Tag Archives: Christianity

The origins of ethics and violence

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Are you qualified to discuss God, Heaven and Hell?

Loved this little story I picked up on Facebook. There’s a moral in it somewhere. Perhaps something to try on these God-botherers next time they come knocking on your door.


A Christian was seated next to a little girl on an airplane and he turned to her and said,

“Do you want to talk? Flights go quicker if you strike up a conversation with your fellow passenger.”

The little girl, who had just started to read her book, replied to the total stranger,

“What would you want to talk about?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said the Christian. “How about why there is a God, Heaven and Hell, a magical life after death, and that evolution is a lie made up by the devil?” as he smiled smugly.

“Okay,” she said. “Those could be interesting topics but let me ask you a question first:

A horse, a cow, and a deer all eat the same stuff – grass. Yet a deer excretes little pellets, while a cow turns out a flat patty, but a horse produces clumps. Why do you suppose that is?”

The Christian, visibly surprised by the little girl’s intelligence, thinks about it and says,

“Hmmm, I have no idea.”

To which the little girl replies,

“Do you really feel qualified to discuss God, Heaven and Hell, or life after death, when you don’t know shit?”

And then she went back to reading her book!!

Fiddling with census figures for religion in New Zealand

Despite the bad publicity dogging the Catholic church internationally,  Karl du Fresne reports that many NZ Catholics have a positive picture of their church in New Zealand (see Catholicism: Holy smoke, NZ Listener). His subtitle conveys the message – despite all the scandals and controversies, Catholicism is emerging as the country’s most popular denomination.

Du Fresne wrote:

“Statistics suggest their optimism may be justified. Although the number of New Zealanders declaring no religious belief is steadily increasing, making this one of the most secular countries in the world, the 2006 census showed the Catholic population had risen by 4.7% over the previous five years. In the same period, the number of Anglicans and Presbyterians sharply declined. If the trends have continued, the just-taken census should show Catholicism overtaking the Church of England as the denomination with the greatest number of followers in New Zealand.”

A friend queried the claim of 4.7% increase in the Catholic population. After all, weren’t recent census results showing a decline in numbers of religious people?

So – I had a look at the data for the 1996, 2001 and 2006 Censuses (No data available for the 2013 Census yet). Du Fresne’s figure of 4.7% increase in the Catholic population between 2001 and 2006 is correct – but easily misinterpreted.  He is referring to absolute numbers, not the proportion or percentage of the total population, which also increased in that time – an important difference.  Here are some figures and graphics to clarify the census results.

1996 2001 2006
Total People 3,618,303 3,737,277 4,027,947
No Religion 867,264 1,028,049 1,297,104
Anglican 631,764 584,793 554,925
Catholic 473,112 485,637 508,437
Presbyterian 470,442 431,139 400,839
Methodist 121,650 120,546 121,806
Pentecostal 69,333 67,182 79,155
Hindu 25,551 39,798 64,392
Baptist 53,613 51,423 56,913
Buddhist 28,131 41,634 52,362
Ratana 36,450 48,975 50,565
Latter-day Saints 41,166 39,915 43,539
Islam/Muslim 13,545 23,631 36,072
Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamentalist 1,584 11,016 13,836
Orthodox 6,933 9,576 13,194
Salvation Army 14,625 12,618 11,493
Sikh 2,817 5,199 9,507
Judaism/Jewish 4,809 6,636 6,858
Baha’i 3,111 2,988 2,772

Catholic-1Clearly, as du Fresne said, Catholics have slightly increased in numbers  while other major religions have declined. Possibly Catholics may overtake Anglicans in the 2013 census. But the 4.7% increase in absolute numbers can be misleading because the total population increased by 7.8% in that time.

