Where does morality come from?

Moses - St John's, Wall, Lichfield, Staffordshire.

I was a Christian for most of my life but these days I am an atheist. I wrote about that journey on this blog a few months ago. Following the “militant secularism” accusation by Baroness Warsi recently a friend asked me to consider how to arrive at an idea of what is moral or immoral without deriving morality from God. He went on to mention it on his blog and also mentioned a paper published in the Journal of Medical Ethics called After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? which has caused some controversy recently. In Phill’s own words:

The problem with that – with respect to the governance of this (or any) country, is that I think theism in general and Christianity in particular provides the only sound, rational foundation for any kind of ethical system. […]

Let me try and explain: in atheism, you don’t have many options for morality. I’ve heard a few different explanations, including reading an interview with Richard Dawkins the other day when he explains that morality comes from the cultural ‘Zeitgeist‘ (his word) – in other words, what people think is right and wrong at the time. But the general principle is that there is nothing objectively right and wrong – in other words, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ are simply labels which we have almost arbitrarily come to define in a certain way. That definition may well change in the future.

Now this isn’t a new question and it has been addressed by people far better informed on the topic than I am, so consider this an exploration of my own thoughts and not a precise statement of what I believe.

There is no doubt in my mind that my idea of morality does come from nurture not nature; it is a product of my life to date. Like many other things, it is something that was influenced by my parents and by the way that they brought me up, and by the people around me, and by what I saw on the TV. (Although we didn’t always have a TV when I was young.) It was influenced by what I got away with doing and what I was punished for. Of course the way that everyone around me behaved was in turn shaped by the same things in their lives, in a chain as far back as humanity goes. The way that everyone around me behaved and viewed my behaviour is also influenced by their religious beliefs.  My parents are Christians and so that shaped their decisions and it shaped what they told me was acceptable. Since in turn my parents where brought up by Christians it is clear that societal values and religious values are intertwined and impossible to separate, or even to judge the total influence of each.

But there are factors apart from that, internal factors. If I behaved in a way that upset others then I would no doubt observe the effect that had on them. When a very young child hits their sibling or takes away the toy that they want it normally leads to upset and crying, and experience of having been in the reverse of the situation should lead to empathy and understanding. That doesn’t guarantee changing behaviour to avoid upsetting other people.

A possible explanation of ethics and morals is that they give an evolutionary advantage. In an article in New Scientist in 2007 Evolution: Survival of the selfless [New Scientist] the authors present the idea that group selection – a theory previously rejected by the mainstream – could be responsible for altruism both within and between groups. The article sums it up as:

“Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”

– New Scientist 03 November 2007, David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson

So we could conclude that morals come from this evolutionary advantage, either instinct or something that emerges from society or both. We could also be moral because we can empathise with others, and therefore treat them the way in which we would like to be treated. There is also the way that our actions are perceived by others. As much as some people might want to beat up someone who insulted them, or to murder someone and take all their possessions, that is not behaviour that others will accept. We lock up people who murder and steal because the rest of us can see the impact of those things on everyone else. We fear being murdered, so we collectively abhor murderers. Some people would still commit murder if they thought that they could get away with it, but most people would not, perhaps because they have absorbed the idea of treating people as they want to be treated at a deeper level.

Going back to Phill’s argument quoted earlier, I think the idea that you can’t be moral without God relies first entirely on the idea that there is a God at all. If you don’t believe in God but you do believe that humans follow a moral code of whatever kind, then you must conclude that you can be moral without God. The existence of morals isn’t an argument for the existence of God either, since in the opinion of an atheist, the values taught by religion or written in the bible are simply a product of society at the time that those values were set, and as such these values are simply a more rigid expression of the values that are passed down through society anyway.

I understand the revulsion at the idea that there is nothing objectively right or wrong, but revulsion at something does not mean that is not the way things are. It is very clear that values and morals do change radically over time and between societies. The desire for God to provide an absolute moral base does not call God into existence except in the minds of those who wish it.

In the end it is the actions of people which will shed light on this argument. Yes, there are people who don’t follow the morals that most people do, but it is important to note that they as often from a religious background as not. There are some people who might think that killing babies under a year old is acceptable, but the vast majority of people are utterly revolted by the idea, whatever their religious beliefs. (And I think that the paper which presented this idea is an academic exploration of the ethics of abortion rather than a call to murder babies.) Most of the atheists that I am in contact with also like to be nice to others and dislike people who are nasty. To these people, to suggest that they cannot have morals, or that their morals only come from someone else’s religious beliefs somehow, is quite insulting. There are many millions of atheists, some formerly religious and some not, who do not go around stealing and raping and murdering just because there is no God.

