"Christianity is such a silly religion" – Gore Vidal
"God’s only excuse is that he does not exist" – Stendhal, quoted by Nietzche in Ecce Homo
I would describe my stance towards religion (and Christianity in particular) as being as one of agnosticism, in much the same sense as Bertrand Russell did:
"As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God. There is exactly the same degree of possibility and likelihood of the existence of the Christian God as there is of the existence of the Homeric God. I cannot prove that either the Christian God or the Homeric gods do not exist, but I do not think that their existence is an alternative that is sufficiently probable to be worth serious consideration."
While it is possible to question the manifestations of this reality in the form of religious institutions, it is as impossible to disprove the existence of god, as it is to prove it. The furthest that one can go in this regard is to state that reality does not require the existence of deity either for its original creation or for its continued existence. That previous statement notwithstanding, my essential objection to Christianity was originally a moral one. I concluded that the morality of the Bible was such that I would have to become a conscientious objector to it; going to hell for this if necessary (the compamy of Nietzche being infinitely preferrable to that of Leviticus). For Christianity it is god and not humanity that is important. As Gore Vidal put it;
"I regard monotheism as the greatest disaster ever to befall the human race. I see no good in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam — good people, yes, but any religion based on a single, well, frenzied and virulent god, is not as useful to the human race as, say, Confucianism, which is not a religion but an ethical and educational system."
Accordingly, the ardour demonstrated by many Christians is such that one begins to suspect its practitioners of an almost masochistic (and certainly passive aggressive) tendency towards martyrdom; delusions of grandeur wherein they envisage themselves as Jesus facing temptation in the desert. The will to convert others is not necessarily altruistic, but can rather be seen as egotistical. The promise of heavenly rewards in exchange for scalped souls is a transparent appeal to mercenary qualities in its own right, but there is also the additional promise of being able to remind oneself of how moral one is by dint of comparison with the heathens. Conversely, the other dominant characteristic of Christianity is sadism; a ruthless and absolute application (regardless of any compassion) of moral statutes that run precisely counter to a great deal of human instinct, by seeking to suppress said instincts.
Although polytheist and henotheist religions have been known to be guilty of fundamentalism (as, indeed, have most ideological systems; even democracy), it nonetheless remains difficult to argue with this perspective. Within most monotheistic religions, one has the transcendental sanction of the one true god for one’s views, no matter how extreme they may be. In a polytheistic religion, to be a devotee of one god does not preclude the existence or validity of other gods in the pantheon. By way of contrast, it is hardly difficult to find suitable illustrations of this Biblical immorality:
"Elisha spoke. He went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, "Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!" When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. (Second Book of Kings)"
"When the Israelites were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the sabbath day Then the LORD said to Moses, "The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp." The whole congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death, just as the LORD had commanded Moses (Numbers)."
"Because they were wicked enough to ignore the part in his commandment for human sacrifice that allowed them to substitute an animal for the baby, God lets them go ahead and sacrifice their babies to him so they would be horrified and know he is Lord. (Ezekiel)"
The most common disclaimer held against barbarities of this kind is the statement that such facets of Christianity are confined to the Old Testament and stand in contrast to the more enlightened teachings of the New Testament. In fact, it is Jesus himself who states "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother."
It is perhaps inevitable that a modern sensibility will instinctively recoil from this particularly vengeful form of Biblical morality, in the same manner that George Eliot did "It is time the clergy are told that thinking men, after a close examination of that doctrine (Christianity), pronounce it to be subversive of true moral development and, therefore, positively noxious." A C Grayling notes that religious fundamentalism is not an aberration, but merely the logical development of much religion, left without the normal societal constraints that typically cause believers to moderate their beliefs. In seeking to defend Christianity in Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard reinforced this argument by noting that Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac cannot be defended on ethical grounds – such ruthless obedience can only be defended on religious grounds (although it is worth noting that Christianity’s ethical claims mainly rest upon the bribe of salvation that it proffers – a somewhat ineffectual prospect given that the majority of people are unlikely to respond to any stimulus that it not immediately apparent. Human thinking is very much situational, devoted to dealing with immediate problems). Such conclusions are hardly radical; as Malebranche noted the pivotal role of the crucifixion in christian theology means that god "never had a more agreeable sight than that of his only son fastened to the cross to re-establish order in the universe." Incidentally, upon the topic of salvation it is worthwhile repeating Robert Ingersoll’s comment that "Every church unconsciously allows people to commit crimes on a credit." Although few would argue with the laudable nature of forgiveness, it is a peculiar ethical system that asserts that such crimes as theft are wrong in absolute terms and are worthy of punishment, but that it is possible to evade such punishment through a single act of repentence. Either an act has consequences or it does not.
