I watched the interactive debate on Thursday night between the three party leaders. Election time is a test for voters as much as for politicians. We have to assess their fiercely competing claims and decide who should run the country.
Something similar is true of religion. The Kalamas people had this problem when visiting preachers all said that they were right and that everyone else was wrong. The Buddha gave them the following advice.
Don't rely on scripture, on tradition, on popular understanding, on abstract argument not backed by evidence. Instead, use evidence from your own experience or those of people you trust to assess the claims of those who say they possess truth. Question them and don't simply accept them at face value.
Friday, 16 April, 2010, 04:50 PMOver the years, I have read various attempts by Christians and Muslims to reconcile the idea of a omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and omnibenevolent God with an apparently arbitrary world where the innocent suffer as much and sometimes more than the guilty, eg:
1. A perfect world would be boring and unchallenging. [If we were perfect, we couldn’t be bored, and as we have no opportunity to live in a perfect world there is no way we can know whether it would be preferable to the one we are in. In any case, this argument assumes that God had only two options – either to make the world perfect or leave it as it is, but if he is omnipotent there are thousands of possibilities - he could have chosen, for example, to construct a world without earthquakes and/or make human beings kinder, less aggressive or territorial, without making them perfect.]
2. We are all fallen creatures as a result of our distant ancestors’ disobedience to God, and therefore suffering is inevitable. It is possible that some of us may be saved through the blood sacrifice of Jesus and enjoy everlasting bliss in the hereafter, but meanwhile we have to put up with this life which is a vale of tears. [The concept of ancestral sin being passed on to future generations is extremely questionable morally and ethically, which is why many Christians today tend to sideline it, but without original sin the central doctrine of Christianity – ie, the vicarious expiation by Jesus Christ for that sin – is rendered meaningless. We may also question why God set up Adam and Eve to fail, and why he demanded such a terrible price for the sin he knew in advance would be committed.]
3. Suffering is the inevitable price we pay for free will. [Only a proportion of human suffering is willed. Natural disasters, disease, hereditary illnesses, for example, have little or nothing to do with the exercise of free will. Anyway how much ‘free will’ do humans have in practice? Over many major events of their lives such as being born, genetic inheritance and ageing they have none. Those in the Third World who are poor and dispossessed, with no access to education, health care or even life’s basic necessities have even less. Has a new-born baby got ‘free will’? And is ‘free will’ compatible with an all-seeing, all-knowing God who knows in advance the choices we will make?]
4. Suffering gives the better off the chance to help and show compassion towards the less better off. [Morally this argument is as shot full of holes as a sieve. While it might be great for the better off, what’s in it for the sufferers to be used in this way? And it’s not as though compassion can be spread evenly like butter – some receive no help or consideration whatever. And couldn’t the same result could be achieved with far less suffering?]
5. We don’t know why we suffer, but we can be sure it has a purpose and is part of God’s plan. In the fullness of time we will know God’s purpose/plan and our tears will be washed away. [This is the equivalent of an adult still believing in Father Christmas – wishful thinking and self-deception carried to the ultimate limit.]
If you have ever tried writing fiction, you know one of the most important things you have to do is to make your characters convincing. You would find it hard, for example, to create a convincing character out of someone who you insisted was wise and compassionate, but who chose to spend their time torturing people they had kidnapped, and enjoyed seeing their pain and suffering. Or who witnessed the torture but chose to do nothing about it even though s/he had the power to intervene and stop it. The only way you could do it would be to create a Jekyll and Hyde character with a split personality. The Christian God is not a convincing character, even as fiction, and as far as I am aware no one has as yet suggested it has a split personality.
Volcanically Reverend Lord Professor Bishop Baron Reverend Lord Richard Harries, Baron Pentregarth, Gresham Professor of Divinity, Baron, Bishop, Professor, Lord...
Those clever scientists have gone and done it again. They've transferred DNA from a fertilised egg to another egg with working mitochondria. Hurrah for science! As an expert on theology, I was part of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority that allowed all this to happen. So hurrah for (correct) theology.
Of course some people have a different theology. The Roman Catholic Church, that great moral conscience of the nation, think every sperm is sacred. I do, of course, totally respect this wrong idea. Complete and utter respect for such nonsense, no question about it. I wouldn't dream of disrespecting an idea that assigns the same rights to a bunch of cells as to a mature human being. I really couldn't be more respectful about such a laughably silly notion that ignores the welfare of the born in favour of the unborn. I'm just full of respect for an organisation that forgets that it is quite natural for humans to use their Invisible Magic Friend given minds to interfere with nature.
