Religious Crackpot of the Month, May 2008

This hasn’t been a great couple of weeks for Christianity in Britain. We learned that the Church of England is suffering because young people aren’t interested and the people who are are dying of old age, and we learned that Cliff Richard has decided to pitch in to help, presumably because he is almost uniquely placed to sympathise with that plight. His contribution is to publish a book of his favourite Bible stories, including the story of how God killed everyone in the world except for one family and then regretted it, the story of how God murdered all the innocent first-born sons in Egypt despite having “hardened the Pharaoh’s heart” to ensure he wouldn’t release the slaves, the story of how God masterminds and helps with the genocide in Jericho, the story of Solomon, who was granted wisdom and then went off to worship someone else, and the story of how God had his own son tortured to death to “pay for” sins committed by other people according to rules God devised in the first place. I can see how that will help.

Also trying to help is the Church Army, who want to hook youngsters into the faith by analogising it to Doctor Who. They point out the many similarities between the Doctor and Jesus, and the storylines in the show and in the Bible. And there are many similarities, although frankly almost every single one of them is pathetic. They say

The Tardis was considered to represent a Church by being an ordinary object that points to something higher while the Doctor was likened to Christ in his willingness to sacrifice himself for others.

What? You could liken The Brittas Empire to the Bible if you’re willing to go that far.

My favourite Christian reference is the kenotic storyline in the episode called ‘The Chameleon Arch’, which is a machine that takes away all the Doctor’s powers and renders him human. It is a clear nod towards Philippians 2.6-11, where the incarnation is described as God ‘emptying himself’.

Not all that clear, I’m afraid. I thought that was a sub-par and rather silly bit of technobabble which had to be tolerated to tell what was, in the event, a damn good story. A story which, incidentally, really didn’t bear more than a passing resemblance to Jesus’.

We saw the Doctor persuaded to save a family of Pompeians in one of the most recent episodes, surely a reference to Genesis and Abraham’s bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.

I’m not at all sure it is a reference to that. It’s just a good dramatic theme. Nobody should read anything into the fact that it’s come up more than once. You might equally well argue that the fact that Biblical themes can be independently rewritten by a gay atheist suggests that they’re made up. Besides which, there’s shitloads of Bible and rather a lot of Doctor Who. Certainly there are parallels – but that just makes it more pathetic that these people are using such crap examples.

I don’t really know if Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor (as if that’s a real name) was tryong to help when he made a terribly dull speech entitled “Faith In Britain: A Personal Perspective”, which is buried somewhere on this webpage that’s sufficiently poorly designed that I can’t link directly to it. This is from the same lecture series as the previous winner’s speech. He says, for example, in this speech that

Only a modern person would think that religion is a private matter, something the individual does in his or her solitude

which presumably makes Jesus a “modern person”, since Matthew 6:6 says

But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

I don’t mind that, of course. Ignorance of what the Bible says is what keeps Christianity going. What annoyed me was this bit:

I would want to encourage people of faith to regard those without faith with deep esteem because the hidden God is active in their lives as well as in the lives of those who believe.

He must be very well hidden.

Why can’t he “encourage people of faith to regard those without faith with deep esteem” because we’re smart enough to reject nonsense even when it surrounds us? Because we’ve managed to develop morality without been spoon-fed it by a book of made up rules? Because we’ve got enough confidence in our convictions to go against the flow and stand up for what we don’t believe in? If a Christian were to tell me that they regard me with deep esteem because of something God did, I would find that patronising and offensive, and I’d say so.

He also says this:

What did we do to generate unbelief? We spoke too easily about God, we spoke perhaps in the wrong way and we treated God as an idea rather than a living mystery to be approached in silence and prayer rather than in the arguments of the mind. If Christianity gave European thought the impression that God can be conceptually determined and pinned down and proved as a hypothesis, then it is hardly surprising that there has been resistance, as science and culture have developed, to worshipping this idea of God. We as Christians need to examine what we might have done to give people a misleading view of God. Faith in Britain might be improved by a deeper grasp of the mystery of God on the part of believers.

Now, I may have got the wrong end of the stick here, but to me that reads “whatever you think God is like, you’re wrong. He’s not like that, nor is he like anything else in particular, because he’s fundamentally mysterious and can’t be pinned down or rigorously defined. Of course, that doesn’t stop him existing and it doesn’t stop us knowing how he feels about gay people and stem cells.” If that is what he means, then he’s a moron.

It’s for largely this reason that I’m not sure Religious Crackpot of the Month is really viable any more. I think clearly all these people require recognition, but they can’t have it because it was this month that I read

The primary cause of unhappiness in Britain is not lack of material wealth but a loss of faith in God and religion, a group of MPs says today.

Apparently, there’s a report out by a group of all of five MPs who

argue that if values related to relationships, responsibility, trust, self-esteem and potential ’“ all with their roots in the Judeo-Christian beliefs that once underpinned Western legislative philosophy ’“ were to have greater emphasis in society, everyone’s wellbeing would improve.

So I did what I always do: I found the report. It turns out that the document, called “Faith In The Future” (the same pun, you’ll note, as the government used for their document), is available from a group called Theos, and it is to Theos that I award this month’s Religious Crackpot trophy.

Theos seem to be quite large and well established. They have a website that looks very professional (although it is in fact crap – it doesn’t even have an RSS feed), and describe themselves as

a public theology think tank which exists to undertake research and provide commentary on social and political arrangements. It aims to impact public opinion about the role of Christianity in society.

They go on to say

It was launched in November 2006 with the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor.

You probably know what I think of those endorsements.

Its first report "Doing God": A Future for Faith in the Public Square examined the reasons why faith will play an increasingly significant role in public life.

They call themselves a “think tank”, although that’s a bit rich unless you count quoting the Bible as ‘thinking’. Really, they’re just a load of antidisestablishmentarianists hell-bent on reversing the work done since the Enlightenment in secularising society:

what Theos stands for Society is embarking on a process of de-secularisation. Interest in spirituality is increasing across Western culture. Faith is on the agenda of both government and the media. In the arts, humanities and social sciences there are important intellectual developments currently taking place around questions of values and identity. Theos speaks into this new context. Our perspective is that faith is not just important for human flourishing and the renewal of society, but that society can only truly flourish if faith is given the space to do so. We reject notions of a sacred-secular divide.

And they’ve released quite a lot of frankly rather impenetrable literature about how secularism is bad, but they don’t really understand what it is. They can’t really tell it from atheism:

We can, though, at least make some assumptions. In a seriously secular country, the vast majority of people wouldn't believe in God, however vaguely. Few would claim to belong to a religious group. And nobody would pray. What would be the point?

No. It’s entirely possible to be religious and secularist at the same time. Take this speech by Barack Obama (which I’ve copied from Dwindling in Unbelief):

We all know the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his only son, and without argument, he takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God has commanded. Of course, in the end God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute, and Abraham passes God's test of devotion. But it's fair to say that if any of us leaving this church saw Abraham on a roof of a building raising his knife, we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason.

Theos can publish all the inane sophistry they like, but the bottom line is that God doesn’t exist and even people who think he does can’t agree (in the case of Murphy-O’Connor, even with themselves) what he’s like or what he wants, and even those who feel they have a clear idea of both of these things can’t offer even the slightest shred of evidence or indeed any good reason to listen to them. So until Theos can prove that God exists, they will remain a sectarian group of crackpots trying to further Christianity’s already excessive influence on British politics.

And that’s just not on.