"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Colin Still: a vicar all at sea

Rev. Colin Still
It is difficult not to like Reverend Colin Still, the central focus of BBC 2 documentary The Cruise: A Life at Sea. He is an affable almost caricature of an Anglican vicar who sees his “parish at sea” comprising of ”believers and non-believers alike” and had he in fact not been a real person would have been a casting directors dream for the role. This retired chaplain is also studiously and sometimes painfully ecumenical, which given the variety of faith needs he has to fulfil is probably a good thing, but induces him to make vapid statements such as last night’s “I have a lot of respect for the Buddhist religion, it has much to commend it” which apart from the theologically contentious assertion that Buddhism is a religion contains the unspoken regret that it would be so much better with Jesus in it.
Reverend Still is the kind of professional Christian with whom you could go down the pub to indulge in a bit of light theological banter without him taking visible offense and knowing that nothing you said would shake his confidence in a benign deity. Which, is precisely the problem I have with him and Christians like him.
What annoys me about this brand of Christianity is the inanity and intellectual dishonesty that surrounds it. At least with a Bible thumping Southern Baptist you know where you stand as they mean what they say and believe what they are saying. Those heathen Buddhists are going to hell regardless of whatever else there is to commend so none of this mealy mouthed pretence at respect for them. The fundamentalist Christian position may be obnoxious and more obviously crazy than Middle England Anglicanism but at least it’s honest and they can point to plain speaking scripture to back up their assertions whereas the Colin Stills of this world cannot really defend their tolerance except by invoking some vague notion that Jesus wants us to be nice to everyone.
Whenever I talk about the real harm religion causes in the world this passive Christianity is frequently cited in defence as though the existence of tolerant religion justifies the existence of all of it. In reality though what it does is exacerbate the problem because disingenuous respect masks real disagreements and perpetuates the myth that all religions are the same underneath and if it wasn’t for those pesky extremists the bombing and acid throwing and abortionist assassinations would cease and we could all sing kumbaya in harmony, whereas, a world where the fault lines between beliefs were apparent would be easier to navigate and arguably safer as a result. I also suspect that such transparency would result in less religion generally as it would encourage more people to apply the Outsider Test for Faith probably one of the best tools for highlighting the absurdities in one’s own religion.
The fact is, you can’t have a good intellectual scrap with someone who won’t admit the extent to which they disagree with you. Real respect is acknowledging different points of view and assuming others have the ability to follow your arguments one way or the other and there should always be the possibility that one party could change the other’s mind. It would not occur to me to enter into a discussion about religion without being explicit that I consider 99% of it to be nonsense on stilts and if I said I respected someone’s religious beliefs I would be lying. I may be doing Reverend Still a disservice but I think he is lying about Buddhism. “It has much to commend it” is really damning it with faint praise and recognising only that it is vaguely spiritual and somehow better than nothing. He may like to think that people of other faiths and philosophies do not go to hell, he may even genuinely believe that, but if so he is not a Christian, either he is denying the theology of the faith he purports to represent or he is misrepresenting his own position, both are dishonest and inimical to proper discourse. Regardless, in this documentary we never see his religion seriously challenged as the closest anyone has got to admitting to atheism is “I’m not very religious” while joining in with the Easter service. So this cosy view of beneficent tolerant nurturing religiosity persists, free riding on undue respect for beliefs that if properly examined would be revealed as toxic to a truly caring, peaceful and equal society.

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