Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Our Christian Inheritance


As part of the “we are a Christian nation” debate in Britain, both sides have accepted that our modern culture is founded on a distinctive Christian tradition. This obviously suits the Christian argument, but why would any secularist accept it? Part of the reason is that it is not a necessary part of the secular argument. Whether or not modern British attitudes are an inheritance from Christian times is irrelevant to the question of whether modern Britain is a Christian nation. It could be that modern society has grown out of a Christian culture, and yet is not now remotely Christian. 

The secularists are right in their reasoning:  the question of the Christian inheritance is irrelevant for the purpose of the “Christian nation” debate. But the extent and nature of our Christian inheritance is an interesting question in its own right. Exactly what aspects of modern British culture do we owe to Christianity?

Well let’s start by looking at the aspects of British culture that are most distinctive. First, tolerance. Where does the British love of tolerance come from? Well the first thing we can say is that it most definitely did not come from the Christian Church. For many centuries, the Christian Church killed anyone who disagreed with its doctrines. The Catholic Church did so before the Reformation in Britain. Protestants did so to a more limited extent after the Reformation. Both did so during the Reformation. Both imposed censorship. Both burned books. Both considered it an offence to fail to attend church or to pay Church taxes. Both opposed every attempt at liberalization. Our tradition of tolerance is entirely secular, defined in its modern form by men the Church regarded as its enemies: men like Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, following the tradition of Voltaire, whom the Church also considered an enemy. 

So, not tolerance then. How about our modern concept of Justice? There are two main forms of law in the world: Common Law systems based on the English secular system, and Civil Law systems based on Roman Law. Church law is based on the Roman Law system so we have a simple comparison of the two legal traditions in England: Common Law against Church Law. All the features of the modern English legal system of which English law jurisdictions are so proud come from the secular Common Law. All of them. All of our familiar safeguards: trial by jury, open courts, the right to defense council, the right to hear and challenge prosecution evidence, the right to remain silent, the doctrine of double jeopardy, the concept of equality before the law, and so on. Significantly, all the safeguards built into the (amended) American Constitution are safeguards against the excesses of Cannon Law, not Common Law. Cannon law gave preference to certain groups, recognized no right of silence, and allowed torture to ensure that the accused could not remain silent. The concept of bastardy - punishing children for supposed sin of their parents - was just one, typical, invention of cannon law.

But what about all the social reforms? Wasn't the Church behind all those well-known social reforms? Didn't we all learn at school about great Christian reformers like William Wilberforce, Elizabeth Fry, Lord Shaftsbury and Florence Nightingale. Yes we did, but we were not told the full story. No-one asked or answered the question of why we needed reform after 1500 years during which Christian morality reigned supreme and unchallenged? Why was reform not carried out as soon as the Church became dominant? Why did we have to wait until secular ideas had already challenged Christian ideas, and become popular? Why did no one mention the names of the most influential reformers: all of them opposed by right-thinking Christians. Dozens of them are never mentioned in school classrooms: Thomas Paine opposed slavery two generations before William Wilberforce. Paine, “The Greatest Englishman”, was also the first to propose old age pensions. He was not a Christian so he was simply written out of school history. Utilitarian philosophers were far more influential than all Christian reformers put together, but you’re unlikely to have heard at school of the social reforms driven by J S Mill or Jeremy Bentham. You have probably never heard of Annie Bessant, Richard Carlile or Charles Bradlaugh. You might have heard of some Quakers who led reforms (Elizabeth Fry, John Howard,  the Rowntrees, the Cadburies, and many more). You were probably taught that they were admirable Christians, as they were. But you almost certainly did not hear that they were all opposed by mainstream Christians, and condemned as infidels,  as were all other reformers. Mainstream Christians opposed not just Utilitarians but atheists, Deists, Pantheists, socialists and a few fringe Christian evangelicals like Wilberforce. The bench of Bishops in the House of Lords voted together against every reform Bill put before parliament in the nineteenth century: child labour, safety at work, minimum wages, working hours, penal reform, women’s rights, extending the franchise - every single field of reform without exception. Churches and individual bishops were furious at having to lose their slaves when slavery was abolished, and hardly mollified by monetary compensation from the government for their loss. How did your history master miss that one?

The story is much the same in every area you can think of. The Church traditionally considered education as something for the rich and for those destined for a career in the Church. Catholic churchmen were outraged when they discovered that ordinary people were teaching themselves to read translations of the bible in the sixteenth century. Protestant churchmen were outraged to discover that ordinary people were teaching themselves to read the works of Thomas Paine in the late Eighteenth. The idea of Church schools for ordinary people was an innovation designed expressly to contain the problem in the nineteenth century (better to indoctrinate boys in biblical writings than let them alone and risk them chosing for themselves  what they read). The idea of teaching girls at all was anathema to everything the Church stood for. The main reason for not allowing women to recieve MAs at Oxford and Cambridge was specifically religious - An MA makes the holder a member of Convocation, a University body "holding authority over men", something that the bible says must not happen. Our only educational tradition still retained in modern British schools is the convention of misrepresenting the respective Christian and the secular contributions to reform.

But what about other areas of learning. Universities were originally religious foundations, designed like all educational establishments, to educate the rich and potential clergymen. No significant scientific advances were made in Universities in any field while the Church dominated their activities. Within the Church, any original thinkers across Europe were condemned as heretics. If you can think of any major advance in the millennium 500 - 1500, you will almost certainly find that it falls into one of three categories: rediscovered from classical times, introduced from non-Christian lands, or developed in Europe by a heretic condemned by the Christian Church.

Research was prohibited. The purpose of a University was indoctrination, not research. In the seventeenth century research became the field of wealthy independent noblemen, who created private societies to do what the universities were failing to do. The same story applied to philosophy. Significantly, Church philosophy is now of historical interest only. All modern major schools of philosophy, some based on classical pagan philosophies, are entirely secular. All modern advances in ethics – such as the concept of animal rights – are likewise entirely secular.

There are a few reminders of our Christian inheritance. At the benign end of the spectrum are church bells and soaring language of the Book of Common Prayer for public ceremonies. But most vestiges are not benign. We have senior clergymen concealing serious crimes, preaching homophobia and misogyny, telling lies about contraception, and interfering in politics. We still have bishops in the House of Lords, arranging for Church exemptions for themselves from all forms of equality legislation. In England, we still have people forced to sell their houses to pay surprise fees imposed by their Anglican parish church. We still have children denied medical attention by their Christian parents. We still have people, often children, killed during “exorcisms”. And of course we still have a host of Christian inspired laws that restrict what we can do on Sundays.

In truth, our Christian inheritance is relatively small and almost all unwelcome. Pretty much everything we have that is worth having comes not from Christian tradition but from opposition to Christian tradition. 

It’s not much of a record for the Churches to shout about.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Non-Overlapping Magisteria


Christians have made numerous of claims that have turned out to be wrong. Everyone knows about a few of them: the age of the earth, where biblical stories came from, how the diversity of life on earth arose, the impossibility of an Australasian continent, the biblical chronology, the nature of disease, and the structure of the solar system are a few examples.

Up until the late Middle Ages, Christians believed that science was entirely consistent with Christianity. According to the orthodox line God had written two books: the Bible and the natural world. Truth cannot contradict truth, so it followed that the two books must necessarily be fully in accord. If they appeared not to be, then that was because of our limited understanding.

By the end of the Enlightenment this position had become untenable for educated Christians. It was clear that the bible did contradict the evidence of the natural world.  By the time Darwin published his Origin of Species the case was already closed, although the shouting continued. It continues today, although the number of biblical literalists in the West is now minute outside the most backward parts of the USA.

The only realistic reaction to the growing realization that nature and the Bible contradicted each other was religious retreat. Very slowly Churchmen started acknowledging, often in a round-about way, that Christianity did not provide some of the answers. The bible had traditionally been a comprehensive encyclopedia of all world knowledge. Now it was something less than that.

