Category Archives: prayer

A war between religion and science?

Alex Hern, writing in the New Statesman, has ticked off the Church of England (CofE) for their blatant misrepresentation of the statistics resulting from a survey they sponsored (see Church of England commits sins against statistics).

He subtitled his piece:

“Four out of five British adults believe in the power of prayer.” Really? Really?

and concluded it with:

It’s almost as though the CofE relishes the idea of a war between religion and science almost as much as Dawkins does.

Here is the CofE’s “sin.”

The survey “Prepared on behalf of Church of England by ICM Research” included the question:

“Irrespective of whether you currently pray or not, if you were to pray for something at the moment, What would it be for?”

Well, OK – even an atheist could say they would lump for peace in the world (31%of the respondents did) or an end to poverty in the world (27% did). After all, they had been asked to withhold their attitude to the efficacy of prayer.

But perhaps that was a purposeful trap? Because the CofE reported the results as “Four out of five believe in the power of prayer.” Even though no-one was asked if they believed in prayer. In fact they had, by implication, been asked to assume belief!

The Telegraph went even further claiming in their article Britons still believe in prayer – and young lead the way, poll suggests:

“Research commissioned by the Church of England found that only one in seven people insist they would “never” resort to prayer in the face of problems in their lives, those of their friends or the wider world.”

If you are really interested you can download a pdf with the survey results and see just how the CoE and the Telegraph got such amazing results – which  the Telegraph even acknowledged “contrast sharply with the findings of the most recent census which suggested a significant drop in religious affiliation in Britain over the past decade.”

OK – perhaps we should expect people to lie when it comes to statistics. Perhaps its only natural to cherry pick facts to produce the result your would dearly want, than the one which is more accurate. Perhaps Alex Hern was a bit harsh to write this suggests the CofE relishes “a war between religion and science.”

I wouldn’t worry about this specific distortion – but I can certainly sympathise with Hern’s response. I too react when I see or hear scientific ideas and data being distorted and presented as proof of supernatural ideas or an ideological agenda. But rather than distortion of polls and surveys (which we expect) my list of scientific knowledge and ideas which are commonly misrepresented and distorted by religious apologists, including prominent figures in the CofE, include things like:

  • “Fine-Tuning” of cosmological and physical constants – (Sure we don’t yet understand why some of these constants have the values they do, or even if they could have different values than they do, but that is not “proof” of a god);
  • The “big bang” theory of the beginning of the universe – (again science cannot completely resolve what went on at the beginning but that’s no excuse for introducing gods, goblins or angels – and it’s certainly not proof of them);
  • Human morality – (Yes, it’s a mystery to some even though cognitive science and evolutionary psychology is making progress in its understanding. But, again, mystery or ignorance is not proof).
  • Evolutionary science – (Sure  outright creationists are a minority among believers but in my experience scratch almost any believer and you find someone who willing to distort the science to give their god a guiding role).

It’s these unfortunately common arguments, and ones similar to them, used by the theologically inclined to “prove” their god exists which makes me feel that maybe there is “a war between religion and science.”

I just wish these people would think before they use such silly arguments.

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Police ignore non-religious

police-diversityWhenever I read about religious diversity these days my automatic reaction is that real diversity is going to be ignored. A big part of our true religious diversity is the fact that one third of New Zealanders declare themselves as non-religious. When these are ignored then our true diversity is ignored.

This happened with the National Statement of Religious Diversity which only gave lip service to this fact. It, for example, declared that:  “Faith communities and their members have a right to safety and security.” What does this imply about the safety of the non-religious?

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I recently attended a celebratory dinner with members of my extended family. Inevitably such gatherings include people with widely different philosophical religious beliefs. That’s just a fact of our democratic, pluralist and secular society today.

I know this particular gathering included people who would have described themselves as Christian, Catholic, ‘Born Again’ agnostic and atheist (me). And there were probably people present who would have answered to other labels. However, we all enjoyed ourselves and were able to communicate without problems. Specifically no-one imposed their own specific religious beliefs on the group as a whole.

This inclusive atmosphere was encouraged by the specific way we gave thanks for our meal. Instead of a Christian ‘grace’ which is sometimes imposed in such situations a non-religious form of thanks was given.

We expressed thanks for those who prepared and presented our food. And to the people who grew and transported the food.

Everybody seemed to think this was a great way of handling the situation. After all – why should we not thank these people.

The only group I would have added to list of people to thank are the scientists who through their efforts help us to produce this food.

Daniel Dennett provided another example of this approach when he gave thanks to those responsible for saving his life when he was hospitalised with heart problems (see Thank God or Thank Goodness?).

