THE VITAL QUESTION

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What do you think great thinkers 150 years ago would have considered, in the words of their contemporary, John Stuart Mill, “the vital question of the future” (that’s NOW !) ? For some it might be how far we would have advanced beyond the Industrial Revolution, and whether we would be able to cope with expected progress in engineering and science. For others, realizing the implications of Charles Darwin’s copernican revolution concerning the Origin of Species, the question might have been whether religion could possibly survive in the 21st century. For John Stuart Mill himself, a rare combination of philosopher and politician, the question that most worried him was whether a democratic majority might force its will on a minority. Even in 1859 this idea was considered controversial and dangerous. Today it would be heresy in some Western countries where many consider it their God-given mission to offer, and to impose if necessary, their values on the nations of the world, just as Islamists are dedicated to imposing charia worldwide. For Mill, freedom of thought, freedom of action and freedom to join together with other like-minded individuals, are necessary to avoid society itself becoming a tyrant, “a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression”.

The subject is close to the very essence of this Blog. The Catholic Church, for centuries, succeeded in silencing dissenters. Today it is powerless to do so. (Our very own Catholic spokesman, Jim, has said in this Blog that he and his friends have decided “to starve” me “of oxygen” (see his comment on “Rise and Shine”, August 18). If this were to be taken literally, it would be a threat to murder. Of course it isn’t. It’s just an expression of frustration that they cannot silence me. Before and since Galileo, the Church has tried and often succeeded in silencing dissenters, depriving, for example, Giordano Bruno at the stake not only of Mill’s three freedoms but of … oxygen.)

Roman Catholicism would prefer that we forget its fascist, fanatical, terrorist past and appreciate its new-found ecumenism and “tolerance”. Thanks to Mill and other defenders of the hard-won right to dissent, minorities are free to express their opinions. Voltaire may or may not have said : “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Mill did express the lapidary principle which must govern the discussion of different opinions : “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind”. 150 years from now, and for as long as humans inhabit this world, the principle remains a self-evident truth we must never again forget.

(A handy summary of Mill’s thought, including the right to self-protection as well as the right and duty to prevent or punish action that causes harm, can be found in Andrew Taylor’s “Books That Changed the World”, Quercus, London, 2014.)

RIDENDA RELIGIO

Spiritual or Religious – What Are We?

frankomeara:

This is the first time I have ever “reblogged” a post from another blog. This one deserves to be shared with you. As you will see, it is well-written, intelligent and sincere. Its author has become a Follower of ours, and now receives everything posted here. He would perhaps disagree with much of the content and style of blindfaithblindfolly, but his outlook reflects that of many who need something “spiritual” to fill the void created by rejecting religion.

Originally posted on Spirituality Exploration Today:

Spiritual or Religious?

 Spiritual or Religious?

Spirituality is in vogue. As Americans use the term “religious,” it is increasingly limited to dogma, ritual and other religious practices, and institutions. Whereas, “spiritual” and “spirituality” are far more inclusive, encompassing all of their lives. Large groups of Americans want to deepen their spirituality, and self-understanding, according to surveys.

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RISE AND SHINE !

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He had been Resting, presumably In Peace, for three days. But He was no R.I.P.van Winkle. For one thing, He had not been asleep; He was DEAD ! Three days in the tomb were quite enough for Him. He had, of course, taken the precaution to put on hold the normal post-mortem putresence that sets in pretty quickly, especially at a time, two thousand years ago, when refrigerated morgues had not yet been invented, and in a country where it’s already quite hot in April. He didn’t have much in the way of decent clothing, an oversight no doubt, as He was about to appear to a lady, who for some reason would mistake him for a somewhat oddly dressed gardener. The story gets better as it goes along. The best part is when He meets up with two guys who didn’t recognize Him either at first, on their way to Emmaüs. Took a while for them to cotton on to what later would be called His Resurrection.

If you refuse to believe all this, you’re on your way to Hell, brother. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Rise and shine, my friend ! Praise the Lord and enjoy your Easter eggs with the other kiddies.

RIDENDA RELIGIO

AS CHANCE WOULD HAVE IT . . .

