Reflections on a Long Good Friday

“My God, my God, why hath thou forsaken me?” These are the words attributed to Christ on the cross, as recorded in two of the Gospels (Matthew and Mark). It is one of what are known as the ‘Seven Last Words’. An editorial in today’s Irish Times waxes lyrical about their apparent continued relevance: “Workers who have lost their jobs, families who have lost their homes, emigrants, migrants, the struggling people of Libya and the Middle East, all can echo the cry of anguish from a Christ who wonders whether he has been forsaken.”

Oddly enough, it always sounded to me a lot like a prophet who, in the course of being put to death for the beliefs he so earnestly held and professed, suddenly realised that this was it: he was about to die, just the same as every other flesh-and-blood human being. Frankly, this altogether human story is, to my ear, far more plausible and compelling than the more fanciful fables that have come to dominate our understanding of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.

One of the Founding Fathers of the US, Thomas Jefferson put it thus in 1823: “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. Jefferson clearly underestimated the power of myth over reason, a power that seems to not only have weathered the Age of Reason, but to be positively flourishing in the second decade of the 21st century.

Religiosity and reason, at the best of times make uneasy bedfellows. Religions demand that we cast aside our critical faculties and slavishly submit to one or other dogma, based on the supposed sacredness of some very old book or other. As for organized religions, Jefferson’s experience in France just before the revolution left him in no doubt: “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government”. In that phrase, he could have been describing the first 70 years in Ireland since it gained independence (from England, if not from Rome).  “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”

Jefferson would doubtless have been horrified to see the extent to which the US has turned its back on rationality and is now infested with high-profile religious fundamentalists. For example, a 2009 Gallup poll found that only 39% of Americans “believe in the theory of Evolution”, while 25% outright reject it and a further 36% have no opinion, one way or the other. This, in a country made mighty by scientific advances, is deeply troubling.

And it is no coincidence that those same religious fundamentalists almost universally reject the overwhelming evidence of man-made climate change. The ultimate irony is that those wedded to End Times Christianity may well get their wish. The problem is of course that they will take the rest of us with them into an entirely human inferno of runaway global warming.

Take Pastor Terry Jones. For many, he is the Bad Guy straight from Central Casting. He looks mildly demented and hates the Koran with a passion. Not enough of a passion to have actually read the book in question, but sufficient to offer his followers (via the Internet) the choice of having a copy of the Koran either burned, shredded, drowned(!), or shot by firing squad. And yes, this is a paper book we are still talking about.

Sure enough, the gang plumped for a burning, which Pastor Terry filmed and thoughtfully streamed live online in Arabic. The stunt drew little attention initially in the US but, in the words of German poet, Heinrich Heine, “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.” Sure enough, the incident triggered a wave of rioting, whose victims included seven UN staff in the Afghan city of Kandahar.

“The desecration of any holy text, including the Koran, is an act of extreme intolerance and bigotry,” according to president Obama. “No religion tolerates the slaughter and beheading of innocent people, and there is no justification for such a dishonourable and deplorable act”, added Obama, proving himself not much of a scholar of either the Bible or Koran, both of which are gleefully bloodthirsty and equally imaginative in describing the numbers of ways and the many offenses for which unbelievers can be slaughtered.

Oddly, the strongest condemnation arising from this whole sorry incident appears to be aimed at the publicity-hungry Pastor Terry, who is clearly enjoying his role of matinee villain who hisses more loudly each time the crowd boos. Condemnation of the actual sectarian murders this incident has provoked has been oddly muted.

You may well find the actions of Pastor Terry repugnant. Most people do. But was the reaction (rioting, lynching of the innocent, etc.) in any was commensurate to the ‘offense’ of setting fire to a few hundred sheet of paper, the contents of which you admit to having not read, but don’t much like? I imagine that Scientologists find the writings of one L. Ron Hubbard deeply meaningful, and earnestly believe old L. Ron held the keys to eternal life.

Over 14 million Mormons are equally passionate about the ‘Book of Mormon’ penned by one Joseph Smith in the US in the mid-19th Century. And of course, worldwide, nearly one billion Christians, of many hues and with widely varying degrees of intensity, believe the Bible to be a divinely inspired document, or “holy text”, to use Obama’s phrase.

Whatever religion you subscribe to, there is one pretty much universal certainty: your one is right; all the others are flat wrong. Logically, of course, given the hundreds, even thousands of religions on offer, each mutually intolerant and dismissive, then it is little more than a spiritual lottery as to whether (a) your religion, uniquely among the apostates, is correct or; (b) they’re all makey-uppey and, whisper it, there is no Big Guy In The Sky who frets over whether each and every one of us lowly sinners are sufficiently grateful to him (and it’s always a Him) for his, well, Greatness.

Complicating the lottery further is that vanishingly few of us ever get to actually research or choose our given religion. Society, via our parents, is sensible enough to sign us up at birth, or precisely 18 years before we are legally old enough to consent to any contract. Speaking of contracts, in October 2010, I wrote to the Archdiocese of Dublin notifying them of my intention to ‘defect’ from the Catholic Church (hardly a radical step, since I never gave informed consent to ‘join’ in the first place).

I received a polite reply from one Rev. Fintan Gavin, Assistant Chancellor, offering to meet if I wished, for “…an opportunity for dialogue and clarification”. I chose not to respond to the kind offer. Six months later, and still no confirmation of my defection and removal from the Baptismal Register. Turns out that the Catholic Church, seeing the steady increase in defections, took the only step a rational, forward-looking organization could reasonably contemplate – it altered Canon Law in April 2010 to make the formal act of defection impossible. Nice. (Full details here on the Countmeout website). Still, could be worse. Had I been born a Muslim and then went on to renounce Islam, the one and only punishment for this expression of my free will is – death.