Militant secularism

“Sorry, I don’t mean to be impolite, but can these people keep their imaginary friends and sky fairies out of law and public policy? Thanks.”

– David Allen Green tweeting as @jackofkent 11/02/2012 (Tweet now deleted.)

What struck me about this quote is that it clearly was meant to be impolite despite what he claimed. Mr Green used the phrase “imaginary friends and sky fairies” which is fine for him to think and to say, but he is clever enough to know that it would offend the people that he was nominally aiming the message at. Adding a false apology to this message simply reinforced the offensiveness of the message. I suspect that the message was not really meant for the people it was addressed to, but rather as something to stir up popularity among followers and controversy and reaction among religious people. Trolling, in fact. Something that newspaper headlines were also doing on Saturday:

Daily Mail front page - "Christianity under attack"Times front page - "Christianity on the rack as judge bans public prayer"

Images read “Christianity under Attack” (Daily Mail) and “Christianity on the rack as judge bans public prayer” (The Times)

These misleading headlines were a reaction to a high-court judgement on Friday which found that Bideford Council could not hold prayers as part of their council sessions.  The objection by the National Secular Society to requiring people to attend these prayers was that they made it very uncomfortable for  Councillor Clive Jones – or indeed any other non-Christian – and left him with a choice of sitting through the prayers or walking out and looking bad. This is not a problem unknown to Christians, and the NSS cite the example of a Christian councillor who walked out of a Portsmouth council meeting because they invited a muslim imam to pray. I accept that this councillor does not represent all Christians but the example does show that the problem affects all sides. The ruling on Friday disagreed with the argument put by the NSS and found that prayer in council meetings does not violate human rights and is not discrimination.

Part of the judgement said:

“A local authority has no powers under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 to hold prayers as part of a formal local authority meeting or to summon councillors to such a meeting at which prayers are on the agenda.

“The saying of prayers in a local authority chamber before a formal meeting of such a body is lawful provided councillors are not formally summoned to attend.” – Mr Justice Ouseley

This judgement did not forbid prayer by the council members, nor prayer in public. What it did was to assert that the council had no power under the current law to hold prayer as part of the formal council meeting (in this case, included in the minutes) or to make it compulsory for councillors to attend those prayers. In fact the law that was referred to does not refer to prayer at all, merely as to what other things the council can include in meetings to support their work.

Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles hasn’t even grasped what the judgement is. He said:

“Public authorities – be it Parliament or a parish council – should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish.”

This of course is exactly what the the ruling said, as I quoted earlier. Pickles has stated that the Localism Act which will come into force in a few weeks does include powers that will make it possible to include prayer as part of council meetings, reversing the judgement anyway. What is very worrying is that Pickles has publicly stated that councils should “continue to have prayers if they want to” in violation of the law as it is now.

Secular State

The United Kingdom is officially a Christian country. I firmly believe that all government should be secular and there should be no state-endorsed religion, instead leaving everyone free to believe or not as they wish. The concept that the state should not impose a religion on anyone is not new. In the USA the first amendment to the constitution says:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

In a letter  to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 Thomas Jefferson expanded on this when he wrote:

“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” [Quote via Wikipedia]

US courts have found that organisations such as schools should not hold formal prayer as a result of the first amendment, as in the recent ruling against a school having a prayer displayed on a banner in Ahlquist v Cranston. [Daily Mail] Despite the law being on their side people who object to prayer in schools in the USA are often the subject of abuse and death threats.

I believe that the backlash against the people involved in these cases is a very good argument as to why the state should be secular. It is obvious that people in a minority will be discriminated against and marginalised, even more so when they point out this fact. I think that the very existence of human rights is down to a need to protect minorities and vulnerable groups from tyranny by the majority, and actions by those above show a need to protect the freedom to not be part of a religion as much as they protect the freedom of those who are part of a religion.