Maybe, from the perspective of the specific religion, the increase or decline in absolute numbers is important. However, the “no religion” and smaller religions have performed better on this criteria than Catholics. In the table below I have ranked some of the religions in order for that criteria – the increase from 2001 – 2006 expressed as a percentage of the 2001 figure.

numbers 2006

%age increase 2001-2006
Sikh 9507 82.9
Hindu 64392 61.8
New Age 669 59.3
Islam/Muslim 36072 52.6
Orthodox 13194 37.8
Spiritualist 7743 32.2
Satanism 1167 30.5
No Religion 1297104 26.2
Buddhist 52362 25.8
Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamentalist 13836 25.6
Pentecostal 79155 17.8
Baptist 56913 10.7
Catholic 508437 4.7
Methodist 121806 1.0
Jehovah’s Witness 17910 0.5
Anglican 554925 -5.1
Presbyterian, Congregational and Reformed 400839 -7.0
Baha’i 2772 -7.2

Finally, many people would interpret (incorrectly) du Fresne’s 4.7% as the increase in percentage of Catholics as a proportion of the total population. The table below shows the data for that calculation – in this case the proportion of Catholics changed from 13.0% in 2001 to 12.6% in 2006 – a decline of 0.4%.

% in 2006 Change from 2001
Sikh 0.2 0.1
Hindu 1.6 0.5
New Age 0.0 0.0
Islam/Muslim 0.9 0.3
Orthodox 0.3 0.1
Spiritualist 0.2 0.0
Satanism 0.0 0.0
No Religion 32.2 4.7
Buddhist 1.3 0.2
Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamentalist 0.3 0.0
Pentecostal 2.0 0.2
Baptist 1.4 0.0
Catholic 12.6 -0.4
Methodist 3.0 -0.2
Jehovah’s Witness 0.4 0.0
Anglican 13.8 -1.9
Presbyterian 10.0 -1.6
Baha’i 0.1 0.0

Du Fresne speculated on the figures for Catholics in NZ:

“That increase is thought to be partly related to the increasing number of Asian Catholic immigrants, which in turn reflects the growth of Catholicism in the Third World. Four out of every 10 New Zealand Catholics under 25 are Asian, Maori or Pasifika. That gives hope to Catholics who are otherwise dismayed at the secularisation of society and the decline in attendance at mass. Most of the older Catholics contacted by the Listener said their children and other family members had drifted away from the Church.”

Conclusions

  • Yes, Catholics in New Zealand increased in absolute numbers between 2001 and 2006 (by 4.7% from 485637 in 2001 to 508437 in 2006) but slower than the rate of growth of the total population. Consequently their proportion in the total population declined by 0.4% (from  13.0% in 2001 to 12.6% in 2006).
  • Yes, their relatively slow decline (0.4%) contrasts with the much more rapid decline of the other major Christian denominations (1.9% for Anglicans and 1.6% for Presbyterians).
  • Some smaller Christian denominations and other religions like Hindu, Buddhist and Islam increase dramatically in numbers, but because of their small size did not really figure as changes in the proportion of the total population.
  • The stand out group is the “no religion” one which increased as proportion of the total population by 4.7% (from 27.5% in 2001 to 32.2% in 2006) [Or by 26.2% (from 1,028,049 in 2001 to 1,297,104 in 2006) in terms of absolute numbers].

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Census 2013: That religion question

Ben Heather, at Stuff, made some comments on the religion question in the NZ Census (see Census 2013: Taking Stock Of New Zealand Society) which need slightly deeper analysis.

He said:

“Atheism is tipped to continue its rise in this year’s census results, while those identifying as Christian will fall below 50 per cent.

In the 2006 census, just over two million people, or 55.6 per cent of those answering the religious affiliation question, identified with a Christian religion. In the 2001 census, the figure was 60.6 per cent.

Those ticking “no religion” rose from 29 per cent in 2001 to 34.7 per cent.”

Firstly, using data only for “those answering the religious affiliation question” can give the wrong impression if you extrapolate to the whole population. It assumes those who didn’t, or refused, to answer the question have the same distribution of affiliations as those who did. That’s unlikely to be the case.

Safest to express these figures as a percentage of the total population. In my 2008 article, God’s not as popular as we thought, I used that approach and said:

“In the 2006 Census 51% of New Zealanders described themselves as Christian. A total of 3.8% described themselves as Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim (the next three largest religions) and 32% declared no religion.”

