The Australian Census, improved

Today saw the release of the 2016 census results by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Much of the coverage was focused on the increased proportion of respondents ticking “no religion” as their preferred option, with commentators either lamenting or cackling with glee, as their personal proclivities dictated. However, more thoughtful observers noted the actual options of the census question on religion lacked the nuance that the real religious landscape displays.

The inimitable James Garth stepped up to the challenge of “improving” the question to reflect a broader range of options. ABS, please take note.

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James Garth improves the ABS census question on religious affiliation.

An update on the diversity of Christendom

One of the effects of the current political landscape in the USA has been to highlight the diverse attitudes and stances that exist within the various churches in the country.

Depending on your news sources, you may not fully appreciate that there is a vast range of positions within Christendom on issues of politics, social justice, ethics, and the relationship between a believer’s duties as a citizen of the state and as a follower of Jesus. Even with agreement on certain beliefs, there may still be a diversity of opinion on how exactly those beliefs should play out in the world and in our daily lives.

Here’s a perspective that hasn’t had much play in the media, courtesy of Trinity’s Portico. Enjoy!

An Open Letter to Rev. Franklin Graham from a “Small Church” Pastor

Olympic reporting tells us who we are as a society

It’s the Olympics! That quadrennial celebration of outstanding athleticism, government corruption, hastily-erected construction projects that will never be used again, and staggering public debt for the host city. Hooray!

All those issues aside, I’m noticing another fascinating aspect of the Olympics. It’s a great snapshot of where media culture is around the world.

This is particularly useful in an age of social media, which by its very nature encourages us to overwhelmingly live within our own little echo chambers of like-minded people. It’s easy to miss the fact that other people have different baseline assumptions and biases when you don’t intersect with those people at all in the news that you consume and the social interactions that you engage in.

For instance, take this headline:

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Pranking the Qur’an

A few days ago a pair of Dutch comedians, Sacha Harland and Alexander Spoor, decided to perform the sort of lame prank that is guaranteed to pull internet views. They wrapped a Bible with a cover reading “Holy Quran” and then read excerpts to random people in the streets to get a reaction.

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The Age newspaper had an article on it, Patheos had a post about it on The Friendly Atheist, it’s been featured far and wide. It has over a million views on Youtube.

The creators explained the experiment thus:

“Muslims have been accused of following a faith that has no place in our Western culture. What about Christianity? A religion that has influenced our culture greatly.”

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The Heathen Manifesto – a quick review

Over in the Guardian‘s website, prominent atheist Julian Baggini has written a Heathen Manifesto in which he calls for atheists everywhere to stop insisting on a polarised society and try to listen a little more to what he calls the “moderate middle”, those who lack religious belief but are also turned off by the froth and vitriol of Dawkins et al.

As Baggini puts it in his introduction:

“This manifesto is an attempt to point towards the next phase of atheism’s involvement in public discourse. It is not a list of doctrines that people are asked to sign up to but a set of suggestions to provide a focus for debate and discussion. Nor is it an attempt to accurately describe what all atheists have in common. Rather it is an attempt to prescribe what the best form of atheism should be like.”

I rather like Baggini. More than many other atheist writers he is willing to conduct a reasoned dialogue rather than simply engaging in posturing and rhetoric. And I was very interested in his manifesto, so let’s go through it briefly. I’ve kept his headings to give this some sort of structure, and inserted my own comments at various junctures. Baggini’s manifesto is in italics, my own insertions are in normal typeface. Some sections have been trimmed for brevity.

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Nicolas Steno: bishop and scientist

Today marks the 374th birthday of Nicolas Steno, a pioneer in geology and anatomy in the 17th century. Steno (Neils Stensen in the original Danish) was born in 1638 in Copenhagen, and after completing his university education in Denmark he spent the rest of his life travelling throughout Europe and collaborating with prominent physicians and scientists.

While the common approach of scientists at the time was to appeal to the ideas of Aristotle and Pliny, Steno was determined to examine evidence for himself and draw his own conclusions. He was guided in this by his religious convictions about God as Creator of the natural order.

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God and the “God particle”

The Telegraph has an interesting short piece from Alistair McGrath today. He looks at the parallels between the faith in the Higgs boson and faith in God, both based on explanatory power rather than direct experiemental observation. He concludes:

“Some tell us that science is about what can be proved. The wise tell us it is really about offering the best explanations of what we see, realising that these explanations often cannot be proved, and may sometimes lie beyond proof. Science often proposes the existence of invisible (and often undetectable) entities – such as dark matter – to explain what can be seen. The reason why the Higgs boson is taken so seriously in science is not because its existence has been proved, but because it makes so much sense of observations that its existence seems assured. In other words, its power to explain is seen as an indicator of its truth.

“There’s an obvious and important parallel with the way religious believers think about God. While some demand proof that God exists, most see this as unrealistic. Believers argue that the existence of God gives the best framework for making sense of the world…

“There’s more to God than making sense of things. But for religious believers, it’s a great start.