Signs on the lawn outside Pastor Terry’s church read: ‘Islam is the Devil’. In response to the question as to whether this was incitement to hatred, his reply is hard to trump: it’s in the Good Book. “This is actually what the Bible says. Jesus Christ says he is the only way, so if a religion promotes another way, then according to the Bible alone, it ends up it is of the devil.”

Bingo. The source of religious bigotry, intolerance and violence may appear to you and me to be twisted extremists and fundamentalists, but in reality, they are simply more devout at their chosen religion that the so-called “religious moderates” who feign surprise at the things a literal interpretation of various ancient texts inspires, indeed commands the truly devout to do.

Sam Harris’s ‘The End of Faith – Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason’ is a beacon of clarity in this muddy and contentious field. Here, he sets out the core dilemma: “Our situation is this: most people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book. We have the misfortune of having many such books on hand, each making an exclusive claim as to its infallibility…each of these texts urges its readers to adopt a variety of beliefs and practices, some of which are benign, many of which are not”.

He goes on to explain that “the central tenet of each religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error…intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed…certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one”. Harris is merciless on ‘religious moderates, who he says “imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others”.

Back in 2000, one Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger described all non-Christians as being in a “gravely deficient situation” regarding salvation. This might sound outrageously sectarian, but in reality the future Pope was simply being honest. Catholics are right, and the rest of youze are going to The Other Place. Bigotry is central to religious belief. It is never sufficient that “we” are right; by definition, everyone else is wrong, and thus, in essence, damned. QED.

There is a dictum which runs: “extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence”. Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity are a case in point. They were radical, almost heretical, to the Newtonian view of physics that had held sway for the previous two centuries, were assailed by doubters, ridiculed, challenged, dismissed and finally, vindicated as the most significant advance in our understanding of the nature of the universe in the last 100 years. Einstein’s propositions, while radical, were capable of being falsified, which is the ultimate test of the likely veracity of any claim. They have pretty much withstood all tests to date; thus, we can have a good degree of confidence in these theories. Ultimately, as new facts emerge, our understanding of scientific theory shifts to adjust to these new realities. And this, in a nutshell, is how the sum of human knowledge (at least in the Western world) has made such astonishing progress in the 500 years or so since the Reformation.

Unreason lies at the heart of religious beliefs, of all hues. “Nothing that a Christian and a Muslim can say to one another will render their beliefs mutually vulnerable to discourse, because the very tenets of their faith have immunised them against the power of conversation”, writes Harris. “It is therefore in the very nature of faith to serve as an impediment to further inquiry. And yet, the fact that we are no longer killing people for heresy in the West suggests that bad ideas, however sacred, cannot survive the company of good ones forever”.

Since our actions are inherently linked to our beliefs, Harris continues, “It is clear that we can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene”.

For reasons too banal to bear repeating, I actually read the Scientology equivalent of our Bible, ‘Dianetics’, by L. Ron Hubbard, in my late teens. It made one outlandish, untestable claim after the other, along the way inventing ‘problems’ to which, surprise, surprise, only Scientology held the ‘cure’. Even as a naïve teenager, it was pretty apparent to me that this was Codology. But then again, Dianetics hadn’t been drummed into me from the age of three.

Apply the same critical approach to any of the so-called “sacred texts” and it quickly becomes apparent that the only difference is that they have been pedalling untestable, improbable and often downright wicked propositions for hundreds of years longer than L. Ron Hubbard.

“Religious faith represents so uncompromising a misuse of the powers of our minds that it forms a perverse, cultural singularity – a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible”, says Harris. He cites the partition of India and Pakistan, which has sparked three wars and over a million deaths. It’s not even about land. At its heart is the hard-wired mutual intolerance and loathing that Hinduism and Islam have for one another, “because they disagree about ‘facts’ that are every bit as fanciful as the names of Santa’s reindeer”.

The reason India and Pakistan are actually different countries is because of the oil-and-water incompatibility between two sets of religious faiths, and the mutual hatred and loathing this inflames. Here’s a sample of the Medieval barbarism such religious fanaticism unleashes:

“Mothers were skewered on swords as their children watched. Young women were stripped and raped in broad daylight, then set on fire. A pregnant woman’s belly was slit open, her foetus raised skywards on the tip of a sword and then tossed onto one of the fires that blazed in the city”.

The above is an eyewitness account, not from the 14th century, but from the winter of 2002. “Imagine a world in which generations of human beings came to believe that certain films were made by God, or that specific software was coded by him. Imagine a future in which millions of our descendants murder each other over rival interpretations of Star Wars or Windows 98. Could anything – anything – be more ridiculous?” And yet, Harris continues,  “This is no more ridiculous than the world we are living in”.

Attempting to survive the New Age of Unreason may yet turn out to be humanity’s greatest – or perhaps final – challenge. With your indulgence, I hope to return to this theme shortly.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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37 Responses to Reflections on a Long Good Friday

  1. Paul Barry says:

    I’m very sympathetic to your views on religion. I always thought there was a similarity between the approach of climate-change deniers and creationists…. But (and you knew there was a but coming) it isn’t that simple. Bringing religion into any discussion is always problematic.

    A couple of years ago I read a piece by Dick Spicer, Vice-President of the Humanists Association of Ireland, coming out on the side of the ‘skeptics’. He was completely taken in by the e-mails pseudo-scandal. Around that time the Pope issued a statement to his flock stating that the warnings of climate scientists were real and that humanity had a duty to act on the issue. So much for the enlightenment then!

    More recently I read in one post by the Australian John Cook, whose work and website ‘Skeptical Science’ I greatly admire (and constantly go back to), that he is for the most part inspired by his Christian faith to do what he does. Oh dear.

