That’s all folks

June 16, 2010 at 1:01 pm (miscellaneous/off-topic)

I’ve finally had enough of this blog. I’ve really enjoyed doing it and I’ve really appreciated the input of commenters along the way. It has been awesome making some friends through this and having companions on my journey through religion. But I’ve come out the other side and “wrestling with religion” is not what I’m about any more.

I’m still very interested in the deep philosophical questions of life, but this blog isn’t the place for it any more.

I’m still writing on my other blog, and I’ll still be around as a commenter. If you don’t have a blog, I would love for you to email me so we could keep in touch (Dawn, Venn, I’m looking at you! ;))

See you around! 8)


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Mormonism documentary

June 3, 2010 at 11:58 pm (Christianity, is religion good or bad for you?, Islam, religious experiences)

I just watched “The Mormons“, a long and informative documentary which I found through Staring at the View. It was really quite interesting both to learn about a faith that I knew very little about, and also because of how well it illustrated the various different sides of religious belief in general. I found myself facepalming an awful lot, but also occasionally feeling happy for the comfort beliefs can give people. That is the paradox of religion.

The last couple of minutes of this clip was particularly interesting. Here are two quotes from 9:08 onwards that talk of the collision between faith and reason due to the historical claims of religion:

“History as theology is perilous. If it turns out that the whole story of Christ’s resurrection was a fabrication, then Christianity collapses. That’s the price we pay for believing in a God who intervenes in human history, who has real interactions with real human beings in real space and time. That makes it historical, and that’s a reality that we just can’t flee away from.”

“All religion, western and eastern, is founded upon miracle. It makes little sense to present arguments against Joseph Smith and early Mormonism that would extend equally well to what we are told about the origins of what would eventually be Judaism; the origins of Christianity; the origins of Islam. All religion depends upon revelation, all revelation is supernatural; if you wish to be a hard-rock empiricist, then you should not entertain any religious doctrine whatsoever.”

It really is much easier to dispute religious claims when you are not in the religion, and when the religion is comparatively new. Somehow we seem to think that because something happened a long time ago, it has more veracity – maybe because religions become such stable systems that are much bigger and more “complete” than they started out. But as these people are saying, the historical origins of all religions involve highly improbable things, things that you would never believe if you didn’t have some other emotional kind of motivation for believing. The critical comments on the Book of Mormon – its textual style and the lack of any evidence to support its content – certainly felt familiar from my own critical responses to religious texts. I really think faith in religion requires a determinedly uncritical approach.

Joseph Smith came off to me like an eccentric cult leader that somehow created a movement that went big. He reminded me of other cults where the leader has absolute power and can even get away with sleeping with other men’s wives. He also reminded me of Muhammad (who had more than his fair share of women too) with a very similar mode of revelation, bringing a new holy text, creating a theocracy, aggravating the existing communities where they settled and even engaging in military conflict, and making a “hijrah” of sorts.

The reports of a pentecost-like period when the first temple was constructed were so fascinating. Many people reported seeing angels going through its windows and all sorts of things like that. This stuff really fascinates me. The fact that it happens in different and mutually exclusive religions would have to mean that at least some of the time it is just people’s collective imagination, which is easy for me to accept but I wonder how Christians for example feel about these reports from the Mormons. I think when I was into Christianity, miracle claims from other faiths really worried me because what if those miracles are real, and even if they’re not, how do I know the miracles reported in my own faith were real?

Just like Islam, Mormonism has evolved past its origins and become mainstream, and has had to wrestle with some of its darker sides such as the polygamy and the exclusion of black people. I found it very interesting how the leaders described feeling led by God to revise doctrines such as the latter. Of course I don’t think it was divine guidance, I think it was that they allowed themselves to follow their conscience, and then ascribed it to God. But it gives me hope that if only people allow themselves to break with the rigid tenets of tradition and follow their conscience, things do get better.

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May 20, 2010 at 11:02 pm (gender issues, is religion good or bad for you?, moral issues, society)

A gay couple in Malawi were arrested after holding an engagement ceremony, and now sentenced to 14 years in prison. It strikes me that the couple must have known this could happen to them, and it is very brave to live out your values in this way without fearing what people will do. Reminds me of the Sudanese lady who insisted on wearing trousers not fearing the punishment. I have a lot of admiration for that.