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When Bogey lit up another Lucky Strike, none of us kids at “the pictures” (the cinema) on Saturday arvos in Sinney would have wondered about the name of his favorite brand. Even Americans no doubt could care less, as they incongruously say, that the marketeers meant to suggest that striking a match to smoke a Lucky was a stroke of good fortune, equivalent to finding gold in them thar hills : every cigarette was a Lucky Strike for the future cancer victim, comparable with finding an enormous nugget or seam of gold during the Rush.

An ex-smoker who actually once panned for gold in Arizona (the whole truth and nothing but, in my Blog), I must confess that the famous brand takes me back further than the forties, back in fact 65 million years, when the Earth suffered a most Unlucky Strike. We all know about the dinosaurs and their extinction, and sometimes wonder when the next giant meteor is going to strike. So far we have been lucky. Matter of fact, our whole history has been one of luck, beginning with the Big Bang.

Have no fear, I am not going to get into trillionths of nanoseconds and all that. The BB happened to happen, and later, much later, 4.5 billion years ago, the Earth did too. Quite recently we also happened to happen. We call Oz the Lucky Country. But we all live on a Lucky Planet in a Universe that is the product of chance.

I say this purposely, of course. God did not make the world on purpose. Nobody did. No point in arguing. Believe that the world and we have a purpose if you like. Everything indicates that it and we don’t. But if, for a moment, we atheists admit that it and we do, you have to wonder about that meteor and the dinosaurs. You have to worry about all the volcanoes ready to erupt, all those tsunamis that could wipe out millions. Does a Divine Architect, an Intelligent Designer, and Omnipotent God of Love do or even allow things like that on purpose ? I suggest we not waste what little time we may have left – depending on forces beyond our (and obviously “God’s”) control – discussing the teleological “proof” for the existence of God, or trying to argue one way or the other about Purpose in Creation. Let’s just get on with our lives, as long as our luck holds out.

RIDENDA RELIGIO

BULL-FIGHTING AND GOD-BASHING : TIRED ARGUMENTS FULL OF … BULL ?

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The French Government has just told its Ministers on vacation in southern France to keep away from the corridas. The Powers That Be are under enough attack as it is without exposing themselves to criticism about their blood-lust.

I am not going to open Pan’s or Dora’s box here and defend or attack the noble, beautiful, barbarous, inhuman art of bravely and esthetically taunting, torturing and sacrificing bovine gladiators which even if they win are moritori, but which would have been slaughtered anyhow. I just want to ask whether there is any point in arguing the point, and apply the same question to the raison d’être of this Blog.

By their fans, Richard Dawkins or Cardinal Pell may be declared victor in one of their debates (a.k.a. dialogues of the deaf), but no one expects either protagonist to be won over by the other’s arguments. I can’t imagine anyone convincing anyone else that they are wrong about bull-fighting. So why bother ? For the audience, of course ! It’s Entertainment. You don’t have to enter the arena yourself; you don’t even have to ask a question. You can just enjoy the show and watch Richard and George – Frank and Jim – try to score points. The reason we do it, of course, on the Tube and in the Blog is, more importantly, for the undecided. My guess is that there are few Believers on the Brink when it comes to bull-fighting, but their name is Legion in the domain of God, faith and religion. I have never heard or read a new argument pro or contra the corrida, but I would like to think that some of my Reflections about blindfaithblindfolly here offer, occasionally at least, teasers and ticklers not previously formulated in quite the way I do. Only readers can tell me whether I am wasting my time and theirs.

RIDENDA RELIGIO

THE NEED TO HOPE

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People in Gaza and in Israel, in Ukraine and also in Irak, have to hope that one day … Some of us are tempted to think there is no hope for them, not for a temporary truce but for genuine mutual tolerance, cohabitation and a lasting peace. We and they need to hope. People in Auschwitz needed to hope. They knew they were about to be gassed but expressed their hope in an eternal life by reciting the “Shema” or the “Our Father”.

