Religious Corroboration – Huhtikuism

280px-tas_native-henThe majority of beliefs I write about are relatively mainstream, but I recently stumbled upon the almost unknown Huhtiku belief system. This is a minor Scandanavian religion which went out of fashion over seven hundred years, so our limited knowledge of it relies on a few scraps of text and interpretation of artwork.

What is most notable about Huhtikuism is the claim that it was discovered by two separate groups of people, apparently before any contact had been made between them. As far as I know this is a unique claim – all other religions began in a particular part of the world from where they spread as believers traded or migrated.

Spirits within spirits

Huhtiku believers thought of every object, large or small, as being a spirit, or Tankero, with intentions and personality of its own. This belief stretches from seeds to areas of land or even the entire planet. The result is “overlapping” spirits, some within others, inhabiting the same physical space. So many rock spirits may be contained entirely in a mountain spirit which is within the spirit of the land. Some of the religious artwork looks like a complicated Venn Diagramme. The desires and movements of these spirits are said to account for all the intricate workings of nature.

The Huhtiku creation story is one of bizarre liberation. No one knows where these Tankero-spirits came from. However, at some time in the distant past before the physical world existed, they were uniform, no two different from each other.  The Tankero were unable to change form as they were confined in the bellies of Kaenna, which seem to be flightless birds, possibly chickens. They were only freed from this captivity when a savage fight broke out amongst their captors in which the all the Kaenna perished, freeing the Tankero.  Once released, they took on diverse physical forms and personalities as a way of expressing their new-found freedom.

Practices

As the Tankero are everywhere, Huhtiku teaches that it is very easy to offend one or more spirits with any simple action. Planting a seed requires thought of what the seed’s intention is; a rock should not be moved to a place that is unnatural for it. In spite of human efforts, Tankero are often offended and predictably this requires a ritual appeasement, usually by eating birds’ feet. Surely, a pretty unpleasant experience. Flightless birds are also treated with suspicion. To be injured whilst attempting to catch one is considered very unlucky.

Independently invented?

So was Hihtikuism actually discovered or invented independently in more than one place? Western anthropologists have long been aware that Huhtiku beliefs were widespread in Finland during the early middle ages, but it wasn’t until recently that a strikingly-similar belief system was discovered amongst indigenous Tazmanians. These beliefs date from a similar period in history and while Tazmania has no written records of it, numerous rock paintings have been found apparently depicting the Kaenna and Tankero creation story and the ritualistic consumption of birds’ feet. No oral tradition in Tasmania today is specific enough to be linked to Hihtikuism, but there are numerous superstitions around the hunting of the Tasmanian Native hen.

It seems highly unlikely that there could have been communication between medieval Tasmanians and Scandanavians, so what is the explanation for the similarity in their beliefs? For most believers this dual discovery would be a “holy grail” of confirmation that their beliefs came from an external, non-human source. Another possibility is coincidence. It is not unthinkable that two independent cultures could have invented similar creation stories and related practices. Whether or not a coincidence is plausible depends on exactly how detailed and similar the beliefs are. Unfortunately as the evidence is sparse we may never know the real story.

Contrasting Sikhism

The Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib) at night..

It occurred to me recently that I am embarrassingly ignorant of Sikhism – the world’s 5th largest religion. So I’ve been doing some homework to remedy this. Although I’ve never discussed religion with them, I’ve found the few Sikhs I’ve met to be modest, friendly and helpful. Reading their underlying values, this fits with the ideal view of Sikh philosophy.

Apart from my admitted laziness, my lack of knowledge may be because Sikhs are not evangelistic. This contrasts with other religions, most of which find some form of coercion or persuasion tactics necessary to keep their numbers up. In fact Sikhism seems to contrast with its theological cousins in a variety of ways. As it was established in India between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Sikh religion may be viewed partly as a reaction to its religious neighbours. According to Ninian Smart’s book of The World’s Religions, Sikhism’s first Guru, Nanak was a bit of a smarty-pants when it came to other religions:

On Nanak’s journey to Mecca he is reported to have fallen asleep in error with his feet pointing toward Mecca, and so showing disrespect to the Muslim faith. A mullah had woken him angrily, but Nanak’s comment was devastating: “Then turn my feet in a direction where God is not.