However, I went further. In Is New Zealand a Christian nation? I mentioned the problem of double dipping by Christians:

“Apparently some Christians are so enthusiastic that belong to several different churches. I can believe that as I have a relative who used to attend two different churches each Sunday because it gave him two different experiences.

In 2006 140,000 New Zealanders claimed to be adherents of more than one Christian religion. This caused an overestimation of the proportion of Christians. When corrected for double dipping the 2006 census showed that:

53.1% of those answering the religious affiliation question were Christian, or

49.5% of the total population described themselves as Christian.”

So, true, “those identifying as Christian will fall below 50 per cent” in this census. But when double dipping was removed those identifying as Christians had already fallen below 50% in 2006.

What do you mean by “Christian?”

The article also quoted research by Victoria University religious studies teaching fellow Will Hoverd who is involved in the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Survey, which began in 2009. It concludes:

“The research suggests half of those ticking “no religion” are not atheist, and three-quarters of them believe in a god or spiritual life force.

I am keen to see results from this survey and don’t question that observation (although reference to a “spiritual life force” is problematic and can – usually does – give the wrong impression). However, it does give a misleading message as it ignores the beliefs of those who do tick a religion box. Because religious affiliation does not necessarily say anything about beliefs, including belief in gods.

The results presented in the Ispos MORI survey Religious and Social Attitudes of UK Christians in 2011  show the problem. This survey questioned people who recorded their religion as “Christian” in the 2011 UK Census.

One question was “Which is the one statement that best describes what being a Christian means to you personally?” Nine choices (including “prefer not to say” were provided. The figure below shows the responses.

I discussed the survey in my article  Belief and morality.

One cannot quibble with the Dr Hoverd’s main conclusion though:

“What we’re finding is a demographic shift away from organised religion.”

But that indicates the problem with the census religion question. Many people will tick “Christian” (or a denomination) purely because they think it’s what’s expected. Not because they belong to any church or religious community. And not because they have a specific religious belief.

That distorts the results. I think religion still has a lot more influence in our society than it should because of the assumptions made in surveys like the census. After all the census results will be used to argue for Christian privileges (eg. taxation exemption, local body rates exemptions, state ceremonies and lobbying of parliament).

Tick the “no religion” box if applicable

Here’s an idea – what about being honest. If you have no religion, or have stopped belonging to the one you inherited from your family, tick the “no religion” box.

Why does this matter? Well a more accurate census of religious affiliation will encourage policy makers and planners to produce social policies more in line with the population. Maybe if the true figures for religion were available our government might be more willing to remove religious ceremony from parliament and state functions. Or not be so lenient with dishing out public money purely on the basis of religious claims.

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Origins of religious ethics and violence

I am spending some time dealing with family business so am reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few day.

This is an excellent book for anyone interested in a scientific understanding of morality and religion and their evolution.


Book review: In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence by John Teehan.

Price: US$16.47; NZ$39.97

Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (May 3, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1405183810
ISBN-13: 978-1405183819

In the Name of God is an excellent popular presentation of the scientific understanding of the origins of religion and morality. It also examines the origins of religious violence and opens a discussion on the way humanity may reduce these problems.

Some people will find it controversial. But not because some trends in evolutionary psychology have discredited themselves with extravagant claims. In this case the controversy will be because, as Teehan puts it, “this view of human nature – the very idea that there might be a human nature – smacks up against some strongly held political, moral, religious, and ideological positions.”

However, the time is right. “It is only within the last few decades that we have developed the tools that can give us a fair chance of setting out a scientific account of religious origins. In fact, I believe we are living in the midst of perhaps the greatest period of intellectual discovery in the history of religious studies.” One could say the same about the scientific study of human morality.

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The mini-iPad and original sin

Ever thought about the religious significance, or imagined significance, of trade mark logos?

I was reminded of this recently when I saw the above image on Facebook (Thanks to Atheists of New Zealand). It brought to mind a recent article about controversy in Russia with the current move to strengthen anti-blasphemy legislation. Titled Russian Christians boosted by Pussy Riot law spank ‘sinful’ Apple logo, it had the subtitle Nuts replace fruit with crosses.

