Monday, June 15, 2009


The good guys at aldaily have had a number of links to the latest (June) issue of Standpoint magazine. Among them is this offering from Alain De Botton.

He opines –
The most boring question to ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true”. It’s a measure of the banality of recent discussions on theological matters that it is precisely this matter which has hogged the limelight, pitting a hardcore group of fanatical believers against an equally small band of fanatical atheists.

With which I am in total agreement. Both sides see it as “essential” (for some unknown and never expressed reason) that they are proven to be “right” and that this god either does, or does not, exist. As an aside, you will see irrefutable and direct evidence in the comments to Botton’s column – from people who can not distinguish a reasoned moot from a politico-religious opportunity.

Botton continues –
The tragedy of modern atheism is to have ignored just how many aspects of religion continue to be interesting even when the central tenets of the great faiths are discovered to be entirely implausible. Indeed, it’s precisely when we stop believing in the idea that gods made religions that things become interesting, for it is then that we can focus on the human imagination which dreamt these creeds up.
It was our 18th-century forebears who, wiser than us in this regard, early on in the period which led to “the death of God” began to consider what human beings would miss out on once religion faded away. They recognised that religion was not just a matter of belief, but that it sat upon a welter of concerns that touched on architecture, art, nature, marriage, death, ritual, time — and that by getting rid of God, one would also be dispensing with a whole raft of very useful, if often peculiar and sometimes retrograde, notions that had held societies together since the beginning of time.

Now readers of my thoughts might see that and think “The ol probligo is going to agree with that!”, and they would be right! Why else, how else, would I be able to sit and listen to the magic of a Bach cantata like “Ich habe genug”, or the plainsong beauty of El Misteri d’Elx”, or the soaring beauty of the hymns written by Hildegard von Bingen. Not to emphasise the Christian success too much, there are similar (if not more challenging) examples ranging from the rhythms of Bhuddist chants to the vocal gymnastics of the muezzin’s Friday call to prayer, right through to the karakia of a kuia on the marae as she calls the dead to witness and to be acknowledged, or invites the visitors from the noa onto the safety and security of the marae.

But, back to Botton -
What would such a peculiar idea [of a secular church] involve? … We are the only society in history to have nothing transcendent at our centre, nothing which is greater than ourselves. In so far as we feel awe, we do so in relation to supercomputers, rockets and particle accelerators.

And that, dear readers, is irrefutable.
The pre-scientific age, whatever its deficiencies, had at least offered its denizens the peace of mind that follows from knowing all man-made achievements to be inconsequent next to the spectacle of the universe. We, more blessed in our gadgetry but less humble in our outlook, have been left to wrestle with feelings of envy, anxiety and arrogance that follow from having no more compelling repository of our veneration than our brilliant and morally troubling fellow human beings.

Botton follows with his expansion of the idea of “a secular religion”; in the title of his article “A Religion for Atheists”.
That last sentence I have quoted though is the real nub of his whole premise, at least so far as I am concerned.

This is how I see it -
The first of these – the question – is the beginning of scientific enquiry; it is the need to find an explanation for an “unnatural” event.

The second, the fear of that unknown and unexplained event (and such a fear can be quite rational as we all should know) is the beginning of superstition.

The common ground between these two factors is where I believe theistic religion is formed. It develops in both forms; as the explanation of the event, and as the personal protection from the event and its consequences. One can choose either mono- or pan-theistic systems, or any combination in between.

As an example, compare three different stories of the rainbow. In the Judeo/Christian version it is God’s symbol of His regret for the great flood, and his promise that he would not take such action again. To the Greeks the rainbow is Iris, a messenger of the gods. She travels on the wind, with the storm ahead of her and the sun behind. It is little surprise that she is the daughter of Thaumus (Wonder). As a total contrast is the Maori legend of Uenuku and Hinepukoherangi the mist maiden of the dawn. Uenuku was a warrior who met Hinepukoherangi one morning and they fell deeply in love. After courting and marrying her, Uenuku tried to force her to stay during the day by trickery and as a result killed her. Ranginui (the sky) took pity on the mourning Uenuku and put him in the sky during the day. When mist and rainbow meet at dawn Uenuku and Hine are together again, if only for just that brief moment.

