Tag Archives: religion

A liberal case for why it’s OK to believe in creationism

Sat with a group of Ugandans, I found out most did not believe in evolution – in addition, most of them were also medical professionals and all but one (that I know of) are strongly religious.

The above constitute three facts ascertained through a couple of conversations. Facts which must be contextualized with another three statements: All of then are lovely people – they are all highly intelligent, well educated and I have a lot of respect for each of them.

None of this though stops me being slightly astonished that so many dismiss so easily the idea of Darwinian evolution (most hadn’t heard of Darwin). This was, for me at least, surprising.

If my face told of surprise though, it paled into insignificance with their jaws on the floor response to my assertion that I didn’t think there was a God (although of course I could never prove this) and that I thought some of the teachings in the bible were, at best, highly unpleasant.

A meekly worded statement in comparison to Dawkins’ comparable assertion in his book, ‘The God Delusion’:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” 

Unlike many of Dawkins’ conversations with the strongly religious though, my conversation ended in good spirits. Importantly, I think we all came away from the conversation with a slightly more accurate understanding of the diversity of human thought. Even if I thought they were wrong and vice-versa.

However much I talk of the improbability of God, I cannot nor should not escape the importance of religion to both other people and societal structures here in Uganda and across the world.

This is a conclusion which is almost universal in its applicability.

In the UK, according to one poll, half of my fellow countrymen do not believe in evolution with one in five preferring the theory of creationism or intelligent design. When engaging, talking and debating them I have to be aware of their thoughts for the sake of friendships but also for the sake of open discussion and debate (something that I hold to be incredibly important).

There is a time and place for the Dawkins battering ram approach but I have rarely found it useful in my day to day life.

I think it important to acknowledge that humans are inundated with irrational beliefs and as such perform irrational actions. What sets religiosity apart however is the scope and impact it holds on contemporary society.

When I buy bottled beers because I think they taste nicer than in a can (although there is no evidence to support this) I am not hurting anyone or anything other than my bank balance.

Sadly, religion in too many of its current manifestations fail J.S. Mill’s basic harm principle – you can do (think) what you want as long as it doesn’t harm others.

Most people who are Christian – including most of my colleagues – would consider themselves on the positive side of J.S Mill’s basic harm principle and this is true for as long as you adhere to one basic liberal principle – your religion is your private affair, not your families, not your neighbours and not societies as a whole. It is there to be discussed and respected but not inflicted onto others.

This thought is contradictory though to the teachings of most institutionalised forms of religion who throughout history have bound themselves up interchangeably with power structures (monarchs, governments, schools etc etc).

If someone doesn’t believe in evolution, so be it – what harm is caused? If a school teaches creationism though, the harm to the children is clear – they are growing up learning in an atmosphere where scientific evidence is considered secondary to belief.

Worse still, if a religion teaches someone is a lesser person for their personal thoughts or feelings then it can actively encourages division and hatred – as commonly manifested throughout history.

If you want to believe a collection of (and again I quote Dawkins) “chaotically cobbled-together…disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and ‘improved’ by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries” then so be it – for as long as you don’t take those beliefs outside of your personal sphere.

The question is though; can you believe in the bible in an absolute sense without it impacting on others? Would the slave trade still exist if people took Exodus 21:7 too seriously? Or would we just of shrunk this global atrocity to an inter-regional one following the advice of Leviticus 25:44. Should we be putting to death anyone who works on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2)?

I cannot help but to conclude that only a highly selective relativistic understanding of the bible is compatible with many modern morals.

The belief in creationism flies in the face of modern science but, as far as I can see, the belief in itself doesn’t hurt anyone.

But the foundation on which this belief is often based – the absolute truth in a religious script or idea – is deeply problematic.  It is this belief that then spawns related problems – the teaching of children misinformation and the inability to debate because you believe in an absolute truth…to give just two examples.

People can think what they want, we all do. Belief isn’t the problem but the basis for beliefs and the actions it spurs is.

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Filed under Religion, Uganda

Reflections from Israel & Palestine – “this is not what religion is about”

This article was written by my partner Anya Whiteside.

‘Somehow’ I say to Steve with sweat dripping off my nose  ‘I kind of understand the old testament God in this landscape’. We are scaling the spectacularly arid mountains next to the dead sea, unwisely enacting the phrase ‘only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’. We are in the desert and the sun beats down on nothing but dust and rock and below us the dead sea shimmers blue in a landscape of reds, violent ocres and browns.

I have always struggled to understand the old testament God, capable of sending plagues and striking down disbelievers. I have also always wondered how my Christian friends reconcile this with the loving and forgiving  God that they seem to relate to. As we walk I think how it must be easier though to understand a God of judgement and violent retribution when surrounded by such an extreme landscape than it is when walking through the gentle English pastures.