Handing down sentence in the commercial capital, Blantyre, Judge Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa told the pair: “I will give you a scaring sentence so that the public be protected from people like you, so that we are not tempted to emulate this horrendous example.”

Interesting to note that “the laws under which the pair were convicted were introduced during British colonial rule.”

Obviously Britain has come a long way in tolerance since then, but it is not only modern, developed, western countries that are open-minded and rational about these things – I read this beautiful post this week, mentioning a remote and traditional part of Mexico that is very accepting of transsexuals. According to the article linked to in the post, “Anthropologists trace the acceptance of people of mixed gender to pre-Colombian Mexico, pointing to accounts of cross-dressing Aztec priests and Mayan gods who were male and female at the same time. Spanish colonizers wiped out most of those attitudes in the 1500s by forcing conversion to Catholicism. But mixed-gender identities managed to survive in the area around Juchitán, a place so traditional that many people speak ancient Zapotec instead of Spanish.”

Is it just me or is there a correlation between Abrahamic religions and intolerance?

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Belief is not a choice

April 15, 2010 at 10:06 pm (gender issues, Islam, moral issues, personal, religious experiences)

I was sorting through our possessions and I came across a few photos that reminded me, in a very immediate, emotional way, of wanting to be a Muslim. Here is one of them; one which doesn’t identify the people. It is of one of my husband’s lifelong friends, with his Scottish convert wife and their newborn first child in a pushchair.

I don’t know if I can even explain what it makes me feel. It just looks like a family I would want to be in.

It’s probably partly the traditional gender roles that her dress implies. The idea of being protected and provided for, materially and/or in other ways. Also, it seems to invoke a mental picture of a secure family based on moral commitment and not selfish whim; maybe it is also a feeling of a shared spirituality and a common purpose. Much the same feeling that drew me to Christianity. It feels healthy and wholesome. Maybe it’s partly that I just fell in love with Islam because it is a part of my husband. All of this is totally subjective, of course, and may not reflect reality, but I so rarely write about how I feel or even remember the subjective emotional factors that led me into my journey, and it hit me when I looked at the photos.

Sometimes you have conflicting wants. I wanted religiosity but I also wanted freedom of thought. I wanted peace of mind but I didn’t want simplistic answers. I wanted belonging but I also wanted personal integrity and an honest search for truth. In the end I had to realise that – at least for me – these wants are not compatible, and by the time you realise that, there is no longer any honest choice to be made. I hope the clarity and the relief of dropping the need for certainty will be worth the consequences, but even if it isn’t, it couldn’t have been any other way. You can’t choose to believe something you don’t believe.

I turn on the TV and I see a 13-year-old girl in A&E (or the ER) with severe alcohol poisoning, constantly throwing up. And for a moment, I wonder if I could happily raise Muslim children after all. But then I think of how I couldn’t even perform the pillars without cognitive dissonance over rules that didn’t make sense, how I could never honestly tell my family to hide the ham because we’re coming over or to hold the presents until Christmas is well over, how I could never feel any shame if a man saw my hair, and how frightened I would be that my children might learn to hate those who are not like them.

You can’t choose to believe in something you don’t believe in.

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Being married to a Muslim

April 5, 2010 at 11:58 pm (Islam, personal)

“Blessed are those who yearn for deepening more than escape; who can renounce smugness and be shaken in conscience; who are not afraid to grow in spirit.” (From chapter 8 by John A. Buehrens in “A Chosen Faith”)

His Islam is all tied up with his culture and his identity. It is part of his happy picture of what has made him who he is. What I have lately been inclined to see as literally false and dangerous, he sees as metaphorical, enriching and comfortingly solid.

Maybe I need to start listening to what he is really saying through his language which he calls “Islam”. It is not at all the same thing that I heard when I read the Quran.

But to be perfectly honest, I am tired of being the only one able to do any listening.

And I resent the rigidity in his religio-cultural system. I resent the fact that he could hope I would change, yet couldn’t consider changing himself. I know it’s not his fault, it’s the nature of his religio-culture, but that doesn’t make me feel any better.

