Martin Young
Martin Young

Gareth Cliff, religion and thinking things through

I caught sight of a celebrity tweet several days ago, carrying all the hallmarks of a Gareth Cliff tweet — inflammatory, incendiary and poking fun at someone. The stream of tweets in reply did not disappoint. Cliff of course knew exactly what he was doing, and that he would get a mixed response of supporters and detractors. I’m sure he enjoyed both equally, and that the online criticism was water off a duck’s back. His tweet will have done him no harm whatsoever.

GarethCliff Tweet1

Cliff and I can probably agree on many things about religion, differing only on whether a God exists and is active in our world or not. As detractors are quick to point out, religion has undoubtedly brought episodic harm into the world (I agree), but the same detractors choose to ignore the substantial good done by religious organisations and individuals. The good and harm either way are always the result of human action or inaction, and it would be churlish to blame God or other gods for it all. I see the practice of “religion” as being the imperfect actions of men, human interpretations of divine guidance subject to the same pitfalls and perils of human existence. In other words, don’t blame God for religious people or their actions.

I have no intention of trying to defend God any further or argue his existence here — there is no convincing any person over issues of belief by argument. But Cliff’s tweet had me thinking about a conference just past at which he was a VIP speaker, and which carried as provocative a title as his persona.

“Thinking things through” was the conference title, and the programme clearly indicated a “free thinking” agenda. I wish I could have gone. I enjoy reasoned debate and intelligent argument, and I am very interested in what the speakers had to say. I probably would agree with all the scientific evidence certain to have been presented as to why society no longer needs God to explain anything factual about the Earth, universe and everything in between, but instead I would have come to a different conclusion.

As for the organisers’ choice of title, I don’t think they have truly “thought things through”. It is a misleading suggestion that only they and the free-thinking lobby they represent have put a modicum of intellectual effort into the great questions of life: “Where did we come from, why are we here, and what happens to us when we die?” It’s a rude way of saying “we’re right, and they (the theists) are all wrong”.

To state one has really “thought things through” implies a comprehensive understanding and analysis of all the eccentricities of consciousness, reality, the origin and structure of matter and the universe, comprehension of what existed before and outside its margins, with explanations of every aberration and unusual phenomenon. I don’t think anyone can do that. We don’t know even a fraction of it, and the more we do know, the more there is to learn.

Many theists do not have to go through any process of self-rationalisation and reconciliation of the world they see around them with their beliefs. It’s a happy place to be, although I would agree with Cliff and others that people like this are more easily led into religious activities that are harmful.

Scientifically educated converts to belief in a God have to do the reconciliation between doctrine, theology and science to preserve a bit of sanity, and here is where it can get interesting. I find my inspiration from the same sources as the free thinkers, ie from scientific discovery. So the question changes from “How does this information contradict my beliefs?” to “How does this fit in with my theology?”

So it is greatly exciting to learn of the new scientific theories out there, one example among many being that of there being an infinite number of parallel universes. If this theory is true, anything you can possibly imagine has to exist in a universe somewhere, and therefore the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists and Dawkins is wrong. And one universe has to be the very best of universes and another the very worst — heaven and hell perhaps? Or that all reality may be a hologram on the event horizon of a super massive black hole. I don’t pretend that I understand all the details, and the theories change and may well be wrong, but the compatibilities between my worldview and beliefs are being reinforced, not being eroded, for these and many other reasons too numerous to mention, by the same information and evidence that free thinkers use to discredit religious beliefs. I have yet to hear one theory or discovery that contradicts my theology.

And so I imagine this conference being a group of highly interesting, highly educated, highly influential people meeting to discuss and agree on the limitations of their own exploring minds and imaginations, staying well within the box of accepted scientific discovery and never daring to venture outside it. All the time, believing that they themselves are the intellectual elite, and that all others are wrong.

I can’t help thinking of the biblical parallel in Genesis 19 for this situation, where men and women were destroyed for causing God offence. Those who read the Bible without understanding critical context make the mistake that this event was due to sexual sin, which had nothing to do with the punishment. The activity so offensive to God was pride and arrogance, the awareness of self as being better than others, the original sin itself.

I don’t think any theists needed to be concerned that the same punishment that befell Sodom and Gomorrah would fall down on Cliff and the others at this conference. God’s anger was assuaged a little under 2000 years ago.

And I’m glad for him. I like the guy.

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