Archive for December, 2012

Whisperdales watercolour

Today I finally finished my watercolour of Whisperdales, which lies about ten miles west of  Scarborough in the N. York Moors. I visited this gorgeous dale in the  first week of July this year, just when the clover and buttercups and yellow rattle were at their best. The whole dale was alive with insects, particularly the black chimney sweeper moths, which are a very striking day-flying moth that pretends it’s a butterfly. It’s so rare to find such an unspoilt location that is so full of plant and animal life, and I do wonder how long the traditional management, which allows the beauty to persist, will endure. I hope the feelings I had when I beheld this view come across in the picture.


Kies Pi, the Pleiades and Jupiter

This autumn has not allowed me much time at the telescope. However, I did manage a couple of brief hours in December. Read more…

Why I think it is wrong for the Queen to send everyone New Testaments, and New Testament Quotes 10: Jesus tempted by the devil

This is the last of my series on the New Testament, in protest at the receipt of a New Testament from the local churches to “celebrate” the Queen’s Diamond Jubillee.  

As you may have gathered, I think this is abhorrent on many levels.

It shows the Head of State using her position to spread religion; not just any religion, but one particular one. She does this uninvited by me by posting religious information through my letterbox. I have the strong impression from this action that she wants everyone in the country to become Anglicans. This gives me the distinct impression that she thinks that non-Anglicans are second class citizens. She may not mean it, but I’m sure you can understand the feeling, and I wonder if she considered if people would have those feelings. I think that it’s wrong for a person who represents me to do that.

She does this through the means of a church which, by its tax-exempt status and numerous forms of state funding, uses my earnings. I would love to say “Not in my name”, but I don’t have a legal choice about this. I think that’s wrong.

People in authority who spread information have a special responsibility to ensure that information they propagate is true. I am afraid that the NT breaks this rule, as would any religious dogma. I think this is irresponsible. The Queen may well believe some elements of Christian dogma, but she cannot believe all of it, and if she did, she’d be downright evil. If she doesn’t believe all of it, why is she giving it to me? I think that’s just thoughtless.

I think it’s wrong that the church is using the head of state to propagate its dogma. The CofE is in deep trouble, with falling membership and a pretty poor public image. It is clearly falling back on these forms of authority help itself survive. I think that’s wrong.

I also think it’s morally questionable to say you find Jesus an inspiring person who provides a moral example and comfort. As I have tried to show with this series of quotes from the teachings and life of Jesus, there are plenty of rather poor examples of behaviour and thinking in Jesus’ life, including suggesting that non-believers are evil and should be burned, thinking that the poor are less important than Jesus himself, animal cruelty, belief in evil spirits and demon possession, the disregarding of evidence as unimportant and the moral elevation of people who don’t question extraordinary claims, the suggestion that handicapped people are sinners, and that you should worship a God who punishes people who sin by imposing handicaps on them, the suggestion that the way to fix problems is to pray to an imaginary deity, and predicting an imminent apocalypse which turned out not to happen. The Queen and the churches must know all this, but they probably put it to the back of their minds. They would have a pretty hard time keeping Chrsitianity alive if these facts were taught to school children instead of the other stuff they cherry-pick out. It doesn’t stop them sending us the literature that says this though, and it probably doesn’t stop a minority of people actually believing that these things are true and that this is the best way to think and behave. I think that’s wrong.

So let’s finish the series with a look at the temptation of Jesus in Matthew Chapter 4. Verse 1 says: “Then was Jesus led up of the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.” This is quite amusing as in James 1:13 it says that God cannot be tempted by evil, which means that Jesus is not God. But in response to one of Satan’s temptations, Jesus responds that you shouldn’t tempt God, implying that he thought he was God. Somebody should have sorted out this mess.

In verse 2 it says “And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward hungered.” He would indeed have been close to death after 40 days without food, as long as he was properly hydrated. Without proper hydration (I’m guessing that was true in the desert) he would have been long dead.

In the following conversation with Satan, Satan gets his scripture correct, whilst Jesus quotes scripture incorrectly or uses quotes that are contradicted elsewhere in scripture. I’m not surprised, given what his physical and mental state must have been like.