Sikhism and other religions

Contrasting with Hinduism, Sikhs believe in a single omnipotent god. However, this differs from Christianity, as the Sikh impression of god is impersonal, seemingly pantheistic.

In contrast with some aspects of Budhism, Sikhism advocates family life, working for a living and being part of the world rather than living as a hermit.

sikh_temple_manning_drive_300Unlike Christianity, Sikhs believe to some extent in the idea of Karma – actions having consequences – both now and in later lives. Sikhism says that belief alone is not what affects a person’s destiny.

Contrasting with Judaism, Sikhs do not believe they are a chosen people of god. Anyone, they say, can reach salvation. In fact they’re quite adamant that all people, male and female, are equal, which contrasts with Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and no doubt many others.

Unlike almost every modern religion and religious sect, Sikhism doesn’t have priests, mullahs, rabbis or any equivalent. Enlightenment and salvation are available to any individual with or without an authority to guide them.

Contrasting with Islam, Christianity and most others, Sihkism does not claim to be the only path to salvation. It does however claim to be the simplest. Here’s a line from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib the like of which you won’t find in many other religions,

“Do not say that the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran are false. Those who do not contemplate them are false.”

So I guess they’re all for comparative religion classes? Sounds good, but you can’t simultaneously believe the claims of contradictory holy books to be true. Interesting, worth reading, maybe. But they can’t actually all be true. Surely that is beyond the abilities of even the most devoutly religious mental gymnast? I’m wondering how they manage to mesh Karma and reincarnation with a pantheistic deity.

A (very) brief history of Sikhism

Sikhism began around the year 1500 in the Punjab region of Pakistan and India. The beliefs evolved over the next 200 years as ten sucessive gurus guided the faithful, after which the holy book, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, was declared the enduring guru. Sikhs suffered at the hands of both the Islamic Mughal Empire and later the British Empire. However, Sikhism is still going strong, with the main populations of Sikhs located in India, Britain and Canada.

Sikhs are expected to meditate on God, be generally decent human beings and adhere to a fairly strict dress code:

The 5 items are: kēs (uncut hair), kaṅghā (small comb), kaṛā (circular iron bracelet), kirpān (ceremonial short sword), and kacchā (special undergarment). (from Wikipedia)

In modern times the five Ks as they are called have caused several disagreements. One issue has been over the difficulty in wearing a motorcycle helmet and a turban simultaneously. There was also concern that a turban could unravel at high speeds, presumably leading to some gory Isadora Duncan-type incident. One dedicated Sikh biker proved this to be wrong by racing around a track on a motorbike with his turban firmly in place.

Asking Questions

sikhguard300Much of my research has been at Sikhism101.com, which provides extensive FAQs with some interesting ideas and quotes, all phrased in a refreshingly un-authoritative tone. It may not be completely representative of modern Sikh thinking, but it makes for interesting reading. I particularly liked how they begin their answer to the question, “If Sikhism, is the true religion. How come it was created/revealed 300 years ago, and not at the beginning of time?“:

Which religion was created at the beginning of time? ….

However, the answers to the tougher questions get disappointingly woolly. Further reading shows some typical misconceptions about atheism and a rather weak answer to the problem of evil which amounts to little more than “Evil does not exist, only the absence of good. In any case, we don’t know what’s good for us, while God does.” (I paraphrase).

All in all Sikh beliefs make for interesting reading, with an impressive moral system and a dizzyingly eclectic collection of ideas. However, I’ve yet to see any great arguments for the truth of the supernatural claims. There are plenty of claims of the importance of truth,

“Realization of Truth is higher than all else.
Higher still is Truthful Living.” (Guru Nanak, Sri Rag)

What is missing is a reliable way of determining whether Sikh beliefs are true.

Choosing the right belief for the wrong reasons?

Religious conversion stories often seem to be emotional affairs. I think many religious groups exploit this (whether deliberately or not), using stirring music, intense group attention and other techniques to provoke an emotional reaction. This probably helps to convert people, causing them to cry, faint or be otherwise emotionally overwhelmed with the feeling that something really special has happened.