Such concerns go to the heart of my reservations concerning the ethical character of Christianity. One way to judge an ethical system or religion is through the ease with which it may be perverted into a force for oppression. It is almost certainly possible to do this with any system of thought if one tries hard enough, but it hardly seems unreasonable to suggest that Christianity may be a great deal more amenable to this than, for example, Taoism. To those that object to this analysis, it might be oberved that the defenders of religion frequently assert its relevance as a defence against the amoral materialism of modern life – to which the objection must be that if religion is capable for being such a force for good, it can hardly be denied that it is equally capable of being a force for ill, especially it is far from being unequivocal in all matters. This may be evidenced by the role that utopian idealism has played in the many of the conflicts and atrocities of the twentieth century. The alternative is that religion has diminished power in either respect, in which case it can best be described as a somewhat pointless exercise from any perspective. In many respects my disagreement with Christianity reverses Plato’s objections to art. Plato felt that art could be dangerous when studied by a knave or a fool, and lead them away from religion. I have no such concerns about art, but I do have concerns of that kind about religion.
While it is clearly possible for someone who is liberal and humane to be a christian (albeit with a certain degree of embarrassment at certain aspects of their faith), Christianity seems far from endorsing those values. As such, my response to christianity has always been, regardless of whether the christian god exists or not, that it would be better to go to hell than collude with such disfigured doctrine. In fact, the Platonic argument seems especially pertinent when one considers the arguments made by Celsus in On the True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians:
"the religion of Egypt… [where] the animals were symbols of invisible idea and not objects of worship in themselves. The religion of the Christians is not directed at an idea, but at the crucified Jesus"
To Celsus, Christianity lacks (to corrupt TS Eliot’s term) an adequate objective correlative for such concepts as truth and good. Indeed, he asserts that the very idea of representing such an ineffable concept as the divine is little more than image worship (a tendency which has never been fully extirpated from Christianity in spite of the prohibition of graven images in Mosaic law; although if man is made in the image of the Lord such a prohibition seems risible at best). It is unclear whether the christian god is synonymous with those concepts; and instead we are told that the ways of god are mysterious. In Euthyphro Plato had demonstrated that we cannot depend upon the moral fiats of a deity. Plato asked if the commandments of a god were "good" simply because a god had commanded them or because the god recognized what was good and commanded the action accordingly. If something is good simply because a god has commanded it, anything could be considered good. There could be no way of predicting what in particular the god might desire next, and it would be entirely meaningless to assert that God is identical to goodness. Conversely, if a god’s commandments are based on a knowledge of the inherent goodness of an act, we are faced with the realization that there is a standard of goodness independent of the god and we must admit that he cannot be the source of morality. As such, to Celsus most of the best features of Christianity are far from being specific to that sect, even observing that both Plato and the Bible state that morality and wealth are incompatible; it is merely that Plato states this more lucidly.
However, although the Old Testament God is quite ruthless in destroying the enemies of his followers (The Lord they god is a jealous and vengeful god), it should not be any great surprise that God would not be moral in the sense in which we understand that term. In his capacity as creator of the fundament God would have had to create a natural world predicated upon a principle of survival of the fittest; in short a natural world within which no form of morality is inherent, and in which suffering and cruelty appear to be as intrinsic to mankind as to any other species subject to evolutionary pressures. Nonetheless, by asserting a moral code that is contravened by the deity in question, Christianity forfeits any right to be regarded as a civilising influence, and instead must be regarded as promulgating a morality of the kind depicted by Thomas Hobbes:
"In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." (Leviathan)
Essentially, Christianity is a religion formulated to respond to the needs of dead world; one where infant mortality was so high that everyone had to breed, so that both contraception and homosexuality were bound to be sinful. It was also a world where the greed of one individual could jeopardise the entire tribe (by hoarding food in a time of drought), and so it was declared to be sinful etc. During the course of time that the Bible was written in, life for many was often liable to be riddled with pain and suffering, that it was a comfort to know that there would be a reward in the afterlife. This position is not without its own ethical complications; given the sheer number of plagues sent by God in the Old Testament, it is not unreasonable to infer from that the proper attitude to adopt in the face of providence is one of resignation. As such in La Peste Camus offers a paradox to a Bishop; to be a good human being and seek to combat the plague, or to be a good Christian and accept the will of the Lord.