One solution to the problem, as religious minds saw it, was the idea of “non-overlapping magisterial”. In this solution the Church accepted that it had overstepped itself in the past and had erred. It had trespassed into areas where it had no dominion. There were two separate areas of teaching: science addressed questions of how things are as they are, and Christianity addressed questions of why things are as they are. According to this idea, science and religion occupy two fundamentally different and distinct domains of inquiry, two inherently different kinds of knowledge, two non-overlapping magisteria.

This idea has found a number of supporters, including some in the scientific community. In principle it appeals to accommodating types who would like to see science and religion get along together. Stephen J Gould for example was an advocate,  though he seems never to have fully thought it through.

The weakness is that the idea only works if the Church makes a full retreat. There are Church leaders who have tried to make such a retreat. Liberal theologians are safely ensconced in a world where Christianity makes no claims about real historical events, or about anything testable. For them the virgin birth and the resurrection are true only in some vague mysterious non-factual sense. God’s revelation is inherently ineffable. Their position is not unassailable, but for present purposes we will leave them in the safety of their mystical island far removed from the worlds of science and reality.

For Christians other than the most ethereal divines, the solution of non-overlapping magisterial does not work. Traditional Christian doctrine cannot help leaking out of its own magisterium and into the scientific magisterium.

First, it is necessary to redefine a whole host of traditional ideas. Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell can no longer be real places in the physical universe, at a known distance from the surface of the earth, which can be visited, heard or seen by living people in the flesh as they used to be. (In the 1960’s space exploration was opposed by Christians on the grounds that astronauts were trespassing in heaven. One Russian Cosmonaut countered that he’d had a look and God wasn't there. On the internet you can easily find Christian websites claiming to have recordings of the screams of souls in hell, but this is now considered eccentric even by other Christians).

Similarly, Christians had to give up the traditional idea that the soul was a physical organ in the body. (It had been thought to be, or to be part of, the pineal gland). Research to find it stopped, as did experiments to establish its mass by weighing human bodies just before and just after death. The bonus here was that if we cannot find the soul, then we have no chance of seeing the various stamps that God puts on it to mark the sacraments it has undergone.

On the other hand all sorts of supernatural phenomena are able to remain on the grounds that they are not physical. So we can keep angels, demons, ghosts, sanctification, transubstantiation, life-after-death, and religious experiences – as long as we define them in such a way that they are inherently untestable. As has been observed before, this involves a degree of intellectual dishonesty. No philosopher, other than tame theologians, would accept that the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is even meaningful, let alone true.

This opens up another problem for the non-overlapping magisterial theory. In which of the magisteria does philosophy sit? In medieval times philosophy was a branch of theology, but it bore no fruit, withered away, and is now studied only by historians. Modern philosophy is overwhelmingly secular, and has comprehensively discredited every attempt to reinvent theological philosophy. None of the traditional “proofs” of the existence of God survived the Enlightenment. If the Churches had accepted the loss of all philosophical territory then the two magisteria would not overlap. But the Churches have not retreated. There are still University departments of philosophy run by theologians. The Catholic Church is still formally attached to the long-discredited Medieval philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas. And Christians regularly cite medieval "proofs" of God's existence that no reputable philosopher has espoused for centuries. The two magisteria do overlap because Christians have refused to move away from the territory they lost long ago.

There is another problem here. Most Christians are not willing to retreat into the territory of their own magisterium. For example those angels and demons are alright as long as they don’t do anything. But what if they do. What if demons start possessing people, and taking over their behaviour, and need exorcising.  Now you might think that the mainstream Churches had abandoned such ideas long ago. But they have not. All mainstream Churches still employ exorcists to deal with naughty demons who possess believers (oddly, these demons only ever possess believers). The phenomenon of demons possessing people is by its nature one that can be investigated scientifically. Whoops. The two magisterial just overlapped again.

And there are other overlaps. The efficacy of petitionary prayer can be tested. It has been tested and shown to be totally ineffective – but the fact that it can be tested places it in the science magisterium. There are any number of examples like this. Christians who claim to be able to determine the moment of a person’s death (an ability denied to all general practitioners of medicine). Holy relics that work miracles. Christians who can “feel” the sanctity of a sanctified place, and so on.

Yet another problem is that of religious experience. Neuro-scientists have found that by electronically stimulating a certain part of the brain they can generate experiences that the subject regards as “religious”. As you might expect, people of difference religious traditions enjoy different experiences, so that Christians enjoy typically Christian experiences. In which magisterium does this belong? A scientific experiment about religious experience is not easy to place fully in either magisterium.

The whole idea of non-overlapping magisterial is weak as long as Christians continue to make any substantial claims at all.

Now, let’s go back to those liberal theologians who thought they were safe on their remote island of fuzzy thinking and no substantial claims about anything. The central concept in Christianity is the doctrine of Original Sin. No matter that it was invented well after the time of Jesus. No matter that it lacks rational coherence. It is central to Christianity. The doctrine goes like this: Adam and Eve sinned by eating of the Tree of Knowledge. Their sin was so great that (for some reason that has never been articulated) God needed to sacrifice himself in order to expiate such a great sin. Here’s the problem: this central idea depends on a real event, where real people committed a real sin. But our liberal theologians on their island accept that Adam and Eve did not really exist. If they did not exist then they did not sin. And if they did not sin, then there was no sin to expiate, and no need for the crucifixion of resurrection. In other words the whole foundation of Christianity is removed.

The upshot is that those liberal theologians have not found a safe refuge after all. The two magisteria do overlap, and always will as long as Christianity holds to its most central doctrine.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Christian Protocol for Twitter


Standard Christian Protocol 
for Conducting Discussions with Atheists on Twitter 


It has come to our attention that one or two Christians have been trying to conduct rational discussions on Twitter. This is a gross breach of the established conventions, comparable in its enormity to the traditional Christian crime of scientific enquiry, curiositas.

Here is a reminder of the proper, well established, way for Christians to conduct themselves on Twitter and other social media.
  1. Make assertions that are unverifiable, presenting them as objective facts that can be easily be confirmed.
  2. Misunderstand or purport to misunderstand all rational responses.
  3. Conceal the fact that you are employing your own definitions of common words (for example presuming that the word atheist is interchangeable with Communist, satanist and evolutionary scientist.) 
  4. Display a wilful level of ignorance on the topic at hand, and especially on the Bible, Christian teaching before 2000, evolutionary science, history, philosophy, textual criticism and critical thinking.
  5. Employ easily-spotted flawed reasoning, such as circular arguments and non-sequiturs, attack straw-men, and make a point of confusing adequate and necessary conditions. You must also presume causality from correlation whenever possible (unless to so compromises your position).
  6. Once you lose the argument, you must concede in one of two permissible ways (see below)
  7. Block the people who have confounded you.
  8. Tweet your followers, misrepresenting the exchange and claiming victory.

The two permissible ways of conceding an argument:
  • Express your Christian delight at the prospect of the other party burning in Hell for all eternity. Or if you are the more sophisticated passive aggressive type then
  • Say that you are praying for the other party (even though you have not the slightest intention of doing so)
You may, at any stage, complain that anyone who responds to you is persecuting you because of your faith. You may also presume to speak on behalf of your God, even in direct contradiction to the Bible or the teachings of your own Church.

Please  follow these simple conventions. You don't want to stand out from your fellow believers. And always bear in mind that great traditional Christian injunction:  "Reason is the Devil's Whore".


Monday, April 21, 2014

Christian Morality



We hear from time to time about Christian morality, its uniqueness and its superiority over other moralities.

The area is an interesting one, and for several reasons. Let’s first look at the uniqueness of Christian morality. We can broadly identify three areas of morality and it is revealing to look at them separately.

First are areas of morality that pretty much everyone will agree on – such as the principle that we should not lie or steal. The golden rule (“do unto others …”) is familiar in many cultures and predates Jesus by centuries. By definition these moral principles are not specifically Christian, and need not detain us.

Second are areas where Christian morality has changed. There are two striking things about these. The first is that there are so many of them. The other is that the change has always been away from biblical religious morality towards secular humanist morality. A few of hundreds of examples where Churches were once in favour and are now against are: slavery, the inferiority of women, capital offences for biblical crimes, child labour, child marriage, and genocide. Examples where Churches were once against and are now in favour include scientific medical treatment, democracy, labour laws, and penal reform. In many cases the traditional Christian position was, by widely accepted modern secular standards wrong, and often diametrically wrong. In a few cases the position was not so much wrong as arbitrary. Examples here might be drinking alcohol (non-conformists), shopping on a Sunday, or reading the bible.