“Apparently some “Russian Orthodox Christians have defaced the logos on Apple products because they consider the bitten Apple to be anti-Christian, says Russian news agency Interfax (in Russian).”

These characters choose to see the Apple logo as promoting original sin.

“The radical Christians have replaced the Apple logo with a cross, claiming that the current Apple logo – well-known around the world and often voted one of the world’s most popular logos – symbolises the original sin of Adam and Eve and is generally insulting to the Christian faith.”

The work of the devil, and it’s not just fandroids who think so

The article, in The Register, suggests that although this could be “an unusual example of grassroots marketing by a rival mobile-marker, it seems to be a genuine concern for these believers, who according to the reports include members of the Orthodox clergy.”

And it suggests there could be commercial impact, even a sales ban, if Apple fell on the wrong side of the new anti-blasphemy law.

Apparently Apple is a little unsure of how to respond. The Register’s article finishes with:

“We’ve asked Apple if it considers its logo to be promoting original sin, but it has declined to reply.”

Finish the sentence . . .

I like this idea from Jerry Coyne (see OMG: Jesus was married!)

Here’s the problem. This old scrap of papyrus refers to Jesus – Unfortunately bits are missing and the conversation is cut off at an intriguing point.

Apparently it goes:

“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’”

So here’s the question – what do you suggest comes after “wife?”

Jerry, having the one track mind of an evolutionary biologist, suggests:

“. . . is unable to bear children because, being haploid, I am unable to produce sperm.”

What do you reckon?

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Science – the greatest story ever told

Book Review: A Crisis of Faith – Atheism, Emerging Technologies and the Future of Humanity by Phil Torres

Price:
Kindle Edition$5.99
Paperback: $19.95
File Size: 498 KB
Print Length: 174 pages
Publisher: Dangerous Little Books (July 18, 2012)
ASIN: B008N06VRK

The last chapter in this book is titled “The Greatest Story Ever Told?” And the rest of the book lays the groundwork for that story. It outlines the scientific approach, based on evidence and reason. Validated against reality.

As a child Phil Torres “was often told that the Bible is not merely a good or even a great story, but that it’s the greatest story ever told.”  As an adult his education lead him to conclude that science’s story “is simply better than the Bible’s.”

So that last chapter is “science’s story of who we are, where we came from and where we’re going.” The question mark is there because it is the author’s suggestion and his version of the story. Different writers may present different details, but the story itself certainly is great.

From evangelical to atheist

Phil Torres was raised in an evangelical household. He says:

“I was born and raised in an evangelical household. For years as a child, I slept crowded to one side of the bed to leave room for Jesus to sleep next to me. You could say that I took the Bible seriously; I was a true born-again believer. I think my departure from religion was inevitable (although not always desired). The more questions I asked about the intellectual foundations of Christianity, the less trustworthy its doctrines and dogmas seemed; the more I queried religious authorities about how they knew what they claimed to know, the more foolish they looked.”

In this book Torres carefully explains why he abandoned those “beliefs – both terrifying and wonderful – that I once held so dear to my heart and soul.” He does so very clearly. His language is economical and mostly accessible. While there are some inevitable technical words used in his discussion of philosophy they are kept to a minimum. The chapters are short – usually expressed as a question. For example: “What is Evidence?,” What is Evolution?,”What is Science?” and “Is Religion Good for People and Society?” And at about 180 pages plus notes, the book itself is relatively short – especially for this subject.

All this makes the book ideal for the younger person, or the person relatively new to the subject. For someone who wants a clear and accurate overview of the arguments, and not a detailed discussion of intricate problems in theology or philosophy.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, there are a couple of chapters on robots and cognitive enhancement which probably represent particular interests of the author, rather than presenting any essential arguments for science and atheism. Inevitably they are also more speculative but make up only a small part of the book. I guess we can allow an author such foibles – particularly as he has done such a good job of presenting the essential material.

Singles – a new genre?