Did I mention that I respected them?
Mona Siddiqui, Professor of Islamic Studies and Public Understanding and Director of the Centre for the Study of Islam, University of Glasgow
There's been another terrible natural disaster, this time in China. As we watch the heart-rending images of the dead and suffering, some will ask where will we get the clothes, blankets and tents to protect the survivors? How will we secure fresh water and food supplies? Are the roads in a good enough state to allow search and rescue and medical teams access? But I want to ask the academically fascinating and far more pressing question, "Why did the Invisible Magic Friend do this to them?"
It is a question that has been asked by philosophers, theologians and highly trained Islamic scholars for thousands of years. Some say there is a contradiction here between the seemingly random infliction of pain and death and the fact that the Invisible Magic Friend is the friendliest friend that ever there was.
Of course, in these enlightened times, we know that earthquakes are caused by the shifting of tectonic plates and that the exact timing of these shifts is currently unpredictable. This just goes to show how rubbish science is and how comforting religion and the Invisible Magic Friend can be for the helpless and the desperate, especially in largely atheist China.
So the question now becomes, why did the Invisible Magic Friend put us on a planet with tectonic plates? Does he get some sort of a kick out of watching all the misery that it causes? No, of course not. The Invisible Magic Friend is a great big warm cuddly, fluffy friend who would never hurt a fly. Take it from me, I'm Professor of Islamic Studies and Public Understanding and Director of the Centre for the Study of Islam, University of Glasgow, so I should know. The reason is really quite simple and I'm surprised no one has mentioned it before. The reason he causes all this suffering and injustice is so that we, the people who are unaffected, can feel sorrow and pity for the victims.
Awwwww, wasn't that nice of him!
Wednesday, 14 April, 2010, 08:30 AM - SinghRating 3 out of 5 (Fairly platitudinous)
There's a big Sikh festival today. Happy Vaisakhi everyone! It was on this happy spring festival in 1699 that the last Sikh Guru finally declared Sikhism as a proper standalone religion. He believed that all people, regardless of their Invisible Magic Friend, should be allowed to worship freely, even if they weren't Sikhs.
This may not seem that strange to you, but the Guru's own father was beheaded (by people of another famous religion that we won't mention by name) for suggesting just this.
Sikhs believe in equality and we believed this before most other people believed this, which just goes to show what a great religion Sikhism is. You'll also find that Sikhs do a lot of charity work, which again just goes to show what a great religion Sikhism is.
To be a proper Sikh you need to look like a Sikh. This consists of the following.
1. Not cutting your hair.
2. A comb, because your uncut hair is going to look very messy without one.
3. A sword, for not cutting your hair with.
4. A bangle, which is essentially independent of not cutting your hair.
And last but by no means least.
5. Holy underwear.
And of course equality, charity etc. etc.
Tuesday, 13 April, 2010, 08:16 AM - Rabbi Lionel BlueRating 2 out of 5 (A little platitudinous)
Good morning John, good morning Sarah and good morning to you all.
Well, Passover has passed over once again and it was very nice. I stayed with a very nice, very wise woman who accepted me and my partner as part of their family.
But I need more than ritual, I need the Invisible Magic Friend Direct. Last time, I explained the spiritual aspects of eggs. Today, I want to explore the spiritual aspects of railway stations.
Railway stations are full of people. People doing things. Some people come. Some people go. Some queue for tickets. Some stand up. Some sit down. Some stand up to let others sit down. I sit down and then stand up. Then I sing a little tune and wave my stick about. I watch the Invisible Magic Friend move from person to person as they do spiritual things like buy tickets.
Long, long ago, I remember granny telling me about a Rabbi who bumped into Elijah at the local fair. Elijah liked to hang out there among the traditional toffee apples, candy floss and goldfish in a bag that mysteriously die the next day. It reminded him of being alive in Israel 3,000 years ago, apart from the toffee apples, the candy floss and the goldfish.
"Who here is worthy of eternal life?" asked the rabbi. Elijah pointed to some buskers. "What do you do?" the rabbi asked them. "Oh, we just make people laugh and feel good."
And there you have it. The answers to everything you need to know about Passover, the Invisible Magic Friend Direct (available from all good railway stations) and what buskers at fairs are for.
