Church. It’s probably the last place you’d expect to find a proud cabal of atheists revelling in their lack of faith. But over in England, a pair of comedians have started their very own atheist church, and the idea is quickly gaining traction. It’s no joke either.
The Sunday Assembly, as it’s called, convenes once a month in an old London chapel. It functions in much the same way as any other church, apart from the conspicuous absence of any reference to God, Jesus, Allah or that vengeful intergalactic dictator the scientologist nutjobs believe in. Old Xenu would probably find the lack of faith disturbing.
Hundreds of atheists get to enjoy a fair imitation of the church experience without the looming threat of eternal hell - which, let’s face it, can be a bit of a downer.
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Welcome to this week’s I Call Bullshit, a regular column on, well, bullshit. Today, dear readers, it’s a three-in-one unholy bonanza!
Thanks to the Global Atheist Convention, The Punch was inundated this week by the godly and the ungodly, and once again we rehashed all the arguments about good and evil and science and evidence and faith and proof, and we were hoping today would be our day of rest.
But we’re not at the seventh day yet, and there is much bullshit to wade through, so here goes.
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“Religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs. For the most part, it has been a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology.”
This damning indictment of religion, surprisingly enough, is not to be found in the work of the late Christopher Hitchens, or that of his compatriots Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett.
Rather, it prefaces Terry Eagleton’s book Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate in which he skewers both the Church as well as its most hard-heated critics - the New Atheists.
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Esteemed cosmologist and popular atheist Lawrence Krauss wrote: “It sometimes surprises me, although it shouldn’t, how religious devotees feel the need to regularly reinforce their own convictions in groups of like-minded individuals”.
It is curious then, that he has made the long trip down-under to join the faithless as part of the weekend’s Global Atheists Convention.
Following a debate with analytic philosopher William Lane Craig last year, a frustrated Krauss took a passing swipe at the historical evidence for Christianity. As a student of history, I am getting weary of the a priori assumptions of secular fundamentalism that infect the blogosphere and are routinely trotted out as fact. Don’t get me wrong, theists circulate more than their fair share of bullshit too - but it benefits nobody when the discussion degenerates into the intellectual equivalent of a freestyle gangsta rap battle.
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Dawkins was snooty. Pell was outwitted. The questions were predictable, as were the mentions of Hitler and Stalin. There were titters at Pell’s reference to ‘preparing’ boys and sniggers when he clumsily criticised Jews as intellectually inferior shepherds.
Last night’s Q and A starring Cardinal George Pell and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins went pretty much exactly as expected.
But then, an epiphany. According to Pell, the highest Catholic authority in the land, a man with a direct line to God, ATHEISTS CAN GO TO HEAVEN.
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The Parliamentary Christian Fellowship is a non-party political group of strongly Christian MPs in the federal parliament, who meet unofficially to discuss politics, parliamentary life and faith. Way back in 2004, the convener, Bruce Baird, put its membership at 60 out of a total number of 226 federal MPs.
However, one of his religious colleagues (who did not want to be named) said the figure was more like 75. Talk among non-religious members of the Press Gallery now suggests that there may be as many as 90. This means that the percentage of highly religious MPs in the parliament could easily be around 40 per cent.
The latest National Church Life Survey quotes a figure of 9 per cent of Australians who are regular weekly churchgoers. This could roughly be said to equate with the degree of religiosity evinced by most members of the PCF. This means that these people are over-represented in the parliament by four times that of the general community.
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You hear many complaints nowadays about pesky, outspoken Christians. Across the West, a fashionable attitude has emerged: Beyond the doing of charitable works, and perhaps the soothing of the bereaved at funerals, “religion” should be an entirely private affair.
The so-called New Atheists are vocal advocates of this position. One of them, Michel Onfray, has admitted that his atheism “leaps to life when private belief becomes a public matter”. Onfray hates it “when in the name of a personal mental pathology we organise the world for others”.
Here in Australia, there are many like him. The talented journalist-author Peter FitzSimons is fond of ridiculing sportsmen, like golfer Aaron Baddeley, who publicly give thanks to God. FitzSimons rarely misses a chance to snipe at all “delusional” believers, and, in a recent spray in the Sydney Morning Herald, asserted ludicrously that belief in God “is entirely inimical to educational principles”. (Read Brian Rosner’s spirited reply.)