One effect of the increasing presence of digital books in the market has been the arrival of a new genre – the short but complete book providing an introductory overview to its subject. Amazon markets these as “Singles” and some publishers are encouraging authors, especially new authors, into this format.  I am sure that the short, clear overview presentation of “singles,” and their generally lower price, appeals to many readers. And I think it is probably one of the most attractive ways of introducing readers to unfamiliar subjects.

I see A Crisis of Faith belonging to this “singles” genre. Its introductory nature, the clear and economical writing and its relative shortness will appeal to the younger reader and to those looking for a clearly written overview and not a detailed exposition of abstract debates.

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Cynical evangelisation of children

All parents are concerned when they send their children out into the world. We all hope that our schools, and other places our children go, are going to be safe. We are rightfully shocked when we find adults entrusted with the care of children have actually been preying on them.

Sexual predators get the headlines. But children can also be subject to unhealthy interest of adults who interests are more political or ideological than sexual. I am beginning to think we should look at the way religious instruction operates in our public schools as an example of this unhealthy interest.

There has been a lot in the media lately about “bible in schools” and similar programmes. Simon Greening, the chief executive officer for the main provider of these religious instruction programmes (the Churches Education Commission),  has been assuring everybody that their interests are not evangelical. They are not trying to convert children – just educate them about values (see Their mission – values or advancement of religion?). It hasn’t helped him that other spokesmen for his organisation have presented a different story – admitting that they see religious instruction in public schools as a great opportunity for their religious mission. There has even been talk of creating disciples out of children in these religious instruction classes.

George Higinbotham (@streligionVIC) a recent commenter here pointed me to a document which is very relevant to this issue. Partly because one of the drafters of the document is Mitch Jordan who is currently Chairperson of the CEC board. But also, and more seriously, the document outlines a cynical programme for the evangelisation of children that seems to actually now be in place in New Zealand.

The document is Evangelisation of Children.” Prepared several years ago, it’s seen as part of a general plan of world evangelisation. I’ll present some extracts from the document and compare them with what is actually happening here.

Identifying children as a fruitful group for evangelisation

We are all aware of the importance dogmatic religions place on the early indoctrination of their own children. But this document describes the same approach to your children.

“Children represent arguably the largest unreached people group and the most receptive people group in the world. “

“Children are more open and receptive to the gospel than at any other time in their lives.”

„ “Between the ages 5 and 12, lifelong habits, values, beliefs and attitudes are formed.  Whatever beliefs a person embraces when he is young are unlikely to change as the individual ages.”

„ “If a person does not embrace Jesus Christ as Saviour before they reach their teenage years, they most likely never will.”

“The data show that churches can have a very significant impact on the worldview of people, but they must start with an intentional process introduced to people at a very young age.  Waiting until someone is in their teens or young adult years misses the window of opportunity.”

“Unevangelised children generally become adults who see no relevance of Christian faith to real life, make no contact with a church, who live and die without knowing that Jesus offers eternal life.  Ineffectively-evangelised children in our churches become ‘well-intentioned, inadequately nurtured, minimally equipped secular people who dabble in religious thought and activity.”

The organisations currently operating religious instruction classes in public schools all seem to express the same belief in the importance of reaching young children.

Evangelisation of children, by children

The document cynically advocates to: “invite children to be active participants in the task of evangelization:”

“The focus of mission and the call to mission do not have any age limitations.”

“The work of mission can be shared by a generation of children equipped to be faithful witnesses for Jesus”

“peer evangelism among young children – one kid leading another kid to the foot of the Cross for a life-changing encounter with Jesus”

“Children bring unique gifts to the task of evangelization.  For example, they have access to thousands of children outside the church – and are often the only means of reaching these children.  They have a simple faith that is attractive.  They put their whole heart into reaching out.  Children will do the job of evangelism in simple obedience.  Even adults will listen to children because they are perceived to have no hidden agenda.”

“Challenge children to be witnesses and challenge them at an early age”

“Marketing companies have recognised that children have the power to enthuse others. Imagine if the church worldwide could harness the enthusiasm of children and encourage them to tell their friends and get them involved as well.”