Jesus really did model his actions on an Iron Age view of the universe: humans as toys in a supernatural recreational activity, who had to appease their God to deflect its wrath in the face of temptations from other powerful supernatural forces. Are we really saying that we want to model modern society on this kind of vision of the universe? Is this 21st Century Britain? Forgive me for saying this, but I think the UK’s citizens deserve better than this. I think we deserve a leader that has a rational view of the universe, but who nonetheless takes their ethics seriously, basing them not on some Iron Age text or figure, but on the consequences of their actions in the here-and-now. I think we deserve a leader who does not use their position to encourage one particular dogmatic position on the rest of their citizens. And I think we deserve a leader who is at least as progressive and forward thinking as the citizens they serve. In short, I think the receipt of a New Testament through my door illustrates a lot of what is wrong with an established church and with the privelaging of religious views in our society.

New Testamanet Quotes 9: Jesus believes that physical handicaps are God’s punishment for sinning.

In John 5, Jesus encounters a crippled man at Bethesda, tells him to stand up, and behold, he does! What happens afterwards is interesting though.

John 5:14 “Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.”

It appears that Jesus genuinely thought that people bore physical handicaps as a punishment by God for sinning. I think there are several possible objections here. First, it attaches a terrible stigma to handicapped people that is totally undeserved.  Who knows how much discrimination  has resulted from these words of Jesus? Second, it’s just plain wrong about the causes of physical handicapping, showing that Jesus had a flawed model of the universe, even though he claimed, and Christians believe him, to be a demi-God. Third, it’s a rather shitty God who creates humans for his adoration, gives them the ability to sin, and then when they do, physically handicaps them as punishment (and that’s not the worst thing this God can do to you). Jesus encouraged you to love this God as the most important commandment. It’s a totally screwed up vision of the Universe, and it makes it very hard to respect Jesus. John 5:14. Remember that one.

New Testament Quotes 8: Jesus and praying

Prayer upsets me. There is no more graphic demonstration of losing touch with reality, and of people’s willingness to do that, than asking an imaginary superbeing to change things for you. It’s real Santa Claus stuff. Imagination is fine, but grown-ups need to deal with the real world, and treat it as such. I therefore dislike it when institutions and authority figures encourage us to retreat into woo-land as a way of solving serious tangible problems about the here-and-now. I am sorry, but it is demonstrable that prayer does not work as a way of solving other people’s problems. It disables reality checks and that, sooner or later, is going to cause real harm. Taking part in it legitimizes it. When I see people openly pray without embarrassment, I often wonder how they managed to absord a model of the universe that is so detached from reality. Part of the answer is that interpreting events as intentional and purposeful is probably hard-wired into the human brain as a way of coping with social relationships, and surviving in world full of real intentional agencies. Part of the answer is that supernatural views are socially reinforced and normalized. Part of the answer is lack of exposure to alternative, rational, views of the universe. Part of the answer is that people like doing familiar stuff together, and they don’t really care what it is. Part of the answer is that wishful thinking comes easy to us.

Jesus prayed. I can forgive him. I can forgive almost anyone this sort of thing prior to the Enlightenment. But I still think that it betrays a totally ignorant and flawed model of the universe. If you adopt pre-Enlightenment traditions, it should not surprise you if they are totally screwed up. People just didn’t have the means to know back then. When prayer is encouraged or normalized, I get upset because it shows up just how comfortable we have become with irrational superstition. Prayer is normalized by the Queen and Parliament. It is normalized at state-funded schools. It is normalized at council meetings and national events. It is normalized by faith based groups that are allowed to provide public services. It is normalized on the BBC. All should know better.

In my copy of the New Testament, provided unrequested by the Churches of Bishopthorpe to celebrate the Queen’s diamond jubilee, a bit of fuss is made of prayer. In the pre-amble, examples of the Queen praying are given, as well as information on how to start praying yourself.  I still cannot get over the fact that the head of my state uses her position to encourage people to enter woo-land, and not only that, but that is in fact one of her official roles.

Jesus did pray, and gave advice on how to, none more famous than the Lord’s prayer. Let’s have a look at that one: Matthew 6: 9-13.

“This then is how you should pray:

Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”

I do think that there is one good line in this, but the rest betrays how flawed the Christian model of the universe is.

“Our father in heaven”: no evidence for this; you can only believe it by special pleading which is a logical fallacy.

“Hallowed be your name… it is in heaven”. All as above.

“Give us today our daily bread”. Not given by a deity, but needing human effort and preferably by careful nurturing of sustainable natural resources.

“Forgive us our debts (sins)”. Sins need to be forgiven by people, not Gods.

