Stand up for reason!
JAMES MERRYWEATHER has a cunning plan to challenge all that baloney spouted in the name of religion. (This article appeared in the June 2009 issue.)
IF YOU ever attend church or listen to religious broadcasts you will be all too aware how much utter drivel is spoken by all present. Congregations – who seem to be unable to function unless they have reassigned all personal authority to a dictatorial leader – corporately chant muddled, meaningless, self-contradictory prayers, scriptures, versicles and responses.
The words of the hymns they sing without a thought are frequently appalling nonsense: “Ye worms of earth arise, ye creatures of the day” or “Where are ye all, ye virgins wise, The bridegroom comes in sight, Raise high your torches bright” or “Crown him with many crowns, the lamb upon the throne”. A trinity should need only three, not many. And what’s a lamb doing, sitting on the throne? I thought He was supposed to be the shepherd.
The clergy – professional philosophers and carers who take upon themselves responsibility for the well-being and general sanity of their flocks – routinely utter, it seems without intellectual reference to what they are saying, the most awful rot. The Methodist minister presiding over my mother’s funeral certainly did. She opened her homily with the preposterous:
I believe in Heaven, and I believe our sister Lilian is in Heaven.
My brain was privately screaming:
Why do you have to say that? If it’s true, it’s true, and if it’s really true, then it doesn’t need you to say so because it will be blinkin’ obvious. But it’s neither true nor obvious, so you have to try to justify your irrational belief by saying it out loud in front of other people. Bah! Get on with it!
But of course I kept schtum.
Nobody interrupts, interrogates or contradicts the priest. I suppose I would have upset certain family members and Mum’s friends if I’d spoken my mind, and I’d have got a “James, really!” dig in the ribs from my sister. But our “caring pastor” presumed everybody would insipidly accept her daft monologue and didn’t give a damn about the intellectual dignity of those present who actually thought for themselves and might, for well thought-out reasons, not agree.
Priests generally don’t pull themselves up with a jolt of realisation that something they just said was really crass. The gullible faithful swallow it all without question and, anyway, they dare not contradict them, or even consider that they could. Codswallop, no matter how primitive, infantile or downright barmy, becomes truth if they just say it, denying it access to the brain.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
No it isn’t! Don’t be absurd. What has just been read is a snippet from an old foreign book that, because of some traditions you haven’t bothered to think about or contradict, you happen to hold sacred. The only reason to think it’s the word of the Lord is because it says so inside. Are you not embarrassed by such sloppy logic? If I were in your shoes I’d be mightily ashamed.
When non-believing philosophers point out the silliness of such behaviour they are reviled for stridency, disrespect, rudeness, even ignorance, which, the faithful could discover if they actually read the books of Russell, Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Grayling et al, properly if at all, is untrue. These authors just speak out frankly, presenting measured arguments, but some people simply don’t like what they say and their reactions are knee-jerk.
I have a cunning plan. We non-believers should unobtrusively infiltrate church congregations. Each time the vicar or minister or priest or pastor or preacher says something daft (as they surely will), we should muster our courage, raise a hand, be recognised, stand up and politely ask him or her to justify or explain it. Of course, the congregation will gasp at the effrontery of it. They will turn and stare in disbelief and outrage. But we must stand our ground and not be intimidated by the implicit demand that we should, like them, pay respect to the cloth through dumb, unquestioning silence.
Why should the clergy not take responsibility for what they say and do? They have got away with universal obedient respect for too long. They used to frighten or beat it into people, but now they don’t need to. As Daniel Dennett has shown in Breaking the Spell, many religious sects are self-propelling, with believers kow-towing habitually and voluntarily because of tradition: they do it because it’s what they do and only a general organising convener is required to maintain their ritualistic activities.
If what the clergy teach is correct, justifying it will present these trained professionals with no difficulties. If it’s not, shouldn’t they be exposed and obliged to retract their banal utterances? All other professionals have to defend the positions they take. The politician routinely confronts vigorous grilling from journalists and the electorate, the comedian must entertain his/her audience or be booed off the stage and the career of the scientist stands or falls on approval by squadrons of hypercritical peers.
The law is dependent upon the rigorous application of evidence and logical discussion to protect us from miscarriages of justice, and medicine fails if rigour is not applied at every stage in the research and application of drugs, surgery and even placebo treatment, and doctors who kill their patients are soon found out and kicked out.
