Welcome to my new blog, “Confessions of a Christian Skeptic”.
This is where I intend to document the spiritual journey of a man who doesn't fit neatly into the boxes the world would like to put him in. Here you will find religion, philosophy, theology, science and probably more than a little confusion and contradiction. This is a place where doubt is the norm and “I don't know” is a valid answer. If you're the type who thinks that anybody who believes anything should be able to prove everything, you might want to look away. If on the other hand you are not omniscient, then join me.
As I find that religious commentary tends to bring out the trolls, for now at least there will be no comment facility. If you feel you have something to contribute, then I invite you to write an article in response on your own blog or other website. This way the scope of the conversation is widened, and you can write whatever you like. If you'd like a link back please get in contact; as long as you're not too offensive I'll be happy to oblige.
In the meantime, God bless.
Occasionally people have argued with me, sometimes quite vehemently or even aggressively, that labels are a bad thing. They are so obsessed with being seen as an individual that they refuse to recognise that, as individuals, we have things in common with other individuals. Those things in common can be important. Rarely do I meet anybody who refuses to wear the label of “human”, because it concisely expresses everything we have in common with the rest of humanity: our basic needs, our general appearance, our origins, our claim to possess fundamental rights, and so on.
If we refuse to wear additional labels, then we are choosing a life of continually explaining from first principles everything about us that isn't common to all of humanity. That's a lot of explaining. Although it possibly shouldn't be so, many doors are closed to us in life if we can't convince the gatekeepers to let us through. Labels tend to be a persuasive part of that. Try to prepare a résumé without allowing yourself any labels and you'll understand what I mean.
There is, however, another side to the story. Having the wrong label can be a problem too. Just as having no label leads to avoidable, protracted discussions, the wrong label means you have to unexplain all the incorrect assumptions that other parties make on the basis of those labels. This can occur when one has inadvertently adopted a label which is too broad; in other words, one which is partially correct but then adds stuff that's not true about you. I suspect this is what the “no labels” brigade misunderstand; their issues are not due to labelling per se, but due to inappropriate labelling.
I was brought up with a label that I have always been proud to wear: “Christian”. Proud because, from the point in childhood that I made a decision to adopt the label as my own, I have felt that it embodies so many attributes that are a part of who I am, or at least who I want to be. I have always been happiest when I have lived up to what I understand the word to mean. Anything else feels fake.
But the problem should now be obvious to anybody who has paid attention to how I phrased the previous paragraph. I have always been happiest when I have lived up to what I understand the word to mean. This is where labels can go wrong: when the wearer interprets it one way, but the world interprets it another. In the case of the word “Christian” the meaning is sadly ambiguous. Earlier in my life I naïvely only thought about the literal meaning: of or pertaining to Christ. In other words, I proudly wear a label which is intended to mean “I try hard to lead my life in a manner which is consistent with Christ's teachings and with the examples he set”.
I know that many people share that definition. I also know that many, often subconsciously, do not. Many Christians, especially (but by no means exclusively) those of a conservative leaning, associate specific beliefs, traditions, rules, rituals, power structures and more with the word. Many non-Christians, observant of this, associate it with bigotry, hatred, prejudice, intolerance and hypocrisy. When I describe myself as Christian, I am taking a gamble of long odds that the listener will understand it in the simple sense that I mean it, as opposed to one of the myriad other interpretations.
It's actually worse than that, because beliefs have a tendency to evolve, albeit slowly. What a person believes changes over time, and I am no exception to that. Over the years I have studied, philosophised, experimented, reinterpreted and [shock!] talked to people. I have gradually moved from being mildly conservative to fairly liberal to something else. Throughout all of this, I've nevertheless still been proudly “Christian”. Clearly the word is useful to me, as a guide and a benchmark, but it is somewhat inadequate as an external descriptor. For many years my search for a secondary label was largely fruitless; every subtype of Christianity seems to imply something to somebody that isn't entirely accurate when applied to me.
The solution came to me when I realised that the answer lies not in how I am like (or unlike) other Christians, but in another part of who I am. I am a philosopher; more specifically, a scientist; even more specifically a computer scientist, although I have never confined myself to that box either. I thrive on rational thought, logic, deduction and correctness. I believe in reason and responsibility. I know the limits of logic, what can and cannot be proven. When all the evidence points to a belief being incorrect, I don't pervert the evidence, I change the belief. I will admit when I am proved wrong.
There is a label which closely matches this way of thinking: “Skeptic” (in this sense usually spelled with a ‘k’, reflecting the Greek σκεπτικος even though in British English “sceptic” is more commonly employed). Skepticism has existed for a very long time, in one form or another. It certainly predates Christianity. Many skeptics happen to be atheist or agnostic, but that is not a requirement. This is because, by any form of reasoning currently known to man, there is no way to either prove or disprove the existence of God (at least, not if transcendence is part of the definition). Likewise many modern skeptics are Humanists, but not all. (Personally I strongly dislike the term. Perhaps I'll discuss that some time).
So, I realised that I can choose to identify myself as a “Christian Skeptic”. Either label could be taken to mean more than intended. But, juxtaposed, much of that ambiguity disappears. If you think of something particularly irrational then, as a skeptic, I'm unlikely to believe it, or at least I'll be open to logical persuasion if I've made a mistake. At the same time, as a Christian I don't share some of the (equally irrational, in my opinion) beliefs of certain prominent voices within the modern Skeptics movement. If it doesn't fall within the intersection of the two ideologies, then it's not for me.