“as we have forgiven our debtors”. A good line. Resetting antagonistic relationships is a good way to resolve disputes.

“And lead us not into temptation”. Gods don’t do this; it’s up to you.

“But deliver us from the evil one.” There is no evidence for evil spirits. If you have some, go claim $1million from James Randi.

It’s a bit sad that most of one of the most famous Jesus quotes is totally irrelevant to non-theists, and has to be discarded if one is to accept rational models of the universe. I would like to be generous to the good stuff here, but unfortunately the idea of forgiveness is not unique to Jesus, but has independently originated in many many cultures. Take for example, this Confucius quote, from 500 years BC:

“Love thy neighbour as thyself: Do not to others what thou would not wish be done to
thyself: Forgive injuries. Forgive thy enemy, be reconciled to him, give him assistance. ”

The good stuff in the Lords prayer is not good because Jesus said it, but good because of what it is. It’s a pity that it’s mixed up in a lot of less good stuff. Prayer in the New Testament: Iron age peasants can be excused, but we educated people in the 21st Century less so.

New Testament Quotes 7: Jesus invents Hell

Amongst liberal Christians, the idea of Hell is one of the most hated concepts, and rightly so: it has contributed to scaring generations of children on the basis of no evidence at all, not to mention justifying almost any action in this life (torture, burning at the stake) to prevent an eternity of suffering in the next. Very few people are aware that Hell simply doesn’t appear in the OT: only when gentle Jesus meek-and-mild comes along can you get an eternity of suffering as a punishment for what you think. Take John 15:5-6, when Jesus uses the metaphor of the vine to explain what he is. I don’t think it needs an explanation, but I’d  just encourage you to watch for what Jesus says will happen to you if you don’t follow him.

“I am the vine and you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit, apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

Oops. It doesn’t conform to the general idea of Jesus that you’ll hear from your parish priest, but unfortunately, it’s there in Scripture all the same, as what Jesus thought and said. Time to engage cognitive dissonance. Question for liberal Christians: just how much of this sort of thing do you need before you admit that Jesus wasn’t the best a man can get?

New Testament Quotes 6: when faith trumps charity.

I get very upset about Christian charities. I think it says a lot when a charity has to declare itself as belonging to a faith. The first thing it suggests is that those people running it think that they wouldn’t be charitable if it weren’t for that faith, and I not only think that’s sad, but untrue. Uncharitable people don’t lack faith; they lack empathy. The second thing it suggests, at least makes me suspicious of,  is that they place the spreading of their religious dogma on a par with helping humans out. I think that’s an enormous waste of resource, as well as harmful, in the sense of spreading lies being harmful. I am using the word “lie” here in it’s broad sense of being reckless with respect to the truth of something, which faith is by definition. When I am asked to donate to a charity by someone, I always ask details of the charity so I can see whether there is a religious agenda driving it or not. If there is, my money goes elsewhere. For people of “troo faith”, God trumps everything, even the welfare of human beings, because this life is just a test and preparation for the next one. On the list of reasons why religion is a bad idea, putting faith before charity comes high on my list.

You can see this attitude in the actions and words of Jesus.   Take Matthew 26: 6-13.  Here, a woman annoints Jesus with a jar of expensive perfume. The disciples complain, saying that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor, but Jesus disagrees:

“The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me”.

I think there are two possible complaints here. First, Jesus seems to put adorning himself above helping the poor. It you needed an excuse to put worshipping Jesus above helping the poor, you now have it in holy scripture. Call me regressive, but I might have had more respect for the man if he had said “Actually, woman, whilst I am flattered by the gesture, I agree with the disciples: the welfare of my fellow humans matters very much to me, so let us sell this perfume and help some people out with it: remember that when you are poor, a little help goes a long way.”

My second objection is the statement that the “poor will always be with you”. Whilst it is true that no society has ever totally eliminated poverty, many societies have made great inroads here, and this should give us a sense of optimism that with the right kind of government and social structures, poverty can be largely a thing of the past. The UK could actually do a lot better here: Conservative voters please note (I pick them out because their policies demonstrably lead to reduced income equality). I don’t share Jesus’ pessimism about this; if you don’t aim to eliminate poverty, you certainly won’t achieve it.  Admitting defeat about this helps you to excuse almost any kind of behaviour. So, I chalk this one up as another area where Jesus could have done better. If you want to play the game of fawning over deities, that’s up to you, but I happen to prefer a bit of social action in this life.