Tag Archive: Atheism


AMDG

e8fc6da0-c235-4aa6-8fc7-23f12e3029e2HiResI have been enjoying accompanying the Missionaries of Charity on an 8 Day Retreat.  It is always great to see how an Ignatian individual guided retreat (IGR) is so often an experience of renewal. The MC’s founded by Mother Teresa live a very austere and effective form of religious life.  Famously only owning two sari’s, sharing bedrooms, never travelling alone, with all their communities giving hospitality to the poorest of the poor through breakfast clubs, soup kitchens and also summer camps for urban youth.  Alongside all of this is a highly structured day including four and a half hours of prayer.  Because of all of this, the Sisters have a very rich interior life – which means that it is a privilege to accompany them on a retreat.  The normal periods of resistance and adapting to a rhythm of silence and prayer are not ‘issues’ as they may be with other retreatants.  In fact conversely encouraging the sisters to temporarily leave behind a routine of oral prayer and devotion and have the courage to make imaginative contemplations on the Gospel passages and Ignatian themes, and more importantly to give God enough silence and stillness for Him to work in is the challenge.  The fruits are wonderful to witness.

Part of my role in accompanying them is to try and go deeper into the life of Mother Teresa, to understand this remarkable woman who began life in a Loreto convent (an Ignatian order) and ended up being a Nobel Prize Winner and probably the most recognised women on the planet.  Mother always had Jesuit spiritual directors, in fact one played a crucial role in helping her discern ‘the call within the call’ that brought her out of the convent and on to the streets of Calcutta.  However what has struck me most is the anger and sheer hatred that she seemed to generate in some quarters.  Most notoriously from Christopher Hitchens and his documentary / book Hells Angel.  For a couple of weeks now I have been mulling this over, and being in a privileged position to listen to the sisters and witness their work at first hand over a few years his criticisms, few of which are well-founded, have been wildly exaggerated and lacking insight, generosity, compassion.

mqdefaultHitchens epitomises a chattering class that live lives that are ultimately unhappy and frustrated, and so compensate by justifying themselves to each other through a spurious moral superiority. So much of the commentariat are affected by this impotence – the secularist and self-appointed gurus have a very flimsy record in building up civil society and actually changing the world.  It is easy to stand on the side-line and harp, but Hitchens takes this to an unhinged level – so detached from any practical engagement with poverty.   Comparing reading his writings and listening to the Sisters testimony is an interesting comparison of spiritual desolation and spiritual consolation.  Hearing (outside of the confidential confines of Direction) Sisters talk about going in and cleaning the house of two dying alcoholics living in squalor in Liverpool is inspiring and moving.  Time will be the judge of the legacy Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and Christopher Hitchens….. although an interesting footnote for me was meeting his nephew Daniel Hitchens this year.  Daniel was an outstanding member of the new intake for Catholic Voices, who train spokesman for the Church.  A recent convert, I asked him why he had become a Catholic, and one of the reasons was because his uncle hated Catholics so much!  Peter Hitchens has written a fascinating book in response to his brothers atheism, called ‘The Rage against God’.  The anger that underpins much of the ‘New Atheism’ is ultimately not constructive, whereas the love that inspires the commitment of the MC’s is creative, and creates hope in the poorest and darkest corners of our world, including urban Britain.

Debating Atheism

AMDG

The lecture theater filling up

The lecture theater filling up

I was invited today by Manchester Students Debating Union to oppose the motion ‘This house would not believe in God‘.  Speaking for the motion was the Philosopher Helen Beebee, and another atheist philosopher who I forget his name.  Opposing it was myself, Writer and Columnist Peter Hitchens and a professor of Biblical Studies…..  we lost (boo hoo!) … overwhelmingly, it seems that atheism is the new cool.  Anyway for what it is worth I am posting up my speech.  It is interesting to note that 250 students attended – sitting in the aisles – so the question holds great interest to them 

Thank you for inviting me to speak today – I strongly commend the Debating Society for organising this debate.  To believe in God or not to believe in God is one of the most important decisions you will make in your life.  My speech has two parts – 1. God as a concept  …… 2. How useful or dangerous is faith?

