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charlie, computer cat

April 2019



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candle trail

You gotta have faith?

So, I should start off by saying that I am already loving my new OU course to bits. The course website doesn't open for another 10 days and I've already finished off book 1 (The Self - all about what does personal identity mean/consist of) and am starting off philosophy of religion. One of the activities early on is to think about the following question

What is my main reason for my current view about whether God exists or not?

It asks me to think about it as carefully and as honestly as possible and to discuss my response with a friend or friends. Hello, friends!

Unfortunately, or fortunately I suppose, depending on how you view this stuff, I don't feel like I can explain my current views on deism without exploring some of my own religious history. This is interesting for me in some ways because after being relatively communicative about this in my younger days, I kind of stopped talking about it for various reasons.

So. I was bought up as an atheist. Both my parents were atheists, Mum in a fairly laid back way, Dad in a more strongly cross at religion and the religious kind of way. Despite this, I went to a Church of England primary school - I lived in a village in Norfolk so there really weren't a lot of options. At the time, it didn't have a strongly religious character though. We had the vicar in for assembly every couple of weeks and we said grace before lunch. We also used to say the Lords prayer in assembly (the proper version - they tried to make us change in Y6 and I refused and said the old version while the rest of the school were reading the new version). To me, it was a little like people believing in Santa or the tooth fairy - that's fine, and it's kind of mean to disabuse people so you just go along with it. Bible stories were, well, bible stories - like fairy stories, only about Jesus.

I got older and went to secondary school, which was a straight forward comprehensive. We didn't do any religious stuff, but the RE teaching didn't cover much comparative religion either because I was still living in Norfolk. I think we did the 5 pillars of Islam, which is a nice, straight forward, self contained lesson :) I was not really close to anyone in this period, although I did have friends, and I used to have conversations with myself about the meaning of things and what to do about life, the universe and everything - kind of undirected talking to the universe sort of thing.

When I was applying for university, I met Nathan, who was already at Oxford and the son of my Mum's boss. I developed a huge crush on him. He was very willing to tell me about Oxford and also invited me to come and socialize at a church youth function thingie. I went along and I really enjoyed hanging out with Nathan and with his friends (who were all also already university students at various places). It turned out a couple of my friends from school also went to this church and I started going along for services. After I'd been doing that for a couple of months, I had a religious experience. I don't remember much about it now and it was very difficult to describe even when I was closer to it in time and could recall it better but during the service, I felt an enormous surge of personal well-being and of being loved and connected to something vast and universal. It was pretty overwhelming and exciting - it felt special - and as a result of this experience and the fact that it had happened in a Christian church during a service, I became a Christian. I felt like it retrospectively fit together some parts of my life, seeing things like my tendency to talk to the open air as a prayer I hadn't realised I was praying. I joined the CU at university when I got there and started going to a pretty evangelical church where I had a full immersion baptism part way through my first year.

However, there were a few problems with this. One was that, outside of my church/CU friends, none of my other friends were Christian and I didn't actually have a lot in common with most of my Christian friends - they were a lot more like my school friends. Nice enough and we got on but we didn't really *connect* whereas hanging out with OUSFG (speculative fiction group - the SF geeks) I felt like I was with people who got me. That meant that it was kind of a strain for me to keep up with things like regular church attendance and by the middle of my second year, that had pretty much dropped off. I also found that I became increasingly uncomfortable with many of the beliefs that came with the Christian label. I found and still find that the things Jesus said often resonated deeply with me but the mythology surrounding Jesus was a huge turn off. The all or nothing attitude to the Bible was also something I found very hard to accept - I found it fascinating and useful as the account of people through a period of history trying to understand their connection with God - as a book of rules and a be-all-and-end-all of ethics it was contradictory and lacking.

I also found that it was increasingly difficult, as I thought through and discussed my beliefs to reconcile the idea of a being powerful enough to create the world and to have full knowledge of past and future with the idea of a being who watches over every little action, judging and praising accordingly. I shifted more to seeing God as a creating force - powerful, but basically incomprehensible. I was very attracted to the picture Berkley paints of God as the substance of all creation (bad, bad paraphrase). I also developed some of my own ideas on predestination vs free will and the problem of evil which were not entirely consistent but were also very different from the way that the Church viewed things. This was all kind of a mish-mash and I went back and forth on things like the divinity of Jesus a lot.

