The human brain is an amazing thing. We cram it full of stuff and nonsense and song lyrics and daydreams and it rummages through the facts and factoids and sorts them into some sort of worldview.
We commit to that worldview; we get too attached. It’s called confirmation bias. We hunt down and prioritise information that reinforces what we already hold to be true; we ignore or dismiss that which threatens the edifice we’ve built from half-formed thoughts and snippets of Alan Jones.
My brain has eagerly absorbed dozens of headlines proclaiming that red wine and chocolate are good for you. But my Pollyanna grey matter blithely skips the ‘only in moderation’ footnote. It even hurt to write that, to be honest. That’s the pang of cognitive dissonance.
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Imagine the scene in the Church of Scientology’s PR department at the moment. Apoplectic managers and scared juniors, admin staff desperately scrambling for the ‘When A-Listers Go Rogue’ risk management documents. An albino Thetan grimly tapping the Holmes/Cruise file.
They’re going to need auditing right through the next few reincarnations to get over the trauma. “Remind me again why Valium is bad?” they might be asking.
Katie Holmes’ split from Tom Cruise is just the latest scandal to hit the church/cult/franchise. The brightness of the Hollywood lights ensure all shadows are cast long.
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It is hard to argue against the fact that Australian politics is currently in disarray. What we have are two major parties that spend more time formulating insults to hurl at each other than negotiating decent policy outcomes.
While Australian politics has always been adversarial – a direct result of our Westminster system – good policy outcomes have often risen above party politics.
There are many examples that highlight this: from the opening up of the Australian economy in the 1980s, to John Howard’s gun reforms in the 1990s, and the joint response to the HIV/AIDS crisis as a health issue rather than a moral panic. Each one of these went beyond party politics as the two major parties ‘trusted’ each other’s intentions.
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It’s all too easy in Australia – set up a religion, get tax-free status, a bunch of followers willing to donate, and you’re set. Maybe predict the end of the world to get things moving along with a sense of urgency.
Senator Nick Xenophon suggests that Australia needs a “cult-busting agency”, similar to those already operating overseas.
Mr Xenophon – who has previously tackled Scientology and questioned its tax-exempt status - says he wants a dedicated government agency to “monitor and control the activities of cults in Australia”. The issue’s come to the fore again with the arrest in Fiji of Rocco “Brother Rock” Leo for breaching his visa. Leo is the leader of the Agape Ministries of God group. Agape has previously run into trouble over fraud, illegal weapons, assaults and tax debts.
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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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“It is not ideal that religious freedom is protected by so-called ‘exemptions and exceptions’ in anti-discrimination law, almost like reluctant concessions, crumbs from the secularists’ table.”
Cardinal George Pell’s recent lament to Prime Minister Julia Gillard about the “secularists’ table” seems odd, given that religion still defines our nationhood. Just ask our atheist Prime Minister. It is hard to imagine then how exceptions and exemptions are metaphorical “crumbs”, when they have a vast reach in excluding minority groups in Australia.
While each state and territory currently has anti-discrimination laws which protect against some forms of sexuality or gender identity discrimination, the inconsistency in terminology, and the wide-ranging exemptions (particularly for faith-based bodies) means there are considerable gaps in protecting the rights of individuals accessing health services, goods or services, aged care, employment and education.
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Mathematicians have released a study that made for great headlines, including:
(A fairly tenuous link but a mention of religious songs, and I’ll take any excuse to listen to Tim Minchin)
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At breakfast yesterday my two-year-old daughter wanted to “read” me the Easter card she got from a relative. “One day, they went in the forest, and then they were finished. The End,” she said, looking up from the card. “Now you read it to me.” So I did. The greeting was:
Easter time is here again
That lovely time of year
When we especially think of those
We hold especially dear
So naturally you’re thought about
And wished the nicest things –
All the special happiness
A joyful Easter brings!
I’m enthusiastic about explaining things to her so I was about to drop a few sentences somehow explaining Easter was really about God, but a thought crossed my mind and stopped me. I have no tolerance left for the Church’s protection of child abusers, its silencing of victims and failure to adequately apologise or explain why it failed to act against paedophiles. Why, I asked myself, should my daughter be exposed to these men in frocks and their beliefs?
For someone raised as a Catholic this is an arresting thought. Even though its dogma is world-renowned it may still be hard to grasp, for anyone not brought up with it, the all-or-nothing way Catholicism requires you to accept, without question, the authority of the Church. Put simply, if you don’t accept the Church you’re not Catholic.
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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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I’ve had the last quarter of Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 novel, Gilead, waiting patiently for me on the bedside table for a year or so, hoping to be granted the honour of completion (I often struggle with the reading endgame).
Now, transported away from the bedside table on holidays, I’ve at last reached the end of this exquisitely poised depiction of a dying preacher recording a memoir for his young son.
The book is replete with theological and anthropological gems, the fruit of the author’s deep knowledge of the Bible, of ministry life, and of the significance of the shape of our close relationships on our sense of life’s meaning.
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Writing on The Punch yesterday David Gazard bemoaned the left-winged over-righteousness of some parts of the Christian church, who get all hot under the collar about political stuff rather than sticking to the spiritual. This is, I suppose, a change from the attacks on the right-winged over-righteousness of the other parts of the Christian church.
Of course, problems emerge when God and the Church are captured by just one side of politics. The Church may be vulnerable to such temptations in the wildernesses of power, but any God worth his name surely isn’t. It’s a lesson the followers are still learning.
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A news report on the wireless last week about a decision taken by the local council at Liverpool, a satellite suburb in Sydney’s west, first to approve - then to reject - a planning application for the construction of an Islamic school in the nearby area of Hoxton Park promoted some interesting listener discussion.
One caller, a father who identified himself as a Muslim, indicated a sense of generalised disappointment with the decision. He said it had always been his intention to send his children to either a Catholic school, or Jewish school because he wanted them to have a “values-based” education.
Dad went on the explain that he had, in fact, enrolled his kids in as Islamic school, so his own wishes for his children’s education had been fulfilled - but the point remained; Liverpool Council’s decision would probably mean many parents in the area would be denied the chance to exercise the sort of “choice” this particular father had wanted for his children.
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