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One of the ugliest aspects of the culture wars is dogmatism, the inability of either side to respect the other’s point of view. Nowhere is this vice more prevalent than among protagonists in the so-called God debate.
It’s fine to be passionate about your belief (or unbelief). But it’s wrong to demonise dissenters.
Far too often today Christians are dismissed by their critics as deluded fundamentalists, relics of a past era who have jettisoned reason and common sense. Just as frequently, Christians disparage atheists and agnostics – even fellow Christians with whom they disagree on one point or another – as unprincipled or immoral.
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Fanatical Christians and fundamentalist atheists are like a couple of kids bickering in the back seat during a long car drive.
“You’re a poo poo bum head,” yells one – applying a Mao-strength Chinese burn.
“I know you are but what am I,” the other retorts – striking back with an eye-watering nipple cripple. And so it goes.
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Modern-day defenders of orthodox Christianity – of any religion with a supernatural element – face a host of challenges. Chief among them is the widespread assumption that science and religion are hopelessly incompatible.
In his best-selling book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins asserts that “religion is now completely superseded by science”. It’s a familiar line. Religion, we’re told, is shadowy and value-laden – an exercise in “blind faith”.
And the Bible says that the Earth was made 6,000 years ago in the course of seven days. Anyone who believes that is crazy! These notions are deeply ingrained, but they are fallacious. And they distort the true beliefs of most Christians in Australia.
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Once again, the censorial hand of the advertising industry - this time in the form of an arm of government - has moved to protect the public from the evil Atheist Empire.
Railcorp, a government agency, has refused the Atheist Foundation of Australia advertising space at a billboard location in Queanbeyan, NSW.
Apparently supplying the wording and graphic to be advertised to Billboards Australia on 10 December 2010 wasn’t quite enough time for RailCorp to take in the message. A sign of government efficiency no doubt.
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Why, on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, are its praises being sung by so many prominent atheists?
Richard Dawkins himself, best-selling author of The God Delusion, has led the charge. In an article published in the Christmas issue of New Statesman, Dawkins hailed the KJV as an “astonishing piece of English literature”. He hoped to “encourage our schools to bring this precious English heritage to all our children, whatever their background”.
Here in Australia there have been similar calls. A few weeks ago, Prime Minister Julia Gillard got into the act. “It’s impossible to understand Western literature,” she opined, “without having that key of understanding [of] the Bible stories and how Western literature builds on them and reflects them”.
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Brendan Brown writes “Hey God, reveal thyself!” and puts forward his case of “noisy atheism”.
He candidly speaks about the lack of evidence with regard to the divine and light-heartedly takes religion to task for the holes in their belief systems.
It’s a given that no evidence is currently available that supports the existence (or non existence) of god. Yet both atheists and theists continue to taunt each other for evidence.
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Another day, another non-appearance by a religious prophet.
As this article goes to press, neither Jesus, the Hidden Imam or John Maynard Keynes has returned to earth, which is unfortunate as religion has never been in greater need of validation.
It’s irrelevant if religion has practical benefits in terms of charity, community building and teaching ethical behavior, if religion’s key claims are not rooted in reality. Either religion is factual or it is not and either there are good reasons to believe something or there are none.
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The floods have caused great devastation and have presented fundamental challenges to our society and lives.
This kind of crisis poses challenges to us on a number of levels – social, physical, emotional and existential.
Tory Shepherd’s article “Digging a hole while trying to find God” outlines the existential challenges provoked by the flood.
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Church leaders faced with a national disaster are struggling to find relevance and avoid hypocrisy. In the wake of the floods, people with religious convictions face an age-old question:
Where was God?
It’s a classic case of cognitive dissonance, where holding two conflicting thoughts causes the brain to implode. God is good, all-knowing and all-powerful and yet bad stuff happens.
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I was once at a dinner party when a friend, who I think had read a Robert Fisk article that morning, began explaining an aspect of Middle Eastern politics. Unbeknown to her, one of the guests was something of an expert in the field, and was nodding politely at my friend’s newfound wisdom. I felt the need to jump in and save her from embarrassment.