Today, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the majority of people in the west have living conditions far superior to the aristocracy of that time and that such strictures are of limited use. It is for these reasons that Christianity is a ‘thou shalt not’ religion, with very little ‘thou shalt;’ such a statement as ‘do as you will, so long as you harm no other,’ would undoubtedly have stuck in the throat of Leviticus. Similarly, while asceticism has frequently been regarded as a virtue in many religions, few have been as unsparing of things of this world as Christianity. The position of moderation towards material concerns adopted by Tiruvalluvar in The Kural, or that evinced by Buddha, is decidedly uncommon in Christianity.
In fact, Christianity has always been somewhat hamstrung when it has come to addressing the issues of the existence of pain and malice. Of course, the classic question is how can a loving god permit the existence of evil. For other creeds, the answer has been god is not necessarily benevolent of good (although, as we have seen it is not easy to see a God capable of ordering Abraham to murder his own son as being either moral or benevolent). In Hinduism Shiva is both the god of destruction and regeneration, the great ascetic and the symbol of sensuality. The Greek Dionysus (himself incorporated into the Greek pantheon from the east) has a not dissimilar role as a God of fertility and destruction (Dionysus was also frequently represented as a horned figure, thereby inviting intriguing parallels with the devil). Much the same can be said of the Norse trickster God, Loki, who is not regarded as being ‘evil’ per se. Elsewhere in Greek culture, such writers as Homer and Euripides were often wont to portray the gods as fickle and callous. In particular, in The Iliad Homer describes Ares as ‘most hated’ in The Iliad. Certainly the gods are not depicted as being anymore moral than man. This too should come as little of a surprise; early societies were completely dependent upon the elements for their own survival. To name an element is to obtain a measure of control over it, so that one may supplicate to it and sacrifice for it, commencing with such elements as the sky and the earth. With this done, the gods in question are largely figured in terms that are easily recognisable and frequently anthropomorphic. In other words, it is precisely because these gods are not moral that they are worshipped.
Within Christianity the concept of either differing gods with differing degrees of morality, or a single god who is not exclusively good is displaced into a chiastic opposition between god and Lucifer. This dichotomy is somewhat unsatisfactory, as by definition, the christian god must have had the ability to both foresee the revolt of Lucifer against him and to prevent it had be so wished. As such, this division has caused endless theological difficulty, from the suppression of Manichaeism to the recent Papal redefinition of the devil as a metaphorical force rather than an entity. The more conventional answers to this question do not entirely satisfy: either god permits evil because he wishes his creation to be able to exercise free will, for which one needs to know evil as well as good (in which case it seems illogical that he did not himself give Adam and Eve the knowledge of evil), or that evil is only permitted as a means to an ultimately good end (in which case god is quite clearly a Machiavel).
Conversely, a religion that emphasises free will requires evil as much as good (although like William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell I am far from professing much confidence in this opposition). In order to have a choice both are necessary – essentially by giving us the ability to choose, God would either have predestined our ultimate fate (heaven or hell) – thereby effectively making the free choice little more than a formality, or would have had to abstain from foretelling our futures (those being two theological extremes). The problem is that Christianity incorporates freedom of choice, but also incorporates an extremely blunt system of rewards and punishments designed to ensure the outcome of that choice… which makes the whole exercise seem rather futile, if not more than a little fatuous. Although an extremely valuable concept, free will is not especially meaningful in a theological context.
Viewed from this aspect, William Blake’s interpretation of Milton having been of the Devil’s party without knowing it, is merely one manifestation of this concept. Viewed within this light, Shelley’s comparison of Satan, with the great transgressor of Greek myth, Prometheus becomes much more logical. Satan is surely the first democrat, striking the first blow for free speech against the benevolent tyranny of God. Similarly, In An American Dream Norman Mailer has one of his characters expatiate upon an unusually Manichaen interpretation of Christianity; "the devil in such a scheme has to have an even chance to defeat the Lord; or there’s no scheme to consider. Since the church refuses to admit the possible victory of Satan, man believes that God is all powerful. So man also assumes that God is willing to forgive every last little betrayal. Which may not be the case." As such, Mailer suggests that there may well be complicity between god and devil.