 

One of the problems that we face in our society is that there appears to be an unresolvable conflict between advertising standards and freedom of speech. I suspect that there are quite a few such clashes. One example is this recent ruling by the Advertising Standards Agency that a flyer given out by a group called Healing On The Streets (HOTS) violated advertising standards by promising healing. Not only did the flyer make claims which could not be proven or backed up with medical trials, they also offered prayer for healing from cancer. It is actually illegal to talk about treating or curing cancer in advertising in any way at all under the Cancer Act 1939:

(1)No person shall take any part in the publication of any advertisement—

(a)containing an offer to treat any person for cancer, or to prescribe any remedy therefor, or to give any advice in connection with the treatment thereof;

It is important to note that the ASA ruling affects advertising only. It does not prevent HOTS from believing that god can heal these afflictions or praying. The originator of the complaint was concerned that people might stop taking medication and then suffer as a result. She took pains to point out on her blog that she has also made complaints against claims made for homeopathy and is not opposed to Christianity.

Human Rights

There can also be conflict between human rights law and religion. For an example of this we can look at the case of Christian owners of a guest house in Cornwall who refused to allow a gay couple to stay in a double bed in their guest house because they thought it would be promoting sin. The couple lost a legal case brought against them and their actions were found to be discrimination under equality laws. This wasn’t an attacked by secularists, the couple violated human rights law which was put in place by government to protect people. That same law allows freedom of conscience and religion which also allows freedom from religion.

Militant Secularism

Chair of the Conservative party, Baroness Warsi has reacted to recent court cases by claiming that “a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies.” She goes on:

“We see it in any number of things: when signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; when states won’t fund faith schools; and where religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere. It seems astonishing to me that those who wrote the European Constitution made no mention of God or Christianity”

Leaving aside the accusation of militant secularisation for a moment, Warsi’s comment about the constitution frightens me. I believe that just like the first amendment of the US constitution, all constitutions and governments should be distinct from religion. This isn’t to wipe out or reduce any religion, but to ensure that people of all religions and none will be protected from discrimination. Putting Christianity in to the European Constitution would discriminate against Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and Hindus as much as it would against agnostics and atheists.

Writing in the Telegraph, Warsi continued:

For me, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities.

None of the people pursuing complaints against false advertising, prayer in council meetings, discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or prayer in schools were doing anything they shouldn’t. They were all trying to uphold the law as it stands by having it enforced. The laws already exist and others are merely pointing out this fact. And this seems to be what “militant atheists” do. We aren’t exactly overrun with atheist suicide bombers. Instead they object to the law being broken. They make complaints when they are discriminated against. They attend an occasional protest rally such as the One Law For All event last Saturday. They fail to respect religion in what they say. But why should anyone have to avoid saying things that aren’t respectful? It is everyone’s right to believe that Christianity is nonsense just as much as it is for them to believe in Jesus. If you turn that around, Christians fail to respect atheists when they shout that Jesus saved them. The phrases “militant secularism” or “militant atheism” seem to mean that someone has been offended by atheists. Atheists can’t help it if religious people are offended by their mere existence or by what they talk about with each other. Both parties are being daft about this – Christians and atheists must learn not to take offence at each other’s statements when they disagree.

Militant Atheist
Comic from atheistcartoons.com. Note, portrays extremists, not everyone!

Having said that, it is clear that Christians and secularists are caught in a loop where their offence is feeding from each other and growing as a result. I want a secular society where all faiths and none can live together.  Baroness Warsi’s accusation of militant secularism made me react by getting angry and wanting to become militant which is probably not what she intended. But conversely, the quote which I opened with made Christians that I know who also want a secular society react angrily against the sentiment expressed. They agreed with the sentiment, but were furious at the insult contained in the statement. Insults turn everyone against your message, not just the ones that are affecting you.

No one has a right not to be offended. Human rights guarantee freedom of conscience, religion and expression but they don’t force anyone to listen. However, setting out to deliberately offend people does not win them over to your side. Either side.

Further reading

Council loses court battle over prayer sessions before meetings [Guardian]

Council Prayers unlawful rules High Court [NSS]

Government tells councils to carry on praying despite High Court ban [Telegraph]

Christian guesthouse owners lose appeal over ban on gay guests [Telegraph]

We stand side by side with the Pope in fighting for faith [Telegraph]

Militant secularisation threat to religion, says Warsi [BBC]

George Carey: time to say that Christians have rights too [Telegraph]

Religious and Social Attitudes of UK Christians in 2011 [Ipsos MORI]

Healing claims being made across the UK [Hayley is a ghost]

Healing on the Streets & why I am not ‘a group generally opposed to Christianity’ [Hayley is a ghost]

 

You can’t keep religion out of politics

Signpost: Religion / politicsReligion and politics are inexorably linked and we should respond to that through debate and democracy, not through attacking religion.

