Comment: Bouma blames atheism for sectarian intolerance

According to The Age newspaper online ”Monash University Professor Gary Bouma says people without a specific faith are fuelling sectarian conflict and cause division in society.” He essentially blames atheists, treated as one homogeneous group, for saying that theists are stupid and also saying that religious discourse should be driven out of the public space. As always with these silly generalisations, some do and many do not, especially when 1.1 billion people world-wide are estimated to espouse some form of religious non-belief .

Even with espousing anti-religious comments, atheists can hardly be held responsible for different religious groups fighting amongst themselves. History shows otherwise. Over the last 1500 years, during the dominance of Abrahamic religions, faiths have claimed exclusive access to God and salvation and condemned others as heretical and deserving eradication. A compounding feature of Christianity and Islam has been their insatiable desire for new converts. The resulting religious fervour fueled conflict and violence as European history will attest. During most of this time atheist views, as total non-belief, were rarely openly expressed: very few people held them and the personal repercussions were too serious for open dissent – death, imprisonment, social isolation, and job loss.

How about church behaviour today? Many Western churches are more tolerant, reflecting broader social trends rather than changes to sacred texts, essentially unchanged over 1500 years. But despite these improvements, church intolerance still persists, unacceptable to our wider social values. Apostasy, the crime of leaving the faith, can still be punished by death, imprisonment, and forced social and family separation in different parts of the world. “But that’s not in Australia.”  Many Australian religious officials openly discriminate against fellow human beings on the basis of their sexuality. Christian theology sees unacceptable sexual practices as ‘sinful’. They will reject homosexuals participating in religious services as well as leading services; women are excluded from positions of religious authority; and unmarried woman with children are barred from church administration. Our broader society in Australia is thankfully more progressive and humane than those churches. All this seems highly hypocritical when the Christian faith professes Jesus as the founder, a Jesus ascribed with progressive messages of acceptance.

So what is Bouma’s problem with atheist criticism of religions, particularly of Christian churches? There is another possibility. Churches have limited social and political privileges to protect them with external criticism, exceptional for the churches’ history. The Catholic church learnt an early valuable lesson with its appointment as the official religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine after being treated as a marginised and despised religious sect. Church leaders realised they needed the support of the political regimes, no matter how oppressive, to ensure their on-going survival. Never again would the orthodox Christian religion – Catholic or Protestant – be an outsider of power. The plight of the poor, though important, comes second to the church’s survival to provide salvation and redemption for all. Our secular society creates an intractable barrier for religions seeking to impose their faith on others, no state sponsorship. Church apologists, like Bouma, will have to live with criticism – even strident criticism – of the veracity of their underlying beliefs as well as their practices. Unfortunately for atheists, though, special privileges still exist: tax-free statuses and exempted discriminary employment practices some to mind. We can only keep agitating no how much it irritates the faithful.

Alex McCullie

News: Catholics are hurting

My dad enjoyed boxing. He used to described in colourful ways previous boxing champions and their personal stories outside of the ring. I took an interest as it meant common ground for both of us. One surprise for me was his saying that an opponent smiling was one in a lot of pain, presumably to hide his anguish.

I read an opinion piece in The Age, Melbourne Australia, by Greg Craven and understand what Dad meant. It’s a boostful, sarcastic attack on “the new hobby atheist is as brash, noisy and confident as a cheap electric kettle” by the vice cancellor of a local Catholic university. Craven equates this group of atheists to a new plague of blowflies or something fictitious from biblical Egypt.

The Roman Catholic Church is apparently a particularly popular target. Is it the endless cover-ups of priestly child abuse around the world? No. Is the use of misleading scare campaigns against the use of condoms to fight HIV infections in Africa? Is the historical distorting of the evolution science message in Catholic schools and communities? Is the selective application of healthcare driven by theology ahead of humanity? Is it the discrimination of women and homosexuals from positions of power within the church? It is none of these: apparently its because the church is big and, unlike their protestant bretheren, they actually believe in something. Craven sees the media as full of Christian attacks as today’s modern blood-sport.

I shall give Greg Craven the closing words:

At the bottom, of course, lies hate. I am not quite clear why our modern crop of atheists hates Christians, as opposed to ignoring or even politely dismissing them, but they very clearly do. There is nothing clever, witty or funny about hate.

Alex McCullie

News: Catholic Church – Doctrine First

Too much good social work and not enough hard-core religious doctrine may be the sins of US Catholic nuns. According to Associated Press, the Vatican has authorised a postolic visitation (sounds ominous) to investigate any straying from the orthodoxy. Simply to tell the nuns to spend more time with scripture and less with the needly sounds good for humanity! Read the full article here.

Alex McCullie

News: Church and the Sin of Homosexuality

Unacceptable sex - any sexual activity outside of a religiously-based heterosexual marriage – is always a struggle for the churches. Homosexuality presents particular problems and acceptance is rarely the solution. The Age newspaper has the story of a gay woman’s visit to a Grace and Sexuality Conference at the Wesley Mission to address sexual problems associated with same sex attraction.

The tone from the Living Ministry is set with:

Brookman (Ron Brookman head of ministry) goes on to explain that God’s image can only be displayed on earth when male and female come together in sexual union within the context of monogamous heterosexual marriage. Anything outside is a sin.