Third are areas where there is a genuine moral question. For example the question of whether cannibalism is ever justified, and what should one do when faced by “Sophie’s Choice” (the case where you face a dilemma such as the choice of saving one or another of your two children. If you refuse to make a choice then both will die). Another real example is a dilemma faced by Winston Churchill during the Second World War: you know that the enemy will attack a particular city tonight and kill thousands of innocent citizens. If you warn them the enemy will know that you have broken their secret code, in which case they will change the code and cut off a critical source of information. What do you do?

The fascinating thing about these moral dilemmas is that specifically Christian morality is of no practical use at all. Most people would take a practical utilitarian approach of the “lesser of two evils”. Christian moralists have always disagreed with each other, and the best the Catholic Church has managed is to dress up the “lesser of two evils” idea in Christian garb. In its Catholic dress it is known as “the principle of double effect” – the idea was set out by Thomas Aquinas, but in such a way that Catholic theologians have been arguing about it ever since. (A few years ago the principle of double effect could not be applied to aborting ectopic pregnancies, but now it can be, and is, even in Catholic hospitals).

Fourth there a single moral principle that is distinctively Christian. According to the Bible it was taught by Jesus himself. The principle is “Resist not evil”. Shelley, an atheist as well as a poet, was scathing about this distinctive Christian teaching, and with reason. By all modern (ie secular) standards it is a thoroughly immoral doctrine. It is a license for Churches to stand by and watch innocent people suffer in pogroms, massacres, wars and genocide.

With this single exception, Christian morality falls into three distinct categories. In the first the moral idea is so obvious that everyone, including non-Christians, accepts it; alternatively it is so wrong or arbitrary that it has had to change completely, or thirdly it is no practical help at all. In other words by modern standards traditional Christian morality was either not distinctively Christian, or where it was distinctively Christian it was wrong.

In recent times, secular philosophers and psychologists have unwittingly undermined the idea of a distinctive Christian morality. They have devised a series of thought experiments, based on a moral problem called “The trolley problem”. These problems are carefully designed to establish exactly what factors people take into account in making moral decisions.

In the basic problem, there is a runaway trolley barrelling down a railway track. Ahead of it on the track, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them and will kill them. You are standing some distance away, next to a points lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different track. There is one person on this side track. You have two options:  if you do nothing, the trolley will kill the five people on the main track. If you pull the lever diverting the trolley onto the side track, it will kill one person. Do you pull the lever or not?

The most interesting thing about this experiment and various variations of it is that people tend to give very similar answers to the problems irrespective of their religion. Christians give much the same responses as atheists, pagans and people who know nothing about Christianity. The inescapable conclusion is that far from providing a superior moral system, the Christian Churches do not even provide a distinctive moral system.

Other researchers have made other interesting discoveries. Morality is a difficult thing to measure, but we can use proxies. For example in every Christian country where statistics are available the proportion of Christians in the prison population is significantly higher than the percentage of Christians in the overall population. Are Christians more criminal than non-Christians? Another study has found that Christians are more likely than non-Christians to tell lies.

In another study a few years ago psychologists devised an experiment where subjects encountered a slumped groaning figure in front of them on a path. The experimenters were interested in who would stop to offer help. Seminarians on their way to give a talk on the topic of the Good Samaritan were no more likely than others to stop and help.

In short, there is no real evidence that Christian morality is superior to any other in either theory or practice, and some evidence that it is inferior. The fact that the God of the Old Testament is now recognized as a moral monster, even by many Christians, speaks volumes about Christian morality. Whatever the source of our morality, it cannot be a book or a god that we regard as immoral. We must be using some other standard.




More information, with references


Christian Family Values - The Real Ones


Everyone knows that the Christian Churches cherish family values. We hear about it all the time - in schools and churches, on radio and television, and read about it in books and newspapers. All mainstream Churches claim to follow traditional teaching based on Jesus own life and example as described in the gospels. No one disputes this. Or at least we almost never hear about anyone disputing it. This is not because the claim is undisputed. It is because the media fail to give a voice to those who do dispute it.

Let’s break the convention and look at the facts. We’ll start with Jesus’ own life as recorded in the gospels. Theologians have long been embarrassed by the way he spoke to his mother: “Woman, what have I to do with thee” (John 2:4).  The usual explanation is that an element of curtness was unwittingly introduced in the past by translators, but this is simply not true, as the original Greek text or any modern academic translation will confirm. In any case, Jesus rejected his mother more than once, just as he rejected the rest of his family.  When they asked for him he denied his mother and brothers, and said that the followers who were listening to him at the time were his mother and brothers (Mark 3:31-35, c/f Matthew 12:48-49 and Luke 8:20-21).  He denied his mother again at the crucifixion according to one reading of John 19:27. Jesus had no qualms about taking his disciples away from their families. The brothers James and John abandoned their father, leaving him to manage as best he could with the fishing nets they had been preparing together.  Earthly fathers were no more important than mothers. Jesus gave a clear instruction to his followers “call no man your father upon the earth” on the grounds that they had only one father and that was the one in Heaven (Matthew 23:9). On one occasion, a disciple asked permission to go and bury his dead father: “But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury the dead” (Matthew 8:22 c/f Luke 9:60). Jesus then refused another potential follower who asked permission to say good-bye to his family before abandoning them (Luke 9:61-62).  We learn that this attitude was entirely in line with Jesus’ purpose: “For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against the mother in law” (Matthew 10:35). Jesus consistently taught that his followers should abandon and despise their families.  Everlasting life is promised to those who leave their homes and families (Matthew 19:29, Mark 10:29-30 and Luke 18:29-30).  The Luke author gives Jesus’ summary of his views on family life: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26, Cf. Matthew 19:29). A similar sentiment is expressed in the non-canonical Gospel of St Thomas. This gospel goes further “Whoever recognises his father and mother will be called the son of a whore.

Relying on biblical passages, early Christians inferred that family life was worthless and hailed virginity as the ideal. Virgins were holy. Those who indulged their carnal lusts were filthy degenerates.  For the Church Fathers, sex was an inexplicable burden, and the creation of children was a sorrow to all.  In view of this, Christians set about the destruction of family life.  Converts were lured away from their parents, siblings, spouses, and children.  The children of rich converts were often left destitute, their inheritance being diverted into Church coffers. This was a common complaint against Christians in Roman times and is not unknown among Christian sects in modern times. Early Christians discouraged new converts from communicating with non-Christian relatives, just as some Christian sects do today. 

By the fourth century clergymen were occasionally being expected to abandon their wives in emulation of St Peter and the other apostles, all twelve of whom were believed to have abandoned their wives and families.  As Pope Gregory VII put it “The church cannot escape the grip of the laity unless priests first escape from their wives”. Wives were often left abandoned. Many were so desperate that they were driven to suicide.  Those who were not abandoned, if discovered by the Church authorities, were liable to be sold into slavery.
In the Middle Ages ordinary men were encouraged to leave their wives and families.  When preaching the first Crusade, Pope Urban II cited the words of Jesus from Matthew 10:37 and 19:29: “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me…every one that hath forsaken houses or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life”.  In other words a place in heaven was being promised to those who abandoned their families. Preachers lured hundreds of thousands of men away from their families to take the cross.  When St Bernard preached, women went in fear.  Mothers hid their sons from him, wives their husbands.  Bernard proudly informed the Pope of his success: “I opened my mouth; I spoke; and at once the Crusaders have multiplied to infinity. Villages and towns are now deserted. You will scarcely find one man for every seven women. Everywhere you will see widows whose husbands are still alive.” Most of those women were soon to become real widows, but no one bothered to record the numbers. We will never know how many of them died alone of cold, hunger or old age, never knowing the fate of their husbands and sons.