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Read the rest of the article here:

Higgs boson: the particle of faith

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Happy Birthday, KJV

This year marks the 400th anniversary of a momentous event in the English-speaking world: the first publication of the Authorised Version of The Bible, commonly known as the King James Version.

The translation project was instigated by King James I as a way of reconciling some of the theological disagreements between high-church Anglicans and Puritans. The transition from Latin Vulgate texts to early English bibles had not been a smooth one, and in 1604 James called for a completely new translation, “as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek.” Published in 1611 after 7 years of diligent work by 47 different scholars, the Authorised Version was not just the most influential version of the Bible, it was one of the most influential works in the history of the English language.

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There’s probably no Dawkins…

…now stop worrying and enjoy Oct 25th at the Sheldonian Theatre.

So read the signs on buses in the Oxford area at the moment, lamenting the sudden failure of courage from New Atheism’s leading apologist.

It seems that while Richard Dawkins is happy to have the occasional televised cup of tea with an English archbishop who is too polite to respond to his bombast, he is not quite so bold when it comes to debating religion with any serious Christian apologists. After lengthy prevarication, Dawkins has retreated securely into his shell and refused to debate William Lane Craig at the Sheldonian.

As the proposed debate was in his hometown, I don’t think travel costs were the issue. It’s really hard to see this as anything other than cowardice on Dawkins’ part.

Read more on the story here in The Guardian.

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Censorship and bad Apples

The media lines are all humming with outrage about an iPhone app. Not the one that lets you avoid police checkpoints if you’re driving drunk, nor the one that gives detailed instructions on abusing illegal drugs – those are still readily available on the App Store.

No, the biggest story at the moment is about a self-help app from Exodus International. It provides information to assist people who want to make a lifestyle change.

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Anne Rice and hypocrisy in the Church

The media has been all aflutter over the past weeks about the announcement by novelist Anne Rice that she’s “quitting Christianity, but not Christ”. As Rice posted on her blog:

“My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn’t understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than … [C]hristianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become.”

In short, it seems that Rice is frustrated to breaking point with hypocrisy in the Church.

Here’s the thing, though:

Jesus also hates the hypocrisy of Christians.

During Jesus’ earthly ministry he had a great deal to say to the scribes and the Pharisees, the “church leaders” of the day. Here’s Jesus as reported in the Gospel of Matthew:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. (Mt 23:1-3, NIV)

Jesus’ strongest condemnation was reserved for those who teach the truth but fail to live it out.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Mt 23:27-28, NIV)

Let there be no mistake: Jesus has no time for hypocrisy within the Church.

At the same time, Jesus instructs us to live a life delineated by firm principles. There are concrete instructions about correct behaviour as well as about correct motives and attitudes. And yet, the Bible teaches us that we are all flawed and will fail to meet theses standards. Jesus is compassionate towards those who struggle to live according to God’s will for their lives. But the vital step is accepting that we ourselves are flawed.

I suspect that anyone who has been involved with Christianity has had experience of hypocrisy. But I suspect that anyone who has been involved in any human affairs has had experience of hypocrisy. If we set ourselves any sort of moral standards at all, we will fail to meet them. Perhaps George Thorogood had the answer to hypocrisy: start off by claiming to be “Bad to the Bone”, and you’ll never fall short of your standards.

But these are not the standards that Jesus asks us to aim for.

I’ve been involved in the Church for a couple of decades, including several denominations and several countries. I’ve seen people failing to live up to their own teaching. More to the point, I’ve seen people failing to live up to Jesus’ teaching. (Shocking revelation: I am one of those people!)

But I’ve also seen a great number of people trying to live up to Jesus teaching. Sometimes they do a pretty good job, sometimes they do a terrible job. They’re never perfect, but they keep trying. They also keep admitting that they have failed and ask God’s help to keep trying.

This attitude of humility is perhaps the key to avoiding hypocrisy. Jesus didn’t rebuke the scribes and the Pharisees for failing to live up to God’s law: he rebuked them for pretending to do so.

Perhaps the most succinct expression of humility and acknowledgment of our own fallen nature came from the inimitable G. K. Chesterton. When invited by The Times newspaper, along with several other prominent authors, to write an essay on the topic “What’s Wrong with the World?”, Chesterton replied with a letter:

Dear Sirs,

I am.

Sincerely yours,
G. K. Chesterton

This is the essence of humility. It is an open admission of our failings, with no excuses or self-justifications. (Incidentally, Chesterton did later write a full-length essay on the subject, which I highly recommend).

As the apostle John writes:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. (1 John 1:8-10, NIV)

I understand Anne Rice’s frustration with hypocrisy in the Church, but I choose to respond differently. I remain within the Church, and if I feel that it has strayed, I will attempt to correct and support it from within.

More importantly, I recognise that I can also be hypocritical and corrupt, and I rely on my brothers and sisters in Christ to correct and support me in my walk.

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Related posts:

Serious, not fanatical

Living a good and/or Christian life

Modelled behaviour

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