Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

We are society’s hands


(Commemoration of the Fortieth Anniversary of the United Nations by United Nations Photo on flickr)

There’s a Thatcher quote I often see out of context, and that bugs me. Here’s the quote:

there is no such thing as society

And here it with more of its context:

I think we have been through a period when too many people have been given to understand that when they have a problem it is government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant. I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They are casting their problems on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no governments can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours. People have got their entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There is no such thing as an entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.

I am no conservative (bar one election when I voted Green I have always voted Labour) but Thatcher is not saying she doesn’t believe in society, she’s saying that society is the sum of the people in it: if we do not act then society cannot act. Sure, there are other nasty things in the quote that I disagree with …

  1. Why pick on the homeless? My mum often says that the measure of a civilisation is how it treats its least able members. Thatcher clearly didn’t feel, and she should have done.
  2. “People must look to themselves first.” There’s truth in thisyou have to love yourself first before loving others, and you should put your oxygen mask on before helping others—but it could also be a way to excuse self-centred behaviour, especially juxtaposed against her dig at homeless people.
  3. The final part about entitlement and obligation also seems unkind, but there is an odd way we feel more comfortable talking about rights than responsibilities.

The pithy version of this quote is taken to mean that Thatcher believed that society was dead, but what it actually meant was she saw that society only acts when people take responsibility and act. There’s a clearer statement of her view in this quote

In our philosophy the purpose of the life of the individual is not to be the servant of the State and its objectives, but to make the best of his talents and qualities. The sense of being self-reliant, of playing a role within the family, of owning one’s own property, of paying one’s way, are all part of the spiritual ballast which maintains responsible citizenship, and provides the solid foundation from which people look around to see what more they might do, for others and for themselves. That is what we mean by a moral society; not a society where the State is responsible for everything, and no-one is responsible for the State.

(N.B. That begs the question of how we deal with those who have very few talents, either through illness, mental or physical, or through drug addiction etc. That’s where Thatcher and I diverge again.)

The core of Thatcher’s quote, the idea that we are responsible for the actions of the state, reminds me of this religious quote.

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

(N.B. It is often attributed to Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), though it’s not by her, as Timothy Phillips explores here.)

It is the same idea: good is achieved through our actions.

Report from “What Next for Quaker Nontheism”, a workshop organised by Miriam Yagud and David Boulton at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre from 18-20/2/11


La Victoire de Samothrace by caribb on flickr

One year before the workshop one of the organisers, Miriam Yagud, booked the twelve available rooms at Woodbrooke with some trepidation; she was not sure that her proposal would attract twelve attendees. In the event around eighty people applied to come and (using overflow accommodation) roughly forty were able to attend, including my Mum and me.

We started on the Friday evening with a ‘get to know yourself’ session. Miriam used a game to get us thinking about ourselves and our Quakerism. We broke into groups of six and each group member delved into a bag to retrieve two objects, without peeking, the first would represent you and the second your Quaker faith. I was left pondering how a battery might represent me and an old hiking sock my Quakerism! We used a mixture of silent reflection and discussion that served well to start the weekend getting to know ourselves and our fellow attendees better.

The first evening ended with an epilogue, a Woodbrooke tradition consisting of a short meeting for worship including a longer piece of prepared ministry from one of the groups studying there that weekend. The Churches Together group lead the session and read the Britain Yearly Meeting epistle on same sex marriage from 2009. Looking back I can see how important this was for my understanding of the weekend. The reference to George Fox’s words “Marriage is God’s work and we are but witnesses” got me thinking about how nontheists understand the role of God and of God-language within Quakerism. The epistle also underlined the importance of diversity to modern Quakerism.

Day Two started with a talk by Miriam’s fellow organiser, David Boulton, covering various definitions. David is known to many Quakers as the author of Who on Earth was Jesus?, the editor of Godless for God’s Sake, and a member of the Quaker Universalist Group, the British Humanist Association, and was editor of the Sea of Faith Network’s magazine. He talked about the various words used to describe nontheism: atheism, agnosticism, heresy, humanism, etc. and looked both at their etymology and at what they might mean for us now. Nontheism, though clumsy, appears to have become the preferred term lacking as it does some of the more aggressive critical connotations of the word atheism.

Breaking again into groups we next explored how the diversity of Quaker faith is supported in our local meeting. I was amazed at the diversity of experiences. There were nontheists present who felt isolated and silenced by their local meeting and others who felt core to their local meeting’s faith. Practises like discussion groups and ‘after words’ were reported as valuable ways to explore and nurture the diversity of beliefs among existing Quakers.

This was followed with a look at Quaker history, highlighting the role of dissenting voices. Starting with early Quakers and Ranters we heard quotes like this from Gerrard Winstanley (1609-c.1660):

“He that looks for God outside himself, and worships God at a distance, worships he knows not what, but is … deceived by the imagination of his own heart.”