There are as many different reasons for entering politics as there are people who enter politics. Some see an injustice that they must correct. Some are personally affected by a policy and wish to change it. Some don’t care about policy as long as they have power or wealth. And some wish to shape the world as their religious beliefs tell them it should be, and that is not always a bad thing.

Politics and religion have always been intertwined and there are many political movements that emerged from religious roots. Of course there are as many religious viewpoints as there are non-religious, and so we see both Christian Socialism which has shaped the Labour party since the 1960s and at the same time we see the Conservative party full of Christians with right-wing policies. Religion is no guarantee of good or bad policies any more than atheism is but there is overlap between religious and non-religious policies and ideals so that religious roots may have no impact on whether a policy is considered good or bad by someone who is not religious.

I believe that religion and state should be separate. I think that when the state has an official religion, that religion is likely to be imposed on others by mandating prayers, services or ceremonies as part of government business and perhaps in other areas. We see lots of examples of this in the UK with prayers at the start of parliament sessions, and a religious oath before giving testimony in a court of law. (Although it is possible to opt out of this now.) I believe that in a multicultural multi-faith society this is wrong. Instead all government and all public services ought to be secular, without preventing anyone from following their religion. If politicians wish to pray about their duties I don’t have a problem with that, but like  the councillor who recently won a court case to prevent prayer from being incorporated in the official agenda of council meetings, I believe that it should happen outside of the official government process. I believe that laws which impose a religious belief on us are a bad thing. I do not believe that government should impose any religious beliefs about who may marry who, or allow discrimination based on sexuality or any other attribute. I wish that religious politicians would not try to impose their morality on other people but instead stick to ensuring equality and justice for all.

For people who are raised in a religious environment there is unlikely to be any difference between their opinions formed through their upbringing and those that spring from their religion and so even if they wanted to, they could not separate the two. In any case, we cannot ask that people’s opinions are not shaped by their religion as to do so is to deny freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and freedom of expression which are all basic human rights. We must be allowed to think and believe freely. In a democracy people from any viewpoint should have the right to stand for election and to represent their voters if elected. Since we cannot prevent religion from shaping people’s opinions, the only way to oppose bad policies is to elect people of a different viewpoint and out-vote the policy. Of course in some cases this is impossible, such as in the case of Anglican bishops with a place in the House of Lords. I do not believe that bishops should have an automatic right to be in the House of Lords, but then it is not democratic anyway and the whole thing needs reform.

It is common to see people oppose a policy because the politician behind it is religious. I think this is disingenuous. Bad policy should be opposed because it is bad policy, not because of where it came from. If the only reason behind a policy is religion with no other factors then yes by all means oppose it on that basis, but if a Christian politician proposes a policy that you disagree with but has reasons other than their faith, attack the reasons and not their faith. To attack a policy merely because the politician behind it is religious is a bad argument and based on bigotry not reason.

 

Jesus and Mo

Click here if you want to see an image of Mohamed

(By clicking you agree that you want to see it.)

Yes, I have, on this server, an image from Jesus and Mo. I don’t particularly care for the comic, and I don’t like the artwork. However, I have put this picture here for one reason. This week, a 17 year old was forced to remove this image from his Facebook profile by his school in Cardiff. He put it there in solidarity with The Atheist, Secular, and Humanist Society at University College London, who were themselves forced to take it down from their Facebook page by their university.

In reaction to Rhys having this image on Facebook, he was directly harassed by people at his school and threatened with violence.

Let me make this clear. Not everyone is a Christian. Not everyone is a Muslim. People who aren’t part of a religion do not have to live by the rules of that religion. I can have a picture of Mohamed if I want (actually I can’t because no one knows what he looks like) because I am not a muslim.

More than that, people who are free to practice their religion and to say the things that they want to are only able to exercise this freedom because everyone else is. I can’t begin to express how stupid those people are that exercise their own freedom of speech to demand that someone else doesn’t have it. If you don’t like free speech, don’t use it.

Got it? No, I didn’t think so.

 

A message to a Christian relative

This was originally a private reply to a relative who tried very hard to get me to go to a Christian healing meeting. I have decided to reproduce it here so that everyone understands my thoughts on this.


As I am sure you understand if you have read my blog, the matter of who God may choose to heal or not, and the way in which Christians go about healing services is a very sore point that is a major cause of my realisation that God does not exist, which in turn is a big driver of my depression.