But the church stands on a foundation of total baloney and not only gets away with it, but is applauded (silently, for clapping in church is a heinous transgression). Vicars can talk drivel and teach boloney and carry on regardless.
Though many of them are tireless carers for people (a calling for which religion is not a requirement), they can, if they choose, spend an entire career labelling their beetle collections or playing with model trains and declaiming gibberish in church one day a week. It can be an easy life and it’s a shameful state of affairs.
We often hear about the “moderate” church, which I suspect, doesn’t exist. There may be some deeply reflective theologians who take a moderate, modernistic view of their scriptures, but if you listen to, say, Sunday Worship on BBC Radio 4 with a critical ear you will soon discover the worshippers there take the Bible and the liturgy as literally as any fundamentalist.
They happily chant in chorus a load of top award-winning, twenty-four carat trumpery moonshine. They confidently claim to believe in the virgin birth and resurrection, both of which are biologically impossible, and accept the stories in the Bible as true narrative, rather than a self-contradictory, outmoded muddle of history, poetry, folklore, poor remembrance, ignorance and wishful thinking.
Children are habitually taught about the creation as described in Genesis by a Bronze Age desert tribesman who had no way of knowing what really happened, the story of naughty Adam and Eve and a talking serpent, and of a physically impossible world-wide flood that, if true (there are hundreds of simple arguments to show it is not), would turn scientific fact on its head.
They are told about a really nice man who convinced people he once walked across the surface of a lake, could apparently quell storms when he might actually have applied a little meteorological knowledge and perfect timing to the problem, and could do simple conjuring tricks that were reported, much later, by people who weren’t present, as miracles.
Rarely are children told that these stories are just stories, and of course, in many churches they are told emphatically that they are absolutely (“gospel”) true. Rarely are they encouraged to consider that, rather than being a bafffling mystery when Jesus apparently fed five thousand people on a few scraps of bread and fish, the point of the story might be that the generosity of a small boy shamed a selfish crowd into sharing the lunch they intended to keep for themselves, or that the story might not actually have been true but was a rather good morality fable.
Why is it so many children ask the adult-challenging question, “What’s a virgin?” How many worshippers really ponder upon the ghastliness of crucifixion, done by people to other people, and the unfeasibility of resurrection?
Why don’t they treat with healthy scepticism an Almighty God who, stretching his suspiciously human-like imagination, had to have himself, in the form of a man (or so it is written), horribly murdered in order to forgive us for a catalogue of unspecified sins allegedly committed by our fictitious ancestors? Why, if the teacher knows a lesson is based on dubious material, is there any point in teaching it, except perhaps for its literary or entertainment value? Much of what the clergy teach is plainly untrue.
We potential bold contradictors can pick on these apocrypha and many other inconsistencies (syn. nonsense), and challenge the vicar to clarify the truth of the matter, and if s/he can’t, s/he should be encouraged to talk about something more meaningful.
When the congregation is invited to recite the prayer Our Lord taught us, we should politely ask the vicar first to review Matthew 6: 5-9.
5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 6 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. 7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. 8 Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. 9 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name, etc.
That should stop him in his tracks.
If minister or Bible reader bleats on about the creation according to Genesis, take the side of evolution (first make sure you know the science, the Bible and creationist pseudoarguments). If he’s a moderate who has accepted the scientific fact but has mindlessly gone into biblical auto-run, he ought to be embarrassed when challenged and hopefully will pull himself together. If he’s a rabid creationist, prepare to enjoy a right old dingdong, but don’t get over excited.
Conduct yourself with dignity and stand firm but fair in the authority of knowledge, intellect and reason. Don’t argue. Let him do the talking. He’ll soon tie himself in knots or trot out nuggets of familiar creationist misinformation about evolution that you can then tackle with a swift academic blow. If you can counter his bogus version of evolution concisely and with authoritative confidence (it’s quite easy really because they have only a few pat items of utter codswallop) you can sustain your gentle interrogation.
Calmly but persistently ask questions to oblige him to deal with the science: “Why do you think that?” – “Is that what Darwin/Dawkins/Ridley says?” – “Are you certain that’s right?” as you reveal the established biological facts of which he has, inevitably, produced the usual false versions. But be prepared: even if you keep cool, the preacher and his flock might not and you could get thrown out. So why not have a press photographer in attendance?
Well, it’s a dream scenario and I’m not sure I have the courage to practise what I’ve just preached, well not on my own. Meanwhile, let us sing Hymn 666, “Stand Up, Stand Up For Reason”.