    And then there is that tedious habit people have of characterising concern with global warming (and the environment generally) as a new form of religious belief. The most recent one I’ve come across is from Niall Ferguson. In the introduction to ‘Civilisation’ he says that today… “Western elites are beset by almost millenarian fears of a coming environmental apocalypse”

    [In what is for the most part a brilliant read, Ferguson just can’t help himself. In a fascinating section on eugenics and racism, he tells us…
    “a hundred years ago Galton’s was the cutting edge of science. Racism was not some backward-looking reactionary ideology; the scientifically uneducated embraced it as enthusiastically as people today accept the theory of man-made global warming”

  2. Nicholas Keane says:

    this is all the more relevant to people in this country given the steady decline in unionist/republican relations since 1998. people of so called moderate religious belief will always harp on about mutual respect and understanding between faiths as the key to achieving peaceful relations. this is hardly achievable when the most basic of human rights are subject to violation as a result of the unacceptably inbred relationship of mass religion and governance.

  3. John Goodwillie says:

    “The Bible or Koran, both of which are gleefully bloodthirsty and equally imaginative in describing the numbers of ways and the many offenses for which unbelievers can be slaughtered.” Yes, but both of which also contain passages recommending moral behaviour.

    “Sam Harris … goes on to explain that “the central tenet of each religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error…intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed…certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one”. No, actually, it’s not the central tenet of any religious tradition that I’ve come across. It’s not even a tenet in many cases, for example Christianity says that it fulfils the Old Testament (Judaism) rather than destroying it, Islam says that Moses and Jesus were the greatest prophets ever except for Muhammad.

    I don’t think the Roman Catholic Church teaches any more that all non-Catholics will go to hell, and I can’t imagine that the Buddhists, for example, ever used this sort of scenario.

    I haven’t studied much Indian history, but if you remember how religious wars in Ireland were not so much about theological points but more about land, fear of discrimination, and fear of loss of markets, and current disturbances in Nigeria and Ivory Coast are about migration and jobs, I really think it’s unlikely that the main reason for Hindu/Muslim antagonism in India was the respective merits of Brahma and Allah.

    I disagree with Harris. Our actions are not “inherently linked to our beliefs”. The whole theology of sin is based on the fact that people act contrary to their beliefs.

    The overall problem with this attitude is that it divides people in quite unnecessary ways. Conversion of the world to atheism is no guarantee that people will wake up about climate change. In fact the initial result of loss of faith in their old god is often a conversion to the new gods Money and Consumption. There are too many religious people sincerely working against climate change to be discarded and written off as enemies.

  4. John Gibbons says:

    @ Barry

    First, many thanks for your comment. To be honest, religion is about my least favourite topic to write on, precisely because it is so problematic, and also because it tends to evoke such polarised reactions. First, I’m not suggesting that people with religious convictions are uniquely wicked or singularly uncaring. That would be a caricature. My beef is instead with the core irrationality that lies at the heart of religious belief, of whatever hue.

    I think it’s no coincidence that in the US, where politicians wear their religiosity like a medal of honour and no profession of unthinking belief, no matter how bone-headed (think of George ‘Dubya’, much of whose foreign policy was guided by someone called “God” rather than facts or reason) well over 90% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences describe themselves as atheist or agnostic. Irrational reasoning and fact-free “facts” are simply incompatible with minds geared to question, to measure and to validate.

    The reason religious dogma has remained largely unchanged over the centuries is not that it has withstood academic or scientific inquiry, rather, it has avoided it entirely. It is probably the only significant part of our modern culture that remained mired in pre-Renaissance magical thinking, a world inhabited by witches, hobgoblins and shape-shifters, or sinister Jews preying on the blood of Christian babies for their diabolical rituals.

    It would be fanciful to suggest that everyone who cleaves to irrational personal beliefs is also incapable of logically reasoning in other aspects of their lives. I too am an admirer of John Cook, and he is certainly a case in point. Some committed Christians see the religious imperative to preserve Creation.

    Your comment re. Niall Ferguson bundling a “belief” in global warming as yet another “reactionary ideology” is indeed depressing. I could argue that some greens have made their detractors’ jobs infinitely easier by adopting an á la carte approach to scientific rationality. When it comes to climate change, we must listen to the UN, IPCC, national science academies, etc. but when it comes to the risks of nuclear energy, said same institutions are suddenly part of a sinister conspiracy to prop up the nuclear industry, and their reassurances about the negligible risks associated with nuclear energy are treated as highly suspect. This “moral flexibility” is red meat to the right wingers, allowing them in turn to dismiss genuine concern for the environment, sustainability, etc. as some kind of New Age religion.

  5. John Gibbons says:

    @ Nicholas
    If I’m understanding your point, it is that the 1998 Agreement tragically failed to dismantle the key sectarian power bases, i.e. the religious control of education. This means Catholic and Protestant kids spend their formative years physically isolated from one another, thus growing up as adults who have few if any relationships with “the other side”. This was a huge triumph for religious bigots on both sides.

    They would rather rule their camp of a bitterly divided community than step aside and allow the creation of a genuine non-sectarian society. On our side, the nun’s favourite Taoiseach, B. Ahern did exactly what his religious mentors advised and side-stepped the issue of religious control of education. In the longer term, in my view, the seeds of the next generation of sectarian violence were sown with that decision.

