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Ira Glass on Christianity and Religion

Ira Glass Ira Glass is an American television and radio personality who was the admired host of a radio program called This American Life.

Glass has stated on This American Life that he is a committed atheist. “It’s not like I don’t feel like I’m a Jew. I feel like I don’t have a choice about being a Jew. Your cultural heritage isn’t like a suitcase you can lose at the airport. I have no choice about it. It is who I am. I can’t choose that. It’s a fact of me … But even when I was 14 or 15, it didn’t make that much sense to me that there was this Big Daddy who created the world and would act so crazy in the Old Testament. That we made up these stories to make ourselves feel good and explain the world seems like a much more reasonable explanation. I’ve tried to believe in God, but I simply don’t.”

Atheism notwithstanding, “some years I have a nostalgic feeling to go into a shul and I’ll go in for a High Holiday service,” discloses Glass, who has fond memories of his childhood rabbi’s beguiling discourses. “Rabbi Seymour Esrog was really funny, a great storyteller. He was so good that even the kids would stay and watch him. He’d tell a funny anecdote, something really moving, and go for a big finish. That’s what the show is,” he competes, recognizing the rabbi’s effect.

In this interview with religious anthropologist Jim Henderson, Glass says he thinks Christians get a genuinely bad rap in the media. The NPR star said the way Christians are often represented in pop-culture is totally different from the way the Christians he knows personally actually are in real life. “The Christians in my life were all incredibly wonderful and thoughtful and had very ambiguous, complicated feelings in their beliefs. And seemed to be totally generous-hearted, and totally open to a lot of different kinds of people in their lives.”

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St. Thomas Aquinas’s Five Proofs of God’s Existence

St. Thomas Aquinas receiving the Holy Spirit (in the shape of a dove), by Andrea di Bartolo (c. 1368-1428)

Intellectual arguments for the existence of God, based on reason and observation Of the many attempts to prove the existence of God, arguably the best are the five proofs, or five ways, that were offered by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) in his unfinished work Summa Theologica (1265-74) They are:

  1. motion (motion cannot begin on its own and so there must have been a first mover);
  2. causation (the sequence of causes that created the universe must have a first cause);
  3. contingency of creation (all things depend upon other things for their creation, so there must be a being that caused the initial creation);
  4. degrees of perfection (there are differing degrees of beauty in the universe, so there must be a perfect standard-God to which all things are compared);
  5. intelligent design (the universe follows laws that appear to have order, which implies the existence of a Great Designer).

Technically more of an attempt to clarify the ways in which people conceptualize the creator as described in Christianity, the five proofs are generally seen as earnest arguments for the reality of God. Thus, like many other philosophical claims, the five proofs have taken on a significance different to the one intended by their author. After all, Aquinas, being a Roman Catholic, already knew of God’s existence through faith. In Summa Theologica (1265-74), St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “It is better to … deliver … contemplated truths than merely to contemplate.”

The adequacy, or inadequacy, of the five proofs brings up the provocative issue of the relationship between the divine and rationality. Indeed, the five proofs highlight the strained relationship between that which is known a posteriori (through experience) and that which is known a priori (through reason), which then calls into question the priority of philosophical inquiry over scientific inquiry, and vice versa.

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Thomas Huxley and Darwinism

Thomas Huxley and Darwinism

Thomas Huxley led a movement in support of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

In the 1860s, naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-82) was busy developing his theory of evolution and searching out corroborative evidence for it. He had better things to do than

  1. defend his ideas from his opponents, and
  2. it was not his concern to pull his ideas together to form an overarching super-theory.

Both tasks were undertaken by English biologist Thomas Huxley (1825-95), who dubbed himself “Darwin’s bulldog” for his advocacy of Darwin’s ideas. Indeed, in the lectures he gave in London in the 1860s, Huxley may well have extended the scope of Darwin’s ideas further than the biologist himself intended. In Huxley’s hands, Darwin’s work became a movement with a life of its own: Darwinism.

Thomas Huxley wrote in a 1859 letter to Charles Darwin, “As for your doctrines, I am prepared to go to the Stake if requisite …”

Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley The Darwinist view that the theory of evolution had destroyed the idea of a divine creator encouraged the public perception that agnosticism, and later atheism, was the logical conclusion to be drawn from Darwin’s work. Darwin himself had delayed publication of On the Origin of Species (1859) in fear of such controversy, and the dispute over the theory of evolution’s implications became more entrenched and bitter as a result of Huxley’s championing of Darwin’s work. Atheist scientists, such as the British biologist Richard Dawkins (b. 1941), have become well known in recent years for their intolerance of religion of all kinds, and their firm view that Darwinist ideas have made religious belief untenable. However, by no means all scientists agree. In the face of this debate, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences recommended in 1981 that religion and science should not be presented in the same context, to avoid misunderstanding.