People were expected to put Christian duties before their duties to their family, and inform on any deviation from orthodoxy.  It was a grave offence for a child not to inform on its sinful parents, or for a parent not to inform on their sinful children.  Children had no right to family life, and the Church encouraged people to give their sons to the service of the Church. These children, oblates as they were called, were brought up away from their families, by monks, for the service of the Church. We have no reason to suppose that the scale of abuse of these children was any less than that perpetrated by Churchmen in modern times. Yet in some ways the oblates were lucky. The Church was responsible for worse things done to other boys. After girls had been excluded from church choirs, the Eastern Churches hit upon the idea of using castrated boys to replace falsetto soprano voices.  The idea was copied in Italy and Spain in the sixteenth century.  Popes and Church synods declined to prohibit castration on the pragmatic grounds that without castrati churches would remain empty.  Castrati were entertaining Popes in the Sistine chapel into the twentieth century. It was apparently of no consequence to the Church that these boys, when they reached adulthood, were denied the possibility of an ordinary family life or even married life. The Church would not let them marry, on the grounds that they were unable to father children.

Under Christian hegemony the position of slaves and their families was equally questionable.  Slaves required permission from their Christian owners to marry. Men and women were owned and bred like animals. Slave children did not belong to their parents but to their masters. In nineteenth century America, children of slaves were still being taken from their parents before reaching their first birthday. Far from condemning this, priests and ministers (often slave owners themselves) condoned it. As they so often pointed out, slavery was not merely permitted by God, it was enjoined by God. It would be sinful not to practice slavery. Once again, Christianity did not accord any value to family life per se.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries priests assured Catholic women that they owed a greater duty to the Church than to their husbands. One consequence of this was that they had a responsibility to help priests wanted for treason, even if their husbands did not approve, and even if by so doing they put their innocent husbands at risk of death. Father Henry Garnet wrote a Treatise of Christian Renunciation which contained many examples of families broken asunder by religious differences. Once again the point was clear: families were dispensable. Bonds between husband and wife were not important. One reason for this was that love played no part in the traditional Christian idea of marriage. Arranged marriages were the norm when the Church controlled this area of the law, as it did for many centuries. Under Church Law, children could be betrothed at the age of 7. In practice marriages were often arranged at much lower ages– sometimes months rather than years for the nobility. The traditional Anglican marriage service reflecting Christian ideas identifies three reasons for marriage: procreation, the avoidance of fornication, and mutual society.  Love does not come into it. The Roman Catechism is even more direct: the section on the sacrament of matrimony states that really it would be desirable for all Christians to remain unmarried. As canon 277 of the 1983 Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law affirms: Celibacy is a special gift of God. Following the Church Fathers, the pinnacle of achievement is to remain a virgin, and so not have a family at all. St Alexis won his sainthood by abandoning his new bride on her wedding day.

The poor were not entitled to a family life either. In Victorian times Anglican parochial charities found it perfectly consistent with Christian teachings to split up the families who claimed poor relief. Husbands would be sent to one poor house, women to another. Untold numbers of married couples were split up in this way, never to see each other or their children again. The hereditary sick were also undeserving of family life.  When Hitler discussed them with Cardinal Faulhaber in 1936 the two men agreed that they were a problem, but had different approaches to it.  Hitler wanted to sterilise them, but the Cardinal had another solution. The Catholic theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann cites him as saying “The state, Herr Reich-chancellor, is not debarred from removing these vermin from the national community in the interests of legitimate self-defence and in conformity with moral law, but preventives other than physical mutilation must be sought, and such a preventive does exist: the internment of the hereditary sick”.  He was talking about what we now call concentration camps. The cardinal’s problem with sterilisation was that it would allow people to enjoy sex without the risk of procreation, contrary to the teaching of his Church. To this extent the sterilisation option was morally unacceptable, but there was nothing wrong with splitting up families in order to put individual members into concentration camps.

Non-Christians were not entitled to a family life either. When Christian missionaries failed to make an impact on the locals they could always kidnap children so that the next generation could be indoctrinated into the Christian faith by force. A missionary called Symeon pioneered this method around the Euphrates in the sixth century, scorning the objections of local villagers. Parents who objected started to die in mysterious circumstances, and the rest gave way. The abduction and indoctrination of children became a standard technique when missionaries could make no impact on adults, and this technique would be used with effect for many centuries. Children of members of any faith might be seized by Christian authorities.  Sometimes whole families were seized.  During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Jewish families were taken, often by force, by Christian authorities and subjected to what we would now call brainwashing.  If half of the family converted and half did not, they were split up never to see each other again.  Sometimes wives never saw their husbands again, sometimes parents never saw their children again.  As late as 1858, acting under clerical instructions, the Bolognia police seized a young boy, Edgardo Mortara, from his Jewish family. Despite an international outcry the kidnapped child was kept in Rome by the Catholic Church, and “re-educated”.  His re-education was so successful that he eventually became a missionary priest.  From the age of seven until his death he was never to know a real family, either as son or father. His life was regarded by the Roman Church as a great success, and presumably still is.

Jews were not the only victims. With the complicity of the state, Christians were kidnapping non-Christian children well into the twentieth century.  This practice is generally justified by claiming that non-Christian parents are somehow unsuitable.  North American Indian children were being taken from their families by the Canadian authorities until at least the 1950’s.  Aboriginal children were being taken from their families by the Australian authorities until the 1960’s and put into Christian orphanages.  A Roman Catholic organisation in Switzerland was kidnapping Romany children and sending them to be adopted by Catholic families into the 1970’s.  The children were routinely told that their parents were dead, and that they had no living relatives.  The same thing was common among the children of unmarried mothers around the world – from New Zealand to Ireland and Brazil.  Children were taken by force, generally with the complicity of the authorities, and given up for adoption as “orphans” to the mainstream western Churches.

In Britain children were not taken by force, but by deception. Stigmatised single mothers were encouraged to leave their children with Christian organisations, either to be adopted or to be cared for until the mother could take the child back. Many of these organisations sent children to the colonies without their parents’ consent or knowledge – even when the mothers had stated explicitly that they would return to take their children back. The children were told, falsely, that their parents were dead. They were described as orphans and they grew up believing themselves to be orphans. They were not given their birth certificates or other identification documentation. Sometimes they were provided with new names and even new birthdays. Sometimes their files were burned. In some cases when parents came back to reclaim their children they were told, again falsely, that the children were dead. In other cases mothers were told the truth, but no effort was made to bring their children back. Sometimes two or more brothers and sisters were sent out at the same time. Usually they were split up – destroying the last vestige of a family relationship. These children were to remain in institutions throughout their childhood. When Australian families came forward to foster them, traditionalist Churches preferred to keep the children in institutions. An official report in Western Australia in 1959 indicated that “practically all children could be adequately fostered if the institutions were not loath to part with them…”. The last child migrations to Australia took place in 1967. By then between 100,000 and 150,000 children had been shipped around the world, away from their roots and their families. As middle-aged adults, many of these “orphans” discovered in the 1980s that they were not orphans at all, and some that their parents were still alive. Parents discovered that their children were not dead, as they had been told. The emotional turmoil caused by this deliberate “deceit and deception” was documented by Margaret Humphreys in her book Empty Cradles.


So there it is. Over the centuries, Christianity has been responsible for untold millions of abandoned wives, divided families, and stolen and disinherited children. The current attachment to family values is an innovation, and runs contrary to both Jesus’ teachings and the historical stance of all mainstream Churches. It is only since the 1960’s that the Churches have found it expedient to adopt this position.  As Don Cupitt, a leading liberal churchman, noted: “The idealisation of the family is a modern cultural creation, which the Churches have validated, and now no modern bishop would dream of publicly endorsing Jesus’ views about the family.” Among Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, Methodist and Baptist theologians much creative imagination goes into the pretence that the gospels do not mean what they plainly say: that followers of Jesus must hate their families.  Except for a few men and women who abandon their families to become hermits or anchorites, or monks or nuns in closed orders, there are now virtually no Christians who follow Jesus’ teaching about family life. The only significant group keeping up the old traditions are Christian missionaries, still quietly breaking up families around the world, telling new converts to leave their non-Christian spouses, siblings, parents and children – just as Christian missionaries have done since Roman times. As they will proudly tell you, they are doing exactly what Jesus wanted them to do. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Christian Slavery

Who was responsible for the abolition of slavery in Britain? It was William Wilberforce wasn’t it. He epitomised Christian thought on the matter. Slavery was anathema to all right thinking Christians. That’s what most of us were all taught at school. That’s what many children are still being taught. Well here’s a question. If Christianity was so opposed to the practice of slavery, why did it take well over a fourteen hundred years for Christians to ban it? The Christian Churches were the sole moral authorities in much of the west from the fourth century to the eighteenth century AD. During that time the established Christian Churches had the unquestioned power to prohibit slavery. Yet they did not prohibit it. They did not even try. On the contrary, they supported it, authorised it and even practised it themselves. This is not easy to square with the version of history we are so familiar with. So let’s unpick the truth.