“Desire is powerful, which is why God has given boundaries,” he asserts. “If boundaries were kept there would be no such thing as sexually transmitted diseases … there is no such thing as casual sex … the power of intimacy and sex is a foreshadow of what awaits us in heaven.”

Fortunately the “cure” of homosexuality is simple

Homosexuality is a “handicap” but healing our “brokenness” is as simple as “yielding our lives to Jesus”, he adds.

(Full article here)

Alex McCullie

News: Liberal Christian Message for Christmas

Dr Francis Macnab is the controversial Executive Minister of St Michael’s Uniting Church in Melbourne, Australia who regularly questions the existence of God. In his Christmas message (YouTube link) Macnab refers to the nativity story of Jesus as legend.

Alex McCullie

News: Billy Connolly: Church Brainwashes People

I find it [the Catholic Church] primitive and frightening. I find the whole child molestation on an international scale a disgrace that should be a United Nations cause. So I have deep distrust and dislike of the Catholic Church and any other organisation that brainwashes people.”
(Comedian Billy Connolly on More4 programme Shrink Rap)

Quoted on the National Secular Society website UK

Alex McCullie

News: Roman Catholic Church and Gays Don’t Mix

Ireland’s Roman Catholic Church wants to appeal against new legislation that provides legal recognition for homosexual partnerships. According to

Cardinal Sean Brady said that as “marriage and the family are of public interest,” it was appropriate for the Church to intervene. (full article 5 Nov 2008)

To me public interest means that the church has every right to make its voice known like any other organisation or individual. Presumably by intervene the church leaders see that they are more equal that others to comment.

Alex McCullie

News: Testing the Vatican – Gays and Divorcees are not good

According to a recent Pink news article the Vatican has rejected two candidates for French ambassador – one gay and one divorced.

Alex McCullie

Comment: Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences

Discover magazine article How To Teach Science to the Pope 18-Aug-2008 describes the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the testy (at times) relationship between the Academy’s independence and church doctrine. One example was over the need for population control promoted by the Academy that was contrary to the church’s opposition to birth control and contraception. (See article 16-Jun-1994) From the 1994 article Cardinal Clancy makes a particularly instructive remark showing how religious leaders react to being challenged.

Edward Cardinal Clancy of Sydney, Australia, said that in cases of perceived conflict between the church and scientists, “the question mark must rather be raised over what’s being said in the name of science.”

The Discover article highlights some interesting aspects of science and religion.

First, I think science is often misrepresented as conducted by robot-like white coated scientists who are devoid of feelings and concerns about people. Nothing could be further from the truth. Often they are very passsionate about their work and the potential benefits for humanity. However the important aspect, though, is that they work in accordance with accepted methods that have proved very successful at generating reliable information. Speculation – reasoned and superstitious – can be very much part of religion and philosophy. On the other hand science attempts to minimised speculation and human wishful thinking by making hypotheses, conclusions and research data in some way empirically-based.

Second, “scientism” is an easy catch-call when scientific research and discoveries threaten firmly-held religious beliefs and dogmas. Heliocentic view of Earth, Theory of Evolution and Neuroscience are providing convincing support for a physicalist view of humans and our world. Religious leaders often react in two different ways. Some deny all scientific achievements that contradict their sacred texts. The Earth was created 6000 years ago and evolution is the work of Satan. While others dramatically re-interpret scriptures to be more science-friendly and evolution-friendly. However “scientism” still comes out of the cupboard whenever the religious feel threatened. Our society has an almost automatic assumption that religious people, who are often just purveyors of their particular religious beliefs and dogma, are somehow more qualified to talk about human well-being than anyone else. Thoughtful scientists, philosophers, religious leaders, politicians and others should all be assessed on the merits of their comments and expertise regardless of whether they are the Dali Lama or the Pope or the local priest or a Nobel prize winning biologist.

Third, a common retort to critics of religious belief is that they attacked an old-fashion version of God. Typically these religious thinkers present a very attenuated version of God that seems devoid of the classic theist properties – all powerful, ever present, all loving, interested in humans and interventionist. That is until we talk specifics. Most religious leaders still believe miracles happen – temporary suspension of all natural laws by a divine being to use Hume’s definition. Some though place an upper limit of numbers otherwise our lives would be unpredictable. Thank you for small mercies.

The Discover article quotes Father Rafael Martínez, the STOQ program director at Holy Cross.

Martínez explains that while rare, miracles are still plausible. “Our world is a very complex world in which chaos and uncertainty have a big part… but the odds are one in many terabillions,” he says. “That would be not a problem in my point of view because this event would be guided in a way without contradicting natural laws.

It doesn’t get fluffier than that – if not contradicting natural laws so why is it a miracle? It is hard to know what to make of miracles from scientifically aware believers. They need miracles to demonstrate the validity of their religion. But claiming too many exposes them to being shown to have natural causes or worse not even happening at all. To a critic it is also interesting that most “real” miracles seem to have occurred in more primitive times prior to the advent of modern science. A cynic might suppose that God is shier today than 2000 years ago or, perhaps, He does not exist at all.

Finally, religious thinkers on one hand use a very nebulous, non-invasive, loving version of God to defend His existence and to criticise atheists as attacking a “straw man”. Then in the next breath many firm up supporting very restrictive religious rules on human behaviour such as a prohibition of contraception even if demonstrated to help reduce HIV infection.

Alex McCullie