I'm pretty certain there are others out there who have a similar world view to mine. It's not for me to tell you who you are. Maybe you call yourself something else. Maybe you just don't want the controversy of being two things. But, as the Oracle would remind you: temet nosce (or, as we're in a Greek mood, γνωθι σεαυτον). If you feel that the label “Christian Skeptic” is one you could wear, then I invite you to do so. And wear it with pride.
With today's announcement of Rowan Williams' new appointment, and consequent resignation as Archbishop of Canterbury, various articles about him have resurfaced. This one caught my attention:
Like any human leader, Dr Williams has not necessarily done everything right. But he is a good and wise man, who understands the need for progress. We can only hope that his successor is someone equally wise.
There is a topic which has irritated me enough that I feel I must comment, even though I'm on a break from such stuff.
There has been talk by some of lobbying the Queen regarding the NHS. This idea has actually come up before, but it doesn't normally get any attention. I won't be doing so. I think it's pointless. Ask yourself: if you were the Queen, why would you give a shit about the NHS? You don't need it. You don't use it. You don't benefit from its existence at all. It's another world.
But there has been another group of people, vocally opposed to the idea for an entirely different reason. They ask, why would we want to resurrect absolute monarchy to protect the NHS? It's a question that would be worthy of debate, I'm sure, except for one thing:
ABSOLUTE MONARCHY NEVER WENT ANYWHERE.
After the collection of armed rebellions commonly (though incorrectly) known as the English Civil War, we all know that Charles I came to a sticky end which supposedly established the necessity of Parliamentary consent to the King's actions. But then, for over a decade the sham of a republic was ruled by an effective hereditary dictatorship. A king in all but name. So much for the supremacy of Parliament. That era came to an end when the dictator was deposed by, wait for it, the King!
In celebration of this momentous event, the new Parliament declared that Charles II had, in fact, always been King. The Commonwealth and the Protectorate never happened. Now isn't that convenient? Most of the people directly involved in Charles I's death were executed (possibly posthumously) or imprisoned for regicide, not just plain murder, underlining the fact that the monarch is no ordinary citizen.
Actually, in some ways Charles II was a relatively benign monarch. The social changes which took place during his reign included permitting women to perform in theatre, something which required a royal licence and set an important precedent. But let us not forget, a king is still a king. His power was indeed reduced, but it certainly wasn't removed. His overall support throughout the kingdom was strong enough that, towards the end, he reverted to direct rule.
At this point, I'm sure there are those of you who are yelling at the screen: What about the Glorious Revolution? What about the Bill of Rights? Of course, you are right to ask such questions. We can't ignore the fact that limits on the monarch's power were laid down in statute. And yet, the monarchy remains. Having overthrown two out of three successive kings, Parliament was certainly on stronger ground than ever before. But to focus on that is to ignore the most important factor in those events:
Getting rid of James VII/II was never about democracy. Greater democracy was a side effect. The reason for the revolution was far less noble: sectarianism. James was a Catholic. Pretty much everyone else who counted in English politics (Scotland and Ireland were arguably more complicated) were Protestants. After all, a lot of effort had gone into establishing England's sovereignty from Rome, and the English Church's authority within England. A Catholic monarch was a threat to anyone whose status depended on keeping the Pope out of English affairs.
And so, it didn't suit Parliament to be a true democracy. A republic ruled by the people would be vulnerable to infiltration by Papists. A Catholic resurgence with a democratic voice and legitimate political power would be a disaster. But it was one that could be avoided, by a simple yet extraordinarily cunning move: Consent to a Protestant claimant taking the throne, with conditions attached. The Bill of Rights, and the later Act of Settlement, bound the new coregents and their successors in a number of ways which made it very difficult to reëstablish Catholicism within England (and later Scotland).
While in a technical sense this meant the end of the Sovereign having absolute power, it has always left the door open for an unholy alliance between the Sovereign and Parliament. Royal Assent is more than a historical concept; it has real legal significance and is of no less importance than the power of the unelected Lords to cause problems for a hostile government. For three centuries the monarchy in this country has been playing a careful game. They have many supporters, not least in the Tory party but elsewhere as well. They don't need to stir things up very often. People fall over themselves to make them happy. If a royal wants something done, it happens. Just look at the police operation and disgraceful abuses of power that accompanied last year's royal wedding if you need evidence.
So, if the Queen's prerogative is as real as the powers held by the Lords, this should lead us to ask: What is the difference between lobbying a peer and lobbying the Queen? Most people who are anti-royal aren't fans of the Lords either, and yet I didn't hear people shouting about how ridiculous it is to write to those unelected people. I did hear people saying it was ridiculous that we should have to, but that's a different thing. When you're in a sinking ship, you don't refuse a life raft just because you disagree with the unethical practices of the company who manufactured it.
I'm not telling anyone to write to the Queen. As I said, I won't be doing so. But if I thought it would be effective, then I might. Getting rid of the monarchy, if it happens, will be the result of an entirely separate battle; possibly even a revolution. And in that battle, as in this one, we will need to be prepared to use whatever weapons are at our disposal, even if we have to wrench them from the hands of the enemy. Those who refuse to do so because it has the enemy's fingerprints on it may be missing the point of the fight.
Posted at Confessions of a Christian Skeptic as I haven't started my new political blog yet.