Floating Life 4/06 ~ 11/07

an archive

On the awkwardness (and fatuity?) of discussing religion

There is an interesting feature article in today’s Australian on Kevin Rudd’s religion.

Time and again during the past couple of months Rudd has insisted upon the basic congruence between the Christian ethic, understood broadly, and the social democratic tradition out of which his party has evolved.

He has pointed to that strand in the Christian heritage that emphasises the basic dignity of the human person, and has stressed – reasonably enough – the links between that heritage and Labor’s commitment to bringing the nation’s more marginalised citizens back into the social mainstream. Contrariwise, he’s attempted to align the Howard Government with a kind of amoral “market fundamentalism” that supposedly denies citizens that type of respect and dignity.

Rudd clearly appreciates the extent to which the timbre of the national character is up for grabs at present. In his eyes, he’s wrestling with the Prime Minister for the heart and soul of the Australian people, and what it means to be decent and fair-minded as a political leader.

Kevin Rudd’s religion does not concern me much, partly because I find I have much in common with it, but more that his ideas on “what it means to be decent and fair-minded as a political leader”, while they may in part derive from that religion, are also capable of acceptance or rejection on quite other lines. I lean towards acceptance, but with more than a pinch of cynicism about politics generally, I’m afraid. But I am not a total cynic.

I am, as I said a few days back, currently reading Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. This post is not a review, but you may be surprised how much I agree with Dawkins. He is not far off the mark about the three major Abrahamic religions, though I find he does paint the blackest picture he can. There is still much that inspires me in their holy texts, but on the other hand I don’t believe these texts, aside from their cultural and traditional significance, are really to be judged differently from any other texts. Belief in God, for me, is not contingent on accepting past notions of divine revelation, which I am quite convinced are utterly wrong in relation to the Jewish/Christian Bible, and from that it flows that the Qu’ran is also not inspired in the sense that fundamentalists or traditionalists believe either, as it is itself bound to the earlier “revelations”. Nor am I too impressed with the traditional proofs for the existence of God. Books which take that line, Paul Johnson’s The Quest for God being just one example and to me the most embarrassing of his books, seem to me unlikely to satisfy anyone, though Johnson did satisfy that reviewer, but mainly because the reviewer found confirmation in it I suspect.

I have been ranting on this for some time. See the Big Archive. You may glean some clues there about what I do believe, but I would be the first to admit that my belief is more Taoist or Buddhist in approach than it is traditionally Christian. Fortunately I am in a church where this is regarded as reasonably normal. To me God-talk simply takes us beyond what human language is really capable of, a point of view that I know won’t satisfy everyone. In practice, I find a certain sense in (rubbish to some) books like Making Peace with God (…you don’t have to believe in God to make peace with God) by Harold Bloomfield and Philip Goldberg, and Faith by Sharon Salzberg. Yes, I know… I told you I am a Romantic.

M, probably an atheist who when doing his first census return in Australia wanted to put “Communist” as his religion, nonetheless was profoundly affected by his personal encounter with the Dalai Lama in India in 1999-2000, and his subsequent reading of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying; but then it is perfectly possible to be an atheist Buddhist or Taoist or Confucianist, as indeed Dawkins recognises.

So far in reading Dawkins I have some quarrels. I really do think he overestimates the role of religion in war, hard as that might seem, as too often he is quite right on this, but I still don’t believe the two greatest conflicts of the 20th century were religious wars. Second, I think the religionless world is a pipedream, so far as it will never happen. Now that may be a bad thing, but there it is. Third, I have reservations about a conscientious application of Dawkins’s approach to other cultures. To take just one example, consider Australian Aboriginal culture. Would Dawkins really prove to be just another missionary? Or is that a silly thought…

As I said, this is not a review, and anything I have said about the book is very tentative at this stage. I am beginning to suspect, though, that Sam Harris just might really be better… But that may prove wrong.

One thing is sure: Dawkins does need to be read attentively by Americans. His message is in some ways very much for them, and it surely is needed. All thinking Christians Jews and Muslims should read Dawkins; paradoxically, it just might make them better Christians, Jews and Muslims.

NOTE: I once said to Sirdan that I go to South Sydney Uniting Church not because I know the answers, but because I don’t. It is a place that welcomes questioning; in fact that is what Dorothy McRae-McMahon talked about last Sunday.


Make sure you read Ric Williams’s stories below. They are not entirely related the the topic, but they are good in their own right.

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Written by Neil

January 6, 2007 at 12:47 pm

27 Responses

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  1. Wow, quite a few stories there, Cedric! Webster! Haven’t heard that name in years, but I do recall him as one of Sydney’s characters. Cedric has made an error in the links to his blog in this thread, but you will find his site under “Aussie Interest” on the right. Feel free to return, Cedric, if something catches your eye. You bring back a wild Sydney I was only on the fringes of, but certainly heard much about.


    January 19, 2007 at 12:29 am

  2. The purpose in targetting the troops returning from Vietnam was:

    To counter the propaganda publicity of the parade through the streets of Sydney. This parade, a symbolic “victory” march (when it was actually a continuing defeat( but with hundreds of thousands of innocent civilian casualties by “our” side) was instigated by authorities to bolster up waning support for Australia’a participation at that time.

    A pretty young girl pouring red paint (symbol for innocent blood and readily understood) on the “Victorious Heroes” turned this martial pomp into a worldwide message that troops were not heroes and the war in Vietnam was criminal. The action was successful and Ninglun, you must have been one of the small minority who thought and still think that this demonstration against the war was misdirected.


