[image from https://www.instapainting.com/requests/56455ed390f1f8204b8b45c7]
In this post I want to offer a short definition of the word ‘Theism’. I think I am some sort of theist, but I find that most of what is written on the wikipedia page for this word is quite alien to me. It says there that theism is “the belief in the existence of …” where for the dots you can put some sort of entity called a ‘deity’. But that is not how it works in my experience, and that is not how a lot of careful thinkers and writers have expressed it. The thoughtful theist does not consider that there is another ‘thing’ to be added to the set of all things, after one has exhausted what there is in the physical universe. It might seem like that, but I find it to be more subtle and hard to describe. The one Whom we learn to encounter is not ‘another thing’ but that which makes all things possible. As I say, it is rather subtle and quite open-ended.
The attitude I am promoting in this blog is to admit that what passes for “religion” in the world is a mixed bag, some of it bad, terrible; some of it good, wonderful. It runs to both extremes (and so does atheism). I have also offered other words as a help to get at what “religion” is meant to be about. I have offered the word “reconnection”, for example, which I got from Brian McLaren’s helpful book, “Naked Spirituality”. My own favourite word for it is “recognition”. You can see a longer definition on the Home page of this blog.
In this post I want to comment on the practice of demonizing religion. To “demonize” is to portray as wicked or threatening, and the term is especially appropriate when this is done thoughtlessly or automatically, as if it is an agreed thing.
[The above image is from the BBC website, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06phcqv]
This week I watched the latest episode of Dr Who. It was an episode called “The Zygon Inversion”, written by Steven Moffat and Peter Harness. The climactic scene was thought-provoking, and I am quoting it here. Dr Who is a science fiction series, so it is loosely connected to the science theme of this blog, and I will explain the connection to faith at the end.
The scene is very well played by Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman. Capaldi is in the role of the Doctor, trying to persuade the alien (Zygon) called “Bonnie” (played by Jenna Coleman) not to launch on all-out attack on the human population. In the middle we hear briefly from a human character called Kate (Jemma Redgrave).
Here is the script, picking up with the Doctor speaking: Continue reading
image: Prayer by Graham Dean, see http://paintingandframe.com/prints/graham_dean_prayer-8947.html
We have to abandon all claims to know, and opt instead for the choice of seeking to learn, admitting that we have much to learn, and humble enough to allow that seeking to learn can include, yes, simply asking.
I have not posted for a couple of weeks because I was ruminating on what to say. There are a variety of issues I could write about, but I decided in the end to present, in an informal way, some general thoughts on theism, world-views, atheism, faith, science and religion.
What this blog advocates is a broadly positive stance on both science and that aspect of human life which is about refusing materialism and scientism, in favour of a richer notion of what may be said to be true and real. That lengthy expression refers, broadly, to what has often been called “religion”, but I have been cautious about the use of that word in this blog, because of all the obvious dangers and abuses that often accompany religion. I think that there is both good religion and bad religion, and in the end what I want to do in the blog is not about religion as such, but about encouraging one another to realize and live out the most complete expression of what human life is, whatever that may be.
Added note. This is a note added for readers in the Oxford area.
I am giving a lecture at Headington Baptist Church on 12 September. Doors open at 7:30pm; talk from 8:00pm, with questions and discussion afterwards. The subject is basically the theme of this blog and my book of the same name. The venue is the church building at 78 Old High Street, Headington, Oxford OX3 9HW; click here for a map.
Reading New Scientist magazine this week I came across a statement I very much like:
“Mathematics is not as much about finding proofs as it is about finding concepts.”
[image from https://mexicoinstitute.files.wordpress.com/ 2013/03/folk-art-community.jpg]
Particles in the universe come in two types, named bosons and fermions, after Satyendra Nath Bose and Enrico Fermi (“boson” is pronounced with a long ‘o’ and a hard ‘z’, to rhyme with “goes on”). Bosons include things like photons (particles of light), which can be absorbed or emitted in large quantities. Fermions include things like electrons and protons which form the building-blocks of matter. The chief distinguishing characteristic of these different types of particle is that bosons can congregate together in the same region of space and state of motion, all moving along together. Fermions, by contrast, only ever exist one at a time in any given place and state of motion. Photons in a laser beam are an example of bosons gathered together in the same motion. Electrons in different orbitals in atoms are an example of fermions avoiding one another. This leads to the fact that atoms with different numbers of electrons behave differently, which is the basis of chemistry.
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
A. E. Housman (1859–1936)
from A Shropshire Lad (1896) by A. E. Housman (1859–1936). (copyright policy)
“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
― Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995)
This widely quoted paragraph is the subject of this essay. I am mostly concerned with the last sentence, but let me first briefly comment on the opening that builds up the dramatic power. When you read the comment on suffering, it seems at first like a valid observation, one that “sees through” the “illusion” of the goodness of the world to all the harshness of “the truth of things”. But think a little. If you had to write a couple of sentences in which you tried to capture a fair portrait of what happens in the natural world during the minute it takes to compose a sentence, would this be the portrait? Of course not. The suffering is not to be set aside, but it is less than half the story of most life, and it is less than half the story of life on Earth. Are all the careful, sympathetic and fulfilling studies presented by naturalists such as Sir David Attenborough just some sort of rose-tinted spectacles and wishful thinking? No. Go and look in your garden, or in the forest, or the jungle, or in the river, or the ocean, or on the African plain. Is it the case that starvation and misery is the “natural state” of affairs? Or are they part of a natural state of affairs which has here been grossly miss-represented?
I will be speaking next Monday (23rd Feb) in Birmingham at an event called “Can Christianity Help Science Improve the World”, alongside Peter Atkins. The event is organised jointly by Christians in Science Birmingham and the University of Birmingham’s Atheist Secular and Humanist society. Arts lecture theatre, 7pm-9pm.
The following are some reflections on Soil and Soil.
Alastair McIntosh’s Soil and Soul (Aurum Press 2001) defies the normal categories of writing. It is political and spiritual at the same time. How do you do that? McIntosh shows the way. He is driven by concern for social justice, and also by the feeling that yes, for goodness’ sake, we are spiritual creatures and are allowed to sing. We are allowed to do dumb things like take our boots off in order to enact physically our recognition of the holiness of place. This does not negate, but rather empowers the crucial exercise of getting facts straight and getting objectivity in view. Also it does not negate but rather empowers the otherwise dull drudgery of writing to an M.P. or organising a petition or getting permission to address a public enquiry.