There are sometimes also emotional reasons why people people de-convert as well as convert, although they are not generally cunningly choreographed*. Certainly many of us who end up as atheists also go on to read up on theology and the many atheistic arguments against religion – particularly those who are online reading and writing blogs. However, I think in many cases, the thing which triggers the journey into critical thinking is emotional, or at least, not a rational argument in itself.

When I was a Christian, the main argument that had always bothered me was the injustice of divine judgement – Someone makes the world and everything in it, then gets His knickers in a twist when some of it (specifically the human bit) doesn’t turn out as He wanted. I managed to mostly ignore this problem while attending church as a teenager, until I went on a youth group holiday. The sheer quantity of preaching I was subjected to during this time bored, puzzled and frustrated me. I didn’t get any satisfactory answers, but I could no longer ignore the problem, so I drifted out of the church group in frustration.

I don’t think my reasons were especially carefully considered or rational – I only discovered proper atheist arguments later – it was frustration and boredom that made me leave. I wonder if the first step believers make is often something which in itself isn’t a damning logical argument against theism? Perhaps some fellow believers being unfriendly or cruel? An obvious lie told by their religious leader? Wanting to lie in bed on Sunday mornings? A personal disagreement with another believer on a non-religious matter? A close friend who believes something different? Or, as in my case, resenting boring lectures.

There are some great arguments against theism, but these are not amongst them. If a fellow Christian you know well deliberately ignores you when you happen to pass in the street that doesn’t make the existence of a god any less likely – they might just be having a bad day. Even if a religious leader is dishonest, he could still put this down to man’s inherent sinfulness. Sure, church hypocrisy doesn’t look good, and it even features at number 5 on Kieran Bennett’s list of reasons why people de-convert. The Church ought to practice what they preach, but if they fail to do so, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are completely wrong about God.

While none of these reasons are very rational, I think they might give people the nudge they need to reconsider their beliefs, hopefully with a view to what is rational. There are some examples of this in the comments by former believers on Greta Christina’s post asking what changed people’s minds about religion. For example, kc said:

Slowly I became more frustrated by my own questions, and more angry about hypocrisy and intolerance in my own church. That led me away from Catholicism.

A slightly different example is when events in a person’s life force particular atheist arguments into the foreground. Heather replied:

It wasn’t an argument that persuaded me away from my faith, it was a series of emotional experiences. One of the primary benefits of religion espoused by believers and non-believers is comfort.[…] But I hit a time of extreme distress, and I prayed and turned searchingly to my faith and found… nothing. No comfort, no warm fuzzies. I felt my pain exactly as it would feel were there no caring deity there to help me with my suffering. That was the crack in the ice that led to me to look at the situation through the lens of reason.

In a guest-post on de-Conversion explaining why she de-converted, DeeVee writes:

Watching my religious mother and both aunts die of cancer, while begging Jesus/god to save them, and he did not.  Not only that but I also worked in the pediatric ward of a cancer hospital in Houston and watched entire churches praying for god to save babies from cancer, and he did not.

The “Problem of Evil” was always there and a lot of religious people have probably heard it or even pondered it themselves. But when things are going well such worries can be put to the back of a believer’s mind. When personal tragedy affects a person, the problem of evil becomes large and unavoidable.

It seems anything from a subtle change in attitude to fellow believers to a major emotional upheaval can create a crack of doubt into which critical thinking and reasoned arguments can be inserted. This seems more likely if the believer is already aware of these arguments.

Well reasoned arguments against the veracity of religious belief are great for making a point or explaining atheist beliefs. However, we shouldn’t underestimate the part that non-rational factors play in changing people’s beliefs – in either direction.

(* Given the examples above, to choreograph the kind of emotional reaction that might lead someone to reject their religious belief would be an extremely vicious act.)

Faith healing – What evidence would I need?

A Christian friend of mine (No, not that one, another one) recently mentioned in his Facebook status that he’d witnessed miraculous healings at a Christian gathering. Ever the sceptic, I responded by posting a video of James Randi’s investigation of faith healing. In this video, Randi exposes US televangelists Peter Popoff and WV Grant.