I have something of a similar response to Brendan Brown’s appeals to rationality (Why an Atheist Prime Minister is better The Punch Nov 10). The article, picking up on the now familiar New Atheist shtick makes me want to point out some realities of history and philosophy that the writer seems unaware of.
There are some bold claims here. We read for instance that, “even the most devout of Jesus’ disciples would admit that the Bible makes an underwhelming historical document.”
Julia Gillard’s atheism and Tony Abbott’s catholicism were virtually non-issues in the 2010 election, even though Gillard’s godlessness may have cost her votes amongst the religiously-minded.
Australians generally accept that religion should be an irrelevant consideration when choosing their Prime Minister, and whilst such an attitude sounds commendably tolerant, it is also wrong.
Australians who didn’t vote for Gillard because she is an atheist are right, religion matters, although they are right for entirely the wrong reason.
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I can see why the new atheist commentators Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins want to take on the Pope. Here is someone who fears what Gareth Evans called “relevance deprivation”. He fears it for himself as Pope, he fears it for the Church. To bolster the declining authority of the Church, he has set up the straw man of “aggressive secularism” and sets his adherents against it.
Religion, the Pope told Britons in his trip this month, is being “marginalised”, relegated to the “purely private sphere”. Believers holding public roles are being asked to act against their conscience, he claims. Secularism, Britains were warned, no longer values or tolerates their traditional values such as honesty, respect and fair-mindedness.
Your Holiness, this is rubbish – ideologically motivated rubbish.
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My faith in atheism is being tested by born-agains. Not of the Christian variety, but the obnoxious, pushy, ram-it-down-your-throat, born-again atheist variety.
This new breed of Godless souls has adopted one of the most irritating features of religion. They have become belligerent evangelists for their non-cause.
The once gentle conviction that there is no God, and that in an ideal world, everyone would stop fighting over the supremacy of their imagined deity, is increasingly becoming the preserve of aggressive loudmouths who are every bit as annoying as those Jehovah’s Witnesses who used to knock on the door at 9am on a Sunday while you were sleeping off a big night.
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When pastor Terry Jones called off his epically dumb plan to mark the anniversary of the September 11 attacks by burning a bunch of Korans, for a brief period it looked like western civilisation valued people with something between their ears. But then along comes Alex Stewart – an Australian, no less – to confirm democracies provide shelter for the hopelessly stupid.
It was on behalf of people with a brain everywhere that the US President went on television to plead against the pastor’s plan to burn holy books. He succeeded in stopping the Jones protest but then along comes Stewart on YouTube, ripping out pages from the Bible and the Koran and smoking them in a festival of smugness cloaked in a mantle of enlightenment.
Score one for the Taliban and the view that the West is intellectually bankrupt.
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I love it when Richard Dawkins comes to town. It’s like Christmas for people who don’t believe in Christmas.
Even though he’s since departed our fair shores, Dawkins’ wake of influence still ripples like the aftermath of an intellectual tsunami, and if anything you have to give him credit for almost single-handedly putting religious debate back on the map.
The debate that follows Dawkins across the globe is largely confined to the mission of getting rid of this pesky notion of a creator once and for all, by using the atheist mantra “celebrate reason” to expose all who entertain the divine as delusional, idiotic disciples of fairies or flying spaghetti monsters or whatever convenient and patronising analogy fits best. Needless to say, there’s a lot of love in the room.
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If there is a God, he’d be rubbing his hands with glee at the rise of radical atheism.
The pompous pronoucements of Professor Richard Dawkins reinforce the image of atheists as intellectual snobs who look down on those who believe.
Now – I, too, view the Bible as a fantastical fairy tale. But to denigrate those who gain succour from their faith is, at best, patronising and, at worst, counter productive.
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The 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche put before people a choice: Dionysos or the Crucified?
He saw with clarity that there were two starkly opposed views of life being lived out around him. One followed Dionysos, or Dionysius, the Greco-Roman God of wine, who championed hedonism. The other was the Christian way, the way of the crucified saviour who gave his life for others. God taking on flesh to save the world — that’s crazy, said Nietzsche. Many today seem to agree with him.
A new book called The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas (Ariane Sherine (Ed), The Friday Project, 2009) agrees with Nietzsche, but wants to tell even him to chill out a bit when it comes to Christmas.
Read all about it
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