Sunday, October 16, 2011

If you can't beat 'em, dance naked with 'em at the Winter Solstice!

Atheists at play?
Maybe it's just me, but atheism of the Gnu variety has gotten a bit old.  You know what they're going to say about religion before they say it.  Religion is bigoted, irrational, intolerant, causes war, hypocricy, and taudry evangelical come-ons.  The moon would shine brighter, ravens would sing on key, deserts would blossom, and lapping waves threatening to inundate lowland South Sea islands would recede before our eyes, if only we could get rid of this horrible thing, of which we ourselves suffer no symptoms, called "religion." 

Such views are expressed with fervent sloganeering, often translated into graphic Anglo-Saxon and slighting references to the intellect of dissidents, on the most popular atheist web sites. 

One eventually tireds of such attacks, by people who seldom listen to contrary arguments (Myers has just banned me for making them on his site, after many curses from his disciples), the "Borg" blundering endlessly into the same ray guns but failing to adapt.  So to take a break from such silliness, and with nights lengthening as we move towards Halloween and the Winter Solstice, I would like to present the contrarian perspective of one Brian Barrington, an Irish atheist (I would like to say friend) with a sense of whimsy, and a refreshing ability to see value in what he rejects intellectually.  I think there's also sense to some (not all) of his comments, in some cases perhaps deeper than he recognizes as of yet. 

I'll let Brian's comments speak for themselves here, welcome comments from other posters, then give my own spin on them, as a student of world religions, in a later blog.
Gobekli Tepe in Turkey,
the world's oldest temple
AND community?
"Many if not most human beings have a profound and ineradicable yearning to be part of a genuine, officially sanctioned spiritual and religious community with shared rituals, customs and beliefs. These shared rituals need to be something that all the Community and all the Family participate in during the most important life-ceremonies surrounding birth, coming-of-age, marriage and death. This gives meaning and structure to people’s lives and gives them a sense of stability and belonging. People bound together like this feel grounded and they do not feel like isolated atoms. Today, this yearning is not easily satisfied in modern, individualistic societies. Consider the temples, cathedrals and mosques at the centre of ancient cities – these buildings were the visible expression of the collective hope and shared spiritual outlook of the people who lived there. The people who lived in these cities were part of real communities; but the people who live in our fractured and fragmented modern cities are not part of genuine communities – they are isolated atoms, at best clinging together in small, degraded cults. At the centres of our old cities, the temples existed beside the market-places – the temples testified to a higher human need than those of just the market place. But in our new modern cities there are only markets at the centre.

"In the modern world there is a kind of spiritual anarchy that leaves people at a loose end. People drift around from cult to cult, feeling vaguely lost. There is no officially sanctioned purpose or structure to life – people have to try and find their own meaning as best they can, and more often that not they fail to get very far with this. If every individual goes off and finds the cult that he likes best, then how can that provide a shared space where Communities and Families can act as one and experience being a unity? The centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Naked public square?
 "Why did this happen? Why was religion, so to speak, banished from the central square of human cities? How and why did this change come about? It happened because of the Modern or Enlightenment notion of the separation of “church” and “state” – the separation of religion from politics. The Enlightenment guarantees freedom of religious worship. The point of this project was to end religious intolerance, persecution and wars. Because of this, in Modern countries religion became a purely private matter – no particular religion can lay any public claim to the centre of our cities. Every religion has equal rights and none has a special claim. This freedom of religious worship is at the heart of modern societies. This arrangement has its benefits but it also has its problems (as outlined above). Is there any way around these problems? What, if anything can be done about this?

"The traditional organised religions are now dead or implausible to many – their rigid and dated doctrines often no longer suffice. There is no returning to their special, privileged status at the heart of the city, especially in our diverse, globalised, scientific societies. A multiplicity of established religions in different countries with competing claims also sets up lethal tribal and religious conflicts between various peoples which we can no longer afford. There is no going back. But trying to replace the old religions with “new religions” works even worse – such manufactured cults are contrived and ridiculous (at best, they are the religious equivalent of Esperanto) and have even less claim to be at the heart of the city. So what to do?

"The answer to the problem is quite simple in my view – the established, officially-sanctioned religion of modern society needs to be based on tradition, and not invented from scratch, and it needs to include the teachings of all the greatest and most influential prophets of human history. If this was done correctly it would not be superficial or artificial. The Scripture of this religion would be a compendium of the teachings and stories of the greatest prophets and educators of human history – Confucius, Laozi, Buddha, Mahavira, Socrates, Jesus, Muhammad and perhaps some others. Think what a wonderful book that would be! The most wonderful book in the world, containing the best of all that has been thought and said by the wisest most influential figures of human history. Beautiful, magnificent temples would be built in the centre of each city where everyone would go to worship and meditate together, get married, name their babies, be buried, and also learn the teachings of the great and wise prophets. This official religion needs to be a system of thought and stories with beliefs spanning monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, pantheism, monism, atheism, agnosticism, gnosticism and others. In other words, the established religion of all countries needs to be a modified and much expanded form of something like Hinduism, because Hinduism is like that. Nobody can claim that a religion with doctrines as diverse and tolerant as the one I have described above is impossible, for the simple reason that Hinduism IS such a religion, and it works, and its tradition is older and more enduring than that of any of the other existing great religions. In Hinduism there is no one principle founder or prophet, but a whole series of them, all co-existing. There is no fixed dogma, but a whole range of beliefs and traditions putting forward their claims from under the same umbrella. The religion for our globalised world needs to be something like this, but it needs to fully incorporate the teachings of the other great religions as well.