  6. John Gibbons says:

    Agreed, both books contain passages recommending moral behaviour, but these appear side by side with blood-curdling injunctions to cruelty and slaughter. If this is all the “word of God” then we should hardly be surprised when people choose the bits that suit their ends, however profane or psychotic. During the Middle Ages, an estimated 40-50,000 women were put to death gruesomely at the hands of the Catholic Church for the manufactured crime of “witchcraft”. If the Bible says ‘Love thy neighbour…but witches shall not be allowed to live” we shouldn’t be surprised when people act on this primitive gobbeldygook (of course pre-Christian witch-hunting existed as well, but this simply underlines the point about the dangers of the rule of susperstition, old wives’ tales and fairy stories.

    I would have to disagree when you say that you don’t accept that the inherent wrongness of all other religions is a defining characteristic of religions. Pope Benedict is very clear that only those who have been baptised can get into “heaven”. All other religions remain “gravely deficient”.

    An interesting extension of this view can be seen in the perverse cruelty of Limbo, the place where the souls of unbaptised babies are doomed to spend eternity. What this meant in practice was the Irish Catholic Church until very recently refused to allow the burial of still-born babies in consecrated ground, thus adding immeasurably to the suffering of already grieving parents. And if you think ‘Limbo’ has been abandoned (as I did) in fact, it’s still there, but the Church is more subtle about it, fearful of being exposed by society at large as a backward cult with obscurantist views and practices more appropriate to the 14th century.

    You describe Atheism as if it were itself a religion. It is not. It is simply the absence of irrational religious dogma. To suggest that people who reject religion are thus more rampant consumers doesn’t bear scrutiny. The world’s most rapacious consumers also live in the Western world’s most overtly religious country – the US.

    I applaud people, of faith or no faith, working against climate change. I don’t wish to discard anyone or write them off as enemies, but I do believe institutional religion is a significant obstacle to the development of a mature, confident society ruled by reason, not superstition.

  7. Eric Conroy says:

    Dear John,

    As a Christian, I am saddened that you are having a go at my faith. I was at Easter Eucharist in Christ Church cathedral today and it was a very uplifting experience with a large congregation and beautiful music in a fine cathedral building. I feel part of the problem with modern life is that there is little or no spiritualism or mysticism in peoples’ lives and materialism and consumerism are taking over as a replacement. This is causing earth’s resources to be depleted and is leading to climate change. My religion is tolerant of all other religions and is not interested in proclaiming itself the “one true religion”. Mt christianity leads me to care for God’s creation on this planet. The Church of Ireland is getting more concerned about climate change and there was a service in the Cathedral around the subject recently.

  8. denisk says:

    For what its worth John, I agree with you completely.
    I have never been able to understand how an otherwise sensible and intelligent person, can have any religious belief, which is by its nature based on irrationality and superstition.
    I have grave doubts, that a world governed by religious people, will ever be able to face up to the huge challenge of diminshing energy supplies and global warming.
    The fanaticism of religiosity seems to have infiltrated the debates on nuclear power and renewable energy, in which logical scientific reasons for and against specific technologies, are thrown aside in favour of warm fuzzy feelings about natural and free energy production, and the assumption of the inherent evil of atomic energy.
    I was appalled at the assumptions in a recent TV program, that the genetic defects of some poor unfortunates from Belarus, were automatically the result of the Chernoble meltdown.
    This is not to take away from the wonderful and selfless work done by volunteers to alleviate the suffering of these poor people.

  9. ei mhu lei says:

    John, I admired your articles on climate change but this diatribe about religions makes me wonder… have I been reading the wanderings of a bigot all this time. Maybe his opinions on climate change are suspect too.

  10. John Gibbons says:

    I don’t expect you to believe me, but I’m honestly not having a go at your faith. I’ve been grappling for some time with the aftermath of the Murphy and Ryan reports, and with the myriad other cases that have come to light to show how grievously the establishment (Catholic) church in Ireland has abused its immense power, and how little remorse or even understanding of the nature and depth of the depravity it sheltered from justice, and the tens of thousands of lives permanently blighted as a result.

    More recently, I’ve listened to the same unrepentant Churchmen say how they refuse to relinquish their stranglehold on education of our youngest, most vulnerable and most impressionable citizens, our children.

    My conclusion: my discovery of atheism is relatively recent, but the entire Catholic Hierarchy is, to a man (since they are all men) atheists too. It is a grotesque conceit to imagine that men who truly believed in the existence of an omnipresent, omniscient Creator to whom they will one day account for their actions and inactions could stand by twiddling their rosary beads (manufactured by forced child labour in one of their gulag institutions, perhaps) while psychopathic paedophiles like Brendan Smith were left free to rape and terrorise countless defenceless children.

    Eric, I agree that we need something beyond consumerism to light up our lives, to inspire us and to encourage us to build a just, kind, sustainable, decent world that is fit for our children to inherit. I can’t speak for your church, but the Irish Catholic Church is an unfixably corrupt, arrogant and deeply criminalised organisation. Were it not to enjoy the special protection that religions are so skilful at achieving for themselves, it would have long since been outlawed, disbanded, its ringleaders prosecuted and its assets sold off and the proceeds donated as recompense for its many victims.

    You are a decent person and I would suggest Eric that your humanity is first and foremost what leads you to care for this planet. How dare any religion claim a moral monopoly on honesty, decency, truth or justice, especially those that are rotten to the core, and more rotten the further up the Hierarchy you ascend.

    Of course I don’t expect you, or anyone reading this posting, to suddenly yell ‘eureka’ and reject a community and value system that you may have enjoyed and valued all your life. Rather, I want to see religions restricted to the private sphere, and to see the public domain being governed by those we elect and can fire, and who are accountable to our Oireachtas and our judiciary.

    Ireland has been poorly served by its ghostly shadow government reporting directly and secretively to Rome and its outrageous Canon Law that has given said individuals cover to defy the rule of law in this country for decades. They demanded, received and grossly abused their position of almost absolute power in this country. Now we must claim our Republic back.

