians had dropped sharply in 10 years from 72 to 59 per cent, and those with no religion had leapt from 15 to 25 per cent. Meanwhile Muslims almost doubled to 2.7 million, which is 5 per cent of the overall population – and 12 per cent of London’s.

Reactions have been predictable. The National Secular Society trumpets the data as “a major reverse for Christianity”. The Humanist Association notes “a major cultural shift”. Anti-religion crusader Dawkins is delighted, though he greatly overstates when he gloats that religion in Britain is “a spent force”. On his own survey, there’s a committed core of 10.3 million Christians among those who ticked “Christian”. And just watch those Muslims dig in!

Christian leaders found the figures “challenging”, which has to be a masterly understatement. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference commented: “Christianity is no longer a religion of culture but a religion of decision and commitment. People are making a positive choice in self-identifying as Christians.”

A similar shift is occurring in New Zealand, and faster than in Britain. Our census next March will probably reveal another rise for “no religion”, and for the first time since the 1840s Christians could drop below 50 per cent. Reasons for this are much the same as those being aired in Britain. There is the elementary issue of definition: What is religion? In self-identifying with a religion (or not), what part do belief, vision, family heritage, upbringing and sense of community play? Some people say they are spiritual, but not religious: what do they mean by that?

On the definition of religion as “a total mode of the interpreting and living of life”, the word could cover any or all of belief, orientation, practice, attending places of worship, notions of God, meditation, prayer. All of those vary widely from faith to faith, and within them. And where Dawkins’ survey unearthed different views of God among census Christians, research by the Christian think tank Theos found that 23 per cent of atheists believe in the soul, 15 per cent in life after death, and 14 per cent in reincarnation. It’s a very muddy pool.

Census responses could also reflect the revulsion that many people, and not only atheists, feel over reports of child abuse by paedophile priests, terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists, resistance to women as priests and/or bishops in Catholicism and in sections of the Anglican Communion, moral absolutism contending with secular tolerance, hostility towards homosexuals, an anti-scientific fundamentalism lurking in every faith, human interpretation promoted as divine truth.

Our age is marked by a growing suspicion and distrust of institutions – but religions need their institutions in order to survive and serve. Their slowness to adapt adequately to the new reality of western secular culture means that they struggle to communicate with society at large.

The British census shows where that is taking them.


The legacy of Martin Luther is recognised, lauded and celebrated around the world. In USA where he was born and lived he is honoured by having his birthday observed as a national holiday. But we are very selective about what we choose to remember and also about what we ignore; his anti-militarism perhaps being regarded as an idealistic hope of little value in these turbulent times.

We remember the courage of the non-violent protesters, inspired by King's passion for justice, who succeded in changing unjust racist laws, but pass quickly over his condemnation of militarism.

We have no excuse for such selectivity. History has proven him right. Glenn Greenwald reminds us of the prophetic words that were ignored during the Vietnam War, and are equally ignored today.

I'd be interested in your thoughts.


 MLK's Condemnations of U.S Militarism are More Relevant Than Everby Glenn Greenwald                          Guardian/UK                                   January 21, 2013

The civil right achievements of Martin Luther King are quite justly the focus of the annual birthday commemoration of his legacy. But it is remarkable how completely his vehement anti-war advocacy is ignored when commemorating his life. By King's own description, his work against US violence and militarism, not only in Vietnam but generally, was central to his worldview and activism, yet it has been almost completely erased from how he is remembered.

King argued for the centrality of his anti-militarism advocacy most eloquently on April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City - exactly one year before the day he was murdered. In that speech, King called the US government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today". He insisted that no significant social problem - wealth inequality, gun violence, racial strife - could be resolved while the US remains "a nation that continues to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift" - a recipe, he said, for certain "spiritual death".

Working against US imperialism was, he said, "the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions." For King, opposing US violence in the world was not optional but obligatory: "We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy .

Obama will always be linked in history to King because his election (and re-election) as America's first African-American president is an inspiring by-product of King's work on racial justice. But this symbolic link has another, less inspiring symbolic meaning: Obama's policies are a manifestation of exactly the militaristic mindset which King so eloquently denounced. Obama has always been fond of invoking King's phrase "fierce urgency of now", yet ironically, that is lifted from this anti-war speech, one that stands as a stinging repudiation of the continuous killing and violence Obama has spent the last four years unleashing on many countries around the world’

 King bravely urged: "the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence" is it "helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves". King explained: "from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition."

King made the same argument about Communists: that western militarism is not a solution to that ideology but is precisely what drives people to embrace it. He quoted a Vietnamese Buddhist leader who wrote that "each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnames"; that "the Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies"; and that "Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat."

Citing the massive violence brought by the US to the world, King urged: "How can they trust us when now we . . . charge them with violence while we pour every new weapon of death into their land? Surely we must understand their feelings even if we do not condone their actions." Anticipating the predictable smears of him that he knew were coming from making this argument - from pointing out the US's own responsibility for the violence and extremism it claimed to be fighting - he said: "We must not call everyone a Communist or an appeaser who . . . recognizes that hate and hysteria are not the final answers to the problem of these turbulent days."
One of the best decisions the US ever made was to commemorate King's birthday as a national holiday. He's as close to a prophet as American history offers. But the distance between the veneration expressed for him and the principles he espoused seems to grow every year. [Abridged]

Glenn Greenwald is a columnist on civil liberties and US national security issues for the Guardian.