“existing worldwide initiatives that focus on child evangelism could encourage children who are already churched to take ownership of the event – be trained to share their testimonies, invite their friends and do discipleship.”

What a horrible task to place on children – that their friendships be destroyed by the need to evangelise.

Action plans for influencing children

The action plans advocated in this document are very similar to what is occurring in New Zealand:

“ACTION PLAN for the local church: Think about how a values-based programme might give unexpected access to local non-Christian communities (e.g. schools) and become a vehicle for evangelization”

Provide “Quality interactive websites for children” and  Email, chat-rooms and ‘mailbox clubs’ which are tools to help children to follow Jesus.”

“Going to where the children are in their world.  In every continent, there are more children outside our churches than inside: we dare not be content with hoping that children will come to visit a strange place with strange rituals and unknown people.  Many children require stepping stones before they can cross the cultural barriers represented by church as it is now.”

It advocates “specific application to the evangelization of children in different social contexts.” And “Working within the web of relationships to which the child belongs – friends, gang, family.’

Church groups in New Zealand are forming special relationships with public schools as the document outlines. These also include web sites and email clubs for children who are initially contacted through the religious instruction classes. the Cool Bananas Kids Mailbox Club operated by the Cool Bananas group in Tauranga is one example. The same group offers an Annual 5 day Adventure Camp. Other local groups do the same.

There is a video in my post What really happens in religious instruction classes? describing how Pentecostals in Australia use such camps to further indoctrinate children attracted through religious instruction classes at school.

Tactics – winning the cooperation of care-givers

“For the local church to plan evangelism that minimises offence and maximises effectiveness, it must:  1. Commit to long-term effort, preferably involving a partnership of interested people such as teachers or health care workers”

“6. Be prepared to work within the limitations while taking the opportunities”

“1. Use the window of opportunity  Parents may well have an interest in introducing values, ethics or belief frameworks to their young children.  The church will be one option they may consider.  Make it an attractive one!”

„ “Church members join school boards, volunteer for sports coaching”

This is a cynical agenda for the infiltration of places our children attend with the sole purpose of evangelisation.

Confidence of their plans for your children

“We can bring about a transformational shift even through the timespan of a single generation if we seriously address the challenges and opportunities that face the evangelism of this generation of children.”

This document reads like a cynical action plan for a political/ideological group wishing to carry out a political/ideological change in society. And they are concentrating on our children because they see them as the group most easily captured or evangelised. And as a group which itself can further evangelise others.

When we send our children to public schools with a legally prescribed secular curriculum we do not expect they should be preyed on, evangelised, by such groups.

It’s time this was stopped.

Image credit: God Discussion

See also
Human values are secular


Mixing values and Jesus in secular education
What really happens in religious instruction classes?

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So scientism = non-theism?

I have concluded that anyone making accusations of “scientism” is just being dishonest. The term is usually used inappropriately, as a straw man, and in an attempt to claim “other ways of knowing” which are preferable to science. (But in a cowardly way, by attempting to discredit the science and not providing support for this “other way”).

But this is really stretching the strawmannery of “scientism.” It’s part of a BioLogos infographic portraying “America’s View on Evolution and Creationism.” It blatantly presents “scientism” as the only alternative to creationist ideas (theistic evolution, intelligent design and creationism)  (See the original inforgraphic at Infographic: America’s View on Evolution and Creationism in Christianity Today or click here for full graphic).) You get the message – if your beliefs don’t rely on the magical thinking of “other ways of knowing” you are guilty of “scientism” – which is a bad thing.

Modern science relies on evidence and reason. It tests and validates its ideas and theories against reality. There is plenty of room for speculation but it’s very much reality driven. So far no scientific theories incorporate gods, angels, leprechauns or fairies. But that is not to say they are excluded – just that so far there is no evidence or need for such entities. If, and when, the evidence arrives we will happily include such ideas. (Just don’t go holding your breath).

But according to this infographic modern science is guilty of “scientism.”

Well, if that’s how you want to define “scientism” I am happy to be declared guilty. But you can’t use that as a term of derision.

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