"Some people might worry that such a religion would be an incoherent jumble of all the existing religions, slightly modified. I merely reply: ALL of our existing great organised religions are already merely a jumble of numerous already existing religions, slightly modified. Christianity manages to incorporate the prophets and teachings of Judaism even though the two might appear to be in conflict. The Bible itself is the ultimate cobbled-together, incoherent jumble of a book. Islam manages to incorporate the prophets and teachings of both Judaism and Christianity even though they might appear to be in conflict. As already noted, Hinduism manages to incorporate a huge amount of apparently conflicting ideas and traditions from a massive pile of diverse teachers. The Chinese managed to synthesize Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The Japanese managed to synthesize Shintoism and Buddhism. In point of fact, all the great “traditional” religions are syntheses of other religions that evolved over time - they built on the best of the past and modified it as necessary."

"On the farm of one of my in-laws down in Longford in Ireland there is a six thousand year old dolmen. Every Winter Solstice I dance around it naked, festooned with wild flowers, to honour the gods of my forefathers. This dolmen stood in that field for thousands of years before that arriviste St. Patrick came to Ireland and introduced the teachings of Jesus to our small yet great nation. The pre-Christian world-view of pagan Ireland never completely died out, and still exists deep in Irish hearts, along with the Christian world-view. The Celtic Cross is the visible expression of this synthesis of the Pagan and the Christian in the Irish spirit – the Celtic Cross marries the principle symbol of Christianity with the pagan symbols of pre-Christian Ireland. The point is this: we Irish are both traditionally Pagans and traditionally Christians. The same is true of much or even all of Europe. Traditional European religious rituals and beliefs ARE a synthesis. Christmas, the most popular Christian holiday, comes from Yuletide, a pre-Christian pagan winter festival. Spiritual synthesis can and does happen in all sorts of contexts when it needs to happen, and it enriches all traditions when it does so. It happened in the past and it can happen again now and in the future. Our globalised world needs a new religious arrangement. It may take a few hundred years for the religious arrangement outlined above to come into existence, but (in my view at least) it needs to happen."


Crude said...

If I may ask, did Myers give a reason for barring you from the Cult of Gnu temple?

David B Marshall said...

Let's see. Over the several months during which I posted on Myer's site, several reasons why I should be banned were advanced. Of those that can be published here, "He's a moron" was most frequent. Others responded, "No, he's actually rather crafty -- he's a 'Liar for Jesus.'" (I felt sometimes that we were in danger of reprising C. S. Lewis' trillemma.) A few complained that I didn't back up my claims. Others complained that I did, by linking to counter-arguments on this site. Still others suspected me of trying to become stinking rich by selling my New Atheism book to the thronging masses of open-hearted atheists on the site, eager to see the light.

Myers himself weighed in from time to time with gnomic fatwas. He leaned towards the Moron Hypothesis, but later seemed relieved to pin me with promoting my website, instead. By this time, I was pretty happy to go along -- even a brick wall gets tired of having mud thrown at it, after a while. So he gave me an ultimatum, I linked to a full rebuttal of one of his lamer posts, and haven't checked the thread since, but find I can no longer post on the site.

All in all, I found the experience instructive, both amusing but also rather troubling. I am half tempted to write a paper on the fascinating religious sociology of the site.

Crude said...

I've been thinking of doing the same, actually. Only because of the title possibilities.

"A Heretic Among the Cultists of Gnu: An Up-Close Look at Online Atheist Culture".

Really, visit the comments sections of 3 popular Gnu websites and you have all the material you need.

Either way, thanks for the info. And I look forward to seeing your take on today's post too - given your perspective on non-Christian religions, this could be very interesting.

Brian Barrington said...

Cheers David - I'm delighted to be quoted at such length on your illustrious blog :-) Enjoy Asia. Brian

Joshua said...

The strange thing is that I just illustrated a cartoon last week about this very point. (Hope you don't mind that I post a link to it here, David. If you do, feel free to delete this comment. No harm.)

Interestingly, the comment section erupted with the very thing we've all noticed! :)

By the way, I even heard your name mentioned on a recent episode of Unbelievable? (2011/09/24 episode, I believe, near the end [listener e-mails])...

David B Marshall said...

Joshua: Thanks. Couldn't find the reference. I was on the show some years ago, and Justin has talked about having me back . . .