Mali: the fastest blowback yet in this disastrous war on terror

Seumas Milne                                     Guardian UK                               22 January 2013

While Barack Obama has declared that "a decade of war is now ending", armed intervention is being ratcheted up in yet another part of the Muslim world. It's French troops in action this time. But even in Britain the talk is of escalating drone attacks and special forces. You'd think the war on terror had been a huge success, the way the western powers keep at it. Instead of fighting terror, it has fuelled it everywhere it's been unleashed: from Afghanistan to Pakistan, from Iraq to Yemen, spreading it from Osama bin Laden's Afghan lairs eastwards to central Asia and westwards to North Africa – as US, British and other western forces have invaded, bombed, tortured and kidnapped their way across the Arab and Muslim world for over a decade.

So a violent jihadist movement that grew out of western intervention, occupation and support for dictatorship was countered with more of the same. And the law of unintended consequences has meanwhile been played out in spectacular fashion: from the original incubation of al-Qaida in the mujahideen war against the Soviet Union, to the spread of terror from western-occupied Afghanistan to Pakistan, to the strategic boost to Iran delivered by the US-British invasion of Iraq.

When it came to Libya, the blowback was much faster – and Mali took the impact. Nato's intervention in Libya's civil war nearly two years ago escalated the killing and ethnic cleansing, and played the decisive role in the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. In the ensuing maelstrom, Tuareg people who had fought for Gaddafi went home to Mali and weapons caches flooded over the border. This had tipped longstanding demands for self-determination into armed rebellion – and then the takeover of northern Mali by Islamist fighters, some linked to al-Qaida. Foreign secretary William Hague acknowledged this week that Nato's Libyan intervention had "contributed" to Mali's war, but claimed the problem would have been worse without it.

In fact, the spillover might have been contained if the western powers had supported a negotiated settlement in Libya, just as all-out war in Mali might have been avoided if the Malian government's French and US sponsors had backed a political instead of a military solution to the country's divisions. French intervention in Mali has now produced the fastest blowback yet in the war on terror. The groups that seized the In Imenas gas plant last week – reportedly with weapons supplied to Libya by France and Britain – insisted their action was taken in response to France's operation, Algeria's decision to open its airspace to the French and western looting of the country's natural resources. It may well be that the attack had in fact been planned for months.

Only a political settlement, guaranteed by regional African forces, can end the conflict. Meanwhile, French president Fran├žois Hollande says his country will be in Mali as long as it takes to "defeat terrorism in that part of Africa". All the experience of the past decade suggests that could be indefinitely – as western intervention is likely to boost jihadist recruitment and turn groups with a regional focus towards western targets.

All this is about a good deal more than terrorism. Underlying the growing western military involvement in Africa – from the spread of American bases under the US Africa Command to France's resumption of its post-colonial habit of routine armed intervention – is a struggle for resources and strategic control, in the face of China's expanding role in the continent. In north and west Africa, that's not just about oil and gas, but also uranium in countries like Niger – and Mali. Terrorism has long since become a catch-all cover for legitimising aggressive war.

The idea that jihadists in Mali pose an existential threat to Britain, France, the US or the wider world is utter nonsense. But the opening of a new front in the war on terror in north Africa and the Sahel, accompanied by another murderous drone campaign, is a potential disaster for the region and risks a new blowback beyond it.

The past decade has demonstrated beyond doubt that such interventions don't solve crises, let alone deal with the causes of terrorism, but deepen them and generate new conflicts. More military intervention will bolster authoritarian regimes – and its rhetoric further poison community relations in the intervening states. It seems the price has to be paid over and over again. [Abridged] Twitter: @SeumasMilne

A Personal Note

By Arthur Palmer                 Posted 25 January, 2013

This blog. under the caption Arthurspeace, has now seen a good many articles posted on it during the year since it commenced. The writers have been many and varied, from all over the world, but there has been very little comment from me personally. I have been content to let others hold the floor, believing that they had something to say that we would do well to consider. Sometimes I had reservations about what they wrote. Or questions I wished to ask the writer. I’m sure that others had similar reactions.
So this year I plan to inject more personal comment, and hope that others will do the same, so that this blog will have an element of dialogue, questioning, or even debate, about issues which affect our lives and the future of this planet. We have arrived at this point along many different paths. On the way we have had to discard much that we had once regarded as Truth, while still holding fast to some kernel of truth that has proved its worth. The internet allows us to listen to each other and share our understandings, our doubts and our hopes.
Some of the writers listed here have harsh things to say about the human costs associated with war.  The last 100 years has seen almost unbelievably tragic loss of life, most of it civilian, as Empires have contended for dominance. Now it is the US, UK and NATO armies that are under scrutiny as they try to secure outcomes that favour their national interests. In spite of their overwhelming firepower there appears to be no resolution that offers hope of a better society emerging, without years of tuition from another god than Mars. In reporting on this turmoil one is liable to be labelled anti-American, since US military forces are so much in action and calling the shots. I beg you to take seriously the words of Agnes Keith, a prisoner in a Japanese POW camp in Burma during WW2. In the Preface to her book “Three Came Home” she wrote this:
``“The Japanese in this book are as war made them, not as God did, and the same is true of the rest of us. We are not pleasant people here, for the story of war is always the story of hate: it makes no difference with whom one fights. The hate destroys you spiritually as the fighting destroys you bodily.”
   “If there are tears shed here, they are for the death of good feeling. If there is horror, it is for those who speak indifferently of ‘the next war’. If there is hate, it is for hateful qualities, not nations. If there is love, it is because this alone kept us alive and sane.”
The articles and my comments here are chosen with this in mind.  We have to become more efficient in speaking another language that we learn from empathy and compassion. The language of war and violence is costly beyond endurance. We must become more aware of those who have little power to make their voices heard, who are the main sufferers from this madness.
I hope that this awareness will grow in this new year of 2013.