The myth of religious values re-heated for easter

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No, really. I had resolved to lay off religion during easter, and I battled manfully for 3 and a bit days, but this morning I just had to release the pressure.

I ignored the lame ‘message of easter’ type articles, in which heads of various churches make excuses for god, and specifically why he/she allowed (or caused) the various disasters around the world to happen.

For example, in one particularly silly piece of justification (in this article), Wayne Alcorn, National President, Australian Christian Churches, said:

”Through this heartache, good people went to great lengths to comfort and assist others in their time of need. Yet God has gone to even greater lengths.’

Yes, the disasters were good for you, because they brought out your helpful side. But no matter how well you did, god went one better. Presumably, he means he died for you. Although, it must be said, it was a short death, and he was up and around on the monday, having missed only a weekend and foregone that round of golf and lunch with the rellies. As that other great prophet of our times said, I should be so lucky.

In another deep an meaningful piece of drivel in that same article, Melbourne’s Anglican Archbishop, Dr Philip Freier, says:

”When we encounter such destructive natural forces and elemental power, which can make our human efforts at building a world of stability and comfort look feeble, we naturally ask, where is God? Nothing, not tsunami, or earthquake, or flood, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

More vacuous incantations from the book of justifications. To me, this is almost like a threat. If I I understand the point here, god is presumably wanting to reinforce how feeble we are next to him and his works, and remind us that we had better stay close, because we really don’t want him as an enemy.

This article by Barney Zwartz continues the theme of human suffering, and how it can be justified from a theological standpoint. To Barney’s credit, this is an interesting and thoughtful piece, comparing and contrasting a range of views on suffering – go read it. The article quotes a number of views, including this nutty section by philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, who displays huge insight and intellect by saying:

“… that suffering is ”deep down at the centre of things, deep down where the meaning is. Suffering is the meaning of our world. For Love is the meaning. And Love suffers. The tears of God are the meaning of history.”

Huh? Surely he’s having us on. If anyone understands this – please write in.

Barney also quotes another philosopher, who thinks he’s solved the contradiction between god’s love and god allowing suffering. Bruce Langtry, an evangelical Christian, argues as follows:

“God is under no particular or absolute duty to prevent earthquakes. It is not the earthquake that matters but the suffering it causes. If the question is suffering, then that includes any cause, not just earthquakes. But if God ruled out all suffering he would also destroy human freedom and responsibility.

So, Bruce’s point would appear to be, if god prevented any suffering, then he would need to prevent it all, and if he prevented it all that would impact on our freedom (to do dumb things I guess). However, while this seems superficially plausible (if you accept the underlying premise of a God that is!), why does it need to be all or nothing? Does god work in binary, and suffering can only be 0 or 1? Why, for example, couldn’t he rule out suffering which he caused through natural means (e.g. like earthquakes), and leave us to suffer when we bring it on ourselves? This seemingly simple variation on the argument demonstrates how flimsy the arguments can be, and by a ‘philosophers’ no less.

Anyway, the foregoing is about all the bits I ignored. Back to the main point, and the article that broke my resolve. Philip Freier can’t help himself, and this time he had to connect easter to the need to indoctrinate children with religion – and you know how that gets me going. Just the title was like waving a red rag at a bull. (As a side note, did you know that the saying ‘like a bull in a china shop’ is completely unfounded? The Myth Busters tested it out – allowing two bulls to run around amongst some wonky shelving stacked precariously with china. The bulls were very careful to avoid any contact with the shelves – and it was fascinating viewing. Just thought the bulls could do with some positive press.)

Anyhow, back to Philip.

He starts off the entire article with that old canard “The values on which our society is built have been largely shaped by Christianity”. I don’t disagree that Christianity has influenced society, but I strongly disagree that society’s values have been shaped by that influence. Indeed, in some cases, our society’s values are such as they are despite the influence of Christianity.

Following his ill-premised train of logic, Philip says that:

Such values include compassion for the poor and the marginalised, justice for all regardless of power and status, forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace. These are the values which were powerfully embodied in the life of Jesus, and which make a society truly great.

But did you notice the sleight of hand here? The selective choice of values? There is an inconvenient truth implied in his carefully chosen words: Let’s claim all the good bits, and blame the devil or the weakness of humans for the other bits.

What about greed, as embodied in the untold wealth of the Vatican while people in various parts of the world starve? What about cruelty, as per all of those poor souls who were tortured during the Inquisition? What about hypocrisy, as those guilty of the rape of children are protected? And what about outright deception, as religion peddles lies about miracles which serve only to fortify its position of power and wealth? To name but a few. Are these the values we wish to teach our children as well?

I’m repeatedly amused by the this steadfast belief that the stories from the bible somehow have a magical teaching property. Philip claims that:

Not to be familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan, for example – one of the stories students are introduced to in the religious education program – would deprive us of its insights into the human condition, and our ways of perceiving and relating to one another.

Wow, that story sure is powerful. Just to recap – guy gets beaten up, is ignored by a priest and one of his own kind, but is helped by a stranger from the other tribe. Well, I see your lame allegory, and raise you a real life tale of inspirational dimensions:

In 1956, at the Australian National Athletics Championships, the gun fires for the 1500 metres race. About half way, Ron Clarke has his heels clipped by another runner, and falls. John Landy famously stops, doubles back, helps Clarke to his feet, and continues to win the race. (There is a bronze statue commemorating this moment on the lawns adjacent to Olympic Park in Melbourne.)

Now, isn’t that at least as inspiring a story to tell our children? And remarkably, there is no need to invoke any magical agency. Landy did the selfless thing, to help a competitor. We can elevate this to parable status by pointing out that he still went on to win the race.

While I could spend hours dissecting Phil’s article, I want to wrap this up by looking at his conclusion:

There are some alarming signals that all is not well with our children. Depression and mental illness are on the rise among the young. There has been a fourfold increase in depression among young people in the past 30 years in this country, with an estimated 100,000 young people now suffering depression.

We do them no favours by denying them access to knowledge which can give their lives meaning, purpose, value and hope.

Is he serious? Making a connection between godlessness and mental illness is just cruel and insensitive. What is your evidence for this provocative statement Philip? I bet you have NONE. NIL. ZIP. SQUAT. While you cunningly avoid a direct connection between the two, your implication is clear. I say put up or shut up, and let the professionals get on with looking after our young, while you focus on your fantasy world. After all, the church’s track record with our young is nothing to crow about.

Here endeth the sermon.

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3 thoughts on “The myth of religious values re-heated for easter

    Blamer .. said:
    April 25, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    Great post, RB.

    A summary of what wikipedia has to say about that “Christian values” buzzword…

    The term Christian values historically refers to the values found in the teachings of Jesus.

    * worship of God
    * fidelity in marriage
    * renunciation of worldly goods
    * renunciation of violence
    * forgiveness of sins
    * unconditional love

    Today, in the 21st century used by conservative political groups:

    * censorship of sexual content
    * laws against induced abortion
    * sexual abstinence outside of marriage
    * intelligent design to be taught in public schools
    * laws against the acceptance of homosexuality
    * re-instituting faculty-led prayer in taxpayer-funded schools

    […] recently wrote about the justifications for disasters and misery perpetuated by religious apologists, and how lame they […]

    […] for absolute morality to exist. See my earlier discussions on this topic, and especially here and here, and numerous articles on religion in […]

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