In any case, the devil is a rather problematic creature. It is difficult to conceive why any sentient entity would be so foolish as to rebel against an omnipotent deity, given that in the ultimate scheme of things he is destined to be vanquished. At best, his task is a rather thankless one. After all, he is only allowed to exist by his adversary, in which sense god is still ultimately responsible for evil, and the devil is little more than a stooge.
Essentially, Christianity is a religion formulated to respond to the needs of dead world; one where infant mortality was so high that everyone had to breed, so that both contraception and homosexuality were bound to be sinful. It was also a world where the greed of one individual could jeopardise the entire tribe (by hoarding food in a time of famine, for example), and so it was declared to be sinful etc. It is for this reason that Christianity is a ‘thou shalt not’ religion, with very little ‘thou shalt;’ such a statement as ‘do as you will, so long as you harm no other,’ would undoubtedly have stuck in the throat of Leviticus.
During the course of time that the Bible was written in, life for many was often liable to be riddled with pain and suffering, that it was a comfort to know that there would be a reward in the afterlife. Today, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the majority of people in the west have living condition far superior to the aristocracy of that time and that such strictures are of limited use.
Further difficulties occur in the conception of the afterlife. The original Greek conception of the afterlife was of a single underworld where sinner and saint alike were sent, so that in The Odyssey, the shade of Achilles states that it would prefer to be a menial on earth than prince of the dead, with ‘these worn-out mockeries of men.’ As such the Greek warrior fought for kudos while he yet lived without hope of the Elysian fields. The occupation in such a place can be nothing other than to reminisce after the past life, in much the same manner as Rossetti’s blessed damozel. The Elysian Plain was originally the paradise conferred upon favoured heroes by the gods. In the work of earlier authors, only heroes specially favoured by the gods entered Elysium. By the time of Hesiod, however, Elysium was a place for the blessed dead, and, from Pindar on, entrance was gained by a righteous life. It is worth while noting that the concept of hell does not appear to manifest itself in the Bible until the New Testament.
It is singularly difficult to envisage the afterlife as being any different from the original underworld; no-one has ever described what an eternity in heaven would be like (although many have relished the prospect of showing an eternity in hell) and how it could possibly avoid the prospect of succumbing to unutterable tedium as the centuries passed (not to mention being compelled to endure the company of the assorted sycophants and fundamentalists who find christianity so conducive to their nefarious dispositions). As George Bernard Shaw noted:
"Heaven, as conventionally conceived, is a place so inane, so dull, so useless, so miserable, that nobody has ever ventured to describe a whole day in heaven, though plenty of people have described a day at the seaside."
However, the problems bequeathed to Christianity by such matters are not nearly as significant as the problems caused by its own inconsistency (although even when that is put to one side anyone familiar with Derrida’s theories of how language is nothing but a grouping of differences will be sceptical of any claims to ‘correct’ interpretations of the Bible).
To illustrate this, although we have already seen the Christian god ordain that a man who had not kept the Sabbath should be stoned, his son later saves a woman from the same fate with the words ‘go now and sin no more.’ Matthew and Luke state specifically that Mary was a virgin at the time that she conceived Jesus. But other passages in the Christian Scriptures by Paul and the author(s) of the gospel of John seem to imply that Jesus’ birth was unremarkable. The Bible is replete with contradictions of this kind, and not simply between Old and New Testament. Genesis dates the flood as lasting forty days and forty nights, but also dates it as lasting for one hundred and fifty days. Genesis states that god issues a command for Noah to bring the animals into the ark two by two, while it also declares that the command was for seven pairs of each animal. Finally, the order of creation is listed as vegetation, birds, animals and man, while Genesis also propounds the view that the order was man, vegetation, followed by animals. One could quite easily continue to catalogue these discrepancies for a considerable amount of time. As indeed, many have already done.