During my week-long visit in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories I found it hard to escape the violent edge of religion.

In Jerusalem Abu Mohammed served us falafel before asking ‘why are you here? People like you should just go home to your own country’. I asked him if he thought that there would be more violence if all the internationals went home? He responded, ‘Of course but this is the only way to sort this out – it will be the biggest war between the Arabs and the Jews  and there will be much killing, but at the end we will know who God wants to be on the land’. I explain to Abu Muhammad that I do not agree that an apocalyptic battle with mass slaughter is the only way to get peace and he smiles, ‘ah but you must study the Quran more and then you will know. Even the Jews know this – it is God’s will’.

Religious intolerance and violence though only made up a small part of my time in Israel/oPT.

I went with the EAPPI accompaniers to monitor the Friday prayers in Silwan, the so-called roughest and most dangerous part of Jerusalem. The men prayed in the street and the sound floated up to us as we watched from the slopes above, keeping one eye on the Israeli Army on the rooftops nearby. Afterwards one of the men approached the EAPPI observers and said, ‘thank you, thank you for always being here for the prayers’.

I met Michael in Hebron. He was an Israeli from near Tel Aviv who was taking months out of his life to travel around Israel and learn about ‘his country’ and his deeply-felt religion. There were many things we disagreed on from politics to theology, but as we stood looking at a street with a foot high wall running down it separating Palestinians on one side and Israelis on the other we agreed that this is not what religion should be about. Something, at the very least, I hope everyone from all religions can agree on.

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Filed under Human rights, Middle East, Religion

Islam and Human Rights

The media doesn't always help!

When you think of religion and human rights, the mind wonders to conflict, religious wars and extremism. Religion and human rights are often presented as dualistic, secular and religious. I think that this is unhelpful and ultimately detrimental to both religion and human rights.

The potential antagonism that sits between Islam and human rights is a media favourite. In the UK we never hear of human rights being discussed in a religious sense, and equally never hear about Islam in a positive sense (let alone in relation to upholding human rights standards).

If we cannot show that Islam and human rights are reconcilable, then we alienate millions around the world and fail to realise the potential universalism of human rights. Equally, if you fail to acknowledge the role of human rights within religion then you leave your institutionalised faith open to abuse. You leave yourself open to men who use the faith for the most despicable acts. Religious discourse feels itself with absolutism, so why not a human dignity/rights discourse?

There is no shortage of examples where an interpretation of Islam can be seen to be in violation of what we consider to be our human rights. The persecution women of all classes suffered under the Taliban in Afghanistan, honour crimes in Kuwait, Stoning to death for having no marital sex in Nigeria, marital rape not being recognised as an issue in Syria etc and the list could go on. In a few countries religious freedoms are violated with capital punishment available for apostates from Islam; these include Iran, Sudan and Saudi Arabia. The widespread and controversial issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) is still justified by many under religious grounds. It is clear that for some, Islam acts as justification for some heinous acts. In the same light, Christianity and other world religions can act as justification for these terrible acts.

I would argue therefore, we have a responsibly to put forward positive arguments to how Islam (and perhaps more widely religion in general) and human rights can be reconciled.

The academic Biedfelt suggests there are a number of ways a Muslim might square their passion for human rights with their religious belief. These vary from  ‘Islamisation’ which is the belief that Sharia, by its divine nature represents human rights and human dignity; through to ‘Political secularism’ that suggests it is right to remove religion from power politics as the Quran offers no advice in governance. This would suggest that Islam acts as a guide for individuals but not governments.

What Bielefeldt’s analysis clearly illustrates is that there is no such thing as an “Islamic” understanding of human rights. Islam is lucid and is based on individual interpretations (as are all religions).

It is clear that the two variables here, Islam and human rights can both be interpreted and changed to fit into either partly antagonistic or partly supportive understandings of Islam or human rights. There is nothing inherent about any antagonism or overlap.

I am under no illusion that Islam is often used to justify the most heinous actions. In the same way Christianity can be or a plethora of secular ideologies are.

It strikes me that Islam is no more predisposed than any other faith to be compatible with or antagonistic towards human rights. It has the potential to be supportive. It is essential that human rights theorists take a serious look at how human rights fits with the different world religions, because if you do not you risk alienating billions of people around the world whose primary moral compass is religion.

Equally, if religious leaders arrogantly dismiss human rights as a modern secular discourse; they run the risk of removing a moral core from their faith and leaving it open to abuse through misinterpretation and human fallibility.