He responded to me by asking:

“… Ever wondered what evidence you would need…”

Which is a very sensible and reasonable question. If I couldn’t say what evidence would convince me that I’m wrong about faith healing, I could be accused of holding my sceptical position irrationally, dogmatically, “No matter what”. Adam Lee covered this idea in respect to religious belief in general and the result is his Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists essay which I’d recommend to everyone.

For me it’s not enough to be able to say, “This could have been a miracle” – not getting rained on when you forgot your umbrella could have been a miracle, but it could just as easily be chance. I’m trying to find something which could only have been a miracle. Recovering from a particularly nasty cold might have involved divine intervention, but this also happens naturally, so we can’t be sure a miracle occurred in that particular case. So I’m not interested in evidence of improbable healings, but impossible healings. Impossible that is, without miraculous supernatural intervention.

The evidence has to be reliable and evaluated in a way that does not allow bias, whether intentional or not, to creep in. To start with, the patients should be carefully assessed to ensure that they genuinely suffer from the claimed illness in the first place. Then we need to be able to judge easily whether or not they have been cured.

Ailments such as back pain, migraines or depression are probably not worth investigating as it is too hard to independently assess them – you can only rely on what the patient tells you.

Ideally we should also be reasonably confident of what caused the healing. If the patient visited mystical healers of all stripes then a few weeks later finds themselves cured, we still have some unanswered questions.

So to summarise, the miraculous healing would need to be something which:

  • Could only occur due to a miraculous healing.
  • Can easily be judged a success or failure by all around.
  • Can be linked to a specific faith healing claim.

A good example of this would be an amputated limb regrowing. If a group of Christians gathered around a multiple amputee and prayed for him to regrow his limbs and it they did indeed regrow then you’d have a very convincing case. I’d like to witness this myself, but also have other independent witnesses there to check I wasn’t hallucinating or missing some sleight of hand (or leg). This idea is examined in detail by the website Why Won’t God Heal Amputees, which says on the subject of healing amputees:

Notice that there is zero ambiguity in this situation. There is only one way for a limb to regenerate through prayer: God must exist and God must answer prayers.

That may seem very stringent and a very narrow way to define faith healing, but I think it’s warranted. It’s the only kind of faith healing we could really be sure about. Furthermore, I’m just an ordinary person and I could easily be fooled. I’ve seen enough stage magicians do tricks I couldn’t explain, heard (and believed) enough tall tales and been swayed by enough anecdotal evidence to know that I’m as gullible as the next guy.

So I think it’s reasonable – prudent even – to ask that these standards of evidence are met. Incidentally, these ideas are by no means exclusive, I’m sure there are other tests which could potentially provide excellent evidence of faith healing. I’m keen to hear other people’s suggestions. If we could agree on a reasonable experiment that could discern real faith healing from false faith healing, I’d be happy to try it out and post the results here.

[BPSDB]

Faith schools and Accord

Faith schools are an issue that feature regularly in the British news. About a third of the schools in this country are faith schools, of which the majority are Church of England. We’re sometimes complacent in the UK to think that the established religion in this country is benign, but faith schools give us a reminder that this is not always the case.

Firstly, faith schools are allowed to discriminate, both in their admissions and employment policies. For example, they can prefer children whose parents are regular church attendees. Predictably, in areas where the best school happens to be a religious one, desperate parents attend church for the requisite number of weeks to get their child into the school, before leaving again. Quite apart from the absurdity of this, discriminating on the grounds of religious belief contravenes the Human Rights Act, 1998, Article 9 “Freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. Denying entrance to a school – especially a publicly-funded one – is a clear example of discrimination.

In many cases, faith schools are exempt from having to comply with discrimination legislation:

Schools cannot discriminate against gay or lesbian pupils or their parents during the admissions process or in lessons. But guidance accompanying the legislation makes it clear that faith schools will not face prosecution for teaching in strict accordance with their religious views.

Some Christians, such as Melanie-Mcdonagh, have commented that discrimination is a perfectly normal and acceptable way to run a religious school.