I realise that you want to help and that you are acting in the way that you think will help me. However, I ask you please do not involve me in anything to do with God or Christianity. I no longer believe that God exists and I have no intention of ever returning. I am trying to work through the resulting emotions in my own time and being asked to attend a healing service, or any prayers at all, just triggers depression and anger. I don’t mind you praying for me, I just don’t want to be involved with any prayer.

I am quite happy to chat about anything else and don’t want to push anyone away.

Thank you for caring.

From Christian to Atheist

I used to believe in God, up until about a year ago. My mother is Catholic and my father protestant so I was raised as a Catholic. I missed my chance at confirmation because of a house move, and so I was put forward for confirmation much later than normal. At the time I had some problems with the Catholic church and I had a hard time deciding whether I wanted to be a Catholic or a protestant. I was never in any doubt that I would remain a Christian though. In the end I chose to be confirmed into the Catholic church, partly on the basis that I could work to change the parts of it that I had a problem with. I was stupid to ever think that.

My parents were part of a Christian group that lived as a community all together in one set of buildings. This group prayed and ate together, and those that didn’t go out to work elsewhere would work within the group on their own farm or running a guest house and retreat centre. The Christians in this group were of many different denominations and all went to different churches on Sundays. As a result although I was a Catholic I was in contact with Christians of all denominations that were living and praying together, and had a faith that affected me every day in everything that I did.

At university I joined the Christian Union. In a very short space of time I was playing guitar for them and became a worship leader. (Someone who picks the songs, organises other musicians, and leads the congregation for the singing part of the service.) I ran into some problems with other Christians not believing that Catholics were Christians, but I defended my position well and continued to be accepted by the CU and to lead their worship.

I met a nice Christian girl who introduced me to other friends and took me to rock and goth clubs. (We later married.) I had no problem remaining a Christian while attending such things, and again was able to defend this to other Christians that thought it was not appropriate. In fact by attending those clubs while holding Christian beliefs and values, and by showing those beliefs without forcing them on anyone, I actually made a good impression for Christianity on many of my non-Christian friends. Whether or not the people I associated with and the music I listened to had a damaging effect on my faith, I don’t know. But I will admit that it reinforced in me the idea that people could be moral and caring without religion.

I really believed in God. I really believed that Jesus had died in my place as punishment for my sin. I honestly thought that the Holy Spirit came down to earth and guided me. One of the reasons was that I experienced different feelings during my prayer and worship. A worship session can take the mood and the feelings of a whole congregation and change them. A standard worship session would open with a prayer, then have a loud praise song or two, (or more) then perhaps a quieter song or two, and then a mix of prayer – maybe with background music, and quieter and more repentant songs. At the end there would be either a talk or sermon, or a couple of louder songs to wake everything up again. The whole process took me and others into “a state of worship” which I can’t describe. It was like a drug. It was an entirely different emotional state, one focussed on God but blissful and comforting.

How do I explain the other things that I previously took as evidence for God? I was what is called a Charismatic Catholic. Unlike many Catholics we prayed in tongues (Making sounds believed to be other languages to talk to God, called Glossolalia) and prophesied. (Spoke messages believed to be given to us by God.) I never heard an actual voice from God. After a time of prayer or singing I think my mind was in a state a bit like meditation and I would have thoughts that fitted a situation, so I would say them. Sometimes those thoughts matched a situation that I did not know about, and then that would be taken of confirmation that the message was from God. I now believe this to be similar to the way in which astrologers, mediums and fortune tellers extract information about someone through careful questions and then adjust their prophecy as it comes out until it makes someone respond thinking that it is a message for them. Except in the case of Christian prophecy, everyone does it to each other. I think that faith in what is happening leads to a doublethink that causes everyone there to accept each other’s prophecy while being able to fabricate one themselves and believe it to be God. Another form of this was in reading from the Bible until finding a verse or a chapter that had enough similarities to the current situation to apply. Sometimes this would take the form of opening the bible at random and picking a verse. Of course if it doesn’t apply then the reader quietly moves on to something else, so that the only random picks that we told to each other were the applicable ones. It looked like it worked.

Then there was healing. When injured or sick or just suffering from a headache we would pray for each other. It usually involved “laying on of hands” – placing hands on the person being prayed for while praying. For big problems that meant lots of people gathering round, placing hands on the person and praying. I saw people healed. Although what I actually saw was people say that they felt better. I now believe that to be a placebo effect, which is a lot stronger than you may think. I myself have prayed with people for a headache, or a stomach ache, or a sore thumb or something equally minor and seen them get up and get on with stuff, claiming to feel better.