  11. John Gibbons says:


    “I have never been able to understand how an otherwise sensible and intelligent person can have any religious belief, which is by its nature based on irrationality and superstition”.

    Took me a long time to get there, but I concur entirely with your conclusion.

  12. John Gibbons says:

    @ei mhu lei
    Sorry you feel that way.

    I mentioned Thomas Jefferson above. He was an outstanding Bible Scholar, even writing his own version of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, minus the voodoo and magic tricks. He had this to say about “bigots” who dare to ask questions: “Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.”

    I am concerned at the propagation of unreason and the rejection of rigorous scientific enquiry as the only reliable means of better understanding the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be. If that makes me a bigot in your view, fair enough. I’ll leave the last word to Jefferson: “Man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind”.

    Luckily for me, we don’t live in a Theocracy like Iran (or Renaissance Europe) so I can’t be put to death for asking questions and attempting to provoke a serious debate about issues of faith and reason.

    Regarding my “opinions on climate change” being also suspect, don’t trust opinions, mine or anyone else’s. Trust the science.

  13. Gomorrah says:

    Whoah, heavvvvvvvy folks! Let’s lighten it up here a little. Can I volunteer Emo Philips, author of what is widely regarded as the best religious joke of all time?
    Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

    He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

    He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”

    Northern Conservative†Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

  14. Paddy Morris says:

    Let’s not forget the Fern’s report. As someone whose communion and confirmation were co-celebrated by a notorious pedophile, I have zero time for the catholic church having *anything* to do with kids, education or statements on morality.

    If parents want their kids to learn about any church, fine, but do it at home or at Sunday schools it should not be done in state funded schools using valuable lesson time that could be spent on subjects that have more relevance to the modern world.

    If the catholic church were anything other than a religion, they would have been prosecuted and their assets seized a long time ago. Failing that a good old fashioned schism with Rome would have been a start.

    @Gomorrah classic.

  15. Paddy Morris says:

    On a tangent, Derren Brown’s show from last night about ‘faith healers’ is definitely worth a watch:-

  16. John Gibbons says:

    my sentiments entirely. A relative of mine is doing her Confirmation next month, and since Christmas the school year has effectively been hijacked for hour after hour of ‘preparation’ for this event. What this means of course is that other subjects are getting pushed out. And of course, if as a parent you don’t actually want your child to participate in the Communion or Confirmation circuses, you can instead have them subjected to virtual ostracisation from their peers.

    But then again, that of course was the idea. Apply psychological pressure on children, this in turn puts the pressure on parents to ‘comply’. Then the Church can turn around and trumpet that they’re merely meeting parental demands – brilliant, in a deeply twisted way!

    And since said church control access to “national” schools in the first place, they can and do compel parents to baptise their children in the first place, since they demand to see a baptismal cert before deigning to allow your child its legal right to an education in their publicly funded but privately controlled schools. This of course is a genius way of keeping the apparent level of Catholicism sky high in Ireland, even though only a smallish minority of people actually go to mass on Sundays (probably one in four/five actually go to mass every Sunday, notwithstanding spin from the ultra right-wing Iona Institute).

  17. John Gibbons says:

    Nice one. One of my favourite Emo Philips jokes is the following:

    “When I was a kid, I used to pray every night for a new bike.
    Then I realised, the Lord doesn’t work that way. So I just stole one and asked Him to forgive me”

  18. Barry Ryan says:

    There are many, many reasons for rational people to turn their backs on religions, Regarding Christianity, below are 20 good reasons:

    Christianity is based on fear
    Christianity preys on the innocent
    Christianity is based on dishonesty
    Christianity is extremely egocentric
    Christianity breeds arrogance, a chosen-people mentality
    Christianity breeds authoritarianism
    Christianity is cruel
    Christianity is anti-intellectual, anti-scientific
    Christianity has a morbid, unhealthy preoccupation with sex
    Christianity produces sexual misery
    Christianity has an exceedingly narrow, legalistic view of morality
    Christianity encourages acceptance of real evils while focusing on imaginary evils
    Christianity depreciates the natural world
    Christianity models hierarchical, authoritarian organization
    Christianity sanctions slavery
    Christianity is misogynistic
    Christianity is homophobic
    The Bible is not a reliable guide to Christ’s teachings
    The Bible is riddled with contradictions
    Christianity borrowed its central myths and ceremonies from other ancient religions

    (For the explanations behind each of the above, follow this link:

    And since you mentioned Thomas Jefferson a few times, may I add my favourite Jefferson quote:

    “Priests…dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight and scowl on the fatal harbinger announcing the subversions of the duperies on which they live”.

  19. Tim King says:

    When I was a child (over 50 years ago) a lonely, pathetic, miserable and sometimes comical priest came into my life. I sensed at the time that there was something terribly wrong and I know now that he suffered from manic depression, otherwise termed bipolar syndrome. He was an embarrassment to the church and was shunned and isolated by his fellow priests and the hierarchy. Ironically had he been a paedophile he would have most likely received the support and the protection of club membership. He was left to rot and not surprisingly died an early death due to pneumonia whilst still a young man. On a more general note religion essentially fulfilled the role of politics before the secular era. The “mandate of heaven”, “by grace of god” terms used to justify the status quo. To change society people had to adopt a new religious banner to challenge the status quo – as in the protestant revolutions. This has been carried over into the modern era with the Solidarity movement in Poland and movements such as Christian Socialism.

  20. denisk says:

    @ John—-this Utube polemic along the lines that you have espoused so well, may amuse you.

