catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

What if God was one of us?

with 4 comments

Came home from work with the intention of blogging on Saddam and the whole death penalty thing, but it just didn’t happen. I’m in Brisbane on circuit right now (hence the light to variable blogging), and the town’s getting some much needed rain. On the way back to my hotel, I stopped at the local 7-11 and picked up some orange juice. The store owners are Iraqi Shi’ites, and they had the news on, with footage of people dancing in the streets in Sadr City. After I paid, the man behind the counter pointed at the telly (now showing protesting Sunnis with placards of Saddam). The erstwhile dictator’s face flashed up on the screen.

‘I hope it hurts, the bastard,’ the shopkeeper said. ‘I hope he takes an hour to die’.

At that point, my desire to do any Saddam blogging evaporated. Instead, I’ve decided to reprise a piece I wrote over at Thoughts on Freedom back in July. It’s been edited (because I’m an inveterate editor). I’m still not sure how it relates to Saddam, except in the sense that it’s something of a meditation on religion, and how we’re supposed to, ahem, do it.

Traditionally, the law year commences with a church service. In a hangover from the law’s English heritage, that service is always held in July. In Australia (and Queensland in particular) this is a good thing. Barristers, judges and clergy alike turn up in full kit – wigs, ermine fringed gowns, robes, the lot. Everyone in the local legal fraternity also fronts up. The most senior judge in the jurisdiction delivers a short address, as does the most senior clergyman. It’s all very formal and ritualistic, a hangover from a bygone age. For a skeptic and atheist like me, it presents something of a challenge.

Our law term commencement service was also held this July. I toyed with the idea of not going, but decided this would not only look churlish, but was churlish. Country towns with small professions are generally very collegial, and failing to front at an event social as much as religious would mark me out as someone with an unnecessary bug in my hat.

I gave religion the boot when I was about 13. Not for any particular reason, just that I found I didn’t believe it, no matter how hard I tried. I never got the sense that God was among us, and strongly suspected that Jesus Christ was a greatly misunderstood philosopher and freethinker, but most definately not God. As I was on a full scholarship at a religious school, this presented something of a quandary. I did what countless non-believers in a similar setting have done in the past. I kept schtum and observed the bare minimum, floating (largely) under the radar.

In later years, I was grateful for the solid religious instruction I received. Apart from perplexing the door-to-door hawkers of various American-made beliefs, I find I’m fairly well-informed on religious debate, doctrine and scripture. I’ve noticed that those who know nothing are more easily snowed, particularly by some of the loopier fringe religions. Although operating out of a different tradition, I think David Hicks falls firmly into this category. A political and religious naif, he was easily persuaded into adopting a system that had neat, pat answers to everything within his ken, not to mention a few tasty conspiracy theories to boot.

As a youngster in a poor, high immigrant area, I watched various religious groups (Christian as well as Muslim and others not so easy to classify) prey on the poor and ignorant. For a long time, the manager of the local branch of the National Bank made a point of living in the area, mainly so he could understand the people who wanted to make use of his employer’s services. He was middle class, and admitted he had trouble grasping just what it was that made the area tick.

Over time, he became good friends with my mum and me. I’ll never forget the day he turned up after work at our place in tears. The bank had just exercised power of sale over a Polish immigrant family’s home. After going through their financial records, he’d discovered they’d been tithing 30% of their income to one of the local ‘churches’ (a particularly frothing lot of holy rollers).

The bishop, in his law term address, spent a pungent ten minutes talking about the separation of church and state, and how Christianity – in cooperation with parliament and the courts – had largely achieved this, while Islam had not. He pointed out that religious morality, when enforced by the state, utterly loses its power to persuade. The essence of true morality is choice. Legal ‘right’ and religious ‘right’ may often coincide, but that is an effect of history, not enforcement.

Needless to say, my discomfort at being in a place where everything was unfamiliar – the hymns, the procedure, the method – evaporated at least temporarily. I realised that to a very large degree, this Anglican clergyman was articlating what skeptics have been saying for years: if society is to function, religion has to be kept in its box (although, as one commentator has since observed, we need people-sized doors in and out).

Afterwards, scone in hand (yes, these churchy things are also characterised by devonshire teas and good, strong coffee), I sought out the bishop and complimented him on his talk (called a homily, I learned). ‘Oh yes,’ he said mildly. ‘We are on the same side in this’.

Written by Admin

November 6, 2006 at 9:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. Completely agreed SL. The attempt to enforce religious morality through state power is to be abhorred as a concept. I believe the Anglican church, as a whole, has grasped this. A good example is the matter of divorce – the Anglican church does not (in general) recognise it, but does not campaign to legally ban it.

    Andrew Reynolds

    November 7, 2006 at 12:11 am

  2. SL I am lost for words. You are amazing! As is your bishop.

    Don’t take me wrong. If you think about it, his position is very logical and not new. But being able to express it in such a touching way… And that goes for you too…


    November 7, 2006 at 3:14 am

  3. BTW I am not an atheist.


    November 7, 2006 at 3:16 am

  4. No discussion of God and the merits of theology would be complete with at least one link to The Back of the Bible, a incredibly rude and very amusing take on some of the minor prophets:

    Jacques Chester

    November 8, 2006 at 4:22 am

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