I have always had a skeptical worldview, wanting to see evidence of things before I would believe them – except where Christianity was concerned. Over the last eleven years I got skeptical about more and more aspects of Christianity, and got more annoyed with people saying things that I thought were stupid up to the point where I began to think a lot of it was stupid. I realised that people would pick and choose which laws in the bible they wanted to apply. This isn’t entirely irrational, because Christians believe that after the coming of Jesus we entered a new covenant with God which replaced the old covenant – that previously in place between the Jews and God which required all the laws to be kept. This new covenant made the laws of the old testament of the bible obsolete. One specific example is that St Peter was told that he could eat pork which was previously forbidden. However, what happens is that some rules have been kept, like those on homosexuals, and others abandoned, like menstruating women staying away from everyone or people not going to the toilet inside the camp. (Hands up Christians who have an inside toilet!) This double standard on laws and rules is intensely annoying to me.

I remember some years ago going back to visit my parents and going to prayer meeting with them. People there were praying for several people who were long-term sick, and praying for healing. I knew that these people had been prayed for many times before. They were still ill. I didn’t like it, but I pushed the thought to one side and ignored it. There were also a few other things said which I disagreed with but I kept quiet and just decided to leave that out of my own faith. As I said, I started to get more and more skeptical about many beliefs and practices. I personally had a more stripped down core of faith which did not include things that I thought were stupid. I still had problems with the Catholic church, and I started going to an Elim church with my wife instead. This was also a lot more convenient and nicer to go to church together than to separate places. In 2009 we moved back to my parents hometown and at that point I never really went back to church because I couldn’t find one that I liked.

In 2010 I came across Boobquake. Boobquake was a joke experiment intended to make a point about religion. An imam in Iran had blamed an earthquake on women revealing too much. Jen Mcreight proposed on her blog, BlagHag, that women all over the world should wear low-cut tops on the same day to see if it made a statistical difference to the number of earthquakes. The idea quickly spread all over the world and made headlines everywhere. As a result of that story I started reading BlagHag. Jen writes mostly about skepticism, atheism, feminism, science and cool geeky stuff. From there I started to read other skeptic and atheist blogs, and realised that I was a skeptic.

In October I went a Catholic Conference – a weekend of prayer and worship. My parents were in charge of the music and I was helping, in spite of serious doubts about Christianity by now. For most of the weekend I attended the parts with music and went and sat in a different room for the talks and the prayer sessions. I was, to my surprise, actually able to engage with the music to worship properly, and reached that state of worship that I described earlier. Perhaps it was because I was making an effort in order to play the part that I had been asked to. But my absence for the other parts was noticed by other people and when questioned on it I simply answered that I was not in a spiritual state to cope with any of those parts right now. At the end of the conference there was a healing session. In that session the speaker spoke about healing and groups of people prayed with those who were sick and asked for healing. I was there at the start of the session for reasons that I can’t remember. (Perhaps I didn’t get out in time.) After just a few minutes I could not stand what was being said any more. I have been sick since late 2000. I heard (or misheard) several times through the years that those with enough faith would be healed. Christians close to me assure me that this is not what is taught in the bible or by the church but that hasn’t stopped others from saying it. My parents suffer, one from severe spinal problems and one with diabetes and complications of that, and they have not been healed, even though I know of no one with a stronger faith than them. One of my sisters has suffered from ME for even longer than I have and has still not been healed.

I walked out of that room. I discovered that I wasn’t the only one, either. Several other people had left that session and I broke down in the rest room as I talked to other people, and I admitted that I was struggling to believe. I still wanted to believe – I intended to read some important books and to re-examine my faith. Then, though, I attended the final session of that conference at the request of my mum. In that session the speaker talked about St Therese of Lisieux. He talked about how Therese was so sick that she could not get out of bed and could not eat except for communion bread. He talked about how she would wait to hear of someone who did not accept God, and then she would “suffer for them” until they accepted God. She believed that her pain was for those people. I just could not accept that a loving God would either cause this woman to suffer for other people, or accept her dedication of suffering to these people.