From the earliest times Christians had no doubt that slavery was divinely sanctioned. They used a number of Old and New Testament quotations to prove their case.  Looking at the relevant passages it is clear that the Bible does indeed endorse slavery.  In the Old Testament God approved the practice and laid down rules for buyers and sellers (Exodus 21:1-6, Leviticus 25:44).  Men are at liberty to sell their own daughters (Exodus 21:7).  Slaves can be inherited (Leviticus 25:45-6).  It is acceptable to beat slaves, since they are property (Exodus 21:20).  A master who beats his slave to death is not to be punished as long as the slave stays alive for a day or two, as the loss of the master’s property is punishment enough:

And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.  Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.        (Exodus 21:20-21)

Do not be mislead by the word servant here. The Authorized Version invariably uses the word servant where the natural translation is slave, in order to minimize the full import  Most modern translations use the word slave, a more accurate rendering of the Hebrew 'ebhedh, Greek doulos. Masters buy and sell slaves, not servants.

If a slave is gored by a bull, it is the master, not the slave, who is to be compensated (Exodus 21:32).  Time and time again the Old Testament confirms that slaves are property and their lives are of little consequence.  To prove the strength of Job’s faith, God sends Satan to test him by visiting disasters upon him.  Among these disasters is the killing of Job’s numerous slaves (Job 1).  Neither God, nor Satan, nor the story’s narrator finds it at all odd that people should be killed just to prove a point – they are only Job’s property and their destruction is naturally bracketed with the loss of his livestock and vineyards.

The New Testament also regards slavery as acceptable.  It instructs slaves to accept their position with humility (Ephesians 6:5-8), and to please their masters in everything (Titus 2:9, c/f Colossians 3:22).  They are commanded to serve Christian slave owners better than other masters (1 Timothy 6:1-2).  Even oppressive masters are to be obeyed according to 1 Peter 2:18.  Jesus mentioned slavery more than once in the New Testament, but never with the slightest hint of criticism of it.  Christians interpreted this as not merely acceptance, but approval. If Jesus had opposed slavery he would, they claimed, surely have said so.  Church Fathers instructed the faithful not to let slaves get above themselves, and the Church endorsed St Augustine’s view that slavery was ordained by God as a punishment for sin. Soon the Christian Church would become the largest slave owner in the Roman Empire. 

In pagan times slaves who escaped and sought sanctuary at a holy temple would not be returned to their masters if they had a justifiable complaint.  When the Roman Empire became Christian, escaped slaves could seek refuge in a church, but they would always be returned to their masters, whether they had a justifiable complaint or not.  When Christian slaves in the early Asian Church suggested that community funds might be used to purchase their freedom, they were soon disabused of their hopes, a line supported by Ignatius of Antioch, one of the greatest Church Fathers.  He declared that their ambition should be to become better slaves, and they should not expect the Church to gain their liberty for them.  Bishops themselves owned slaves and accepted the usual conventions.  So did other churchmen.  Slave collars dating from around AD 400 have been found in Sardinia, stamped with the sign of the cross and the name ‘Felix the Archdeacon’ - the name of the owner, not the slave.  Pagan slaves who wanted to become Christians required permission from their masters.  For many centuries, right up to modern times, servile birth was a bar to ordination, and the Church confirmed the acceptability of slavery in many other ways.  For example, the Church Council of Ch├ólons in AD 813 decreed that slaves belonging to different owners could not marry without their owners’ consent. 

The Church found new reasons to take people into slavery.  The Third Synod of Toledo in AD 589 decreed that women found in the houses of a clergyman in suspicious circumstances should be sold into slavery by the clergyman’s bishop.  In attempting to enforce clerical celibacy later popes revived the idea of taking the wives and concubines of churchmen into slavery.  Urban II tried the idea against subdeacons’ wives in 1089.  In 1095 wives of priests were sold into slavery as well.  Urban’s successor, Leo IX, had priest’s wives taken into slavery for service at the Lateran Palace.  Saints, Popes and Church Officials approved the practice of slavery for centuries.  Slavery was a major trade in Christendom.  Until the early tenth century the main Venetian export was slaves from central Europe.  Later the Genoese developed another major Mediterranean slave trade..  In Spain a single inquisitor, Torquemada, condemned 91,371 people to slavery.

The record of the Anglican Church was no better than that of the Roman Church.  It was the universal opinion of churchmen that God had ordained slavery, and clergymen had no qualms about owning slaves themselves.  Anglican slave traders were often extremely devout, and widely respected by their fellow Christians.  It never occurred to them, or to their priests or ministers, that slave trading might be immoral.  The most famous English slave trader, Sir John Hawkins, a particularly pious man, had slave ships named  Angel, Jesus, and Grace of God

Since they were merely property, there could be no objection to branding slaves just like any other animal.  Neither was there any obligation to treat them more humanely than animals in other ways.  Prices depended on supply and demand like any other commodity.  Female breeders would be sold at a premium prices, especially after the importation of African slaves to North America and the Caribbean ceased.  Sometimes slaves were hamstrung to stop them escaping.  If they had escaped before, they could have a leg amputated to stop them doing so again.  Once their working lives were over, they were put-down. Where was the right to life then, one wonders. Black slaves in the Caribbean and Americas received very little education, but what they were allowed was mainly religious.  Preachers tended to concentrate on biblical passages that endorsed slavery and counselled passive acceptance of it. A favourite passage was “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh”.(1 Peter 2:18, New International Version). Among missionaries, the problem of preventing slaves from enjoying themselves on the Sabbath appears to have been far more important than the ethical question of slavery itself.

Slave owning Churchmen were not particularly notable as good masters.  Indeed some of the worst masters were clergymen.  In the court of St Ann’s in Jamaica in 1829 the Rev. G. W. Bridges was charged with maltreating a female slave.  For a trivial mistake he had stripped her, tied her by the hands to the ceiling so that her toes hardly touched the ground, then flogged her with a bamboo rod until she was a “mass of lacerated flesh and gore” from her shoulders to her calves.  The facts were established, but as usual in such cases he was acquitted. 

Important questions for the Church were the extent of slave owners’ rights to flog or burn their human property, to split up their families, and to demand sexual gratification from them.  This last must have been a particular problem, since owners could point to several biblical passages which take it for granted that a slave girl is available for her master’s sexual desires.  This was clearly difficult to square with the knowledge that sex was sinful. 

Slavery was not confined to selected races or to members of other religions: Christians routinely condemned their fellow believers to slavery.  John Knox for example spent eighteen months as a galley-slave under French Catholics.  In the late eighteenth century Popes still held slaves, as did Anglican clergymen.  It was still beyond question that slavery was ordained by God, and therefore unimpeachable.  In the second part of The Age of Reason published in the 1790’s Thomas Paine noted that, in the Book of Numbers, Moses had given instructions as to how to treat Midianite captives.  Essentially, everyone was to be executed except virgins, whom the victors were allowed to keep alive for themselves.  God then gave instructions as to how the booty, including 32,000 virgins, should be divided up between the victors.  Paine summarised the relevant passage: “Here is an order to butcher the boys, to massacre the mothers, and debauch the daughters”.  In response to this, Bishop Watson of Llandaff pointed out that the virgins had not been spared for any immoral purpose, as Paine had wickedly suggested.  Rather, he said, they were spared so that they could be taken into slavery.  Obviously, there could be no ethical objection to this, since slavery was divinely sanctioned.  The bishop’s rebuttal was perfectly acceptable to mainstream eighteenth century Christians, who found sex objectionable but slavery not at all objectionable.  According to the Churches, slavery was not merely permitted, it was obligatory.  Slavery was a God-given institution.  To oppose what God had sanctioned was positively sinful. 

