Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Secular Delusion

Andrew Brown reports on the rise of Calvinism in China. I don't think that was in the secular-progressive game plan. It gives a timely endorsement to this book review by John Gray - and to the book, of course, though it does seem a little too Americentric. Either way, the point is that the humanist fantasy that modernity necessarily entailed the decline of religion was always absurd, now it is demonstrably so. As John points out, religion is on the rise among the most defiantly modern people. You can say this is a bad thing, but you can't say it can't happen, as so many have done. This is an important point. Dawkins's The God Delusion was attacked because he plainly knew nothing about theology. His defenders said that was not the point, theology was irrelevant if God was, indeed, no more than a delusion. Okay, but as Calvinism in China (and many other resurgent faiths) demonstrate, to say God doesn't exist therefore I'm not going to think about him in any detail is to cut yourself from the world as it is. Or, to put it another way, to say that God is merely a delusion - and no more than that - is to imply you have some higher standard of understanding than the merely human. But there is no super-human realm in which ranks of Dawkins's 'brights' bask in the brilliant glare of unbelief. They're here, in this world, and they also have their delusions of which the most bizarre and eccentric is their faith in the imminent death of religion.


  1. so you think that the human mind is progammed to never let god die, religion becomes an ever mutating virus

  2. The words 'virus' and 'programme' lead you astray, worm. They suggest religion is some externality imposed on the human mind. This is plainly not so, it is hardware or, in other terms, an aspect of the healthy, not the diseased, body

  3. and they also have their delusions of which the most bizarre and eccentric is their faith in the imminent death of religion.Who still believes in the imminent death of religion, though? 40 years ago it was a popular notion, ok, and it turned out to be wrong, but I don't see many who still think it...

  4. are you saying we are born with religion? I suppose this is ethnically or geographically determined. no, we are born with a ''hole'', and, in my view, people see a hole and they want to fill it in, generally, if there's nothing better, with any rubbish to hand. But what's wrong with holes? Acceptance of holes is an aspect of a healthy mind.

  5. Religions are like women - can't live with em, can't live without em...

  6. I'm on Ian Russell's side, we are born with a 'hole' and other religion carrying vectors seek to infect this hole with their pathogens, as by promulgating their belief, they have justified their own belief, and thus filled 'the hole'. This then repeats ad nauseum.

  7. I reckon over the last 10 years I have, at some time or other, favoured and argued for just about every position on religion, including outright Brightish hostility, and numerous variations on Ian and Worm's 'hole' analogy.

    You know, none of them seem quite right, mostly too glib. I've changed my mind more times than I've changed my socks and I'm still no further forward, but I do feel that if I read one more straight-down-the-line statement of the Dawkinsian obvious, I might just go and become a monk.

    I expect there'll be one along in a minute on this very thread....

  8. Funny you should mention monks, Brit, see this sunday

  9. Religion must indeed be backing away from the abyss, that most conservative of institutions the church of the land of the porridge scoffers is considering allowing the pooftahs in.

    Don't think that religion is hardware but it may well be our bios, something needs to first switch on the electricity.

    However, the catholic church's response to the recent appalling revelations about its Irish branch may well halt its recruitment drive.

  10. 'Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good ground for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.' That's Bertrand Russell, and he should know having been satisfied with quite a few bad ones in his time.

    What astonishes me about Hitchens, Dawkins, et al is they appear not to have noticed what went on last century. Hitler, Stalin and Mao surely demonstrate that an absence of religion doesn't necessarily produce rational enlightenment - quite the reverse at times. There are demonstrably worse types of faith than religion. But, in any event, like taxes and death it will always be with us.

  11. I'm not against religion, but calvinism is a horrible religion. The problem with Christianity is that it believes everyone who isn't a Christian is worshipping a false God. The need to convert humanity is a core aim of Christianity. The vast majority of religions don't have this impulse, which is probably why Christianty is so successful. It's depressing that some of the oldest and wisest religions on Earth risk being exterminated by the world's most boring religion.

  12. Saying you don't like religion is about as helpful as saying you don't like breathing. The religious impulse is unavoidable. But it's hard not to think that the two most prominent religions, Christianity and Islam (or their cousin Communism), are serious problems for the world. Both contain seeds which encourage bad men to take the most unpleasant aspects of our innate tribalism and supercharge them. This may not have mattered too much in the days of the horse and the spear, as the spread of damage was limited, but in the world of hardcore TV evangelists or nuking-toting imans it's a nightmare.

    I suppose one needs to be an optimist and say that human culture is capable of taking what's wired in and ameliorating even this aspect of our nature. Actually I think that's already available, but you have to look at traditions in places like India and SE Asia.

  13. To compare TV evangelists to nuke toting Imams is the height of frivolity, the acme of gibberish, the pinnacle of fatuous equivalence. I mean, I know it's common & fashionable, but it's still an absurdity. Or as Charlie Brown would say: Good Grief.

  14. There are some smart comments here, thanks all, particularly from Brit's latest onwards.

    I'm with Vern on fatuous equivalence, the childishness of the western liberal need to mention TV evangelists and nuke-toting imams in the same breath as implying exactly the same kind of problem or threat. One can easily disagree with almost all TV evangelists, sympathise with some of the more thoughtful Muslim critique of the West and still spot some crucial differences between the extremes. Left as an exercise for the interested reader.