I resent the fact that our kids would not be allowed to receive Christmas presents and would have to eat halal. I resent the fact that the happy mixed-marriage picture of taking a little from this and a little from that just never applies when Islam is involved. I resent the fact that so many of us have to put ourselves through painful wrestling to accept the rigid religion of our Muslim men.

And if we don’t have kids, I might end up resenting that too.

But if this means separating out our entwined lives, saying goodbye to half of myself, severing the connection to someone who has become family… if this is the upshot of this situation, this resentment… then I need to at least look for an alternative to resentment, before I can walk that difficult path.

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Look where the finger points… not at the finger

March 30, 2010 at 9:33 pm (myth and metaphor, science, Unitarian)

I read this interesting article on theological diversity within UU. I am gradually beginning to see past the shallow, literal meaning that I’ve always understood religion to have, and this article helped.

The author makes a comparison between religion and scientific modelling similar to the one I made once:

The human response to experience is to make a conceptual model, to construct a model of the universe that gives the relevant human experience a plausible and familiar context. But the experience is primary, not the model. And the experience is already experienced in metaphor and image. We, therefore, talk about all of this already at two levels of remove from the primary experience. This can be useful, if done in full awareness of what we are working with. But finally, it is almost inevitably wrong!

Theology, or religious language, is not only about the description of human experience. Its use and purpose is also to evoke particular human experiences. The first we have called religion. The second – the evocation of religious experience – we have lately been calling spirituality. But in neither case is it appropriate to get hung up debating the truth or falsehood of the conceptual models and metaphors. … Look where the finger points. Not at the finger.

The whole article is interesting but here are some selections that I particularly liked:

Theological language speaks about human experience, there being nothing else humans can speak about. That human experience is mappable in (theoretically) an infinite number of ways. And, as the semanticists are fond of reminding us, the map is not the territory. No single map of human experience can catch all the nuances. All language is an abstraction from experience. Every abstraction leaves something out. Each is in-and-of-itself wrong, at least to the degree of being incomplete. The only complete mapping would be recapitulation.

Theological languages, images and symbols are metaphors, or at least – participate in the limits of metaphors. We humans have a tendency to draw inferences from our metaphors without bothering to check the inference against the experience back of the metaphor. Multiple metaphors tend to lead us into fewer inappropriate inferences.

Among the purposes of a religious community is to keep its members spiritually alive and growing. At least in our tradition, we do not assume that there is some “it” you can get and quit. Due to the limits of human knowing, it is always incomplete. Tomorrow’s experience may prompt change. The community most likely to keep us alive and growing is not one in which we all agree; but rather one that tolerates, affirms, even cherishes the broadest, richest diversity. Not because there is no final truth, but because there may be and our own incompleteness suggests we may not have it yet. Not because it does not matter what you believe, but because it does and the only way to keep belief alive and growing is to be free to actually believe what you do believe. And even someone who is quite wrong may have something to teach me.

This does not mean that religious language is above critique. Only that no particular language is given privileged status merely because it is that particular language. We should, indeed, debate the adequacy of our language. Clear thinking will give us better description, more likely to be heard well and rightly, and better evocation of the intended experience.

Religious surrender is not to a language or belief system, nor it is mere credulity… [It] is to put my attention on that in my life where transcendence – the more-than-me and what pushes me to become more than me – is experienced as breaking in.

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March 28, 2010 at 6:28 pm (Humanism, morality, society)

I read this interesting interview with Terry Eagleton, of whom I am becoming a bit of a fan. Here is an extract which particularly interested me.

“Dawkins,” [Eagleton] contends, “has a Panglossian vision of progress. A view from North Oxford. Indeed for all his self-conscious modernity he turns out to be something of an old-fashioned Hegelian believing in a Zeitgeist (his own word) involving every increasing moral progress with just the occasional ‘reversal’. History is perpetually on the up. Not even beaming tambourine-banging evangelicals are quite so pathologically bullish. What is this but an example of blind faith? What rational soul would sign up to such a secular myth?”

(When I confronted Dawkins in 2007 with his description of the Holocaust as “a temporary setback”, he at first insisted that it was still appropriate to believe in general moral progress. He thought that the idea of such progress was “plausible” but agreed that my scepticism deserved attention. It was, he finally said, “a fair cop”.)