1.   God as a concept

I studied philosophy at Edinburgh Uni, before I even considered the priesthood.  We looked at a lot of analytical philosophy, discussions about what could be said and what could not be said.  Famously a school of philosophy called the logical positivists had said that the statement ‘ God exists’ was cognitively meaningless – i.e. saying God exists didn’t tell us anything meaningful about what we can know of the world out there.  Why was it meaningless?  ‘God exists’ could not be empirically tested, nor did it contain its truth within itself, like an analytical statement would e.g. 2+2=4.  It was therefore meaningless…..

How does religion talk about God? Often the starting point is through its sacred texts – e.g. The Bible / The Koran.  Believers call this revelation – revealed truth.  If we don’t accept the idea of revelation then in many ways the Logical Positivists are right – language reaches its meaningful limits when we start talking about God.  This is called the problem of religious language.  Faced with this problem we have two options –either the existence of God is meaningless – which is tantamount to saying God as a concept is irrelevant  (first way) –  or the second way is that we are humble in front of the mystery of our limitations – i.e. just because we don’t know – it doesn’t mean we have to dismiss it.

wittgensteinAt this point in my studies I discovered the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein who would become a hero of mine. What I love about Wittgenstein is his philosophy is based on a deep engagement with the world.  He wasn’t just living in an Ivory Tower – He was a stretcher bearer in the First World War – he taught young children in a rural school.  He published 2 major works  –…. The first one the Tractatus is a masterpiece in Analytical Philosophy – and he gets to that impass I just described, the limits of language and opts for the humble approach. The famous last statement says Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.  He was humble in front of the mystery of what we don’t know.

 The second major book was the Philosophical Investigations and he changed his views radically.  He realised the analytical approach was limited. Because we think in words – We have no access to our own minds, non-linguistically. The meaning of words is formed by what we do, Language acquisition is how we learn to act as we are growing up ….. In the same way we have no access to God, independently of our life and language or ‘language games’ as he called them.  So talking about God only makes sense within a religious language game.  So to answer the question about the existence of God is not about analysing a word or an idea, the existence of God becomes a question of how credible that language game is.

So we can debate God as an idea – it may be intellectually stimulating – but we will never convince each other with way – but maybe very congenial over a couple of glasses of wine…… If we are serious about this question we need to look at how people of faith live and judge that – and I think that becomes much more fruitful.

2. Faith is it useful or dangerous?  

My answer to that is both – there is good faith and bad faith. For me it’s quite simple good faith encourages you to love more – bad faith increases hate and sectarianism.   It’s best if I stick to my faith.  I am 39 years old. When I was 23 I left my girlfriend who I was deeply in love with and started training to become a priest – you know Catholic priests can’t marry.  It was a big sacrifice – and one I made grudgingly. But we both knew that I wouldn’t be fulfilled unless I tried this out.  I joined an order of Catholic priests called the Jesuits –  we are known for our long and rigorous training. Pope Francis is a Jesuit. The first two years I was a Jesuit novice – it is a probationary period.  I was sent to work in Brixton Prison, Teach in a comprehensive School in London & live with Gypsys in Ireland.  The heart of these two years is a thirty day silent retreat called the Spiritual Exercises.  Before then I nearly quit especially during the work in the prison.  During the 30 days of silence I had the most profound experiences of my life – Ever since then I am convinced that God exists. Because of this after my two years as a novice I took perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

I have never yet regretted that decision – not once.  In fact I think I have learnt the meaning of Joy since then, and I have studied 4 more degrees in theology, psychology and education.  I have worked in incredible places. In Tanzania teaching Aids Orphans, in India with the untouchables – training teachers, in North London working with gangs, and in the shanty towns in Manila.   At the heart of this has been my faith in God – God is real to me not just an idea. So it is up to you – to decide whether I am mad or delusional.  But I have seen with my own eyes – on a planet of 7 billion people  religion is increasingly important for the vast majority of them.   Now of course there is good religion and bad religion.