One of the more troublesome aspects to debates of this kind is that the Bible will inevitably appear unsatisfactory to a modern rational mind; while it would be a mistake to view the people that wrote it as being primitive, nonetheless they did exist in a society that was oblivious to the concept of rationality that dominates our way of thinking today. As such, the Bible does not seek to explain or justify the precepts it expounds – they are simply the immutable laws of a being that works in mysterious ways that are not known to man. However, the rationality of Greece is as much a part of our heritage as the religion of Palestine and it cannot be simply excised from our consciousness. As such, I have always wondered why god would allow the creation of people who required certain proof of his existence. That is, after all, tantamount to saying that god creates individuals who will never believe in him, at least in part due to the capacity for rational thought he must surely have imparted to them. I cannot help but find this a somewhat bizarre thing for a god to do especially when he was not formerly reluctant to resort to the odd miracle or two when necessary. It is difficult not to consider this to be somewhat hypocritical. However, it should come as little surprise to anyone who has read the Bible, and has observed God punishing Pharoah for something he compelled him to do:
"But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that he would not let the
children of Israel go."
To take a further example, consider the case of people who have lived and died in ignorance of Christianity, by which I mean that they were simply unaware of it. The best that the Christian religion has ever been able to proffer for such cases is the place Dante reserved in hell for virtuous pagans, the salvation of whom is an area of some considerable theological difficulty. As Bertrand Russell observed, if the Christian god can truly be said to be loving, surely he would not be so petty as to punish someone who didn’t believe in him. However, this would nonetheless appear to be the case.
It is my long-held belief that people have to be able to discuss their religious creed in rational terms (not necessarily sanction it in those terms). If one decides that rationality does not have a role to play in such matters, it is too easy to become victim to the worst sort of demagoguery. The adulation Hitler received was clearly akin to religious fervour. Andrew Sullivan puts an interesting perspective on this by citing the example of the Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov as a means to illuminate the role of religion as eliminating doubt in an increasingly materialist and uncertain world (wherein as secularism gradually erodes the major religions of the world and as the civilised increasingly find themselves unable to cleave to the repressive tenets of most religions, the force of fundamentalism becomes more militant as it sees itself threatened).
The Inquisitor tells of how Jesus returns to earth during the Spanish Inquisition and is imprisoned for performing miracles. To the Inquisitor Jesus’ crime was revealing that salvation was possible but still allowing humans the freedom to refuse it. To the Inquisitor, this was a form of cruelty. When the truth involves the most important things imaginable –the meaning of life, the fate of one’s eternal soul, the difference between good and evil — it is not enough to premise it on the capacity of human choice. That is too great a burden. Choice leads to unbelief or distraction or negligence or despair. What human beings really need is the certainty of truth, and they need to see it reflected in everything around them – in the cultures in which they live, enveloping them in a seamless fabric of faith that helps them resist the terror of choice and the abyss of unbelief. As the Inquisitor suggests: "These pitiful creatures are concerned not only to find what one or the other can worship, but to find something that all would believe in and worship; what is essential is that all may be together in it. This craving for community of worship is the chief misery of every man individually and of all humanity since the beginning of time" (Or as TS Eliot put itm, human beings cannot tolerate too much ambiguity). As such, where certainty does not exist, followers will seek to engineer it and seek to bend the world to their will. Instead of contenting themselves with the flaws, weaknesses and imperfections of people and society, the temptation is to contort them so as to comply with the ideal – of which the Inquisition is the obvious example.
Although christianity began as a religion for an oppressed minority of slaves (as with its strictures on the rich man and the eye of the needle, and the meek inheriting the earth), it is also very much a mechanism of social control not dissimilar to the Code of Hammurabi (the very word religion is derived from the Latin Ligio, to bind. "Re-ligio" is therefore to "re-bind" man to his primal place in the universe), an area where many more primitive religions had not hitherto strayed (probably because said religions developed as a response to very different societies; Greek religion lacked any formal tenets). "Not my will, but thine, be done." Following God’s Law is the epitome of relinquishing one’s right to think for oneself.
"No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says: he is always convinced that it says what he means" – George Bernard Shaw
Depending on your point of view, one of the most severe problems with christianity is either its eternal aspect or its inability to change and adapt; christian doctrine is (quite literally in the case of the ten commandments) written in stone. For protestant churches scripture is paramount, while for the Catholics it can only be re-interpreted or amended through papal authority, which is perceived as a medium for the authority of god himself (although in practice, these two positions have converged a great deal). The problem for churches is surely that their capacity to include dissidence within themselves (mariolatry and saint worship in an apparently monotheistic religion for example, wherein "thou shalt have no other god"), is heavily limited, and schism has been the history of many religions; from Savonarola, Luther, Calvin and the reformation to the further fracturing of the protestant churches into many other sects. When all sides believe their cause to have transcendental sanction, dialogue is a rather miserable concept, as can be seen from the description, bequeathed to us by Celsus, of the earliest christians so racked by faction that their name was all they had in common.