In America opposition to slavery was first voiced by freethinkers such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine.  Initially a Quaker, later a Deist, Paine was widely condemned as an unbeliever.  He wrote an influential article against slavery in 1775, and when he drafted the American Declaration of Independence the following year, he included a clause against slavery that was later struck out.  Under Quaker influence, slavery was made illegal in the state of Pennsylvania in 1780. Other campaigners included the rationalist James Russell Lowell, the sceptical ex-preacher Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the freethinker Wendell Phillips.  While Thomas Paine opposed slavery in America, his fellow freethinkers opposed it in his native country.  Granville Sharp, a humanitarian lawyer, sought to bring cases before the courts, arguing that throwing slaves overboard to drown was murder.  (The prevailing Christian view was that a ship’s captain was free to jettison them, just like any other property, for example to save the ship in a storm).  Within a few years, by 1787, a campaign to abolish the Atlantic slave trade was started by a group of Quakers.  It was supported by non-believers.  As it grew it was joined by various nonconformists groups and a few evangelical Christians, but it was consistently opposed by all traditional Churches and mainstream Christian sects. 

William Wilberforce is usually accredited with abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, though he came many years after the first abolitionist campaigners.  He too was an unbeliever when he espoused abolition.  Later as an Evangelical he was able to sit in Parliament (which unbelievers were not).  There he stood out among his fellow Christians as an exception.  He noted that those who opposed slavery were non-conformists and godless reformers, and that Church people were indifferent to the cause of abolition, or else actively obstructed it.  His grass-root support came from Quakers, Unitarians, Utilitarians, and assorted Freethinkers and religious sceptics.  Like the freethinkers who had started the movement, Wilberforce was condemned by the mainstream Churches as presuming to know better than the bible.

The Church had enjoyed 1500 years during which it had had the power to ban slavery, but had failed to do so, or even to have expressed any desire to do so.  Now that change was in the air, the mainstream churches opposed reform with all their power.  They vilified reformers and attacked them for daring to question the plain word of God.  Anglican Clergymen still owned slaves and continued to oppose abolition well into the nineteenth century.  One of their number was the most effective supporter of slavery during the 1820’s abolitionist campaign in Jamaica.  All mainstream Churches agreed with the traditional view that slavery was ordained by God.  To practice slavery was therefore meritorious, and to try to stop the practice was sinful.  With the exception of Quakers, all denominations agreed.  In 1843 some 1,200 Methodist ministers owned slaves in the USA. 

Under popular pressure generated by secular thinkers, all of the mainstream Churches except the Baptists performed a volte face during the nineteenth century.  When enough of their members had moved over to the abolitionist cause, the Churches followed.  Priests, bishops and popes felt obliged to cease owning slaves.  Slavery was criticised for the first time by a pope (Gregory XVI) in 1839, but it was not until the Berlin Conference of 1884 that Catholic countries fell into line with Protestant ones on the question of slavery, agreeing that it should be suppressed.  The official U turn came in 1888 when Pope Leo XIII declared in In plurimis that the Church was now opposed to it. 

In the USA the pattern was similar: slavery was advocated by nineteenth century Churchmen, though secular forces opposed it.  It was a commonplace that “Slavery is of God”.  Christian ministers wrote almost half of all defences of slavery published in America.  Such defences were routinely produced by the Churches.  Along with these defences, Christian Churches circulated biblical texts on the subject of “Negro inferiority”, and the need for total unquestioning obedience.  A civil war was fought before the Christian South was forced to abandon slavery in 1863.  Yet the Southern Presbyterian Church could still resolve in 1864 that it was their peculiar mission to conserve the institution of slavery, and to make it a blessing to both master and slave.  To hold that slavery was inherently evil was “one of the most pernicious heresies of modern times”. 

Black slaves were not permitted to learn to read or write, since education was seen as a threat to God’s natural order.  An American slave who adopted the name Frederick Douglas was exceptional in that he learned to read and write in secret.  After he was granted his freedom he wrote:

Were I to be again reduced to chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me…[I] hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-stripping, cradle plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.

The Christianity he had in mind was not particularly American.  Nor is it yet dead.  There are still Christians prepared to uphold the traditional Christian line.  In 1996 Charles Davidson, a devout Christian Senator from Alabama, said that slavery had been good for blacks, and pointed out that the practice had biblical approval, citing the traditional proof-texts such as Leviticus 25:44 and 1 Timothy 6:1.  As he well knew, he still held the traditional Christian line, while almost all other Christians had abandoned it and even largely forgotten about it.

The story now propagated by some Churches – that they were responsible for abolition – is simply false.  The first country to abolish slavery was France, under an anti-clerical revolutionary government in the 1790’s.  Abolition came in Britain in the early nineteenth century, in the teeth of fierce opposition from the Anglican Church, and it was achieved through the efforts of an alliance of unbelievers, freethinkers, Quakers and fringe Christians who galvanised public opinion.  In the USA it came in the second half of the century, again in the face of intense opposition from the Churches.  The abolitionists won largely because slavery was no longer financially viable. Strongly Catholic Brazil was the last Christian country to abolish slavery in 1888.

The only significant Christian sect that has any reason to be proud about its record is the Quakers. All other mainstream Churches have a record which is so much of an embarrassment that an entirely fictitious version has had to be invented. This is the familiar version that the Churches started teaching in the twentieth century, with orthodox Christians playing the part of the good guys. It proved so much more edifying than the truth that schools are still teaching it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Mealy Mouthed Christians


Have you noticed a change in the arguments used by Christians when they want to impose their views on others?  Three generations ago the arguments were very clear, and explicitly religious. They went like this:
  • You must not drink alcohol because it is a sin and will lead you to hell.
  • You must not gamble because it is a blasphemy against God and he will damn you for all eternity.
  • You must not fornicate because the Bible tells us that fornication is a serious crime against God.
  •  You must not masturbate because it will cause all sorts of illness that reflect the mortal sin in your soul.
  • You must not allow abortions because they are prohibited in the Bible, and have been forbidden by the Church since biblical times.
  •  If you allow equality for women you will flout the Bible and Saint Paul, flying in the face of God, and doing Satan's work. The women will suffer from the vapours, hysteria, epilepsy and other serious medical consequences.
  • We must execute homosexuals because God considers homosexuality an “abomination”
  • We cannot allow suicide, euthanasia or heart transplants, because that would be “playing God” – usurping the divine monopoly and upsetting God’s plans for bodily resurrection on the Day of Judgement.

Since the Second World War Christian arguments have changed remarkably, at least  among the mainstream Churches. Now only fringe groups hold to the traditional line, citing the nastier parts of the Old Testament and threatening Satan's hell-fire to anyone who ignores them. Mainstream Churches have found new ways to try to impose their ideas on others. 

The first one is the "slippery slope" argument. Drinking alcohol is not so bad itself, but if you drink you might well become dependent on drink and then become an alcoholic and ruin your life. You should not gamble for the same reason. It will lead you into a life of misery and destroy your family. If you tolerate same sex marriage then soon people will be demanding the right to marry animals (I’m not making this up - this is a real argument). If you permit euthanasia even in the strictest conditions it will be the thin end of the wedge. In no time rapacious individuals will be encouraging their elderly relative to do away with themselves. Churches like this mode argument for perhaps three reasons. First it can be applied to almost anything they dislike. Second, it does not need any supporting evidence. Third it allows the Churches to portray themselves as loving and caring, with other people’s interests at heart.

The next mode of argument is a development of an old argument that they once used for masturbation and women's rights – imaginary medical consequences. If you use contraception you will spread various diseases (the opposite of the truth). If you have an abortion, you stand a high risk of dying or at the very least becoming infertile (untrue). If you use fetal stem cells, you might catch AIDS (untrue). A generation ago medical arguments were used liberally by Christians opposed to organ transplants, but those arguments have diminished now to almost nothing.