In November I had to have surgery and spend several weeks in bed for the second time that year. Before I had even recovered from my surgery I got flu. Twice. That kept me in bed most of the time from then until Christmas. I think it was some time around this stage that I started to become depressed. Towards the end of November I wrestled with the existence of God after an argument in some circles that skeptics had to be atheists. I concluded that I was uncertain of the existence of God, and I stated that it was causing me problems. By Christmas Eve I had become very depressed and as I was on a train to stay with family I had my netbook with me but no internet access and so I decided to write. I wrote something which contained as many grievances with Christianity as I could think of at that point and I declared that I was no longer a Christian. In my horrible depression, I posted that article on my blog late on Christmas Eve, not thinking about anyone else and certainly not what it would do to my family. I am sorry to say that I upset my mum horribly and I am sure that I upset others too. I am so sorry that I ruined their Christmas.

In losing my faith I had lost something so deeply embedded in my life that the only thing I can compare it to is the possibility of being abandoned by my wife of eleven years, or of her death. I fell apart that night. I became suicidal. That night it was about -17c outside and I intended to go outside and freeze to death. I completely intended to die, so as to avoid (I thought) being abandoned by my family because of my lack of faith and so as to avoid the loss that I felt at no longer believing in God. I honestly don’t know how I did not go through with it but I somehow survived that Christmas and spent most of it hiding in my bedroom, leaving others to assume that I was ill.

Since Christmas I have tried my hardest to avoid thinking about it all. On a few occasions when I have tried to revisit my loss of faith or talk about it I have ended up in severe depression again. I still feel the loss, of feeling a connection with God, of being able to pray, and most of all of being able to worship with music. I have thought that perhaps I should try to pray and sing to God anyway, but I have changed from agnostic to atheist. I cannot make myself pray when I no longer believe that anyone is there to hear it. I have always had a black-and-white attitude to everything, and if I believe that there is no God then I cannot become a hypocrite and pray to one anyway, no matter how much I want to. I envy those with faith now. I think they are deluded to believe in God, but that belief is such a comfort and a hope for them that perhaps it is worth being deluded. But I can’t do that.

Doctors who evangelise

The Telegraph recently reported on a story about a doctor who is in trouble for talking about religion with one of his patients. The story is here – GP rapped for talking about God with patient. According to the Telegraph, Dr Scott shared his faith with thousands of patients in the past because he believes that there is a spiritual element to healing.

People visiting an NHS doctor are expecting to see just that, a doctor of medicine, a general practitioner who will diagnose the problem and prescribe conventional western medicine. They are not expecting prayer or to be referred to an alpha course. They didn’t choose to go to a faith healer, just as they didn’t choose to go to a homeopath or seek out traditional Chinese medicine. A person is of course free to choose those treatments if they so wish, but the point at which they are already talking to a doctor is not, in my opinion, the time to bring it up. A patient talking to a doctor is vulnerable and suffering, and may not make rational choices as a result. Since there is a trust relationship between patient and doctor, if a doctor suggests a treatment that is not within the bounds expected, that trust is violated.

The General Medical Council has said “Our guidance, which all doctors must follow, is clear. Doctors should not normally discuss their personal beliefs with patients unless those beliefs are directly relevant to the patient’s care.” Perhaps surprisingly, I believe the GMC to be wrong. I do not think that the GMC has any right to say that no doctor should ever talk to his patients about God. What I do think is that the NHS doctors should refrain from introducing any religion into the treatment. (Or anything that isn’t medicine, come to that.)

In the case of Dr Scott, it was not completely obvious that there would be a religious aspect to the treatment. In their defence, the practice stated three things:

  • The name of the GP practice, Bethesda, is a biblical reference.
  • There were Christian posters on the wall of the practice.
  • The NHS web page for the Bethesda practice states “The 6 Partners are all practising Christians from a variety of Churches and their faith guides the way in which they view their work and responsibilities to the patients and employees.  The Partners feel that the offer of talking to you on spiritual matters is of great benefit.  If you do not wish this, that is your right and will not affect your medical care.  Please tell the doctor (or drop a note to the Practice Manager) if you do not wish to speak on matters of faith.

Unfortunately, none of these reasons are adequate. The name of the surgery, Bethesda, may be obviously a bible reference, but that is only obvious to Christians. The website states that spiritual advice might be given, but even in the modern age most people would not visit the website of their doctor before visiting. Finally, although there were Christian posters on the wall of the surgery, a patient absorbed in their problems might not read or take in such posters, or might easily look down throughout their visit and miss them. In addition, someone looking for an NHS doctor would simply enquire about the nearest doctor with space on their books. An NHS helpline would happily send patients to the Bethesda doctors without anyone being aware of their religious aspects. Basically, unless the patient was read a statement informing them that they would receive Christian prayer and referrals and asked to agree to it, I would not count the surgery as having obtained proper consent.