Nonetheless, in either case, these beliefs rests upon fragile foundations, as the authenticity of many canonical texts is questionable, to say the least. (1)
It may assist this discussion of heresy to place into a modern context. In many ways the transmission of religious doctrines occurs memetically (although that is not a concept I find wholly persuasive). In the context of women priests, the Catholic Church has good grounds to observe that God appointed the first Pope as a man, and that God only created woman as an inferior adjunct to man (hence the fact that Eve was made from Adam’s rib). To a liberal atheist (such as myself) these views are repellent, but they do nonetheless carry theological weight. A more extreme case is homosexual priests; here again, society has changed, but religion cannot. Even if one reinterprets the fable of Sodom, so that homosexuality was not the sin that caused the destruction of the peoples of Sodom and Gomorrah, one is still left with the pronouncements made by Leviticus on the same subject. However, even the briefest reading of Leviticus is enough to make one question his sanity, as with his remarkably comprehensive list of animals that it is sinful to eat:
"all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you."
After this Leviticus intones a tedious catalogue of animals that are considered to be an abomination and which should not be eaten. It includes eagles, vultures, kites, ravens, owls, cuckoos, hawks, cormorants, swans, pelicans, storks, herons, lapwings, bats, locusts, beetles, grasshoppers, ferrets, lizards, moles, and snails (by which we assume that the French are not god’s most favoured nation). A more unpleasant example rests with his claim that the lord has forbidden the crippled to enter his church. To be precise Leviticus states:
"whosoever he be of thy seed in their generations that hath any blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or any thing superfluous, or a man that is brokenfooted, or brokenhanded, or crookbackt, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye, or be scurvy, or scabbed, or hath his stones broken."
Elsewhere, Leviticus issues an injunction against menstruating women entering the church until seven days after their period has passed, and as part of his prohibition of bestiality proclaims that animals that have participated in carnal acts of this kind must be destroyed. One can only assume that he blamed the animals in question for being flirtatious. In practice, I doubt that many priests today refuse to allow disabled parishioners to cross the church doors, but many of them do take note of the equally bigoted views held by Leviticus on the subject of homosexuality. However, in scriptural terms there is little more reason to enforce one of these tenets than any of the others.
As it has become increasingly clear that Christianity is out of sympathy with modern attitudes, the reactions to this have been diverse. The Anglican Church has sought to liberalise itself, in part by admitting women priests, but has only earned itself sneered comments about ‘hip priests’ as a reward. Meanwhile as church attendance has declined, Christianity has survived outside of the church. In many cases liberal Christians (or worse, the nouveau idiot savant, who asserts their spirituality to be outside of any institutional context, though it palpably fits within a single set of religious traditions) choose to interpret the bible within the historical context of its time, so that the Bible’s truth is regarded as symbolic rather than literal. As such, surveys appear to show that most westerners practice religion a la carte, mixing beliefs from differing religions and sects, often with little knowledge about basic doctrines and traditions. Although the resultant faith appears quite superficial, it nonetheless continues to be identified with dominant Christian traditions. In Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals Iris Murdoch had warned:
"TS Eliot said Christianity has always been changing itself into something that can be generally believed. There may be a limit to this process, where a demythologised religion becomes intolerable."
It is not unreasonable to suggest that this state has now been attained, as the continued decline of the Anglican Church would appear to suggest. Nonetheless, in many respects this state resolves many of the issues posed by this text; one need not necessarily regard every word of an ancient book as being immutable and immune to the vicissitudes of change. However, it does pose problems in its own right, as viewing the bible as subject to change at least impairs the eternal aspect of scripture and leaves it unclear as to what may be safely ignored and what may be retained. Under these circumstances it becomes inevitable that religion becomes simply an instrument of the spiritual needs of its practitioners (assuming that this does not hold true in all circumstances) and appears to justify Lenin’s view that religion is simply the opium of the people. Whereas in the Bible man is created in God’s image, spirituality seems to be more concerned with the creation of god in man’s image. After all, one might argue, with Kierkegaard, that it is the mark of the true believer to be able to submit to the doctrines of Leviticus as well as to the eminently more palatable Sermon of the Mount. This may be a perfectly laudable practice. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that such conditions are fertile territory for the individuals to assign transcendental sanction to their own bigotries (given that most of the major monotheistic religions frequently tend to be contradictory and ambiguous to say the least – it is not unreasonable to describe them as an incitement to intellectual anarchy, within which the valency of religious belief systems is frequently alamingly volatile), thereby forming what is commonly known as a cult (although the only appreciable difference between such organisations and recognised churches appears to be one of scale) and thereby perpetrating infamies that are arguably worse than those of the established churches. To impart transcendental sanction to the most virulent of views invariably has the effect of placing the holder of those views beyond the bourne of rational persuasion. Religion unhindered by institutions can be as much of a breeding ground for fanaticism as those institutions themselves.