But it’s precisely the fact that they are discriminatory that makes them Catholic, or Anglican, or Jewish, or Muslim.

I’ve heard as much from Catholic colleagues planning to send their children to the local faith school. Worse, there are plans for more faith schools on the horizon.

Thankfully, there are other Christians who have their heads screwed on properly regarding faith-school discrimination. Simon Barrow of Ekklesia writes:

If church schools are overwhelmingly funded by the general taxpayer, as they are, then the public as a whole has a reason to expect that they will be run for all by all.

Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia, a Christian think-tank which regularly comes up with progressive and humanistic suggestions. Together with organisations such as the BHA and The Association of Teachers and Lecturers they have formed a coalition aimed at ensuring inclusive education for all. The organisation is called Accord and includes amongst its supporters people from a wide range of religious and non-religious backgrounds. I’ve already made a small donation to them and I’d encourage those who agree with Accord’s aims to do likewise.

So why are some religious people so keen on faith schools? I think part of it is the popular misconception that people of their own religion are inherently better people, more moral and no doubt they’d like their children to grow up being good people. But another aspect is about the argument from religious confusion.

The argument from religious confusion points out the vast differences in religious beliefs and perceptions of a god or gods across the world. It suggests that this is more consistent with people inventing diverse imaginary gods, rather than with a genuine deity influencing the world and communicating with humanity. There is a plethora of religions out there, each with numerous sects and variations, so what makes any one of them so special? As Ebonmuse puts it,

“The religions on this planet cannot all be right – but they could all be wrong!”.

The great thing about this argument is that it’s so simple, there’s no sophisticated philosophical concepts required. At the age of ten years old, my wife stumbled on the argument from religious confusion while looking at an Atlas. Until then she’d be taught in a convent school with a predictably narrow religious focus. The human statistics she saw showed her that a large number of people in the world weren’t Christian. She still cites this as the first doubt she had about religion.

Faith schools, by separating children from those who believe differently, can keep the argument from religious confusion hidden under the carpet for longer. If everyone you know is a Christian, it’s harder to see the other options as valid. Stereotypes about other faiths can be maintained more easily, their beliefs kept in mysterious shadows, not in the real world, seeming more like fiction than anything which “real” people believe.

I think it’s important that children are taught about religion (aka “Comparative religion”), where lessons are phrased something like, “Some people believe…” rather than “The Truth is…”.

Furthermore, as the religious atheist observes, religious segregation very often means de facto racial segregation too.

The new Hindu Krishna-Avanti school has all Asian pupils. In the same education authority, I suspect that St John Fisher RC School has almost no Asian pupils, nor the Moriah Jewish Day School.

I can’t think of a single instance where social segregation has been a good thing. I don’t expect faith schools to be an exception.

Preaching the gospel to animals

A post on Clark Bunch’s blog recently included Biblical quote indicating that the gospel is to be preached to “every creature“. Naturally, this conjured some amusing images of Christians talking to rabbits, so I could hardly resist commenting.

lonelypilgrim replied to me, explaining that the interpretation was not reasonable, because early Christians apparently did not preach to animals.

Of course this isn’t the only strange or ambiguous passage in the Bible. For a few examples, see Ebonmuse’s article on Biblical absurdities, in which it becomes apparent that God is also “against pillows”. I’m sure that many Christians are aware of some of these oddities, but it doesn’t seem to bother them. In cases where more than one Biblical interpretation is possible, they simply assume the one which fits with their opinions must be correct. They don’t all agree, either; for instance, some Christians think there is a literal hell, others don’t.  In cases where one interpretation would be completely impractical, nonsensical or doesn’t fit with the way they see their religion, they simply ignore that interpretation.

To be fair to lonelypilgrim, he’s done a bit more than that. He’s also considering the actions of early Christians. Because there is apparently no evidence of early Christians preaching to animals, he argues that the author must’ve meant something different. On the face of it, this might be a reasonable way to understand an ancient text. The earliest readers of scripture would probably have read something closer to the original author’s words, with fewer hops, skips and jumps in the form of copying and translation. So their understanding might well be better than ours. This still leaves a few problems, however.