The interesting thing about both of these modes of argument is that there is no religious element to them at all. As the Churches know, religious arguments are toxic. They convince no one, and offend many. In most western countries we have not heard the mainstream Churches articulate a religious argument to justify their desire to prohibit people doing things for several years now. Religious groups peddling religious nonsense have been superseded by "faith groups" peddling irrational nonsense.

I suppose it’s a victory of sorts.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Militant, Fundamentalist, Extremist, Aggressive, Fanatical, Rabid Atheists


We have been hearing a lot recently about militant atheists. They are described variously as militant, extremist, fundamentalist, aggressive, fanatical or even rabid. Sometimes they are characterized as secularists rather than atheists, but with the same set of vivid adjectives. I assume these terms are being used to describe the same bunch of rationalists, and I am fascinated by the concept of an extremist, aggressive, fundamentalist, fanatical, rabid militant atheist. I started to think about what one must look like. My first guess was that it would be a mirror image of an extremist aggressive religious zealot. Now we all know what aggressive religious zealots look like because there are countless thousands of them, and they are always in the news. Some kill innocent people, often children, in the course of exorcising imaginary evil spirits. Some of them murder medical professionals for performing operations that they do not agree with, and crowds of like-minded believers cheer and applaud such murderers. Some opt to sit and watch their children die of easily treatable medical conditions, believing that God will save them if they pray hard enough. Some work to bring about a third world war, imagining that it will fulfil scripture and herald the end of the world, the “End Times” that they so desire. Some are assassins and suicide bombers. So where are the extremist, aggressive, fundamentalist, fanatical, rabid atheist counterparts that we also hear so much about – let’s just call them extremist aggressive atheists to save space. I worked hard but could not find a single one – no secularist does anything remotely like any of this, driven by his or her secular philosophy. If there were one, I think we could all agree that he or she was insane and not representative of any larger community. The nearest I could find were atheists who support voluntary euthanasia and a woman’s right abortion – but no secularist seems to be campaigning for compulsory euthanasia or compulsory abortion, or intimidating people with different opinions, or murdering people, or killing their own children in pursuance of their secular beliefs – so not really convincing as a mirror image of religious zealotry.

I tried a different tack. These wicked atheists oppose traditional Christian values, so let’s look at traditional Christian values and see why atheists opposed them and what they have to offer instead. Here are just a few of many examples. For the entire period of over 1,500 years while Christian values were the sole arbiters of morality, slavery was permitted, endorsed, and enjoined by reference to scripture. Clergymen of all ranks in all major denominations owned slaves. The movement against slavery was pioneered by secularists and supported by fringe groups such as Quakers and Unitarians. As far as I know, all secularists since Thomas Paine have opposed slavery. Public pressure caused Christians in Parliament to follow them. When slavery was abolished in the UK, Churches and individual churchmen had to be paid compensation for the loss of their slaves. The picture is the same on capital punishment. Christians supported capital punishment well into the twentieth century, again on the grounds that it was permitted, endorsed, and enjoined by scripture. The practice of judicial killings was pared down by secular values from the Renaissance onward as Christians were prevented from using the law to execute proto-scientists, vegetarians, midwives, people who damaged Church property, blasphemers, apostates, critics of clerical abuses, homosexuals, atheists and other Christians who did not agree with the locally approved Christian line of the day. By a very large factor, more Christians have been persecuted and killed by other Christians, than by any other group. Secularists were instrumental in progressively limiting the range of capital crimes in the face of intense Christian hostility. Similarly for branding, mutilation and corporal punishment. As far as I could find there is no group of secularists supporting capital punishment, branding, mutilation or corporal punishment for any crime.

Again, under centuries of Christian hegemony, European legal systems adopted barbarous practices such as trial by ordeal. Even in Church trials that did not rely on supernatural forces there was a presumption of guilt, not of innocence. Accused persons were not given details of charges against them nor of the evidence against them, were not allowed to call defence witnesses, were not permitted to cross examine prosecution witnesses, or even to see them, and were not permitted legal representation as of right. Under Church law, though not the secular common law, accused persons could be tortured to obtain confessions. Judges, jury and prosecution could be the self same clerics. Trickery and threats were standard, officially recommended, techniques. Again I could not find any secularists advocating anything like the mirror image of any of this. No secularist advocates burning all Christians alive. As far as I can tell all secularists support the idea of fair trials for all, as they have since the age of Voltaire. The story of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of belief, freedom of the press, is much the same. Secularists pioneered the idea of using prison to reform people rather than as a form of punishment and revenge. Christians have burned countless thousands of books. As far as I can tell no secularist advocates book burning.

Traditional Christianity featured various kinds of discrimination. Churches discriminated against women (and still do). They discriminated on grounds of sexual orientation (and still do). Churches discriminated against certain races until the mid twentieth century, some of them even later. Churches discriminated in favour of those of noble birth, and against those of humble birth. They discriminated in favour of clerics and against laymen. They discriminated against children born out of wedlock (some still do). They were consistently anti-Semitic for almost two thousand years. They discriminated against the deaf, the injured and the handicapped. Some Churches still do. Are there any secularists advocating discrimination like this? If there are, they’re keeping a very low profile. Apart from reasonable and well-accepted grounds for assigning legal rights and duties (such as age and capacity) I have not been able to find any secularists advocating any form of discrimination comparable to that practised by Christians. They all seem to share the view that the law should be the same for all. There are other examples – warmongering, prison reform, human rights and dozens of others - but this is enough to make the point. There simply are no secularists advocating slavery for Christians. No secularists advocating the death penalty – or any penalty – for Christians. There are no secularists advocating the burning of all bibles, or indeed any bibles, or any books at all. There are no secularists advocating discrimination in favour of themselves, or against religious groups. They all seem to want a completely neutral system where all are treated equally. There are no secularists who want to prohibit the practice of religion – as long as it is subject to the normal laws on murder, child abuse, fraud, animal cruelty, perverting the course of justice, and so on. Sure, some secularists object to preferential treatment for religious groups, but that opinion can hardly be classified as extremist, aggressive, fanatical or rabid. It’s an obvious corollary of equal treatment for all.

Having failed again, I tried a third tack. Let’s be as generous as possible. Let’s accept that the first group, large as it is, is not representative of most ordinary militant aggressive Christians. We cannot deny that the second group represented the overwhelming position of Christians for many centuries, but that was in the past. Most Christians now generally share secular ideas. So for our third attempt let’s look not at the extreme wing of modern Christianity, but at the part of the mainstream nearest that extreme. Who occupies this part of the belief spectrum – still within the mainstream remember? One group of candidates might be the Christians telling people that condoms do not protect from AIDS, but actually cause AIDS – so causing thousands, perhaps millions, of unnecessary deaths. Another might be those who indoctrinate children and tell them lies, for example that the bible is literally true and that the world no more than six thousand years old. Another is the large number of Christian leaders practicing faith healing through prayer in preference to genuine medical intervention for treatable conditions. Another might be Christian missionaries systematically destroying local cultures around the world. Another might be the fundamentalists funding campaigns to introduce the death penalty for homosexuality in a number of African countries, or church leaders in the UK “fanning the flames of homophobia” as one government minister recently put it. Are there secularists who are the mirror image of these believers? I could not find any secularists telling deliberate lies about condoms, science, faith healing, homosexuality or anything else, or trying to get minorities executed, or destroying local communities. As far as I can tell they all value the truth, whatever it might be. They all favour open mindedness, factual evidence and rational deduction. So once again, even with this liberal definition, I could find no extremist aggressive atheists, not a single one. This method of looking for mirror images of unlovable religious groups does not seem to work – there simply are no atheists at the extreme non-belief end of the spectrum to provide a mirror image to believers at the other end.

