An Agnostic, an Atheist and a Theist Go Into a Café …

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I am the agnostic and, if the other two are comfortable in their beliefs then it will be an opportunity for tea, cake and a good natter.  However, if one or more is a zealot, particularly a new convert then I may only stay for just one cuppa.

 

Why?  Well I came to agnosticism through a considered process of introspection.  I chose my own belief system.  I do not seek to impose my philosophy on others and I am grateful when others do not seek to impose their own on me.  I do enjoy respectfully exploring with other like-minded people their particular beliefs, ideologies and philosophies.  If to love wisdom is to seek (an often elusive) truth then I am a philosopher.

 

I do think respect is very important.  It is also a two way street.  I strive to treat people with respect, even those who have little or no respect for me and my personal values, politics and philosophy.  This is why I do not tolerate attacking people of belief simply on the grounds of the tenets of that belief.  Yes, there are aspects of many belief systems that do not appeal to me.  Some of those aspects I find deeply offensive and hurtful to others.  I abhor those aspects, whatever the belief system and I do my best to speak out against them.  However, I have rarely known good people of any belief who will defend to the hilt practices that run contrary to my liberal values.  Often, they prefer acting according to the spirit rather than the letter of their beliefs.

 

I am deliberately using the word belief throughout this essay, except for when faith is more appropriate.  This is why:

 

“Humans need fantasy to be human.  To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.”

 

“Tooth fairies?  Father Christmas?  The Easter …”

 

“Yes.  As practice.  You have to start out learning to believe the little lies.”

 

“So we can believe the big ones?”

 

“Yes.  Justice.  Mercy.  Duty.  That sort of thing.”

 

“They’re not the same at all!”

 

“You think so?  Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy.  And yet … And yet you act as if there is some ideal order in the world, as if there is some … some rightness in the Universe by which it may be judged.”

 

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point …”

 

“My point exactly.”

 

I would contend that even atheists, unless they are contrarians, must believe in something lest they wish to concede the battle for the moral high ground to others.

 

The holy books, writings and teachings of most belief systems espouse ideas and practices that are anachronistic to say the least.  However, I do not automatically assume that modern day adherents will apply and defend those ideas and practices.  The vast majority, in my personal experience do not do so.  When, for example did you last hear of a Christian defending their God given right to own slaves?

 

Most belief systems are continually evolving and renewing.  Although I gather, some have a problem with evolution.  That they do not radically rewrite their shibboleths is a matter for them.  I suspect that they have more worthwhile matters to which to attend than, for example finding more up to date words for the Ten Commandments.  I suspect that when I covet my neighbour’s ass it may not be the one described at point ten.

 

I am particularly chary of those who exploit differences in interpretation between followers of the same belief to sanction disrespect towards that belief.  Mr X is a Moslem and he is not upset by depictions of the Prophet Mohammed.  Mr X may not be upset, but many other of his co-religionists are deeply offended.  The lack of a single doctrinal authority within most belief systems seems to cause a deal of confusion to the less worldly amongst us.

 

Now to that old chestnut of an individual’s rights extending as far as the right to ridicule and insult the sincerely held beliefs of others.  Firstly, I believe that an individual’s rights are sacrosanct, except where in exercising those rights they impinge on the rights of others.  I believe society, the wider community if you prefer, partly exists to set and police that boundary; a boundary that is not static and which moves depending upon prevailing conditions.  Secondly, I fail to see how giving gratuitous offence advances anyone’s argument about the relative superiority of their belief system over that of those they ridicule.  Up your game or stay silent, if ridicule is the best you have to advance your cause.

 

Do I hear the charge that I am in favour of laws that particularly protect the sensitivities of particular groups?  No, but I am in favour of self-censorship.  I am also in favour of the rigorous application of those laws that protect the right of individuals to go about their daily lives, without the fear of being physically or mentally assaulted because of their beliefs, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age or disability.  We know where not squaring up to prejudice against particular, often weaker groups in our society may lead.  We have enacted various anti- discrimination laws in order to protect some of the weaker members of our society.  If you contend that you do not want to see these laws further extended then the preventive to that extension lies within your ears and nowhere else.

 

I am not in favour of laws that seek to give anyone’s belief greater protection than those of others.  I am with Thomas Macaulay when he felt that he would slight Christianity, if he said that it could not stand without the aid of intolerant laws.  He also touched on those who, whilst sincerely backing away from the idea of inflicting physical harm on those of another belief were still happy to inflict mental cruelty. He said that an Honourable Gentlemen in debate, stopping as he did, but for no particular reason at only partial intolerance, was compromised by his very humanity from going further.  The Honourable Gentleman’s humanity meant that he was certainly not in the same league as those who had burnt the beards of Jews in ages past. They were though at least more consistent in their approach than the previously mentioned MP in that they at least went the whole hog.  These words were spoken in a Parliamentary debate on 17th April 1833.  The debate was addressing the vexed question of the removal of legally sanctioned disabilities aimed at the Jewish community.  Disabilities that made it virtually impossible for those of the Jewish faith to fully participate in the life of their nation.