Firstly, can we be sure of what early Christians understood about the Bible – if some of them did believe they should preach to animals would we necessarily know about it now? Accounts of their lives must have been translated and copied with at least as much chance of error as the translation and copying of the Bible.

Secondly, if modern Christians must rely on historical evidence to interpret the Bible, that makes the Bible no better than any other historical text. In any case, most people reading the Bible don’t consider the opinions of early Christians – except when asked facetious-sounding questions on the Internet.

Thirdly – although I haven’t researched this thoroughly – let’s assume that early Christians didn’t preach the gospel to animals – even if it is a great image. I don’t think that would solve the problem entirely for Christians. As I responded to lonelypilgrim,

“…If we do have evidence that “creatures” meant “only humans”, then presumably the fact that we ended up with this English wording is the result of naive translation – by people not aware of this evidence. In this case, as you pointed out, it’s fairly obvious which interpretation makes most sense, so the error introduced at some point has no effect (at least I doubt anyone has tried to preach to animals as a result of this). But if errors or misunderstandings like this can creep into the text through the copying or translation process it casts doubt on the accuracy of the rest of the text. In other areas such changes might not be so obvious…”

It seems that they’re working from the assumption that the Bible makes sense and contains sensible advice relevant to modern readers. This could be seen as an appeal to consequences. If something in the Bible is nonsensical, that would make Christian beliefs seem flawed and Christians would no doubt consider that a bad thing. Therefore the whole Bible must make sense.

On the other hand it could be a form of the argument from incredulity. Christians find it impossible to imagine that any part of the Bible might be nonsense. The word of God, the holy book of the one true religion contains things which sound completely ridiculous? Unbelievable. There must be some other explanation.

They’re not just putting their faith in the Bible being accurate, but that their interpretations of the Bible are the right ones. I think the assumption that the Bible makes sense is unwarranted.

Us and them

Social group of elephantsIt seems that for many believers part of the appeal of their religion is the community and sense of belonging that it offers. Although this is rarely cited as a reason for sticking with their beliefs, I suspect it has a strong subconscious effect. The desire to belong is natural for humans as it is for all social mammals. Communal living may even have affected the way our brains evolved. When the group offers sharing of food, protection from predators and the opportunity to mate, survival may depend on staying in the group and avoiding social rejection.

The problem is that this kind of thinking leads people to consider some people to be insiders and others outsiders. That makes sense in a tribal society, but in the modern world we have a responsibility to treat everyone with respect. In the view of ethics advanced by Peter Singer, people decide who to treat morally based on whether that person falls within their moral circle. In a modern world we should be looking to expand that circle to include all of humanity (Singer also argues persuasively that we should also include animals in our moral circle).

I think religion can often get in the way of this. I’m not trying to characterise religious people as misanthropes when it comes to outsiders, many are very friendly. I’m sure many believers would also tell you that their religion itself encourages them to be friendly to all people. However, there’s plenty of behaviour common to religious groups which is anything but friendly to outsiders.

Diane Wilson made it clear in her book that the Jehovah’s Witnesses certainly separate people into those within the society and those outside it. This usually involves certain tactics. Although these things are more common in cult-like religions, they can be found in watered-down versions in almost any faith.

Firstly, the stigmatisation of outsiders. This, along with a strong discouragement to associate with them, allows unfair stereotypes to go unchallenged. Those outside the religious group are often said to be unfortunates or that they will suffer some terrible fate, such as a literal hell.

Secondly, conformity. Certain patterns of speech and behaviour are encouraged, through shared rituals or varying degrees of social pressure. Unusual and unnecessary rules also help to define correct behaviour and separate the “ins” from the “outs”. In some cases membership of the religious organisation is considered more important than any aspect of the individual. This was a popular theme amongst the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ , as Diane Wilson reports from a JW sermon:

Bucket of waterThrust your fist into a bucket of water, then pull your fist out. Look into the bucket. The size of the hole that is left in the water is what you’re worth.

To moderate believers this sounds extreme, but there are few religions which celebrate individuality and all have rules of behaviour that define those who are members and those who are not.