    I notice that it is very difficult to find reference to my small budding web-page from your expanding collection. I do not know if that is by accident or design, in this case, but in the past I have never found Christian websites or organisations to be energetic in supplying links to secular, non-christian ones. Although “free thought” is often lauded, it is “Christian free thought” which means, in essence, modified thought (to use a polite term.)

    Thank you, anyway, Cedric Williams.


    January 20, 2007 at 4:34 am

  3. No quarrel then or now about the stupidity of the Vietnam War, Cedric. My point was that attacking the soldiers so directly tended to elicit sympathy for them rather than revulsion against the war. That’s what I felt at the time from Cronulla or Wollongong or wherever I was, and it was the way most of the people around me felt about it, even those who were active in the Moratorium. But I was more conservative in the 60s and early 70s.

    I won’t argue about it too much now…

    Your page is under “Aussie Interest” and has been there for quite a while as Williams Family: First Fleeters, and Ric W’s family stories, right under the Nick Possum Home Page. Have you ever looked at that? I think you’d love it. Very Sydney irreverent, a bit like the old Oz or the Nation Review.

    My feeling about this being a Christian website is similar to my feeling about it being a gay website: yes, but… If you went through the links on the right you’d find atheists and sceptics there too. I worry about what we have traditionally called free thought sometimes, not that I’m against it, as it can become a fundamentalism of its own kind. Truly free thought may lead to a variety of outcomes. My Chinese partner’s free thought in the context of growing up gay in Mainland China was an interesting phenomenon to follow. He has an amazing capacity, well honed back when he was young, to resist being told what to think. In time he found an explanation of the way things work in the teaching of the Dalai Lama, which he experienced first hand — not that he accepts the full metaphysics of Tibetan Buddhism. He approves of my reconnection with the Uniting Church but would never go there himself. It strikes me that he is more concerned with the effects of belief on behaviour rather than with the content of the belief, and I must say I sympathise with that. We westerners can be too bloody intellectual.


    January 20, 2007 at 8:29 am

  4. Sorry Ninglun. I was as always hasty in my judgements. Just as I have been continuously judgemental about homosexuality. I have been known to express my views in a grim, jocular manner as: “I believe there is a place for gays in society BUT IT AINT NEAR ME! Intellectually, I have no objection to private performances of those now known erroneously as “gays” (are they gay, though?). I could say some of my best friends have been gay, but that would be a lie.
    I could say that my favourie movie star was Rock Hudson, but that would also be a lie.

    Actually I advocate complete license and freedoms for “gays” within limits. These limits would be within certain gated areas of a city or town with a pass system for access by departures, determined by medical checks before they are allowed to mingle with other citizens. So you see, I am basically tolerant of them. I would be extremely sad if it were necessary to disinherit any of my three sons if found “gay”. I would certainly miss further conversation throughout my lifetime with such a son. I feel sure that I would permit fleeting contact on important family occasions such as death or at Christmas, (after the Christmas dinner, of course.) Yes one must be tolerant these days (unfortunately). Cedric


    January 20, 2007 at 11:26 am

  5. There’s a matching joke along the lines of “I might be gay, but at least I am not morose…” Not a great admirer of Rock Hudson’s work either. But I guess if you were ever to end up in hospital, you wouldn’t ask questions about the sexuality of those working to save your life. There is a pretty good chance, greater than the average population in my experience, that you would encounter several gay people in that environment. One of my gay friends is serving in the Australian military as I speak.

    What did you think about Don Dunstan, SA Premier in the 70s? I had a wonderful conversation with him in the Albury Hotel one night.

    I really hope you wouldn’t disinherit your sons. What a person really is is a much more significant issue than race (we neither of us have a problem with that), gender (nor that) or sexuality (??problem??).

    I’ll stop preaching. Guess all I can suggest is a quiet read of some of my links over there.

    Yeah, my family got used to it, including my brother (straight as they come) who is around your age.


    January 20, 2007 at 11:55 am

  6. To each his own end.


    January 20, 2007 at 12:00 pm

  7. Cedric later submitted a not-for-publication comment outlining some of the issues he has with gay sexuality, most of them biological or hygienic rather than moral. It was an honest if graphic comment, and properly not for publication. However, I don’t object to dialogue on the subject. Many of the points he raised would indeed apply also to heterosexual intercourse of various kinds.

    My answer is that the assumption that certain things must be done in certain ways is not necessarily valid. Some of us have brains as well as genitals.

    My advice is as before, to quietly read some of the sites I have placed on the right under “gay life and issues”. Having been in the interesting position of having to educate my own mother on the subject, resulting in her “accepting but not understanding”, I can only hope reflection could produce similar results in others.

    This is not the context for detail on the subject. With so much out there in internet and book form, with almost any reputable and non-homophobic medical practitioner able to advise on the subject, and many groups devoted to gay health and safe sex, there isn’t really much excuse for gay men being irresponsible (though too many are) or for others to labour under misconceptions on the matter.

    Here in Sydney the basics are even taught in school, and so they should be. See my GLBT resources. The original context of that page was as a resource for the welfare department at SBHS, which is not to say SBHS endorses it, though I did keep within Department of Education guidelines on the subject, I believe.

    None of the above is meant to put you down, Cedric, or is meant to patronise any one. I know your viewpoint was genuine. I also know how hard it is to get your head round it all. After all, I didn’t get my own head around it until I was close on 40 years old!

    Finally, sexuality is not merely about sexual activity, and it is not in itself a matter of choice. Most gays and lesbians will tell you it is a matter of discovery. Lifestyle, on the other hand, does involve choices.


    January 21, 2007 at 6:58 pm

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