It's been a terrible tragedy for Poland. Much of Poland's elite, including it's elite clergy, died in the crash. Many of Britain's plumbers will be very upset by this.
Some people don't like elites, they think it smacks of elitism, but elites are inevitable. You're always going to get some who will be the top politicians, top bankers and of course the top clergy, some of whom get to do Thought For The Day. So all you second rate, mediocre, little people who whine on about elites will just have to live with it.
You see, being part of an elite, like the elite clergy, carries with it enormous responsibility. We have many, many onerous duties to perform, attending meals with our fellow elites, listening to people flattering us because they want to join the elite and making sure that the more insignificant members of humanity know their place.
Do not worry if you're not one of the elite. The Invisible Magic Friend loves each and every one of you equally. You must simply accept that many of you were born to be nondescript and helpless, while others get to be important opinion formers, making busy executive decisions and bearing the huge, enormous responsibility that you have been relieved of. In the invisible magic afterlife everything will be fair and just and happy. You just hang on in there for a few more years.
Sunday, 11 April, 2010, 01:41 PM - Not TFTDDear Prof Cox
I recently read your profile in New Scientist. It was apparent from this article that you have enjoyed a successful career as a musician, including the No 1 hit "Things can only get better". Unfortunately you did not have the good grace to do as many young rock stars do and embark on a downwards spiral of drugs, sex and general destructive hedonism. No, you had to go on and have an even more successful career as a physicist.
Having attained a professorship at one of our most distinguished physics research groups you then embarked on a third successful career presenting TV and radio shows, including the interesting and surprisingly informative Wonders of the Solar System.
I would just like you to know that I find this kind of talent and energy utterly deplorable. Those of us who struggle to get any kind of a recognisable tune from a musical instrument are happy to tolerate artistic achievement provided it is accompanied by a suitably balanced lack of ability elsewhere. Similarly, as someone who has purchased no end of physics textbooks in a futile effort to gain some understanding of how the universe works, only to consign them to the bookshelf after a few pages of complete bafflement, I find it extremely irritating that someone considerably younger than me should come along and make it all look so easy.
This is part of a worrying trend these days, where Britons are going around being unashamedly enthusiastic and good at things. It just won't do. We never did things like that in my day. You could at least try to look a bit more tired, cynical and generally grumpy.
And get a haircut!
Sunday, 11 April, 2010, 08:06 AM - Not TFTD
Your Holiness, you are charged that throughout the 20th century you were part of a worldwide conspiracy to cover up widespread sexual, physical and mental abuse of children in the organisation known as the Universal, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. That you yourself failed to act in the case of at least one abuser when you were in charge of the diocese of Munich, that you issued instructions widely interpreted as binding victims to silence and that you made no attempt to clarify those instructions when asked. That you have repeatedly delayed or denied requests that paedophile priests be investigated either by secular or church authorities. That your church has used ever legal ploy available to delay or deter investigation by the police and have, at every step, sought to protect the reputation and assets of that church rather than provide justice and reparations to its innocent victims. That you have claimed immunity from prosecution as head of a made-up state.
Any defence of "I was only following orders" will not be accepted, particularly as you were the one giving the orders. The defence that "I didn't know how damaging sexual abuse was" will also not be accepted as you are morally infallible and God's representative on Earth.
Would you like to swear on the Bible or would you prefer to affirm the oath?
(His Holiness asked for the Church's hatred toward gays, its indoctrination of young children to believe he has magic powers, its ridiculous, irrational and damaging dogma on birth control, its concordat with the Nazis, its support for the Franco regime, and the excommunication of a nine year old rape victim's mother but not the rapist, to be taken into consideration.)
Martina Navratilova, a superstar in the world of tennis, has cancer.
This just goes to show that even the fittest people can be struck down by the Invisible Magic Friend at any time, so you had better be nice to him. You may think you're in control of your life but that's just the Invisible Magic Friend lulling you into a false sense of security. Just when you think everything is going swingingly, when the spring sunshine promises a summer of roses and wine, when everything in the garden is blooming and life is just tickety-boo, that's when he'll pounce and make your life a misery. He's like that, he just can't stand the idea of people going around being happy all the time.
It's all the fault of contraception. Several of His Holinesses have told you how evil it is, yet you've gone ahead and planned the size of your families regardless. Now look what's happened, Martina Navratilova has cancer. Well, I hope you're pleased with yourself.