This week in God

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Theologian John Haught is interviewed in Salon. His view of theology and Darwinism makes me think that there might actually come a time where religious people and non-religious people can peacefully co-exist. That religious people will stop using their religion's core messages of love and peace as justifications to blow people up, while atheists will realise that atheists probably blow up other people just as much as religious people do. I also live in hope that one day, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens will stop writing stupid books on their ridiculous atheist fundamentalism, or at the very least no longer be thought of as somehow representative for secularists.

In other God-related news, there's a really nice interview with Philip Pullman, the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy (recently turned into a not-very-good Hollywood Blockbuster) at a Christian film blog named FilmChat. The interview is (sadly) remarkable for being reasonable, well-argued and respectful on both sides. It is even more remarkable for being followed by a huge stream of comments (which I have been subscribing to via Blogger's new subscription feature) most of which follow the spirit of the interview in being reasonable and polite.

Of course, every once in a while, there is some terrible fundamentalist or someone raging and delusional ("YUOU BUTTFUCKING FAGGOT MY DICK IS THREE TIMES AS LARGE AS YOUR ATHIEST PENIS. GOD MADE IT THAT WAY!" begins the charming and rigorously argued last comment. I expect it to be deleted soon, like the other trolls). The thread itself, I think, stands for what religion really is: mostly reasonable people's ideas about the world, followed by a couple of very loud, very attention-getting violent psychotics who would probably be violent no matter their beliefs.

I want to quote two bits of what Pullman says which I find intriguing and helpful. The first is a discussion of consciousness, which leads into his concept of "Dust" in the books:
Those who are committed materialists (as I claim to be myself) have to account for the existence of consciousness, or else, like the behaviourists such as Watson and Skinner, deny that it exists at all. There are various ways of explaining consciousness, many of which seem to take the line that it's an emergent phenomenon that only begins to exist when a sufficient degree of complexity is achieved. Another way of dealing with the question is to assume that consciousness, like mass, is a normal and universal property of matter (this is known as panpsychism), so that human beings, dogs, carrots, stones, and atoms are all conscious, though in different degrees. This is the line I take myself, in the company of poets such as Wordsworth and Blake.
I think this is an incredibly interesting point of view, not least because it clearly borders on/bordercrosses into the territory of religious belief. One of my own articles of faith is that at some level, no matter the degree of complexity to which we can build our explanations and ability to predict the universe, any explanation of the world rests on assumption - reasonable or not - which is the same as faith. Henry Perowne, the decidedly materialist neurosurgeon who is the main character in Ian McEwan's Saturday has a firm belief in the idea that someday soon, there will be a theory that bridges the gap between the firing of the neurons he does "elegant plumbing" on for a living, and the macroscopic phenomena of consciousness. Me, I don't see that happening any time in the next five hundred years. But I'm wouldn't be at all surprised to be proven wrong.

And speaking of surgery:
I was brought up in the Church of England, and whereas I'm an atheist, I'm certainly a Church of England atheist, and for the matter of that a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist. The Church of England is so deeply embedded in my personality and my way of thinking that to remove it would take a surgical operation so radical that I would probably not survive it.
I want to memorise this quote because it very accurately describes - once you substitute "The Church of England" with "Den Norske Statskirken" etc. - the feelings of a lot of my friends. This is one of those phrases that are just instantly helpful.


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