I suspect in the case of cults and some newer religions, this is a conscious effort to keep members under the influence of the religion and its leaders. Perhaps in smaller religious groups which differ from the surrounding culture, this is necessary to maintain group cohesion.

Going off on a bit of a tangent, it struck me today that a similar thing can occur with fans of football (soccer) teams, or indeed any sports team fans. Certainly they seem to treat fans of rival teams differently to those of their own team. Similarities have already been drawn between football and religion.

Polish football fans

So what else do religions and football teams have in common? My pet theory concerns the way people choose them. By which I mean they don’t. Well, not consciously. Not like you might choose a new car or house. There’s no weighing up of a team’s odds at being promoted to the next division, no examination of their track record, or the scruples (or not) of the manager.

So in an argument with another fan over which team is more deserving of support, there’s no objective basis on which to justify their decision. No team has a perfect track record, the vast majority are not at the top of division one and in any case, such arguments are after-the-fact justifications – that wasn’t how they chose the team in the first place.

Fans are most likely to choose a team based on which team is supported by those around them – their family, friends, community. Or perhaps the team belonging to the town in which they grew up, which may amount to the same thing in many cases.

Sound familiar?

I think it’s very similar with religion. It seems the reason religious debates ultimately boil down to “Faith”, “Personal experience” or “Agreeing to disagree” is because there is no rational objective basis on which to chose one over another. Interestingly, Swiss theologian Karl Barth said something similar:

“Belief cannot argue with unbelief, it can only preach to it.”

I’d go further and suggest that a religious belief cannot even argue with another religious belief. At least no more than one football fan can tell another they’ve chosen to support the wrong team.

Fundamentalism in the UK

Here in the UK, we’re often inclined to think that Christian Fundamentalism is something which happens in the US, whereas the Church in this country is all tea and cake with the woolly-minded but good natured vicar. That stereotype is not without foundation, but the attitudes of many Christians in this country are changing.

While the UK has an established religion, the Church of England, an attitude of tolerance has been prevalent for some time and even the now abolished blasphemy law has not been used since 1925. The taboo among most people in Britain seems to be to express any strong opinions on religion one way of the other. Lately however, I think opinions are polarising.

I recently spotted this Channel 4, Dispatches documentary on Christian Fundamentalism in the UK via The T.R.A.S.H. BIN website. The programme can be found in several sections on the T.R.A.S.H. website. It makes quite alarming viewing. For the most part, the interviewer allows the people he’s recording to speak for themselves and they do so eagerly. Only when he questions their motives and beliefs more deeply do they start to stammer, turn off their microphones or ask that the camera be stopped.

I’m sure the moderate, reasonable UK Christians I tend to meet will protest that they don’t think like this and that these bigots and that anyone so full of hatred has totally misunderstood the Bible. But the fundamentalists would probably claim the opposite.

From a humanistic perspective it’s easy to choose between these two outlooks. I’d rather have Rowan Williams living next door to me than any of the Christians featured. A moderate and tolerant society is obviously better for everyone to live in. However, if you limit yourself to theological and Biblical reasoning it’s hard to give any good reasons to choose one attitude over the other. The Bible contains plenty of hatred and intolerance which is less often quoted than “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Take for example, what Deutronomy 13 (KJV) has to say about prophets who suggest worshipping other gods:

And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death;

Before you cry “context”, please read the rest of the chapter.

So I can see where the Fundamentalists get their inspiration and their Biblical beliefs should serve as an example of why the Bible is not much use as a moral guide. No more so than any other anachronistic work of fiction, anyway.

Going bonkers over a bangle

Readers from the UK may have heard about a recent discrimination case in which 14 year old Sarika Watkins-Singh won the right to wear her plain steel kara to school.

The school she attends had excluded her due to her insistence on wearing the kara which contravened its rule disallowing all jewellery. There have been quite a few similar cases over the years. Predictably, any concession to non-Christian religions in these matters yields cries of “Political correctness gone mad!” as can be seen from about half the comments on the BBC News Have your say page.