It is Dawkins’s stated belief in the inevitability of progress that, according to Eagleton, marks him out as a particular kind of humanist.

“Dawkins deeply believes in the flourishing of the free human spirit which makes him a liberal humanist rather than a tragic humanist. He believes that if only those terrible guys out there would stop stifling and shackling us, then our creative capacities would flourish. I don’t believe that. As a Marxist I reject that simple liberationism. I’m not against humanism. I’m for a humanism which recognises the price of liberation. And that’s what I call tragic humanism. The only idea of emancipation worth having is one that starts from looking at the worst, that starts from Swift’s race of odious little vermin. If you’re the kind of humanist who can understand what Socrates meant when he said it would been far better if man had never been born, you’re on. A humanism like Dawkins’s and possibly that held by Hitchens isn’t worth all that much. It’s too easy.”

Any thoughts? Personally I felt like applauding at this.

I can see progress in terms of science, medicine, technology etc. I can see moral progress in the abolition of slavery for example. But I can also see how western progress has come at the expense of other parts of the world; how the wealth distribution across the world is far less equal than it has ever been; how we are most likely destroying our climate as a side effect of our progress and even though we know this is probably the case, we aren’t doing anything much about it.

Hm. 😯

I do not think salvation of the human race lies in liberty and reason alone, although I am in favour of those things. “Liberty is always dangerous, but it is the safest thing we have” (Harry Emerson Fosdick). I think controlling systems produce general conformity but do not produce any exceptional goodness. Liberty, on the other hand, is a high-risk high-gain strategy. Freedom of conscience and action gives people the opportunity to reach the kind of sincerity which I think leads naturally to empathy and goodness… but a bad side effect is that a fair number of people will probably abuse that freedom and use it to do bad things. We can’t bury our heads in the sand about that.

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The ineffable

March 5, 2010 at 12:17 pm (God, philosophy, religious experiences, science)

I said

…my experience of goodness is something I fear will disappear if it is eventually “explained away”

But really – learning to read music, learning the technicalities of intervals and harmonies, learning the mathematics of music, does not take away the magic of the musical experience. If anything, it only enhances it.

There will always be the ineffable. And no amount of science is ever going to make it anything other than ineffable. We do experience reality through the lens of our own consciousness, and science does not change that. Art and the ineffable have their own language, and it is not the language of knowledge or fact, but the language of experience.

If I abandon irrational certainty for the glorious state of knowing that I do not know… then I believe I will only be better off.

My values will drive my world view, and my world view will support and shape my values. And above all, I believe honesty with myself will pave the way to reason and empathy.

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Ehrman: messages and doctrines in the books of the NT

February 28, 2010 at 12:04 am (Christianity, God)

I have finished Bart D. Ehrman’s “Jesus, Interrupted”. It was a good read, and there were a couple of interesting points from it that I wanted to note down.

Firstly, he brought attention to the differences between the different gospels in terms of the overall message. Luke in particular has an interesting message. The passages where Jesus is being taken to be crucified show him being very calm and collected, not distressed in any way. He is presented as the perfect martyr, and the purpose of his death to the author of Luke – as expressed through the book of Acts which is written by the same author – was to make people see they had erred, they had crucified an innocent Messiah, and to prompt them to repent. The centurion at the crucifixion scene states that Jesus was innocent, driving this point home. Luke’s gospel was based on Mark’s gospel, but Luke removed the part that said Jesus was to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45), and the curtain in the Temple rips while Jesus is still alive – so not to demonstrate that his death provided a way for man and God to commune freely, but to signify that God had abandoned the Jews for crucifying their Messiah. I thought that was interesting.

Secondly, he showed contradictions between letters attributed to Paul, which are used by scholars to demonstrate that Paul didn’t write them all. For example:

“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:5)

“having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” (Colossians 2:12)

Little things like that interest me, because I assumed Christian doctrine was all clear-cut and thought I knew exactly what it was. Now I see that it really depends which book of the New Testament you read. When I read it, I will bear this in mind and not try to force it all to cohere.

