Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Special pleading

I went to a church service service on Sunday. Don't worry, I haven't accepted Jesus into my life or anything like that. I'm just due to be married in this parish and went along to hear the banns being read out (nobody spoke up to declare any cause or just impediment why these persons shouldn't be joined together in Holy Matrimony, which was both a relief and, simultaneously, strangely disappointing - apparently objections hardly ever happen these days). Listening to the sermon was moderately interesting, but also reminded me of just how unconvincing and unnecessarily convoluted organised religion sounds to an outsider.

The sermon was based on a question that had apparently come up in a recent Bible study group; namely why did the resurrected Jesus only appear to a small group of followers, rather than making a high-profile comeback in  a public place, which would have left nobody in any doubt that he definitely had risen from the dead? I thought that the rhetorical answer would be the usual explanation about how much better it is to have unquestioning faith than to demand empirical proof.

In fact, the rector took a slightly different angle and suggested that Jesus' enemies were so determined to discredit him that there would have been no point in him appearing to a multitude. The authorities would have simply declared him an impostor and used spin and propaganda to discredit the story of his return from the dead. Obviously, he said all of this at greater length, but I've tried to reproduce the gist of his argument without distortion.

I suppose it's a slightly more original theory than I'd expected, but it's hardly a satisfying explanation. Quite apart from begging the central question of whether Jesus really did die and rise again (if this unlikely event didn't really happen, then Jesus' post-mortem actions require no explanation), I'd have thought that this interpretation seriously underestimates the power and influence of the Son of God as described in the Bible.

The standard explanation - that God and his offspring could do absolutely anything, but they simply choose not to go around manifesting themselves and performing miracles most of the time, in order to test our faith - is unsatisfying in its own way, but it's at least got some sort of internal logic.

The idea that Jesus decided not to advertise his resurrection except to a small band of followers, because he feared that a few establishment spin doctors might convince everybody else to disbelieve the evidence of their own eyes and ears, sounds even more dodgy to me.

God can do absolutely anything, remember? If the Romans, or the Pharisees, or the Sadducees, or whoever, wanted to deny Him, that shouldn't have presented any problem at all for the influential partnership of Deity and Son. Surely, it would take more than a denial from Pilate or the Sanhedrin to stop God from being heard, assuming that He wanted humankind to sit up and listen? And Jesus is supposed to be God's son. Seriously, his dad is way tougher than your dad. With family connections like that, if He really wanted to make something happen, it would have happened.

Imagine that Jesus had reappeared to lots of people, because He wanted them to see and believe, but a few Very Important People started shouting 'imposter!' The deniers would have looked pretty stupid when the creator of the universe (who can do absolutely anything), trumped them by (for example) burning a message into the sky, in fiery letters a mile high, that scrolled across the heavens and read thusly:

People of Earth, your attention please. This is your Creator speaking. That guy down there really is my son, the one you just had killed. Now - just when you thought it was safe to go back to the Temple - He's back! You didn't expect that, did you?  But don't worry - He's a good boy and He's prepared to let bygones be bygones and give you all another chance. Listen carefully to what He tells you and do your best to follow His instructions, then you, too, could enjoy eternal life in paradise. The alternative is more unpleasant than you could possibly imagine (and also lasts for ever).

Now, is there anybody out there who STILL doesn't believe me? I would advise you all to think very carefully before replying.

An audio version of this message will follow, for people with reading difficulties, (the visually impaired should be able to read this for themselves, now that I've miraculously restored their sight).

If that doesn't impress you, He could have pulled off any other kind of astounding, utterly convincing miracle you care to imagine, just to put the matter beyond doubt. Because He can do absolutely anything, remember? Or are we now supposed to fall back on the old default explanation for God's failure to perform independently verifiable miracles (neatly summed up in that concise theological handbook, The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, as 'I refuse to prove that I exist, for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing')?

I think it's the complex, laboured and far-fetched explanations for, and interpretations of, events that probably never happened in the first place that irritate me most about religion. I'm reminded of the time somebody lent me a book by some ex-copper who was convinced that the world was in the grip of a massive international conspiracy to cover up the fact that extraterrestrial UFOs were visiting our planet on a regular basis (which would, admittedly, be way cool, if true). One of the early chapters focused on the "Kalahari UFO crash," (the alleged shooting down of an alien spacecraft by a South African Air Force jet, back in 1989).

What intrigued me was that the author acknowledged that the account of the crash he'd read was riddled with errors and inconsistencies. At this point, when most reasonable people would have concluded that it was an entertaining yarn, but also clearly a load of old cobblers, he did something quite interesting. He asked a rhetorical question. Why was his source so unreliable? The answer, he concluded, was that his source must have introduced deliberate errors and inconsistencies into his account of a real event because he was covering something up - probably the full extent of his knowledge of the conspiracy. The simple, obvious conclusion, that such errors and inconsistencies would be exactly what you'd expect from a made up story about a wildly improbable event, was dismissed in a line or so.

This mode of thinking is strikingly similar to the sort of exegesis and commentary you get in the popular mainstream religions. There's an important difference, though; UFO believers are generally dismissed as cranky anoraks with a weird obsession, whereas we're supposed to "respect" religious beliefs, however improbable, treat their adherents and spokespeople as serious authorities with something profound to teach the rest of us and allow their views to influence public policy. We see faith-based pressure groups and institutions all over the place, something that must irritate the hell out of devout UFOlogists who must be wondering why there's no Tony Blair UFO Foundation, or sectarian schools set up to promote and defend the faith and values of UFOlogy (although, given the fashionable proliferation of educational "choice" as represented by "Academy" and "Free" schools, maybe it's only a matter of time).

Contrast the obscure, circular reasoning behind all those professions of faith, and of belief in incredible things, with the simple, lucid sanity of this short declaration of impiety:

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

The quote is of uncertain origin, but is often attributed to Marcus Aurelius.* Thomas Jefferson put it almost as well:

Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear. 

If its message was just about living a good life, I'd have no problem with Christianity. Unfortunately the God of Abraham and his boy Jesus also demand that their followers believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast, live in fear of their loving father's capricious whims and respect Deity and Son's exclusive monopoly of salvation rights:

Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me

Exodus 20:5

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

John 14:6

I don't know about you, but that sort of belligerent defensiveness makes me suspicious. It's the same reaction I have if I question something that sounds unlikely and get an aggressive 'are you calling me a liar?' for an answer, as opposed to a reasonable explanation of why the unlikely-sounding thing in question really is the case.

I'm beginning to think that if more people actually paid close attention to what they were being told in church, congregations would be even smaller - to paraphrase somebody or other, any sufficiently devout faith is indistinguishable from inattention.

* Hat tip to the Holy Blasphemy site, which uses this quotation for a strap line


Meridian said...

"You cannot use reason to argue someone out a position that they didn't reason themselves into" - or whatever the exact quote is. Although my personal favourite comment from the god-botherers when you catch them out is: "We cannot know God's purpose". Usually this occurs soon after they've spent ten minutes telling me God's purpose.