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Agnosticism

Agnosticism is the belief that it is impossible to know if the supernatural, including God, exists.

Agnosticism holds that the nature of God, gods, or supernatural phenomena is such that humanity can never know if they exist or not. It is a statement about what kind of knowledge a person can possess and about what kind of belief is proper or moral to hold. According to the term’s originator, British biologist Thomas Huxley (1825-95), the term describes a method of how people can use their intellect to come to hold, or refuse to hold, any particular belief.

Even though the term “agnosticism” did not come into popular use until Huxley coined it in 1869, the idea has existed for approaching 3,000 years. The earliest known expression of the idea comes from the Hindu Vedas, produced between c. 1500 and 500 BCE, which expressed skepticism at the ability to answer fundamental questions about existence. The Rigveda states, “Who knows for certain? … None knoweth whence creation has arisen …”

Ancient Greek philosophers voiced similar opinions about the nature of certainty and knowledge. When Huxley introduced the term, he created it from the Greek roots: a, for “without,” and gnosis, for “knowledge.” His belief was that the knowledge of God is unattainable, and a rational person can hold no belief about it.

In modern times, people often use “agnostic” to denote those who describe themselves as being unsure about whether a God exists. Yet the existence of the divine is not something agnosticism purports to answer. It expresses skepticism, especially regarding the extent of human comprehension. It is also a statement about the morality of hubris, holding that it is immoral to believe in something that has no basis or to assert an answer to an unanswerable question.

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Atheism

Atheism is the belief that no God, gods, divine beings, or supernatural phenomena exist.

Atheism can be described as a range of ideas about the non-existence of the divine, deities, or gods. In one sense, atheists are those who do not believe that any gods or divine beings exist, or are those who hold no belief in the supernatural. Atheists may also believe that there are no gods, as opposed to holding no beliefs about such existence.

No single originator is credited with having first identified the notion of atheism. However, the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, produced in India between c. 1500 and c. 500 BCE, make the first known references to the rejection of an idea of gods. In the Western world, the ancient Greek poet and philosopher Diagoras of Melos (fl. fifth century BCE) was widely recognized as being the first outspoken atheist, a belief that resulted in him having to flee Athens. The term “atheist” was also broadly applied to early Christians who did not believe in the pagan pantheon of the Roman Empire. However, widespread and public assertions that there were no gods did not become commonplace until after the French Revolution (1787-99).

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “Is a man merely a mistake of God’s? Or is God merely a mistake of man?” Today, atheism is common in many nations, though rates of non-belief are often difficult to determine precisely.

The idea of gods, the divine, or supernatural agents is often closely related to very basic, driving questions. Who created the universe? How did we come to be here7 For the atheist, the answer does not rely upon a supernatural or divine basis. Atheism, though not a uniform set of beliefs or body of doctrine, allows for the possibility that there is no divine, godly answer to our questions.

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Stephen Fry on Respect for Devout and Pious Members of the Catholic Church

In October 2009, English comedian, actor, writer, and humanitarian Stephen Fry joined provocateur extraordinaire Christopher Hitchens to debate against former Member of British Parliament Ann Widdecombe and the Archbishop of Abuja, John Onaiyekan on the topic of ‘Is Catholicism a force for good in the world?‘. Television and radio journalist Zeinab Badawi moderated the session hosted by Intelligence Squared held at the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster.

Fry’s passionate and emotional speech opened with a reiteration of his respect for individuals’ choice of Catholic faith and appealed for their respect for others’ choices too:

I want first of all to say that I have no quarrel, no argument and I wish to express no contempt for individual devout and pious members of that church. They are welcome to their sacraments. They’re welcome to their reliquaries and to their Blessed Virgin Mary. They’re welcome … to their faith, to the importance they place in it, … to the comfort and the joy that they receive from it. All of that is absolutely fine by me. It would be impertinent and wrong of me to express any antagonism towards any individual who wishes to find salvation in whatever form they wish to express it. That, to me, is sacrosanct, as much as any article of faith is sacrosanct to anyone of any church or any faith, in the world. It’s very important. It’s also very important to me, as it happens, that I have my own beliefs. They are a belief in the enlightenment. They are a belief in the eternal adventure of trying to discover moral truth in the world.