One more go. Let’s try a different tack. We know the names of specific philosophers, scientists and writers who have frequently been named as extremist aggressive atheists – people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet, and Stephen Pinker. What do they and people like them believe. Fortunately, they do seem to share many opinions, so we do seem to have a chance here. They all reject supernatural beings and supernatural explanations. They all value truth and learning. They all advocate identical rights and duties for all. They all agree on basic freedoms and dislike censorship. They oppose cruelty of all kinds. You might think that they would not want religious topics to be taught in schools – but none of them say they want that. They all want aspects of religion to be taught, for example comparative religion, the history of religion, the sociology of religion, and traditional philosophical arguments for and against different religions. What they object to is religion dressed up as science and opinion presented as fact. They all criticise indoctrination of all kinds along with deliberate fraud, cruelty and hypocrisy. Again, they all recognize that some good things have come out of religious endeavours – they appreciate great religious art, great religious architecture, great religious poetry, and so on. They recognize the numinous. Most, perhaps all, love the beauty of the language of the Authorized Version of the bible. They know a lot more about Christian history and theology than most Christians. They turn out to enjoy Christmas and have no objection to calling it Christmas rather than the absurd modern term Winter Festival.

So this is it. Now I know who these wicked people are. They are people just like me. It turns out that I am one of these extremist aggressive atheists. I don’t believe in fairies, demons, pixies, angels or gods – and I even have doubts about Santa Claus. I am one of those wicked fanatics determined to destroy our great Christian heritage by siding with truth and reason, promoting equality, supporting a wide range of characteristically secular freedoms, and advocating equality before the law with no exemptions or preferential treatment for any religion or any other group. I love the language of the Authorized Version. I am a student of Church architecture. I have an interest in Church history. I listen to Bells on Sunday every week. My favourite poem is the Rime of The Ancient Mariner, a distinctly Christian poem. One particular Christmas Carol brings tears to my eyes every year. Yet, I’ve been an extremist, aggressive, militant, fundamentalist, fanatical, rabid atheist for years and never realized it. Wow. Come to think about it, there must be hundreds of millions of people like me. How about you? You could be one too. With this definition of an extremist, aggressive, militant, fundamentalist, fanatical, rabid atheist, we might already be in the majority in Western Europe. We certainly are in Northern Europe.


Using the normal sense of the words these atheists are not really extremist, aggressive, militant, fanatical, or rabid. At most you could describe them as critical. In fact that is what seems to provoke all these hostile terms – the fact that there are prepared to voice their criticism. One might almost be tempted to question the motives of anyone talking about extremist, aggressive, militant, fanatical, or rabid atheists – it’s just a way of reacting to criticism without having to face it.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Who Counts as a Christian?


Who counts as a Christian? You might think this is a pointless question, and you think so for several reasons. You might think the answer is obvious. You might think it does not matter.

The answer is not obvious and it does matter. Why does it matter? Well for one thing the number of Christians and other religious groups in the population is an important consideration in all sorts of public policy. In Britain, the state subsidises and promotes Christianity because this is a “Christian Country”. It supports an Established Church, allowing bishops to sit in parliament. It exempts churches from a range of taxes and from laws that apply to secular organisations. It massively subsidises religious schools – what we now euphemistically call Faith Schools. Even ordinary schools are required by law to carry out daily acts of “broadly Christian worship”.  We all pay for thousands of chaplains in the armed forces, hospitals, prisons, police forces, and so on. And it is not only the state. The BBC acts as an unpaid propaganda machine for religion in general and Christianity in particular. The BBC’s religious programming departments pumps out a diet of programmes uniformly sympathetic to a particular strand of ecumenical moderate belief. Even national newspapers run columns angled at Christian believers. All this social engineering is done on the grounds that a large portion of the population is Christian.

So it really does matter who counts as a Christian. If the proportion of believers in the population is to determine matters like parliamentary representation, tax exemptions, planning and other legal privileges, financial subsidies, special educational rights and so on, then we need to know how many Christians there are, and if they are in an overwhelming majority as they certainly were in the 1950s.

There are several ways of determining who is a Christian. All of them are questionable, but let’s just look at a few of them. The method Churches themselves traditionally use are statistics based on baptisms. This method gives quite a high proportion (70% but falling). It is high for the very obvious reason that it includes apostates and indeed most of the country’s atheists, agnostics, rationalists. Most were baptized, as infants, without their consent. Even if baptisms drop off dramatically, as they are doing, it will take two or three generations for the statistics to catch up – by which time even more generations of infants will have been counted as members of the fold.

Incensed by this, a number of non-believers have tried to get themselves removed from the numbers cited by individual churches. Their stories make interesting reading – you can find lots of them on the internet. A few years ago most Churches were stating that there is no mechanism to reverse a baptism. A number of atheist websites offered debaptisim certificates as a joke, but realised that there was a serious demand after tens of thousands expressed an interest. In countries that impose an opt-out church tax, like Germany, hundreds of thousands started opting out it. From 1983 to 2009 the Catholic Church allowed people to “defect” through a formal act called an actus formalis defectionis ab Ecclesia catholica, but provision for this was removed from the Code of Cannon Law in 2009.  Since then baptised Roman Catholics have started going out of their way to get themselves excommunicated in order to be formally removed from membership. In France 71 year-old Rene Lebouvier won a legal case in 2012 to get his name removed from the baptismal registry. Anglican Churches now have formal application forms for people to be “unbaptized”. Other churches still have no mechanism at all for officially leaving them.

In any case it is clear that 70% is a massive overestimate based on the faulty assumption that anyone baptised into a Church will remain a believer, and that it is so unreliable that it is worthless. Suppose we counted only those Christians who had been baptized or confirmed as adults. What would that number of Christians be? 1%, 2% perhaps 3% of the population. Now of course this is not an accurate figure, no one would claim that it was. But it is no more misleading than the one the Churches use. It is just biased in the opposite direction.

Another way to assess the number of Christians is the one used on Census forms. Here people self-identify as Christians. In the 2001 Census 72% of the population identified themselves as Christian.  In 2011 this had dropped to 54%. This figure is the one favoured by the Government. You might have thought that it would represent an accurate figure – why would anyone identify themselves as Christians if they are not? Well there are a number of reasons, most significantly among them cultural and social. In 2012 the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (UK) sponsored independent professional market researchers, Ipsos MORI, to find out a little bit more about the people who identified themselves as Christians in the 2012 census. The results were astonishing. Only about a third of 'Census-Christians' cited religious beliefs as the reason they had ticked the Christian box on the 2011 Census form – so arguably the a real number of self identified Christian believers is really a third of 54%, something like 18%. And this is all Christians – Anglicans represent less than half of this. So we have an Established Church to favour less than 10% of the population and heavily distorted laws to favour them along with a further 10%.

The results of the survey are available for anyone to view on line.  They make fascinating reading. 6% of 'Census-Christians' are out-and-out atheists. An astonishing 32% are not really Christians at all but pantheists or Deists. 50% do not regard themselves as religious people. More than half either regard Jesus as just a man rather than “the Son of God, the Saviour of mankind” or do not believe that he existed at all. Few 'Census-Christians' go to church very often, and most go for non-religious reasons such as “tradition” or social reasons. One can only speculate about how many 'Census-Christians' would agree with the central Christian dogmas of the Incarnation and the Trinity. The question was not included in the survey, but based on the rest of the survey the number could easily be less than 20%.

We could also define a Christian as someone who looks primarily to their religious teachings and beliefs on questions of right or wrong. Well we know the answer to that one too. It is exactly 10% of 'Census-Christians', so 5.4% of the population at large.

Of course there are other ways of finding out how many Christians there are. Another survey could test them on the basic knowledge of the teachings of the sect they say they belong to, or on the central doctrines of their church – the ones that Church leaders affirm are necessary for salvation. Intuition suggests that we might be hard pushed to get above 10% of the population on this basis. Intuition also suggests that Church and State will find reasons not to carry out such surveys, or even to agree on working definitions of the word “Christian”.

So there we are. We have no clear definition of what a Christian is. Those with an incentive to do are left to massively inflate the number of Christians without challenge. And the rest of us pay heavily for it in under-representation in parliament, millions perhaps billions of pounds in extra taxes, and second rate state schools. It’s time perhaps to clean up some definitions, do some proper statistics, re-evaluate government policy, stop discrimination and join the twenty-first century.