Nonetheless, it would be too simple to dismiss religion entirely. Although the persecution of heretics, the Inquisition, the Crusades, as well as the persecution of both recusants and protestant sects all stand alike as examples of some of the senseless barbarity in the history of mankind, it would be churlish to deny that religion has exerted a genuinely moral force throughout the ages. If the Catholic Papacy stand convicted of having colluded in the Holocaust, and if many German churches made use of slave labour during the second world war, it is still true that in 1942, the student leaders of the White Rose movement in Germany were convicted and beheaded on the same day for handing out anti-Hitler leaflets at their university. They were motivated by their faith. Other examples are easy to find, although one does have to question whether the people in question were acting as simply good people, rather than good Christians, and whether these actions were in spite of, rather than because of their religion.
For example, Puritan and Quaker dissidents were central to the resistance against the divine right of Kings and became a necessary part of almost all the great progressive movements in this country after the 17th century. Many of the pioneers of the abolition of slavery in America were churchgoers, roused by speeches from the pulpit and calls to their conscience, while much of the secular world saw slavery as a practical question. That said, one should also note that precisely the reverse could be observed; the Bible was certainly quoted by many slave-holders and traders, as with a rhyme quoted by Robert Ingersoll; "He bade the slave ship speed from coast to coast, Fanned by the wings of the Holy Ghost." Conversely, atheists like Thomas Paine were among the first people to voice their condemnation of slavery. However, to continue examples of the beneficial aspects of religion, the Sunday school movement, the first step towards mass education in England was a religious movement. Many of the social reformers and philanthropists of the nineteenth century were religious, such as the Unitarian Elizabeth Gaskell. In particular, it is worth singling out one particular sect, which George Eliot regarded as being most worthy of praise. Among the followers of John Wesley into Methodism there grew the notion that the theologians would never find the essence of Christianity. Instead, one would discern this essence in acts of piety, closeness to the fatherly heart of God as shown in the life of Jesus, or intimate communion with God on emotional or affective, and not cognitive, rational, or doctrinal, grounds.
Such instances perhaps point to the most benign manifestation of religion (it is worth noting that even today the Methodists remain the most socially liberal of Christian churches). As the philosopher Mary Midgely writes, although she believes that the doctrines of Christianity are impossible for an educated and decent person to believe "It is absurd to talk as if religion consisted entirely of mindless anxiety, bad cosmology, and human sacrifice." Midgely continues to note that "People naturally inclined to find purposes in things. If these impulses are not brought together and disciplined, you get something even worse than organised religion."
There is much to be said for this view, given that in practice religion has proved one of the insuperable features of human behaviour. Upon reading Darwin’s Origin of Species George Eliot had believed it to be a valuable step towards the dismantling of the Christian religion, to be replaced by a secularist morality founded on some of the more valuable aspects of the religion. In Robert Elsmere Mrs Humphrey Ward had sought to depict a human religion stripped of miracle and dogma, but retaining self-sacrifice and morality. Similarly, Matthew Arnold believed that culture could prove an adequate ethical substitute for religion. Although disliking the idea that the morality could be preserved independently of the supernatural component, Friedrich Nietzche effectively shared these assumptions, believing that the demise of god would allow mankind to rise from the self-annihilation that he saw as a particularly poisonous aspect of Christianity. Although religion has diminished over time, none of these hopes have proved well founded. Nor is this surprising; although many feel science best qualified to supersede religion it was never devised for those ends. While both originated as a means of understanding reality, science is essentially a methodology for the verification or falsification of hypotheses. In simpler terms it is a means of ascertaining facts; given that faith in god can exist quite comfortably without factual evidence it should be clear that the two fields do not speak to one another. Moreover, as Midgely notes:
"The idea that the universe could be deflated down to the facts is one she has constantly fought against. We could not begin to understand a world that was made of facts and nothing else; such a world is itself an imaginative vision and not a scientific one."