  21. Barry Ryan says:

    I see from your Twitter Feed that John Cook has written about why he set up ‘Skeptical Science’, but no mention of any religious motivation for so doing, contrary to what Paul Barry above suggested. Perhaps the world is worth saving simply because it’s where we live – no angels or heaven needed to make sense of it.

    Pretending we’re “just passing through” this Earth on the way to some Paradise (perhaps to join the Islamic suicide bombers?) is one excellent reason to NOT give a damn about preserving the Earth as if it were all we have and all we ever will have.

    John Cook: How climate change deniers led me to set up Skeptical Science website

  22. Paul Barry says:


    I read the same article today. You’re right. John Cook says nothing about religion in it. Neither is there any mention of it in the Guardian Newspaper article. I’m glad he’s not banging on about it. However, this does not contradict the fact that he spoke about his faith in a post about a year ago. I’m not sure that we can conclude he has changed his religious convictions.

    Just so you know, I am an atheist myself. I largely agree with what John says in his article above. I’m just not too confident that we can persuade people to take serious action on climate change while at the same time criticising their religious feelings. Changing one’s deeply held feelings (whether they are specifically religious or of another ideology) is a very difficult personal process. Though I don’t share John Cook’s beliefs, I am persuaded that there are probably hundreds of millions of people in the world who will have much greater respect for him just on the basis of him admitting to this faith. I might not be very happy with this, but I don’t think I can run away from that as a fact.

    Emo rules!

  23. John Gibbons says:

    I share your concern re. the hazards of the ‘two front war’, i.e. challenging people on climate change while also challenging what most of us believe to be ‘core’ religious beliefs (I would argue that the only thing that makes them ‘core’ is that they’ve been drummed into us since infancy).
    I stated in an earlier posting here my reluctance and unhappiness about engaging in this discussion in the first place – always safer to stick to things most folk can at least agree on, be it reducing emissions, biodiversity loss, etc. But it’s been gnawing away at me for at least the last two years, in particular, after I sat down and read the Ryan Report in May 2009. How could such systemic, pervasive and unrepentant evil spring from an organisation ostensibly dedicated to the spiritual, and supposedly based around the (generally benign and frequently enlightened) teachings of Jesus of Nazareth?
    Once I began to scratch, that itch got worse and worse, and I came to the gradual realisation that religions, far from being a force for good in the world, are not even benign. They represent a powerful rump of unreconstructed medievalism within modern society. This is seen in their obsessive secrecy, their contempt for civil society and its rules and laws and, in the case of the Catholic Church in Ireland, their cynical abuse of the power of controlling our educational system.
    Too many times we back away from tackling this obscurantist cult with its magical thinking (Transubstantiation, anyone?) in our midst on the grounds that we might offend “decent Catholics”, or that, perish the thought, the odd priest or nun may have survived their training to themselves be a perfectly decent, kind, compassionate and caring human being. Oops, Paul, sorry for the rant…but at least we can 100% agree about Emo Philips!

  24. ahimsa says:

    Dear John,
    Thank you. Have just read your polemic manifesto launch to our crusade campaign against non-conforming rationales religions. What a wonderful piece of godless atheistic writing. Finally someone with the reasoned mind to say what we have all been thinking, we must wipe out the religions. It is clear to any enlightened mind that human beings are in no way responsible for their actions. God beings, with their earthly patriarchal, hierarchical institutions and blind belief systems are the cause of all human suffering & misery. We shall simply reprogramme the sheep humans with new rigourous, scientific belief thinking, submit them to our secularly superior, patriarchal, hierarchical institutions and have them kneel before the altar of high reason offering imperialism, capitalism, communism, fascism et al. All will be Good, I mean positive. Where their priest controlled feeble minds declared war and killed in the name of gods, we with our democratic politicians and educated economists & scientists, will kill only when necessary to secure new lands & resources or terminate unwanted pregnancies, dispose our toxic industrial waste, or administer legal(& illegal) drugs, etc. What a brave new world we shall create 
    Thanks again John.
    P.S. Of particular concern to us are the eastern religions such as Buddhism, Daoism, Vedantism, etc. and the mystical strains of judeo-christo-islamic traditions. With their meditative & peaceful ways they pose a subversive threat to our smear campaign propaganda learned information that religions are bad illogical. Likewise, non-industrial primitive paganistic, belief systems with their insistence on reverence for nature and our custodianship of ecosystems. All of the above profess to offering Gnosis or experiential knowledge of the interconnection of all things and beings in addition to promoting empathy and compassion in all actions. I think this drifts outside the realm of the intellect and veers dangerously into intuition and the dreaded ‘religious experience’. What to do?

  25. John Gibbons says:

    @ ahimsa
    thanks for your cynical helpful, thoughtful contribution. It’s always refreshing to have input from a smartass reflective contributor. Your point might, however, be better made without resort to puerile techniques, such as striking through words. Agree with you on one point: “we must wipe out the religions”. Well said.

  26. ahimsa says:

    @ John

    My contribution was intended to be satirical, hopefully entertaining, I clearly referenced Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and it was intended to be something along the lines of the Onion magazine, evidently my talents fall far short of my designs.

    I enjoy reading your site and I am puzzled that, for example, Barry Ryan’s comment re christianity, denisk’s link and your own and Gomorrah’s jokes are all deemed helpful, thoughtful contributions yet I receive rebuke for being a smartass. In hindsight I should not have personalised my post by directly addressing you in the text. I’m sorry if I have given offense.

    Honestly, to my mind your piece seemed so mired in simplistic anti-religion arguments that I responded by juxtaposing secular fundamentalism. Much as with Richard Dawkins you seem to subscribe to the limited euro-centric perspective of god is male and equate religion with christendom and its islamic cousin. The thoughtful and potentially helpful point that I attempted to make was that you were attacking the ‘dumb’ version of religion and that in a broader context its failings are not at all exclusive to religious institutions. Waging war on religion will do nothing to improve the situation.