So to conclude – if you want to keep this debate at the level of ideas then we won’t really get  anywhere fast –  its important to realise what a huge influence religion has for good and bad in the vast majority of peoples lives on this planet – and you can judge how important my faith is to me by the decision I’ve made in my life – the experiences I’ve had.  I am a very committed religious person – its up to you to decide whether I am mad or wasting my life.

AMDG

When I arrived in Manila in September I was carrying a precious cargo.  An album of photographs that were taken probably between the years of 1902-1906 by an English Jesuit, Fr Robert Brown (n.b. not Fr Browne – the Jesuit on the Titanic click  ).  The photos are a gold mine – taken of the different islands, different missions and different tribal people.  They contain a treasure trove of ecclesial, anthropological and environmental information – at a time when cameras were still the preserve of the enthusiast, not commonly used.  The Jesuit research institute here in Manila, ESSC (Environmental Science for Social Change), is currently making a digital archive of them, as they are particularly interested in how the pictures give a record of Environmental Degradation, and also an invaluable ethnic record of tribal life, dress,  customs.  The important lesson for me is the story of these men and how their work presents the true face of the relationship between science and religion, which is currently being distorted by fundamentalists on both sides of the argument.

Each of the men in the photograph have fascination stories to tell – and maybe if time permits we can cover them. But focusing on Fr Brown first.  Fr Brown was sent as a scholastic to the Manila Observatory to help the transition from the hands of the Spanish Jesuits ( Spain being the departing colonial power) to the arrival of the American Jesuits (the arriving colonial power).  The Manila Observatory had distinguished itself for the first accurate warning and tracking of Typhoons in Asia.  Fr Faura (not pictured) had successfully tracked and warned of a Typhoon in July 1879 that hit the North.  So when he warned of typhoon to hit Manila in November many lives and ships were saved due to his warning being heeded.   The prestige of the Observatory was so great when the Americans arrived that they turned it into a Central Bureau with 50 observatory stations.  The Jesuits received grants from the government and observations were shared amongst the Bureaus.  Fr Brown’s job in the transition was to translate the books of the impressive Fr Algue on cyclones. As well as this work and his photographs, Fr Brown took over Fr Stanton’s work on investigating insects on behalf of the Department of Agriculture. Many of these insects were ill-disposed to the local crops – so it was another example of invaluable Jesuit scientific work.  In fact Fr Brown discovered a new genus and 11 new species of Hymenoptera.  It is delightful to read in his obituary to other Jesuits that, “A member of the Society bitten by the Brownius Armatus or the Clostocerus Brownii may take comfort from the reflection that they are named after a member of the province.” 

Why do I mention all this – well I was prompted to because yesterday I was sent the  picture to the right.  It seems ironic to me that Richard Dawkins – and many of the ‘new’ Atheists – don’t even seek to understand the complex phenomenon that is religion. They use a parody of Religious Fundamentalism – and generalise from this to dismiss all forms of religion or belief in God.  Surely this is a crass methodology.  In fact surely he is guilty of the same kind of ignorance and bigotry that he (rightly) points out in some forms of religious fundamentalism.  There are many counter examples – The Jesuits and the Manila Observatory is only example.  What about the Pontifical Academy of Sciences – or the fascinating work of physicist/ priest John Polkinghhorne,  or the valuable work of the Templeton foundation.

As any good Catholic will tell you in the words of Anselm that healthy religion is about ‘faith seeking understanding’ .  Benedict XVI has made it a big theme of his papacy – the importance of the relationship between faith and reason – especially as a counter to religious terrorism.  This debate is crucial, so it is a shame that in the age of soundbites it is being dominated by the likes of Dawkins, who according to Tina Beatties excellent book ‘The New Atheists‘ presents the so called ‘new atheism’ as intellectually limited and culturally parochial. The new atheists are railing against a God created in their own image – Beattie: ‘Dawkins’ God is as much a thoroughly modern English bully as an ancient supernatural tyrant.’

I just wish that the voices of people like Polkinghorne could be heard more above the din.