October 28, 2007

Sermon for the Feast of St. Simon and St Jude/ Bible Sunday.
Ephesians 2, 19-22; John 15, 17-27

Today is the last Sunday after Trinity, which can be kept as Bible Sunday. It is also the feast day of Saints Simon and Jude, apostles .

As is the case with many of Jesus’ twelve disciples, we don’t know much about these saints apart from their names. And there are doubts about those, too. Because the lists of the twelve differ between the various gospels, Simon the Zealot is sometimes identified with Nathanael, who appears in John’s Gospel, and Jude ( or Judas) with Thaddeus. We know very little apart from legend about what these two did in the early church. Legend says they went to evangelise in Persia, where they were both martyred. Simon was said to have been sawn in half – so he became the patron saint of carpenters; and because people were reluctant to pray to Jude because he shared a name with the betrayer of Jesus, Judas Iscariot, he has become the patron saint of hopeless or lost causes.

So I thought I might talk today about one ‘lost cause in particular, and ask “Is religious faith a lost cause?”

I have a cartoon on my wall at home, drawn by Brian Platt, which shows an interviewer and a cleric on a TV programme. The interviewer is saying “And so to sum up, Dr James, would it be fair to say that religion is a load of mumbo jumbo?” That illustrates the mild attitude that rationalists and atheists used to take with regard to religion. Recently, however, opposition has become much more strident, with recent books by Richard Dawkins ( The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens ( God is not Great – how religion poisons everything) among others. They reveal just that hatred of religion that is described in our Gospel reading today.

You can see that this change from mild amusement to fierce condemnation is to some extent a result of the incursion of religious fundamentalism into the political realm. When religious fundamentalists simply did their own thing, it didn’t matter much to people who didn’t share their views. However, when they started to highjack planes, and attack abortion clinics, people became frightened, and fought back.

Richard Harries, writing in a MCU supplement in this week’s Church Times, says the fundamentalist believers and the fundamentalist atheists feed off each other, and reinforce each other’s stereotypes. Those religious people who don’t conform to the stereotype are dismissed as untypical or have their faith redefined as ‘not really religion’.

What can reasonable believers, like us, do to counter the charges of fundamentalist atheism?

First of all, we need to know our history. One of the charges laid against religion is that it is the cause of more wars than anything else Believers who know their history will know that there have been wars fought over religion. We need to acknowledge that, and how much such wars go against the teaching of religions such as Christianity. However, we can also point to the large numbers of wars which are nothing to do with religion, particularly in the last century. However, we will need to be able to argue the point, since Hitchens, for example, maintains that people such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao simply replaced the quasi religious leaders such as the Czar and the Chinese Emperor, so their followers were being religious. This is a very strange way of classifying dictatorships which were in many cases, aggressively secular and anti religious.

Strident atheists will argue that the consequences of organised religion are wholly bad. A knowledge of history gives arguments against this – particularly in Western Europe, that all social services – education, health care and housing for the elderly – were provided by the church until secular government took responsibility for them in relatively recent times. We need to be able to point to our holy people, our saints, as examples of the good consequences of religious belief, and to counter the atheists’ argument that their good actions have nothing to do with their religious beliefs.

We need to know the history of religion too. People like Hitchens and Dawkins speak of religion as if it is a homogenous whole, as if there were no differences between people over religious belief and practice, and as if religion hasn’t changed over time. They tend to pick on the most ‘primitive’ examples of faith and practice to illustrate the disastrous consequences of religious belief. They are both particularly fond of quoting bits of the Old Testament – they rarely quote instances from the Gospels. We know that religious beliefs change over time, that theology is a constant search to know God better. Dawkins and Hitchens maintain that human beings have evolved to a stage where religion is no longer necessary – but strangely they don’t accept the argument that religious belief has also evolved over time.