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Prayer refusal leads to discipline

This news item from the UK, Prayer refusal pupils ‘disciplined’, clicked with me.

Parents are up in arms because pupils who refused to participate in a Muslim prayer have been disciplined by the school. The pupils “were given detention for being ‘disrespectful’ to the prophet.”

One parent said: “Making them pray to Allah, who isn’t who they worship, is wrong.” Another: “I am absolutely furious my daughter was made to take part in it and I don’t find it acceptable.” And: “My child has been forced to pray to Allah in a school lesson.”

Shocking isn’t it. But just a minute. Doesn’t this go on in our society every day? Many children are obliged to participate in Christian prayers and ceremonies, or at least require parental permission to be excused from them.

And what about adults? Don’t we sometimes have Christian prayers and ceremonies imposed on us in public situations.

I find all these acts offensive. It doesn’t matter whose religious ceremony it is – Muslim, Christan or Jewish. People with different beliefs should never be subjected, unasked, to such ceremonies.

Not only does it show a lack of respect for those with other beliefs. The act of imposition surely degrades the religious significance of the ceremony. People who impose their beliefs in this way are surely demonstrating a lack of respect for their own beliefs.

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Humanist and anti-human trends in modern religion

PZ MyersPZ Myers, at Pharyngula, is always informative, often provocative, but always worth reading. I think his recent post (Sanctimonious monsters) is a classic – and gets right to the point. Within modern religions there are two trends – a progressive, humanitarian trend and a reactionary, anti-human trend.

“I am often told that religion is a source of morality. I’ve read the Bible myself; I can see that there were moral philosophers at work behind that book, that we have a tradition of law in the Old Testament, with a fellow named Jesus adding social justice and concern for the poor and weak in the New that are actually rather commendable. I also see a lot of myth and error and misplaced obsession with the supernatural that rational people are willing to set aside to focus on the core humanitarian message … or at least they do so in the best of circumstances.

Yet what I also see in modern religion is a re-prioritizing: the secular concerns that should matter, the egalitarian word of a religious tradition that valued the cohesion of the social fabric and demanded equal treatment for even the least of society is ignored, given a little lip service perhaps, but made subservient to the intangible theological nonsense of prayer, of an invisible god, of submission to dogma and hope in an unevidenced afterlife. It’s a religion that has shifted its eyes from a task to be done here on earth to an unearthly vision of a magical unseen world run by an ethereal tyrant who must be placated.”

I think that this subservience “to the intangible theological nonsense of prayer, of an invisible god, of submission to dogma and hope in an unevidenced afterlife” is at the root of so much that is wrong with religion today. It drives the anti-science hysteria of creationists (and some climate change deniers) as well as the murderous activities of some jihadist terrorists today.

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Should Dawkins have been Expelled?
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Crimes of Communism and Christianity

Replacing public prayers

For many of us the imposition of Christian prayers in public situations is a problem. I personally feel offended whenever this is imposed on me. In this day and age, and in this multicultural, ideologically diverse society, such offensive actions should not be tolerated. If we can refuse to tolerate smoking in public places (while still accepting it in the privacy of one’s own personal environment) why can’t we refuse to tolerate the imposition of public prayers.

This is an issue in our Parliament and for some local body councils. Therefore I was interested to see this report in Te Korowai Whakapono. This is the newsletter of the Interfaith Network which is facilitated by the New Zealand Human Rights Commission.

Affirmation to open council meetings

The Hurunui District Council has voted to do away with its prayer at the start of meetings. Council meetings always began with the CEO reading out the following prayer:

Eternal God,

We ask you to bless those present and grant through our discussions and decisions we may solve our problems effectively, and act with integrity

and courage to enhance the well being of our district.

Councillors voted 5-4 to do away with the prayer and replace it with a non-religious affirmation, followed by a period of silence for prayer or reflection by councillors. The decision followed a complaint by Cr Russell Black in October to the Human Rights Commission. He said he would withdraw his complaint to the Human Rights Commission if a “tolerant and respectful” solution could be found. Black said he had tolerated the prayer for several years out of respect but had felt uncomfortable. “We swear an oath at the start of our term and abide by it. We do not need to reinforce it monthly,” he said.

Cr Judy Meikle said she could “live with a pledge”, but it would be with regret. Cr Andrew Smart said he was saddened at the time taken to resolve the issue when there were pressing needs for district residents such as the drought. He sought a change of wording in the prayer but said he would support an affirmation. Cr Michael Malthus said he was a religious man but could live with an affirmation, provided there was a period of silence for him to give thanks to “whoever”. Cr Wendy Doody sought to retain the prayer.