There was also some interesting stuff in the book about the development of early Christianity and all the different movements that believed different things, and how the movement was transformed from Jesus’ religion to a religion about Jesus. I’m not going to quote anything but I recommend the book to anyone interested in that.

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Struggling towards the light: a backwards glance

February 27, 2010 at 12:45 pm (is religion good or bad for you?, Islam, personal, reflections on my journey)

I always find it interesting to look back over my shoulder every now and then. If we don’t understand or remember how we got to where we are, how can we learn anything?

A few years back I was not really very happy. I hadn’t yet come to terms with the fact that me and work are never going to get along like a house on fire and I am never going to afford a good standard of living (relative to my society’s norms). I felt like a victim and I thought faith was the answer.

I had crashed out of my religious idealism some years before with angry disappointment, and felt unable to surrender to God. The guilt kept me frozen in all this negativity, unable to progress.

It seems I still viewed faith and surrender as a state I needed to get back to. I saw that as still being the ideal. Similarly I saw a career and material success as something that I needed. I was far away from both, but I couldn’t really question either of them. Pressure!

Where did Islam come in? I do remember as early as 2005 I was defending Islam on message boards. So clearly I had warmed up to it a lot even then. It was only a flirtation though – I wasn’t really prepared to let myself question my prior beliefs just yet.

I think it was through blogs that I started to learn more about Islam, and I must have been a lot closer to it by 2008. I went to the mosque exhibition, and a photo of a young woman bundled up in a white garment praying with her husband really touched me. It seemed to portray the wholesome, positive, spiritual life I wanted. I tried fasting Ramadan that year and made it through not even one day, and to make matters worse, watched “Dispatches: Undercover Mosque” that evening and was so horrified I didn’t want to fast any more. I continued learning through blogs, though, and we went to my husband’s home country over Christmas-New Year, during which I was more bothered by seeing certain aspects of Islam than I had ever been before. I guess that shows that I was wanting to convert but finding it hard to deal with certain things.

By a year ago, I had already learnt enough to be very discouraged. I had forgotten that. It’s funny to realise how my journey into Islam was more like going round in circles. Obviously I wasn’t going to let it go without investigating it more fully, and that last lap round the track was done through this blog over 2009.

So what was it that was drawing me in? I guess it was just that I saw faith as a state I needed to get back to. More particularly, the rules in Islam attracted me because I was a wounded soul looking for a system that would protect me. It seemed it would give me the dignity I had not had before when self-sacrifice was my ideal. Also, the cleaner theology appealed to me.

I started this blog with the intention of making a concerted effort to sort out my spiritual life and work out the truth as best I could. The beauty of it is, I have worked through a lot of the stuff I was stuck on for years. I have come to terms with my loss of certainty. I have stopped burying my head in the sand and started being honest with myself. I have opened the curtain and let the light of day shine into my life, banishing all those fears that thrive in darkness. For that alone, this process has been immensely worthwhile.

And so if you ever wonder why I am intent on questioning religion to the point that I risk destroying it, know this: religion has wreaked a lot of havoc in my life. I am much better off where I am today. The truth really has set me free. In the past, when I wrote questioning posts, I got comments that said things like “I hope you find what you need in your life”. The irony is that questioning and doubting were exactly what I needed. Some people may still look at me as needing enlightenment… and I may look right back at them the same way.

Faith did not cure my victim mentality in the end; time did. Humans are naturally resilient and if you are prepared to ask searching questions, a lot of ills do sort themselves out.

The need for faith as well as the need for material success – the two things I thought I needed before I started out on this journey – are now up for question. Am I doing myself a disservice by thinking that I need to believe in God, or that the world is good, or that there is a purpose to life? Am I just clinging to faith like a mother’s apron-strings? What am I still looking for?

I think my searching and reading is now motivated purely by interest. I certainly haven’t arrived at any particular belief, so there is plenty I could think about. I am startled, though, by how frantic it is. I want to learn more and more, I want to read the holy books of all religions, I want to immerse myself in their wisdom… it’s like the whole world has opened up and I can’t wait to see all of it!

I think, as well, that a year of intense learning and trying to come to a belief has formed a habit. I think I will try to ease off the pace a little bit. 😉

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