Second we need to know our faith and particularly our Bibles. Hitchens seems to think that all Christians and Jews accept the myths and sagas of the Old Testament as historical truth. So, he says, his atheism started from the moment when he asked himself if Adam and Eve were the only humans created by God, where did Cain’s wife come from? Dawkins seems to think that every believer takes the account of Creation in Genesis as a scientific account of the beginning of the universe – and like many fundamentalists, he doesn’t seem to know there are two accounts!

If our knowledge of the Bible has never progressed beyond the stories we heard in childhood, we won’t have anything to counter these arguments with. But if we read our Bibles regularly with the help of a good commentary; if we know what Biblical scholars have said about how the various books came to be written; if we understand the different forms of literature which make up the Bible, and can appreciate metaphor and myth; and if we read theology that relates the sacred texts to modern concerns, we will be better able to counter the rather trivial objections of the atheist fundamentalists.

Third, we need to know our science. Hitchens argues that science has given us better explanations for things religion used to explain, and that is true. Dawkins says that evolutionary science renders belief in God incredible, which is not. Of course we will not be able to absorb all of current scientific knowledge; but it is important for believers to have some idea about the current state of knowledge in the major sciences, and also some knowledge of scientific method in order to understand and counter the claims that people such as Hitchens and Dawkins make.

Although my first degree was a Bachelor of Science, I was not trained in the physical sciences, but the social sciences. I was, however, trained in scientific methods. Much scientific knowledge has come about by manipulating objects in a controlled environment, and getting results that can be reproduced by anyone else following the same method – that is, by experimentation. Theories that are derived from experiments remain valid until somebody does an experiment which doesn’t get the same results. However, some scientific theories cannot be tested by experimentation.

This is true of the many things in the social sciences – because it is considered unethical to experiment on human beings; but it is also true of the physical sciences at the macro level – we cannot reproduce the Big Bang, and although we can demonstrate the operation of the laws of heredity at the micro level by experimenting on plants or animals, we cannot reproduce the whole evolutionary process. For both cosmology and evolution we can use evidence from our observation of the world; from this, at the moment, the theory of the Big Bang and some version of Darwin’s theory of evolution seem to provide the best explanation of the development of the world as we know it. But new discoveries are constantly changing scientists’ explanation of the world, and any honest scientist will acknowledge there are gaps and anomalies in the evolutionary chain in our present state of knowledge. To say, as Dawkins does “our understanding of physics, biology and cosmology are so exciting and near complete” seems to me to overstate the case, and to be a rather unscientific statement. Professor Fred Hoyle said that when the Jodrell Bank telescope was built, astronomers thought it would allow them to know everything there was to know about the universe; instead, it showed them how little they knew, and how much there was still to learn.

So much of the so-called ‘scientific’ arguments against religious belief seems to be just bad science – ignoring evidence which doesn’t fit the theory, redefining things that don’t suit your case, even (in the theories of Richard Dawkins) inventing something he calls ‘memes’ of which there is no scientific proof. Memes are units of cultural information which propagate from one mind to another like genes and evolve by natural selection (or in the case of religious belief, like computer viruses )

Last, I think we need to ‘know our enemy’ – which is actually a bad way of expressing it, because Christians don’t have enemies, but people who think differently, but who must be loved and listened to and treated with courtesy – because that is how Jesus taught us to deal with our opponents. So we need to read the books that argue against religious belief; to acknowledge where their criticisms are valid, but also to correct the misconceptions they propagate.

Science in its present state can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. Some scientists reject religious belief, others find their discoveries increase their faith. Even Darwin wrote at the end of The Origin of Species ‘There is grandeur in this view of life with it’s several powers having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms.. and from so simple a beginning endless forms most wonderful and most beautiful have been and are being evolved.”

Many religious believers find no conflict between their religious beliefs and the discoveries of science. They do, however, argue with the assertion that there is nothing more to the world than that which can be discovered and measured by our physical senses. As both our readings told us, we are creatures not just of this physical world, but also of the spiritual world, from which we believe the best in human life comes. It is with that knowledge to the forefront that we can maintain against its detractors that religious faith is very far from being a lost cause.


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