What became clearer and clearer in my beliefs though, was that I found it impossible to reconcile the idea that it would matter to God whether or not we believed in him. I still believed (and do believe) in the importance of living a good life, but I think that even if God exists that good life won't require spending time on your knees or chanting because those things have no value in and of themselves (alright, that's arguable but everything in a philosophy discussion is arguable!). If God is both powerful and benevolent, he won't require glorification. Deserve it, yes, but not require it. I stopped going to Church altogether.

As I've receded in time from the religious experience I had, it has become more difficult to sustain the certainty it gave me of feeling a connection to a being greater than myself. Other possible explanations are available and I admit their plausibility. I now would describe myself as an agnostic. I don't know whether or not God exists and in many ways, I feel it doesn't matter whether he does or not. People should try to live good lives, whether or not there is some kind of deity or afterlife (this is almost axiomatic, but I hope you know what I mean). I thought Amy Ferrer Fowler summed it up well when she said "I don't object to the notion of a deity but I'm baffled by the idea of one who takes attendance".

So I guess the main reason for my view is that I spent a lot of time thinking about it! It's kind of a fiddly one and doesn't really fit on a bumper sticker, but there it is (actually, I think you can get bumper stickers which say "Don't be a dick", which pretty much covers it on some fronts but misses some of the nuance :)).
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I did not know any of this! Now I wish we'd discussed religion more while we were at uni together. My two social groups at uni consisted of my fellow theologians and OUSFG and I had that same sort of disjunct between feeling like I belonged with OUSFG but also having this other group of friends. However, in my case, my theologian friends became good friends precisely because we talked openly, critically, and in depth about our respective religious beliefs (something I found sorely lacking in the CU and evangelical church community). I wonder how your thinking would have developed with the support of such rigorous discussion from learned and faith-filled people? Probably you would have ended up at the same place you are now, because, like you say, you've thought about this a lot.

And what can I say, Berkeley's God (in fact, his whole metaphysics) appeals to me greatly too (hell, I wrote my masters thesis on it). In my case, however, I never came close to believing that any of Berkeley's world-view was true, much as it appealed. I found his philosophy fascinating but fundamentally flawed (though not flawed enough to stop studying it, as my tutor would have had me do).

It does amuse me somewhat that back then I was studying philosophy and theology and you were studying maths, and right now it is the exact reverse. :)
I did not know any of this! Now I wish we'd discussed religion more while we were at uni together.

Totally! I'd already stopped having those conversations in a broader OUSFG context by second year because there were quite a few people there who were pretty hostile/aggressive about the notion of faith so I guess we never had the right opening for it.

I wonder how your thinking would have developed with the support of such rigorous discussion from learned and faith-filled people?

It's an interesting question and I'm not at all convinced the outcome would have been the same. A big factor in the development of my views was definitely the fact that I didn't have discussions about faith in a rational logical philosophical way with any people of faith, only with atheists.

It does amuse me somewhat that back then I was studying philosophy and theology and you were studying maths

Ha! I hadn't thought of that but yes, we've swapped, haven't we. Well, I recommend set theory as a Maths course if you get the chance - completely rewired my brain and the way I thought about number and infinity.
Like you I have had the religious revelatory experience though perhaps it seemed a little less personal. It was at a similar age but I had read rather more of the Eastern mystical stuff as interpreted for Western audiences (as much written in English is) so to me it seemed less Christian. I had already left my choir singing, church going background behind me so I interpreted it rather differently. To me it seemed like a direct experience of the divine nature of the universe. Of course it could be a purely physiological reaction but to me the key thing it left me with is the opposite of faith - knowledge. The universe is immensely more complex than we understand and a religion is a tiny part of what we understand, almost irrelevent. That experience is what I would like to communicate but there are not the words. Even the memory of the experience is a pale shadow of the experience itself. People in OUSFG are rationalists and the rational explanation is that religion is the invention of primitive societies and the divine revelatory experience is an altered state of mind. Until we can find a way of communicating that experience then I think there is no basis for conversation.
Sorry for the rambling nature of this reply. I suppose the problem with having conversations with oneself as many of us do is that you know what you are thinking so you can jump about randomly. When you try to talk to others you need to be more coherent.