    To quote from RanPrieur’s blog:
    ..there are other systems of thought where the people who really study it know the smart version, while everyone else, for or against, knows only a dumb version. For example, serious primitivists know that primitive life can be far from perfect, but they still think it’s preferable to modernity. And serious scientists know that science limits itself to experience that can be duplicated under controlled conditions, and has nothing to say about experience outside this range. You often see battling ideologies with an unspoken agreement to attack each other’s dumb versions and ignore each other’s smart versions. I call this “strawman vs strawman”.

    For every Pastor Terry Jones there is, for example an inspirational Fr. Daniel Berrigan. I alluded to the ‘smart’ version of religion wherein I understand religion to come from the latin re-ligare or “to re-connect” and the flowering of empathy that accompanies such a connection.There are many paths to this experience and religion is but one that helps many, much to the benefit of humanity and the planet. You excoriate religious fundamentalists, and are merciless on religious moderates presumably, ‘..your one[belief system] is right; all the others are flat wrong.’ Contrary to your contention, genuine religious experience breeds tolerance and is wholly inclusive.

    As my grandmother said, when you point your finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back you. There is a ‘dumb’ version of secular intelligent minded society every bit as much as there is of religious society. Gods, institutions(of whatever hue) and belief systems are all made in our human likeness. In the last century the atrocities of wars, injustice, poverty and environmental damage have frequently been perpetrated by ‘civilised’ societies whose institutional charters purport to uphold the values of the enlightenment. Fear & greed are the primal forces repeatedly invoked.

    Your beloved science and democracy are not solve-alls and I find scapegoating institutional religion to be puerile.

  27. John Gibbons says:

    You start out apologising for the tone of your previous posting, but in jig time are back flinging rotten tomatoes at my “puerile” assaults on your beloved institutional religions. By your reasoning, Galileo was no better than his clerical tormentors in the Inquisition, since he was simply advancing another strange belief system called “reason”, underpinned not by magic and coercion, but crazy ol’ “scientific facts”.

    In your view, hard facts can be dismissed as yet another ideology, and that abilty to make the unreal real and real unreal is at the heart of religious unreason and medievalist thinking. You articulate it quite well.

  28. denisk says:

    @Ahimsa—-” contrary to your contention, genuine religious experience breeds tolerance and is wholly inclusive “—— absolute nonsense.
    The logical conclusion of any religion is to place the members of any other religion in a position of being lower than the religion in question, then to try to overcome the religion by trying to sell the religion in question by proselytizing, and ultimately by killing the people who do not believe in the religion.
    I am sure that you are a good and decent person, but this is in spite of you having been totally brainwashed.
    You have thrown away the most precious gift of being human—-to be able to think logically for oneself without the baggage of someone else`s intellectual nonsense invading your mind.

  29. Barry Ryan says:

    What absolute cock! What was it our own sweet Pope stated as fact a few short years ago, i.e. that ALL OTHER RELIGIONS (including Protestantism, by the way) are “gravely deficient” regarding salvation. Now what could that possibly tell us, other than the fact that the very idea of “religious tolerance” is an oxymoron.

    You sneer at “science and democracy”. Perhaps you’d be happier living in Tehran then? There, the fundamentalists have wiped out democracy and banished scientific reasoning. A ‘purer’ version, you might say, of the Ireland that the Catholic Church was trying to create from the 1930s until much more recent times, when those pesky secular institutions eventually grew strong enough to (just about) challenge the basis of our unelected, unaccountable, secretive and utterly wicked little home-grown Theocracy.

  30. denisk says:

    Osama Bin Laden was a terrorist only by our definition. By his definition, and those of his followers, he was a highly religious and honourable man, doing the will of God.
    Ditto for all the participants in the 9/11 attack.

  31. John Gibbons says:

    Infidels (this of course includes stillborn babies) are dammed for eternity, so clearly it matters not a whit what happens to them during their short, miserable, worthless time here on Earth.

    Every right-thinking Christian/Muslim/Mormon/Scientologist etc. etc. will surely agree. And if they don’t, they are weak-willed á la carte types who don’t understand that every word, every syllable in the crazy books they venerate is divinely inspired by one or other deity and therefore is infallible and eternal.

    This is how Iron Age gobbeldygook gets magically transmitted virtually intact and unchallenged into the 21st century.

  32. ahimsa says:

    John, you have addressed none of the points I made:
    – Your world view is euro-centric: god is male and religion means Christendom & Islam
    – You attack only the ‘dumb’ version of religion and refuse to recognise any other
    – The disastrous failings of religious institutions are not exclusively religious
    – Democratic, science revering societies regularly commit atrocities
    To address your rotten tomatoes:
    By your reasoning, Galileo was no better than his clerical tormentors in the Inquisition, since he was simply advancing another strange belief system called “reason”, underpinned not by magic and coercion, but crazy ol’ “scientific facts”.
    How on earth do you come up with this tripe? By my reasoning the non-religious: European Great War for Civilisation; Ottoman Empire’s Armenian massacres; Hitler’s concentration camps; Japan’s rape of Nanking; Stalin’s Gulags; Mao’s China; Pol Pot’s mass graves; Cold Wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afganifstan; Thatcher’s internment; Saddam’s gassing of Kurds, and Obama’s Guantanamo, to name but a few offhand, are no better than the clerical tormentors of the inquisition.
    By the way, reason is not a belief system, applying it to incomplete knowledge and claiming absolute answers is. And if you wish to call that unexplained by science, magic, that’s your choice or why not deny its existence altogether?
    In your view, hard facts can be dismissed as yet another ideology, and that abilty to make the unreal real and real unreal is at the heart of religious unreason and medievalist thinking. You articulate it quite well.
    What on earth are you blathering about? Facts themselves do not constitute an ideology. An ideology is a set of ideas, constituting a comprehensive vision or way of looking at things, a worldview. Whether you like it or not the scientific method is clearly an ideology.
    Nowhere have I attempted to make the real unreal or vice versa. I have not tried to suggest religion is perfect or without fault and neither am I trying to suggest science is hogwash. I was simply trying to offer some counterbalance to your original piece scapegoating religion.
    ..serious scientists know that science limits itself to experience that can be duplicated under controlled conditions, and has nothing to say about experience outside this range.
    You faithful defence of science against all criticism and recent instigation of a witch-hunt against religions is mind-boggling.