 

The arguments deployed by those who say that they have a (god given?) right to ridicule the beliefs of others seem to me be reminiscent of a familiar refrain from the playgrounds of my youth.  The argument that they are merely exacting revenge for past misdemeanours by those claiming to be divinely inspired is, in my opinion no grounds for vesting retribution on their descendants in belief.  The past is another country, they did and believed things differently then.  One might almost believe that these would be avengers believe in original sin!

 

 As for the refrain from the playground?  It goes something like this, “It was not me Miss, it was him!  He started it first, Miss!”  Some of us I feel have never fully left the playground behind.  Why they feel that they do not slight their own beliefs by childishly ridiculing the beliefs of others is beyond me.  More significantly, taking revenge for past wrongs on people alive today indicates a severe lack of empathy on behalf of the avengers.

 

The right to bully is so very often exercised by the strong against the weak.  For example, a white male (so often the winner in life’s lottery) abusing someone’s belief on sight in the street, because of that person’s outward signs of belief is a bully.  And so is anyone who eloquently dresses up his or her prejudices in words of sweet reason.  The latter make all sorts of claims in the defence of their arguments, but too often racists in particular fail to see the subtleties in a critique of a belief and people they despise.  We know where providing intellectual cover for such views leads.

 

I live in a very diverse city.  I am proud to do so.  I do not fear most of the time, most of the beliefs of most of my fellow inhabitants.  I do fear those who, whatever their backgrounds espouse intolerant beliefs.  This is not just a matter of philosophy.  It is also a matter of a selfish desire for harmony.  Ignorance breeds fear, which breeds hatred.  A hatred that causes physical and mental distress not only to the objects of that hatred, but also to bystanders.  I want to live in a tolerant harmonious society.  I do not want to live in a city of no go areas justified (understandably) by those who fear the consequences of prejudices directed against them.  I do not fear informed debate, but I do fear the consequences of intolerant debate.

 

If I were to cleave to an extremist atheistic view then I would deny myself so much.   So much that humanity has produced ever since Man and Woman first looked up at the sky in wonder and mused about how it and they had all come into existence.  The arts and religion have been intertwined from that moment onwards.  Were I instead  to cleave to an extreme religious sect then I would also deny myself much of what makes life worth living.  I might also be asked to believe that my Man and Woman staring at the stars never existed.

 

I was born into a world shaped by the Judaeo-Christian tradition.  A tradition that has provided the bedrock upon which I have constructed my personal mansion of beliefs, values, philosophies and politics.  My mansion will never be finished to my satisfaction.  It is very much a work in progress.  Along the way I add extensions, refashion earlier periods of construction and so on.  I, however, never dig up the foundations.  My core values are firmly set into them.

 

These core values influence my choice between two fine motivational speakers of the 20th Century.  The first is Dr Martin Luther King and the second, Adolf Hitler.  Herr Hitler was a very persuasive, technically proficient speaker.  Dr King, likewise.  There though the comparisons end.  Hitler was a pagan, if not an atheist.  Dr King, a committed Christian.  Hitler set out to tell his audience they were special, better than anyone else was and that the other was denying them their place in the sun.  He sought to divide the world into them and us.  Who does not like to feel at least some times that they are special and that their destiny is to be on top?

 

Dr King had the more difficult task of the two.  He had to motivate his followers and supporters to keep them going through the dark journey towards the sunlit uplands.  He also sought to unite them and us so that there would only be one people. He believed like John F Kennedy that, “Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet.  We all breathe the same air.  We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” 

 

Dr King believed passionately that we all can and should be better than we are.  That we owe it to ourselves to be better than we are and that we may only advance, if we do so in step with others.  Dr King had a beautiful dream for all.  Herr Hitler a nightmare for the many.

 

Did Dr King have to be a Christian to be so inspiring?  May be, may be not, but the fact that he was does not detract from what he spoke and did in the name of his beliefs.  Beliefs that included, “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”  Any religious faith was for Herr Hitler incompatible with Nazism.  Christianity, in particular was a faith for the weak, in Nazi eyes.

 

Fundamentally, I do not believe it matters whether or not a man named Jesus died and rose again.  It does matter to me that another man nailed Jesus to a tree for saying, “Hey!  Wouldn’t it be great if we were all nicer to each other?” **

 

I will line up with anyone (whatever their beliefs, politics, philosophies and values) who genuinely wants to make the world a better place for all.  Finally,

 

“Be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.

 

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.

 

Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”

 

In the immortal words of Dave Allen, “Thank you, goodnight and may your God go with you.”

 

 

** There, I have done it!  I have Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams in the same essay.  Now if only there were room for Montaigne …

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