Monday, 25 May 2009

Angels and Demons

I have just got back from watching the movie of Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons”. Unlike the Da Vinci Code, I had not read the book and so didn’t know the plot. I think that both movies were fast paced and very entertaining, but is the portrayal of sinister catholic priests fair?

For Jesus, the inability to believe in God and to live by faith is the greatest of evils”. These are the words of the outgoing leader of the Catholic church in the UK as reported in an article in the Times on Friday entitled “Archbishop of Westminster attacks atheism but says nothing on child abuse”. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor also recently said that “atheists are less than human”. This kind of rhetoric should give cause for concern. Given the history of the twentieth century where millions of people were treated as sub-human and brutally murdered by totalitarian regimes, it is surely unacceptable for a church leader to be saying these things.
Unfortunately it appears that the new leader Vincent Nicholls is going to continue in the same vein. On the occasion of his enthronement he chose to launch an attack on atheists and the secular society. Whilst commenting on the report published last Wednesday exposing decades of child abuse by Catholic priests and nuns in Ireland, the Archbishop said that it took courage for religious orders and clergy to “face the facts from their past”. He also warned that the report threatened to overshadow the good done by the religious orders, chiefly the Christian Brothers and Sisters of Mercy.
I have catholic friends who I like and respect. I’m even friends with a catholic priest I met through the local interfaith forum. I know them all to be thoughtful and pleasant people, so why is it that they tolerate this unreasoned attack on us atheists - we don’t run institutions which turn a blind eye to child abuse and child rape. These are the facts and they are worse than imaginings of Dan Brown.

Monday, 4 May 2009

A Humanist Theodicy?

I have been hearing the word theodicy quite a bit recently. Theodicy is usually talked about in the context of how religious believers deal with “the problem of evil and suffering”. The problem of evil is neatly summarised by the paradox of Epicurus: "Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?" The solution for us atheists is obvious. There is not a God who can or wants to prevent the suffering that arises as an inevitable consequence of a natural world. Stephen Law gave an excellent account of this atheist view at the Centre for Inquiry the other week (Stephen also appeared briefly on the BBC’s The Big Question yesterday morning).
The word theodicy is also used by Weber to describe any system which attempts to provide answers to the ultimate questions of life, the universe and everything - Humanity’s place in the universe, especially when related to moral and ethical issues. Theodicies are are those cultural systems that attempt to address the universal human need for meaning at the highest level. Marxism and Capitalism can be seen as theodocies as well as the worlds religions. What does the Humanist theodicy look like?
The Humanist starting point is to assume that we are alone in this world and that the only justice that exists is the justice we create against a backdrop of a cold, uncaring universe which does not have our interests in mind. This might not seem like a promising start for a theodicy to inspire meaning, yet the human life is worth living despite these assumptions. I think that whether or not Humanism continues to grow as a world belief system depends on whether the positive payoff for facing the world as it really is can outweigh the emotional payoff of living life in a religiously inspired fantasy world.