We all need to hope. Which is why genuinely endless – life-long – imprisonment is more than cruel and unusual punishment. With no hope of release, such a sentence would indeed make prison a Dantesque Inferno, a Hell on earth : “Despair of hope all ye who enter here !” The lifers resign themselves, if they can, but more often despair, attempt suicide or as in those other prisons, the Concentration camps, replace and transfer their hope to an imagined after-life.

Religion is born of such hope. I would like to hope that at least some believers, especially my Believers on the Brink, realize in time how groundless that hope is. I feel free, ever since I saw through the illusion. I’ve got plenty to hope for still in this, the only life I will ever have. There IS life before death.

RIDENDA RELIGIO

TIME FOR RELIGION ?

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Headlines can be misleading. The “Time” in question here is, in fact, the magazine TIME, this week’s edition (August 18, 2014) and its Letters to the Editor. Only eight of the thousands no doubt submitted were published, but as many as two of the eight concern religion. One says, without any great originality : “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has raged on for too long. Peace will continue to be elusive as long as religion continues to influence the mind-set of the belligerents involved”. The other is more general : “My Dad taught me early on that more people have died because of organized religion than anything else”, and notes that “TIME has mirrored this sentiment”. Neither statement is particularly insightful. Some readers may dismiss both as truisms. But it is the proportion that strikes me : 25% of the letters chosen concern religion. This is not due, I’m sure, to any editorial policy or desire to denigrate religious belief the way some diabolical blogs do. And I am not suggesting that there is any particular statistical significance in the ratio I have underlined. It is just a reminder that religion is of permanent interest to many and of deep concern to some.

One could, I suppose, plot on a Gauss bell-curve the minority of people passionately in favor of religion, another minority passionately opposed to religion, and a big fat majority in the middle of people who more or less believe and practise religion within the degrees from indifference to fervor which the graph would illustrate. My Believers on the Brink are over there on the slope on the right, on their way, I hope, to joining the militant atheist minority.

Meantime the millions of TIME readers will, even if they haven’t yet discovered this Blog, perhaps reflect on the further evidence which the TIME letters recall of the truth in Hitchens’ sub-title : “Religion Poisons Everything”.

RIDENDA RELIGIO

” LET THERE BE LIGHT ! ”

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It takes me roughly a full day to get from France to Australia. A rough estimate for what can be a rough journey : apart from the inevitable occasional turbulence, with thus far, after decades of flying Down Under, no dramatic or even disturbing effects, it is tiring, uncomfortable and … long (twenty hours in the air).

Light could do the same trip about sixteen times in a single second, and more than a million times if you gave it the time we take. Once again the figures are approximate, but as amateurs we won’t be too picky. When we were kids we got our first inkling about the speed of light as we noticed the lag in the snail-speed of the sound of thunder compared with the instantaneity of lightning. Non-scientific septuagenarians like me need simple examples and analogies to begin to realize just how myopic we are on a starry, starry night. Our star, the Sun, is (only) 150,000,000 kilometers from us, more than 8000 times as far as the sunny city of Sydney. The next nearest, Proxima Centauri, is over four Light-Years away. Just one light-year is nearly ten trillion (10,000,000,000,000) kilometers.

It’s strange that the experience of the same phenomenon can provoke diametrically opposed reactions. There are the Psalmists and the Priests and the People of God who see the heavens as a reflection of His glory, His power, His supreme intelligence and supposed anthropocentric purpose. And there is the atheist, like me, in awe beholding the awe-full spectacle of the night-sky, aware of a mystery we will never comprehend, literally dumbfounded as I realize how incredibly immense our solar system, our galaxy, our Universe must be. But I can’t bring myself to blame the believer for not sharing my conviction that it all just happened – for absolutely no purpose. It’s so much easier, I suppose, to believe that a Creator has the whole world – and us – in His hands. But heavens above ! What a wonder-full world !

RIDENDA RELIGIO

ALL ABOARD FOR KEPLER 186F !

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With all that’s been going on in the world recently – the Monty Python First Farewell, the World Cup, my starring in an Anzac movie – you may have missed the other big event last Spring when the Kepler exoplanet, about the same size as Earth, was discovered. It’s only 500 light-years away, so any time now some entrepreneur will be selling tickets for the first flight to our twin planet.