  33. ahimsa says:

    @ denisk

    The logical conclusion of any religion is to place the members of any other religion in a position of being lower than the religion in question, then to try to overcome the religion by trying to sell the religion in question by proselytizing, and ultimately by killing the people who do not believe in the religion.>/i>

    That’s your personal logical conclusion based on your limited knowledge of religions, alas not universally definitive. What you have described sounds more to me like the machinations of empires, governments, communist, fascist, nationalist, racist movements, etc. and it is true that religion has often been used in this way too.

    I am sure that you are a good and decent person, but this is in spite of you having been totally brainwashed.

    Nice of you to have faith in my human goodness and decency, and in fact without really knowing me. According to psychology we are all brainwashed/indoctrinated/conditioned/programmed/habituated by our experiences in our environments – of family, friends, community, education, society, work, culture, weather, geography, language, religion, government, media, etc, etc. I believe there are very few who reach a point of self awareness beyond all this. Some who do have travelled a religious or spiritual path, others not. If you have reached this point, wonderful, the world is a more conscious place for it.

    You have thrown away the most precious gift of being human—-to be able to think logically for oneself without the baggage of someone else`s intellectual nonsense invading your mind.

    I do not consider logical thought the ‘most’ precious human gift, that you say so suggests to me you have not yet transcended your own brainwashing. Logical thought is certainly a wonderful human faculty, and I consider myself able to engage that faculty to think for myself when I choose (allowing of course for my aforementioned brainwashing).

  34. ahimsa says:

    @Barry Ryan

    With regards to scientific method and logical thought, I expect you know quite well that disproving an individual instance does not constitute a refutation of an entire class. Catholic pope declares non-card carriers gravely deficient does not mean all religions are bogus. And I have tried to make this point already but religion does not equal Christendom!

    You sneer at “science and democracy”. Perhaps you’d be happier living in Tehran then? There, the fundamentalists have wiped out democracy and banished scientific reasoning.

    I do not sneer at science and democracy I simply recognise their limitations, particularly of the latter as a function of the participants. And I agree with you that fundamentalism(of whatever hue) is frightening. I feel here we are coming closer to the truth. (read my previous posts @ John)

    A ‘purer’ version, you might say, of the Ireland that the Catholic Church was trying to create from the 1930s until much more recent times, when those pesky secular institutions eventually grew strong enough to (just about) challenge the basis of our unelected, unaccountable, secretive and utterly wicked little home-grown Theocracy.

    I never spoke about purity, you obviously have your own baggage with regards Ireland’s catholic past. I take it you consider secular Irish institutions representative, accountable, transparent, utterly good, meritocracies?

  35. ahimsa says:

    @ denisk

    Osama Bin Laden was a terrorist only by our definition. By his definition, and those of his followers, he was a highly religious and honourable man, doing the will of God.
    Ditto for all the participants in the 9/11 attack.

    Give me a break. GW Bush and Tony Blair are every bit as much terrorists as Osama Bin Laden was.

    The origin of terrorism as a term dates back to the French Revolution when the Jacobin government instigated a Reign of Terror on the people.

    The term has somehow undergone Orwellian transformation so that it can never be used in reference to state violence, and now preferably in reference only to scary religious types.

    I am sure that you are a good and decent person, but this is in spite of you having been totally brainwashed.

    Fundamentalism is the problem, not religion.

    Capitalist fundamentalism: By my definition many bankers are financial terrorists. By their definition, and those of their followers, they are highly industrious and honourable men, doing the will of the markets.

    Scientific fundamentalism: By my definition many military scientists are terrorists. By their definition, and those of their followers, they are highly logical and reasonable men, doing the will of research.

  36. John Gibbons says:


    “tripe” ….”blathering”…”hogwash”….”witch-hunt”….”mind-boggling”. Oh dear, oh dear. Losing the rag rarely means winning the argument (and I should know!).

    Thanks nonetheless for an illuminating exchange of views. I may disagree fundamentally with you, but concede that you at least make a decent stab at reasoned argument, and that is unusual in itself when people begin discussing faith/religious issues.

  37. ahimsa says:

    @ John

    Now you are taking liberties:
    “smartass”…”puerile”…“rotten tomatoes“ … “crazy ol”…”medievalist thinking”…”losing the rag”, from Barry Ryan & Denisk: “absolute cock”…”brainwashed”
    I have merely responded in-kind and in context.

    I am not trying to ‘win’ an argument I was simply trying to balance your argument and point out that the situation is not so black & white (mutually exclusive dichotomies are the basis of fundamentalist thinking) and to present it in a wider context.

    Meanwhile you tut-tut and refuse to address any actual points.

    You make great play of reason and science, hallmarks of which are an open mind ready to
    engage with alternative theories or interpretations of evidence to compliment or expand one’s understanding. Many branches of science are reaching the same conclusions and confirming insights of mystics through the millenia, yet it seems you have closed your mind on some issues.

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