I believe that an NHS doctor would be wrong to pray with a patient or to refer them to a religious organisation because that treatment is not within the remit of the NHS and is not funded by the NHS. An NHS doctor would certainly be wrong to introduce these treatments without consent obtained at a time when the patient is able to make an informed choice. Despite this, I disagree with the GMC in their statement that doctors may never discuss religious beliefs. If a privately funded doctor in a practice which clearly advertises their religious aspects and obtains the proper consent shares their faith with a patient, I think they are within their rights to do so. As long as the patient has had to make a conscious choice to visit that doctor while fully aware of the religious aspect, there is no problem. Because of this, I think the GMC should modify their guidance and should drop this case, but also that the doctors at the Bethesda practice must cease to offer religious treatment unless they no longer accept NHS funding and obtain full consent in advance of registration.

Is this ever justified?

Letter threatening expulsion from church over sin. Click to enlarge.

This letter made an appearance on imgur and reddit. It makes no reference to what the sin might be, although the thread on reddit is titled “Woman received letter from her church when they found out about her divorce.” The original copy on imgur is now gone and the person that submitted it to reddit has deleted their account. Remorse, or pressure? Who knows.

Why faith?

Just in case you didn’t know, a few weeks ago I arrived at a decision that I would no longer call myself a Christian. I wrote a long, angry, ill-timed article about it which I won’t link here as I don’t wish to offend any more people. I am sure that you can find it if you really want to read it.

My decision might have seemed like an ill-informed snap decision to many. It wasn’t. I have been forming opinions in this direction for perhaps two years, with elements from further back. Some recent events were the final trigger that set off all that had been building up and I made my choice.

It has been pointed out to me that a lot of my reasons for not being a Christian are actually only reasons to reject organised religion. Well yes. I am particularly scathing of many things done by the Catholic church, and I stopped being a Catholic several years ago and started attending an Elim church. Many bad things are done by protestant Christians too. I know that Christians of all types have done good things, usually without any other motive but too often there are bad things carried along with that. Particular ideas, expectations and judgements that all but negate the good stuff. I won’t even go into the stuff done by morons like Westborough Baptist Church or Abortion Clinic protesters. I don’t think they are even Christians by any definition except their own.

Leaving aside my rejection of religion itself, what about God? I said in my earlier article that I would remain agnostic and open to persuasion rather than become an atheist. That is the problem though. Persuasion. To be persuaded, I need evidence, and Christianity is designed around not giving me any. I don’t dispute that Jesus existed. There is plenty of historical evidence for that. What I find so frustrating is the insistence that I must rely on faith alone and that I shouldn’t need evidence.

Some people at this point would point at Lewis’s trilemma as evidence. It really isn’t, I can assure you. Here is what C.S. Lewis said:

“Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable.”

I have often seen the above quote paraphrased as “Jesus was either mad, bad, or God.” I see no reason to pick God out of those answers.

Faith is a virtue. Why?

Johns gospel tells us about Thomas who was not with the other disciples when Jesus first visited them after his death, and refused to believe it without evidence. Chapter 20 verse 29 goes on to say “Then Jesus told him: Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

I do not understand the logic here. Why is it better to have faith without evidence? It seems to me like a recipe for believing anything and everything.

I cannot bring myself to believe in God without evidence. As I said a few months ago in when I wrote about skepticism, I am critical of those things that are harmful and are without reason or logic or even counter to such ideas. Scientology, homeopathy, promotion of anti-vaccine ideas, denying climate change, and more. But how can I criticise all those and not be critical of faith in God? All we have to go on are some historical figures and a lot of feelings and personal revelation. Very strong personal revelation, but still personal and can’t be replicated in controlled observed conditions.

If God is real and wants us to know about him and to worship him, why doesn’t he show himself to us today? And I mean physical manifestation, not personal revelation. Two thousand years is a long time to go without new evidence, and it’s long enough to cast doubt on the reliability of old evidence. So why faith? What is wrong with evidence?

Why I am no longer a Christian

This blog post is angry, shouty, incoherent and out of order. It is going to upset a lot of people. If you are one of them, I’m sorry. If you can’t handle my personal rant without hating me, please don’t read this.

Continue reading “Why I am no longer a Christian”