We all know that light from the Sun takes fully eight minutes to reach us. The Sun is 150,000,000 kms from Earth. How long would it take us in existing spacecraft to get to Kepler ? The fastest would be Helios 2, which spent ten years (1976-1986) studying the Sun. It would take 2,130,000 years. Voyager, which recently exited the solar system, would take a little longer : 18,690,000 years. Apollo could never be commissioned for such a space trek. It took three days to get Neal on to the Moon in 1969. If it could, it would take, at 38,000 kms/hr, 14,000,000 years to take us to Kepler.

So maybe we should pin our hopes on Space Probe 2, which Nasa will launch in 2018 to explore the Sun’s crown. But even at 720,000 kms/hr it would take 750,000 years. I keep telling myself that Jesus (is said to have) lived just 2000 years ago. 750,000 years is a time-span beyond my imagination. I can however understand 750,000 euros. That, plus another million, is the asking price for my immediate neighbor’s house. Kepler 186 F and “Le Chistera”, the Basque name of the palace next door, are both out of my reach.

O.K. : I will make the connection for you. It’s pretty hard to believe that God made Kepler and put it way out there as a refuge for humanity when we destroy our own planet (what other possible purpose could it have ?) Even Mars, in our backyard, will probably never witness a small step or a giant leap for anybody before Armageddon. Sorry, but this is a blog about belief in God, not an astronomy manual. The more I discover about the Universe, the less I believe in a Creator. The heavens do not reveal His glory, just His non-existence.

RIDENDA RELIGIO

“WHY ARE THERE MOUNTAINS ?”

In his debate (a.k.a. dialogue of the deaf) with Cardinal Pell on Australian TV two years ago, Richard Dawkins countered the inevitable teleological argument for the existence of God, the “Intelligent Designer”, by asking the question in the title above. He limpidly explained that it is just as meaningless to ask why there is life. Mountains and life, including our own, have no purpose. He added, trying to educate poor Pell, that both questions are understood by some as meaning HOW did they happen. They exist, scientists say, because of tectonic shifts and because of the interaction of certain elements in certain conditions. Pell predictably trotted out the old saw about Science being able to explain the “how” but never the “why”. He refuses to see not only that science cannot determine the purpose of creation, which is, he claims, where religion kicks in, but that religion in fact has no acceptable answer either. The question of a purpose in nature is meaningless.

We all want to find finality in birds’ wings. Pangloss, Voltaire’s character in his caustic “Candide”, saw finality in noses : “Noses were made to support spectacles.” (Blogger’s Note : I have myself written that God got it right when He put ears on the sides of our head for the same reason.) Pangloss goes on : “Legs, as anyone can plainly see, were made to be breeched, and so we have breeches” (319). But this is Chestertonian sneering, not arguing. So let’s argue a little : However beautiful the feathers may be, those wings are obviously meant for flying, (as “these boots were made for walkin’ “) not just as decoration to attract a sexual partner. Of course they have a purpose. But God did not design them, did not even get them to evolve with the size and shape and structure and aerodynamic capacity necessary to make flight possible. The fossil record reveals hit-and-miss adaptation, with dead-ends and failures and extinctions along the way, but also an evolution that results finally in avian Lift-Off ! If God is responsable for some creatures being able to fly – and even some birds, like Aussie emus, never could – it seems fair to wonder why He would have taken so long to do it. Why bother with experiments, why take eons to arrive at wings and the first phenomenon of flight ? Why not equip the birds with the finished product instead of a DIY kit ? Believers call this sneering. I call such questions serious challenges to anyone who believes “God” had a purpose in creation when in fact the only purpose of evolution is survival of species.

Divine design and finality are a construct, imposed on natural phenomena that have neither. We have a purpose in many of the things we do : we make watches, cars, computers, smartphones for a purpose. It seems logical that God, presumed to exist, would have done the same. But if mountains have no purpose except perhaps to promote the ski-industry and the Swiss franc, even His Eminence must agree that exploding stars which become supernovae clearly never had one. “Why” is a perfectly good question. Why, indeed, can Pell not get the point ?

RIDENDA RELIGIO

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