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Definition: Atheism and Agnosticism

Atheism and Agnosticism Poster in Bus.jpg

Atheism is broadly regarded as the doctrine that there is no God. Various atheists reinforce this assertion by arguments. However, these arguments are usually aimed against the Abrahamic notion of God—more specifically the Christian concept of God—and are generally irrelevant to gods probable in other faiths. Consequently, much Western atheism may be better identified as the doctrine that the Abrahamic God does not exist.

Agnosticism may perhaps be actually individual and confessional—“I have no definite belief about God”—or it may be the more motivated declaration that no one ought to have a definite belief for or against the divine existence. Often, only the motivated refutation invites contention. A promising version of agnosticism may merge William Clifford’s dictum that one must not hold a belief on inadequate evidence with the claim that the existence of God is evidentially unknowable. Both of these claims have been strongly contested by Christian apologetics.

Many people fail to make a precise distinction between atheism and agnosticism. It is possible that many people passionately identify themselves as agnostics were in fact atheists, and those who described themselves as atheists were agnostics because they have suspended their judgment of the existence of the Abrahamic God on the basis of inadequate evidence.

Recommended Reading

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Bertrand Russell Critique of Christianity and Religion

British philosopher and Nobel Prize winner Bertrand Russell argued very persuasively through his writings and speeches that religion was merely a fallacy and, notwithstanding any positive effects that religion might have on a person’s emotional or psychological well-being, the concept of religion is for the most part detrimental to people. Bertrand Russell resolutely believed that religion and a religious point of view serve to hinder knowledge and cultivate a fear of anxiety, fear, and dependency.

Bertrand Russell, like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other critics of religion who came after him, held that religion was to blame for war, coercion, tyranny, and misery that have weighed down the world. Here is an excerpt from his essay, “Why I Am Not A Christian”, first a lecture delivered by Russell on 06-Mar-1927 at the Battersea Town Hall (now the Battersea Arts Centre in London) to a gathering of the National Secular Society, South London Branch.

Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes … . A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men.

Bertrand Russell on Belief and the Value of Religion

TV Interviewer: Why are you not a Christian?
Bertrand Russell: Because I see no evidence whatever in any of the Christian dogmas. I have examined all the stock arguments in favor of the existence of God and none of them seem to me to be logically valid.

TV Interviewer: Do you think there is a practical reason for having a religious belief for many people?
Bertrand Russell: There can’t be a practical reason for believing what isn’t true. I rule it out. It is impossible. Either a thing is true or it isn’t. If it is true, you should believe in it. If it isn’t, you shouldn’t. And if you can’t find out whether it is true or it isn’t, you should suspend judgment. It seems to me fundamental dishonesty and fundamental treachery to intellectual integrity to hold a belief because you think it is useful and not because you think it is true.

TV Interviewer: I was thinking of those people who find that some kind of religious code helps them to live their lives — it gives them a very strict set of rules — the right and the wrongs.
Bertrand Russell: People are generally quite mistaken. Great many of them do more harm than good and they would probably be able to find rational morality that they could live by if they drop this irrational traditional taboo morality that comes down from savage ages.

TV Interviewer: But are we, perhaps, the ordinary person, perhaps, is not strong enough to find his own personal ethic. They have to have something imposed upon them from outside.
Bertrand Russell: I don’t think that is true. What is imposed on you from outside is of no value whatever. Doesn’t count.

TV Interviewer: You were brought up, of course, as a Christian. When did you first decide that you did not want to remain a believer in the Christian faith?
Bertrand Russell: I never decided that I did not want to remain a believer. Between the ages of 15 and 18, I spent almost all my spare time thinking about Christian dogmas and trying to find out whether there was any reason to believe them. By the time I was 18 I had discarded the last of them.

TV Interviewer: Do you think that that gave you an extra strength in your life?
Bertrand Russell: No, I don’t know. No I shouldn’t have said so. Neither it’s a strength nor the opposite. I was just engaged in the pursuit of knowledge.

TV Interviewer: As you approach the end of life, do you have any fear of some kind of afterlife?
Bertrand Russell: No, that is nonsense.

TV Interviewer: There is no afterlife?
Bertrand Russell: None whatsoever.

TV Interviewer: Do you have any fear of something that is common among atheists and agnostics who have been atheists or agnostics all entire lives, who are converted just before they die to a form of religion.
Bertrand Russell: Well, it doesn’t happen nearly as often as religious people think it does. Because, religious people, most of them, think that it is a virtuous act to tell lies of the deathbeds of agnostics and such. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t happen very often.

Bertrand Russell’s Books on Religion, God, and Atheism

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