Many of the nontheists on the workshop had been asked the question asked of Susan B Anthony (1820-1906): do you pray? Her answer was inspiring:

“I pray every single hour of my life; not on my knees but with my works.”

Though this historic journey was inspiring, and did show that Quaker notions of faith and of God have been diverse from our inception, I did wonder, especially reading back through my notes, just how realistic it is to claim some of these historic Friends as relevant for nontheism.

On the Saturday afternoon each of the groups at Woodbrooke had free time and so we decided to get together for silence and discussion. It wasn’t easy. Several of the Churches Together attendees felt that the conceptions of God put forward by the nontheists were too constraining of their own ideas and that our approach was too evangelical. The last point made was that we should listen to each other’s beliefs and experiences, not with the intention of changing minds but purely to understand the personal meaning of what was said and felt.

The last formal session on Saturday looked at meeting for worship and explored what we, as nontheists, do in meeting. For me this was the most troubling and the most confusing session. I had hoped to find other nontheists sharing common experiences of meeting for worship but the six people in my group all approached what happens in meeting very differently, and in ways that sometimes felt foreign to me.

After dinner we relaxed with an evening of music and poetry sharing. Most of this was uplifting but the gems turned out to be the jokes and shared humour, like this limerick recited by one of the women attending the workshop:

There was a young lady called Alice
Who peed in the Vatican Palace.
It wasn’t her need
That prompted the deed
But pure Presbyterian malice.

Saturday closed with another Woodbrooke epilogue, this time lead by David Boulton from our group. He chose to weave readings and analysis of Blake’s poem The Divine Image through the ministry:

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk, or jew;
Where Mercy, Love, & Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

On Sunday we shared meeting for worship with the other groups after a closing session looking forward to our next steps as a group. We worked on a minute summarizing the weekend which I’ll include at the end of this report. I came to the workshop hoping to deepen my understanding of my own beliefs, and my understanding of my Quakerism. But I feared that less subtle, more aggressive atheist arguments might dominate. In fact neither proved true. What I found instead was a fascinating community of committed nontheist Friends, many of home needed this workshop to convince them that Quakerism could still provide their home. The minute we worded reads as follows:

“There are nontheist Friends… Friends who might be called agnostics, atheists, sceptics, but would nevertheless describe themselves as reverent seekers.” So began the report of the first formal workshop for nontheist Friends, held in New York State in 1976. A generation later, nontheist Friends are a widely accepted strand in the multi-coloured fabric of theologically diverse liberal Quakerism in both the United States and Britain.

Forty Friends from all over Britain, identifying as nontheists or wishing to explore nontheist perspectives with an open mind, met in Woodbrooke this weekend. Some for whom Woodbrooke rooms were not available were accommodated in the adjacent Fircroft College but another forty would-be participants were unable to attend because of lack of available beds.

In plenary sessions and small groups, through discussion, worship and creative listening, we explored varieties of Quaker nontheism – atheist, humanist, agnostic, non-supernaturalist. We listened to the words of Friends through the ages, from the 17th to the 21st century, who declared for free thought and free expression within the Society of Friends, thereby laying the foundations on which an authentic nontheist understanding could be built within our beloved Quaker community.

In an informal session with Friends on other Woodbrooke conferences (“Becoming Friends” and “Churches Together”) many of us were able to share our different experiences of what it means to be Quakers today. We shared epilogues and joined together in meeting for worship.

In our business session we addressed the question in the title of our gathering: “What next for Quaker nontheism?” Acknowledging that the burden of organising and financing our work has tended to fall on isolated individuals, we explored ways in which we might share responsibilities in a more formally organised way. Recognising the concern among some Friends that open differences can lead to division, we looked to find a way forward that would celebrate and enhance the Society’s diversity of religious opinion. After careful thought and collective discernment we resolved to form a steering group to prepare proposals for a Nontheist Friends Group within Britain Yearly Meeting. Six names were brought forward and accepted. The steering group was asked to liaise with Woodbrooke on possible dates for a further gathering next year to continue our work and explorations.

Finally, we noted the recent statement on the Britain Yearly Meeting website, as follows:

“There is a great diversity within the Quakers on conceptions of God, and we use different kinds of language to describe religious experience. Some Quakers have a conception of God which is similar to that of orthodox Christians, and would use similar language. Others are happy to use God-centred language, but would conceive of God in very different terms to the traditional Christian trinity. Some describe themselves as agnostics or humanists or non-theists, and describe their experience in ways that avoid the use of the word God entirely.”

We expressed our appreciation of this public recognition of our diversity. We are all in the Quaker mainstream now.

(Minute and Epistle of the gathering of nontheist Friends at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, Britain, Feb 18-20 2011, taken from the Nontheist Friends website)

Indirection in computer science and theology


? key

Originally uploaded by _gir_

Two ‘religion’ posts in a row. Hmmm. A little odd for an atheist.