It is all about toleration and respect.

And it is about time.

Related Articles:
Secular alternatives to religious communities
Religious diversity and human rights
Atheism and religious diversity I: Diversity in New Zealand
Atheism and religious diversity II: A personal perspective
Atheism and religious diversity III: Conflict between science and religion
Atheism and religious diversity IV: Values, morality and spirituality
Thank God or Thank Goodness?
“Let us pray . . . “
Christian prayer problems

From faith to hatred

On Monday night New Zealand TV1 screened a documentary on the Westboro Baptist Church.

Members of this church continually picket the funerals of American marines killed in Iraq – claiming the war is God’s punishment for the evils of US society. They picket funerals of gays and anyone they designate as “fag enablers” (for example they picketed the Heath Ledger memorial) . They picket churches who have suffered fire damage – claiming that these were “acts of God” in retaliation for the sins of the Church. They preach that God Hates America and that the “Rapture” is imminent. They will be saved whereas everyone else are sinners who will go to hell.

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Heresy, or common sense?

The Last Western Heretic, a documentary about the life and ideas of Lloyd Geering, was shown on New Zealand TV last weekend. It was excellent – extremely well made and great intellectual content. Geering is considered a radical theologian and a NZ icon and was once described by the BBC as “the last living heretic.” He has fearlessly challenged Christian doctrine for the last 50 years. I have read several of his books and attended several of his seminars. His ideas are always stimulating and refreshing.

I admire people who are prepared to challenge outmoded ideas. Particularly when this could result in personal and financial recrimination. I suspect that there are many thoughtful ministers of religion who have come to the same conclusions as Geering. However, most of these appear unprepared to face the prospect of loss of income and pension rights, and a comfortable life style, which would result from public honesty on these questions. So they continue to hypocritically promote the same old tired myths to their parishioners.

The documentary is structured around the following nine statements:

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Atheism and religious diversity IV: Values, morality and spirituality

The previous articles in this series discussed the attitudes towards religious diversity in New Zealand, a personal perspective of what atheism means and why it should not be separated from other beliefs when human rights are considered, and the conflicts between science and religion which often arise when we consider the relationship between atheism and theism. This final article deals with atheist attitudes towards values, morality and spirituality and argues that we all have common values which enable common action.

Values, morals, spirituality

Some theists claim their god, and their holy scriptures, as the source of all human values. This argument is often used to justify claiming New Zealand as a Christian country.[1] As a non-theist I find these claims insulting because they imply that personal values require a belief in a god; that atheists cannot be moral. Another common claim is that non-theists are somehow (unconsciously) adopting theist beliefs to produce their values. Christopher Hitchens points out that this attitude is an insult to humanity in his comment on the Old Testament Ten Commandments: “.. however little one thinks of the Jewish tradition, it is surely insulting to the people of Moses to imagine that they had come this far under the impression that murder, adultery, theft, and perjury were permissible.[2]

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Giving thanks

I have written before about the hypocrisy and rudeness of religious ceremonies of thanks (see “Let us pray . . . “ and Thank God or Thank Goodness?). Hypocrisy because these ceremonies and prayers are often imposed on people who don’t share their belief in a god. Rudeness because they usually ignore the real people who should be thanked. I am gratified to see that several bloggers are raising the same points to mark the American Thanksgiving holiday.

Curmudgeonly Reflections in Thankfulness of an Atheist rejects the argument that “atheists have nothing to be thankful for because there is no one to be thankful to. ” Simple response – Hogwash. Atheist Ethicist deals with similar arguments in Giving thanks where thanks are due. has several articles on this theme : Can Atheists Really “Give Thanks”? and Do Atheists Have Anyone to Thank?

The Digital Cuttlefish has a beautiful poem, An Atheist Gives Thanks, showing how we can replace hypocritical thanks to God with genuine and specific thanks those individuals and groups of people really responsible for things that please us and enhance our lives. Intelligent Dissent provides a simple statement Thanksgiving with the same purpose.

Marilyn La Court in her An Atheist Says Thanks expresses sincere thanks to members of her family for the way they contribute to her life.

Lets hope these demonstrations of a genuine way to give thanks have an effect. Perhaps we can look forward to a future where even religious believers will join with us to give thanks where it is really due.

Related Articles:
Thank God or Thank Goodness?
“Let us pray . . . “
Christian prayer problems
Destiny of Christian privilege?
Trends in religious belief in New Zealand
Religious diversity includes “non-believers”
Religious Diversity Statement