As such the question remains of what is the most suitable way to reform or replace religion, One possible solution to the problem might be to seek to retain what is generally acknowledged to be the core of most religions, i.e. mysticism, a personal relationship with something that it denoted to be beyond factual knowledge. Iris Murdoch suggested something along these lines in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals; "We must now internalise our god…we must stop thinking of ‘God’ as the name of a super-person. A Buddhist-style survival of Christianity… Christ as a live spiritual symbol" (it is as well to introduce a note of scepticism at this point and observe that such statements often appear to have far more to do with Western interpretations of Buddhism than with how it is most commonly practised). The concept of mystery would be central to this relationship, which would deem doctrine and theology to be things of this world and therefore unrelated to the idea of religion. The strength that believers claim may be drawn from faith could still be retained, whilst allowing things of this world be perceived in as clear a light as possible, and not obfuscated by matters that cannot be discussed in rational terms.
The Gospels are unlikely to be genuine; as two of the authors have Greek names it is improbable that they have were written by the disciples. Nor are they likely to have been written by eyewitnesses of the events they depict, with Luke admitting that was not the case, The last eleven verses of the final chapter of Mark’s Gospel are later addenda, while Clement mentions an excised chapter, which he quotes verbatim in one of letters. The authorship of some of Paul’s epistles is probably genuine, including Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians. Others, such as Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, and the Timothy are most likely to be late justifications for the coalescing authority of the Church rather than anything Paul taught. Similarly, Paul probably did not write Hebrews and Peter’s epistles are likely to be forgeries, with doubts also having been raised about James. The book of Acts is best described as being fantasy; Luke contradicts himself at least twice, and attributes actions to Paul that he himself that he did not ("I tell you, as before God, I lie not"). Acts even depicts Paul’s greatest opponents (James and Peter) as deferring to his authority, although the non-canonical works suggest otherwise, as does Paul’s own letter to the Galatians. The Book of Revelation to John (the latter profoundly altering the character of the Bible) and exclusion of other texts. In the particular case of the book of Revelation, it fortuitously happened to be included in the set of books that Jerome translated into Latin. Even though many Church leaders opposed including it into the canon, Augustine favoured its inclusion, with the proviso that it be accepted as allegory and not literally. Later, Luther doubted its canonicity and only included it as an appendix in his translation of the Bible.
In the case of many of the works excluded from the canon, it seems logical to suggest that this exclusion was at least partly conducted on political grounds. There is certainly nothing in them that would preclude their acceptance as "God’s word", and are no less reliable or any more incredible than anything the canon has to say. In short, solid Church doctrine did not appear until the 4th Century, when the Church had allied itself with the State. Subsequently, doctrinal disputes were to prove the profound legacy of the Church, as debates over the cognitive or substantive aspects of Jesus’ participation in God became both intense and to fail to grasp or to misconceive what was believed to be the essence of faith might mean exile, harassment, or even death. For example, in the first major schism the Eastern patriarchates dissented from their Roman counterparts on such questions as the trinity, the enforcement of clerical celibacy, and so on. Of course, there were others; Arianism was condemned at the Council of Nicaea for having reduced Jesus to a demi-god, thereby reintroducing polytheism. This threatened to undermine the Christian concept of redemption since only he who was truly God could be deemed to have reconciled man to the Godhead, and the council declared that Jesus had to be of one substance to the father. Ironically, Arius had accused one of his own bishops of Sabellianism, a heresy that had been condemned by Pope Calixtus.
However, without a shadow of a doubt my favourite heretics were the Cathari, who professed a neo- Manichaean dualism, which regarded the material world as sinful. Man was but a sojourner in such a world; his aim must be to free his spirit, which was in its nature good, and restore it to communion with God. The Cathari devised an elaborate mythology to replace the Old Testament, wherein Jesus was an angel whose sufferings were illusory. Later on, dissenters such as Jan Hus, John Wycliffe, and Girolamo Savonarola cropped up at regular intervals, until finally the likes of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin finally succeeded in irrevocably fracturing Christendom. Ironically, this led to the Catholic Church empowering itself with an Inquisition, whereby such meddlers need never trouble it again.