Over the coffee machine last week I was chatting with Toby about another local Alpha Group discussion. One of the big problems with being an atheist (IMHO) is that my answer to the big questions, especially “Why are we here?”, seem inadequate (though true). In answer to “Why are we here?” I’d have to say that there isn’t really a ‘why’, we are here by accident, just as the result of a long series of often chance events. Clearly that answer doesn’t even feel of the same ilk as the question. So I am intrigued by how religious people answer the same question: “Why are we here?” When this discussion came up in our local Hardwick men’s Alpha Course I pointed out that the response I’ve often heard from Christians (“We are here to serve God”) isn’t really adequate – it is more a slight of hand. Any being with enough sentience to form the question will eventually ask “Why am I here?” So by answering that we are here to serve God all we have done is moved the question up a level. We are left wondering what God answers to the question “Why am I here?”. All we have done is added a level of indirection.

Toby’s response to that was fascinating. He can’t recall the conversation now but I was left perplexed when he pointed out that most of the hard questions in computer science are solved by adding a level of indirection, so surely I should be comfortable with that technique here. What a great retort. I’m now left wondering what is the class of problems, in computer science and beyond, that is helped with indirection. And importantly is the question “Why are we here?” one of those problems. At face value it isn’t. Surely it is easier to analyse the reasons for our own existence than the reasons for God’s existence. We have day-to-day experience of existing as people that should help us to intuit an answer. But perhaps that’s the point. By moving the problem up to a level that is more likely to be beyond our comprehension it helps us to let go of the problem.

The day of judgement


It's a good thing Justice is Blind

Originally uploaded by R.Mutt

On Saturday we were lounging around in Paul’s conservatory listening to Karl Jenkin’s Requiem in anticipation of the evening’s concert. The Dies Irae is so arresting that conversation turned to what the day of judgement actually was. I remember Richard Jupp talking about it at one of our local Alpha Courses. In particular I remember him referencing the Book of Revelations and saying that the dead do not see heaven until the day of judgement. I decided to look it up. It took a while to find but the relevant chapter appears to be Revelations 20 It is a bit confusing though. Here’s the whole chapter:

1And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand.

2And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,

3And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.

4And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.

5But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection.

6Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.

7And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison,

8And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog, and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea.

9And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them.

10And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

11And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them.

12And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.

13And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.

14And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.

15And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.

My first impression, without reading any commentaries, is that the first section (Revelations 20:4) says that those who died for their witness of Jesus (and had not worshiped Satan) lived and reigned with Christ. I took this to mean immediately, e.g. before the day of judgement. Looking at it again that appears to be past tense though: “they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years”. So let’s fast-foward to the rest of us. “I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God […] the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them”. I’m not sure what this use of “death” as a place alongside “the sea” and “hell” means, but it seems to suggest Richard Jupp was right – you don’t see heaven until after judgement day. Another intriguing bit was the actual judgement. I’ve always understood from my evangelical Christian friends that if you are offered Christianity and refuse it (like me, I’m an atheist) that you do not go to heaven. And yet this passage seems to suggest rather that “they were judged every man according to their works”, i.e. it is what you do, not necessarily your motivation for doing it, that’s important.

Bible Visualizations


A while ago Anab posted about the Institute for the Future of the Book, which lead to a discussion of information visualizations of book texts. One book that receives repeated attention is The Bible. This interest stems in part from the religious nature of the book itself (i.e. believers and academics are keen to gain new perspectives and new study aides), and in part from the ready availability of multiple versions of the text (e.g. through The Online Parallel Bible Project or The Bible Gateway). Over the years I’ve come across a number of inspiring abstract visualizations of the Bible, for example:

Anh Dang's 'Gospel Spectum' example
Anh Dang’s "Gospel Spectum"

 Kushal Dave's 'exegesis' example
Kushal Dave’s "exegesis"

Linda Becker’s 'In Translation' example
Linda Becker’s ‘In Translation’

Philipp Steinweber and Andreas Koller's 'Similar Diversity' example
Philipp Steinweber and Andreas Koller’s "Similar Diversity"

Recently two more have popped up on Andrew Vande Moere’s information aesthetics blog.

The first is old and not computer based. It’s Clarence Larkin’s "Dispensational Charts". Done over 75 years ago they map out various concepts by visually plotting the relevant biblical passages. E.g.:

Clarence Larkin's 'The Second Coming'
Clarence Larkin’s "Dispensational Charts"

The second gives rise to the picture heading this post. It’s Chris Harrison’s "Visualizing The Bible". Chris starts with an arc diagram plotting cross-references through the bible and then adds some network graphs of the people and places in the bible.

Bible cross references arc visualization
Chris Harrison’s "Visualizing The Bible"

Although Chris develops a visual aesthetic reminiscent of much of the work done with Processing he is in fact just using the Java 2D libraries.