It can be seen that even an event as everyday as a rainbow can give rise to explanations that are at the same time beautiful and profound.

Now Botton claims that there is “nothing transcendent at our centre”. I would point to the rainbow and say “It is simple to say ‘we know how…’, but there is a magic there which has to be respected. We can illustrate in an experiment, but we can not recreate on the scale of the natural event.” A religious person can claim “…created by God”.

I recall a brief conversation I had with (I think) TF on a quotation he had vaguely recalled. I gave him in response –

“What is this world if, full of care
We have no time to stand and stare”

I don’t believe, I never have believed, that I need a “religion”.

My “religion” is all around me. Every day. Without fail.
I take the time to stand and stare, in wonderment.


T. F. Stern said...

"My “religion” is all around me. Every day. Without fail.
I take the time to stand and stare, in wonderment."

That, my friend, is a great example of pure religion as opposed to man made religion. Perhaps without knowing it you have embraced the same religion as Adam and Eve when they found themselves in the Garden of Eden.

The probligo said...

TF, I will take that as a small (and unsought) approbation.

With "Adam and Eve"? Well, perhaps if you are prepared to accept the popular science version that might be true. However, I very strongly doubt that they would have imagined a "god" in the same way as do you.

Our world, my world, is as Botton said "... more blessed in our gadgetry but less humble in our outlook...". And to misquote the Cheyneyism "We still don't know what we don't know".

Does that lead to the presence of a god in my universe? Not at all. Even if we do eventually "find" (scientifically prove the existence of) the Higgs Boson (the so-called "god particle") we will probably find even more closed doors than we have at the present time.

Does that lead to proving the existance of a god? Not in my universe it doesn't. It is merely a step in our explanation of our universe.

Remember, it is only 3000 years since Euclid explained bouyancy, but the rainbow then was still a reflection of the gods.

The real point is, and I said this in the original text, that this universe that we share is, on your side "made by God", on my side "a great, glorious and accidental coincidence".

I don't need a god to explain the unknowns. I don't need a god for protection from fear. I rejoice in the fact that I am here and able to enjoy it.

When I am not here it will be no longer.

T. F. Stern said...


My understanding of God, large G, is more than a passive acceptance based on a preponderance of evidence such as would be used in deciding a civil court case. I base my belief in God and Jesus Christ on eye witness accounts. We are in deed created in a form which makes us appear as they do, flesh and bone down to the last fingernail.

Adam and Eve did not have to wonder about whether or not God exists or wonder how the creation came about as they were able to talk with God the Father face to face at times. They needed only to talk with the “Head Man” to learn what they needed to do, no need for universities and college professors. Any righteous desire for information would be given them; the principle of revelation existed then, just as it does today.

They had the best teacher in the world, not having to rely on second hand information from scholastic types or theologians who could only venture best guesses and theoretical assumptions based on limited information. No, I’d have to say Adam and Eve needed only the assurance that by following the commandments of God they could enjoy all that was given them, to appreciate the Garden of Eden; but to appreciate the human struggle once they were cast out.

Adam and Eve were not the only mortals to have been taught directly by God. Moses and Abraham recorded much of what they were given in the scriptures; but there are so many who have relegated the scriptures to little more than fantasy or hallucinations that have no facts to support them. Abraham had a wealth of knowledge regarding how the universe, and more specifically, how the Solar system worked; information which took quite a bit of time to be verified by so called scientific minds in modern days. The simple fact is that many of the ancients, as we might refer to them, knew much more regarding the creation and all that such entails. They accepted the information as factual since it came from the original source, God.

Joseph Smith, a modern day prophet recorded his visit from God and Jesus Christ, a witness to the world that these are two individuals, distinct and separate glorified beings who called him by name and gave him specific instructions. This is pure religion as opposed to the permutated versions which are the result of human error, either by ignorance or design, which falls far short of perfection.

My original admiration of your statement would still apply; being in awe and wonder for all that has been created stands to your credit. You now have sufficient information to direct your appreciation to God and Jesus Christ for having supplied you with all these wonders rather than some vaporous cloud which must be imagined. God the Father has a body of flesh and bone just like you do. You are created in His image; one of his children and should find great comfort in the blessings promised to His children.