This article was adapted from the my thesis Human Rights and Religion: A case study of Christianity

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Filed under Human rights, Religion

David Cameron has to move beyond words when calling for Christians to be “welcoming” and “accepting” of homosexuals

This article was originally published in OUT Bristol magazine.

Cameron has to move beyond words

David Cameron has moved his party on leaps and bounds from its deeply homophobic past.  Yet, when he calls for Christians to be “tolerant” and “welcoming” in light of a recent adoption ruling, we all know that he is referring to some within his own party.  For Cameron, Christianity will be one of the major battle grounds where his vision of an inclusive form of Conservatism is contested. He has to prove that he has at least thought about how the two can be reconciled otherwise his words are just that – words!

British politics has a very recent and very bleak history in relation to homophobia which still frames the current debate. Throughout the 1987 election campaign, the Conservative party campaigned on a heavily homophobic stance with election posters having slogans such as ‘Young, Gay and Proud…Labour’s idea for good education for your children’.  Outrageous in our eyes – a good election strategy for the late 1980’s Tories! I won’t mention the scandal that broke just before the May 2010 election in relation to Mr Grayling (current Minister for Work and Pensions)!

It was only in 1994 that our enlightened leaders chose to legalize “sodomy”.  The very word “sodomy” holds long rooted biblical significance coming from the wildly misquoted story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Too often, the LGB community roles over and accepts that Christianity and Homosexuality are incompatible. I believe it essential to tackle such ideas.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah was a story that aimed to highlight the morality around hospitality; the sexual undertones are minor, if there at all. The argument goes that Lot was giving hospitality to an unknown stranger, and the men of the city gathered to ‘know’ who this stranger was. The argument that this can be understood in term of homosexual relations is weak; to imply that God destroyed Sodom for this reason is weaker still. This story is also later referred to by Jesus (Matthew 10:14 15) where he implies the story has more to do with hospitality that homosexuality. He said “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. 15 Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town”.  

The status of hospitality over sexual morality is highlighted by the fact that when Jericho was destroyed by the Lord, the one person spared was a prostitute, despite prostitution being prohibited (Leviticus 19:29), because she offered hospitality. It would suggest therefore that the “homosexual” understanding of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has more to do with modern and post-modernist understandings of sexual morality than it does with the story itself, which is based predominantly around hospitality. If we did choose to understand it in relation to sexual morality we have trouble explaining the climax of the story with Lot being seduced by his two daughters.

This does not stop homophobic politicians using Christianity to hide behind to avoid facing up to their own prejudices.

If Cameron really wants to win over the LGB community, I would like to see him engage the Christian community on these difficult issues rather than lazily accepting the out-dated discourse that Christians can be homophobes because the bible tells them so.  At the very least we have to understand these attitudes as a subjective understanding of Christianity.

Should the state be there to lazily force Christians to be “tolerant”? I suggest only as a last resort. Before that it should be the politician’s responsibility to argue and persuade people of these views.  Maybe this is why we have experienced such a harsh backlash from many within the Christian community.

Therefore this piece finishes with a fun challenge.  Write to Mr Cameron asking him how he thinks his “deep rooted Christian beliefs” fit with his open belief in sexual equality. Does he think they are compatible?

I think they are, but it would be good to hear the leader of our country say so.

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Filed under History, Politics, Religion, sexuality

A three step plan to restore the credibilty of the Catholic Church

The Pope needs to step up and lead on human rights

In relation to the ongoing child abuse scandals coming out of the Catholic church, why has the Pope not fulfilled his obligation by reporting to the UN bodies implementing the Conventions against Torture and on the Rights of the Child? The Holy See is responsible to ensure that Catholic officials cooperate fully with any investigations and that the churches records are opened up.  It appears that this is yet to be done.

Just as the Pope has been a leading light against the death penalty, poverty and climate change; so we look to the Vatican for positive progressive leadership on all human rights issues.  This has to include tackling the on-going child abuse scandals. 

Here is a three step guide for the Pope to fulfil:

1) Seek considerable reparations for the children who have suffered at the hands of Catholic priests and offer an unconditional apology on behalf of the church.

2) Take all reasonable steps to ensure no child is abused within the church again by ensuring that all perpetrators are bought to justice.  This has to be done in conjunction with international bodies that are responsible for the protection of children.  Internal investigations are not adequate.

3) Open up all internal documentation that might assist the investigation.

These are not radical demands.  If the Pope fails to do any of these three points then people will continue to question the Church as a whole.  The Pope needs to lead the Catholic Church into its rightful place which is at the forefront of social justice movements standing up for the rights of all people.  Ordinary Catholics need to demand this of their leadership.  Until this happens all the positive teachings of the Catholic Church will be over shadowed.

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Filed under Human rights, Religion