    What bothers me more is the equivalence implied by Chris: "Calvinism is a horrible religion. The problem with Christianity ..." As a attempt at enlightenment on that, here are four key dividing issues that I see in world Christianity today:

    1. The five points of Calvinism (easily googled) - I follow John Wesley in rejecting these.

    2. The ministry and leadership of women, at every level of the church - I follow William and Catherine Booth of the Salvation Army in endorsing that.

    3. Miraculous healings like Peter's "rise and walke" in Acts 3 being fully expected in today's church - I follow Smith Wigglesworth and the early English Pentecostals on that.

    4. The search for the historic Jesus, doing real history again, wherever the first century evidence may lead us - I follow guys like NT Wright on that.

    As a general rule Calvinists in the West come down on the other side of these four issues. Mind you, it's a much more dynamic situation in the developing world.

    The most important of the four? Without hesitation I'd say the issue of women's equality in the church. Set those peace-loving ladies and their wonderful gifts free to bless the world and those nuke-toting imans won't stand a chance!

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  16. Vernon said: "To compare TV evangelists to nuke toting Imams is the height of frivolity, the acme of gibberish, the pinnacle of fatuous equivalence. I mean, I know it's common & fashionable, but it's still an absurdity ..."You and Richard are missing the same thing, though this thread is interesting because of the extent to which church and state are still so entwined in people's mind.

    No, there is no moral equivalence between a dictatorial theocracy run by nutters and an open democracy like the USA. I haven't tried to say there is. But, imho, there is an equivalence among the extremes of tribalism and bigotry that religion, or some religions anyway, can and does engender. It's in the USA, among some far-right Christians, it's in the UK (a vicious tribal war called "Northern Ireland"), it's in Europe (Bosnia and genocide, remember), in Africa and in the Middle East.

    We are all the same beneath a very thin veneer. Hatred and murderous intent fanned by religion are the same wherever they occur. It takes the separation of church and state and the rule of law to contain this, imho. It took hundreds of years in Europe for constraints to be placed on the most dangerous aspects of religion and they are just as dangerous now as they were then because they derive directly from what, as humans, we are. That is why the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, not hitting the auto-rhetoric switch along the lines of "it could never happen here because we are a little too sophisticated for all that". On the contrary, precisely because it could happen here we have to make very sure it never will.

    In any war, the vast majority of casualties will be ordinary civilians who've never asked to be blown up by anyone, thanks. It's no good telling the dead that it was all a mistake involving the Will of God. They'll already know that.

  17. Mark, I can't speak for Vern, fortunately for him!

    We are touching things now which I know are well out of my depth, namely the interplay between belief systems, cultures and constitutional arrangements.

    I agree with you (if I'm about represent your view fairly) that a so-called TV evangelist with an evil, controlling attitude towards other people may, given his finger on the nuclear trigger, be just as dangerous as an imam in the middle east who may (though I hope not) be closer to that kind of action. The difference is in the constitutional arrangement and the culture in which the TV evangelist operates. Thank God, one might even say.

    Likewise it is well possible to conceive of a imam, like Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq, who is peace-loving to a fault.

    I don't think I was confusing any of those points. People with evil hearts in positions of power will do great damage. Hitler was a Catholic. Or was he? The Vatican would probably want to draw some further distinctions there and I don't really blame them.

    I was talking about 'problem' and 'threat' and there you have to take all the circumstances into account, internal and external, belief, culture and constitution.

    There is one more question I'd like to pose. Who models peace-making and forgiveness better in recorded history: Jesus or Mohammed? I believe the person one chooses to follow as the ideal makes an enormous difference as well.

    Note the word believe but also history. There is something objective to explore, without ever expecting unanimity in the conclusions.

    The deep respect Muslims have for the 'prophet Issa' is another very interesting factor.

    Complicated world. I applaud Bryan for making that point. We all have some work to do.

  18. I'm afraid I don't see this article as saying what it's trying to say. 500,000 new Calvinists in China? That's a drop in the bucket. To put it in perspective, you could have five _million_ Chinese converting to Calvinism every single year and it'd still take 120 years for China to become a majority Calvinist country. China is big!

    Not that I'd be surprised either way. The Third Great Awakening in the United States coincided with our rapid industrialization from 1850-1900. You find a similar development in Victorian England. So as long as you have countries rising up the industrialization/modernism ladder, you're likely to have religious growth. But eventually you run out of countries.

  19. Calling the Chinese as a whole "the most defiantly modern people" is a grotesque, wishful, distortion. I'd love to see some Chinese folk respond to that deceit. The Chinese are traditionally polyreligious.

    This surge of interest in and support for religion is actually normal for when Modernity really begins to bite and drive social change. Obviously the social reactionaries are going to shop around for fundamentalisms with which to counter the liberalism and radicalism. And the Chinese middle class is going to look for some middle ground religions/ideologies that is sufficiently adapted or compromised to the realities of international globalization, local traditionalism, and incremental change. Buddhism is actually doing very well again in China.

    It's very predictable that when the novelty value of Christianity and Western Christian thinking wears off, when it feels intellectually circumferenced and mined out, its audience soon reduces (as in the West) to the morbid and the bipolar.

  20. in such cases, what to do is a big dilemma...