My first thoughts were in support of Sarika. I don’t see the harm in her wearing her kara, except perhaps for sport or metalwork classes for which she is apparently happy to take it off. In fact I’m all for freedom of belief, up until the point it infringes on other people’s rights. For example if people were carrying real daggers, I think this presents a danger (as much to the wearer as anyone else) and directly contravenes the law regarding offensive weapons. I don’t think bangles like this are hurting anyone. In fact I don’t see the problem with any kind of jewellery in schools.

That is, in fact, my point. It’s certainly not fair if only religious jewellery is allowed. I don’t see anything special about a religious belief over any other kind of belief. If someone wanted to wear their grandmother’s necklace simply because of the sentimental value it had for them, that should be considered equally important as religious jewellery and treated with the same respect. Not to do so is in itself a form of discrimination on the grounds of belief (or lack of belief).

I understand that the school wishes to “create a community ethos” (according to a quote in the Guardian) by enforcing uniform rules. Perhaps the worry is that if jewellery is allowed in schools it will encourage expensive bling and a separation of the haves from the have-nots. I don’t work in a school, so I’m not sure how much of a problem this might be, but I don’t see the harm in letting pupils express their individuality. There are plenty of other things they can do to foster a sense of community, such as inter-school competition, sports, debating, etc. Expressing their individuality is a good thing. It’s what people in real communities do. I don’t see how pretending or insisting that everyone is the same is at all helpful. Children should leave school with at least the inkling that different people believe different things.

So I support Sarika in wearing her kara, just as long as the same rules are applied to everyone regardless of whether their symbols and beliefs are religious or not.

Enigmatic Hinduism

Very Short Introduction to HinduismI’ve recently got around to reading the excerpt from the “Very Short Introduction” on Hinduism that came with the Independent a while ago. The headline is that I don’t feel any the wiser.

I can only speculate as to why Hinduism is so diverse and eclectic, it could be its long history or the plethora of religious texts relevant to Hinduism. In any case, it seems quite difficult to sum up what Hindus believe. To show what I mean, here are a couple of quotes from Wikipedia:

Hinduism is a diverse system of thought with beliefs spanning monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, pantheism, monism, and atheism. It is sometimes referred to as henotheistic (i.e., involving devotion to a single god while accepting the existence of others), but any such term is an overgeneralization.

Which seems to cover most things.

Prominent themes in (but not restricted to) Hindu beliefs include Dharma (ethics/duties), Samsāra (The continuing cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth), Karma (action and subsequent reaction), Moksha (liberation from samsara), and the various Yogas (paths or practices).

Which is the good-sounding stuff that seems to crop up in most religions. Unfortunately, the Dharma bit  leads some of its followers to insist that the caste system is an essential part of ethics and duties.

There have also been a number of purported miracles within the Hindu world. The VSI book describes the miraculous consumption of milk by statues of Ganesh in September 1995. Ganesh is usually depicted as half-elephant and presumably drank the milk through the trunk. As an aside, I mentioned this to a friend who suggested hooking up a Ganesh statue to one of the Virgin Mary which was crying milk. The two could be locked in a milky embrace. I like that image!

Figs on a treeHinduism seems to be tightly bound up with Indian tradition, so much so that it is hard to tell one from the other. The religious traditions identify both Hindus and Indian people equally. Like most religions Hinduism has its fair share of stories, some more insightful than others. One of the more interesting examples from the VSI involves a young man “Shvetaketu”, being taught by his father about how the same essence is in everything. He takes the example of a fig, whose essence exists in the fig, the fig tree and the seed. In one sense this is insightful as the genetic code of the fig is indeed in all three things, however as often happens the insight is extrapolated in some less helpful directions:

“And that’s how you are, Shvetaketu!”… It expresses the idea that the truth which underlies everything and is its essence is also identical with Shvetaketu’s own self…

This doesn’t make any sense to me. All of which reminds me how much complexity there is in all religious traditions – something that’s easy to forget when thinking about the more familiar religions.

Perhaps this Very Short Introduction was not as well written or thought-out as the others, or maybe Hinduism is just very complex and ill-defined, but I still don’t feel I understand Hinduism properly.