Saturday, July 15, 2006

What if God was one of us?

Traditionally, the law year commences with a church service. In a hangover from the law's English heritage, that service is always held in July. In Australia (and Queensland in particular) this is a good thing. Barristers, judges and clergy alike turn up in full kit - wigs, ermine fringed gowns, robes, the lot. Everyone in the local legal fraternity also fronts up. The most senior judge in the jurisdiction delivers a short address, as does the most senior clergyman. It is all very formal and ritualistic, a hangover from a bygone age. For a skeptic and atheist like me, it presents something of, ahem, a challenge.

Our law term commencement service was yesterday. I toyed with the idea of not going, but decided this would not only look churlish, but was churlish. Country towns with small professions are generally very collegial, and failing to front at an event social as much as religious would mark me out as someone with an unnecessary bug in my hat.

I gave religion the boot when I was about 13. Not for any particular reason, just that I found I didn't believe it, no matter how hard I tried. It was impossible to relate to such a distant God. I never got the sense that God was among us, and strongly suspected that Jesus Christ was a greatly misunderstood philosopher and freethinker, but most definately not God. As I was on a full scholarship at a religious school, this presented something of a quandary. So I did what countless non-believers in a similar setting have done in the past. I kept schtum and observed the bare minimum, floating (largely) under the radar. My family wasn't particularly religious, so this was no great burden.

In later years, I was grateful for the solid religious instruction I received. Apart from perplexing the door-to-door hawkers of various American-made beliefs, I'm generally fairly well-informed on religious debate, doctrine and scripture. I've noticed that those who know nothing are more easily snowed, particularly by some of the loopier fringe religions. Although operating out of a different tradition, I think David Hicks falls firmly into this category. A political and religious naif, he was easily persuaded into adopting a system that had neat, pat answers to everything within his ken, not to mention a few tasty conspiracy theories to boot.

The bishop, in his law term address, spent a pungent ten minutes talking about the separation of church and state, and how Christianity - in cooperation with parliament and the courts - had largely achieved this, while Islam had not. He pointed out that religious morality, when enforced by the state, utterly loses its power to persuade. The essence of true morality is choice. Legal 'right' and religious 'right' may often coincide, but that is an effect of history, not enforcement.

Needless to say, my discomfort at being in a place where everything was unfamiliar - the hymns, the procedure, the method - evaporated at least temporarily. I realised that to a very large degree, this Anglican clergyman was articlating what skeptics have been saying for years: if society is to function, religion has to be kept in its box.

Afterwards, scone in hand (yes, these churchy things are also characterised by devonshire teas and good, strong coffee), I sought out the bishop and complimented him on his talk (called a homily, I learned). 'Oh yes,' he said mildly. 'We are on the same side in this'.


At July 16, 2006 2:40 pm, Blogger Sukrit Sabhlok said...

For a second there I thought you were going to talk about Joan Osbourne's 'One of Us'. Great song incidentally:

If God had a face what would it look like?
And would you want to see if, seeing meant
That you would have to believe in things like heaven
And in Jesus and the saints, and all the prophets?

We should all maintain a healthy suspicion of the church, the state and business.

At July 16, 2006 5:00 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

I did have that reference in mind, actually. Personally I like the Sheryl Crow version, but it's a classic song nonetheless.

Agree on the healthy suspicion part, but we also need to know when unity is more useful than suspicion... which is almost always a tough call, though.

At July 17, 2006 2:16 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

I never got the sense that God was among us, and strongly suspected that Jesus Christ was a greatly misunderstood philosopher and freethinker, but most definately not God.

Ah, so you're actually a Jew, sl. And one whose music tastes i disgree with - obviously goes for you too Sukrit. :-)

Agree with sl's last para: Religion ought be kept in its box, but we need to have people sized doors in and out.

At July 17, 2006 2:46 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

Been called many things in my time, but never 'Jew'. Another one to add to the list!

I don't believe in 'God' in the Jewish sense, either. I'm a pretty standard atheist. What I was getting at in that post - perhaps I didn't make myself sufficiently clear - was that there are important differences between religious visions, and that only some of those visions are compatible with the rule of law, separation of church and state, and secular society.

At July 17, 2006 3:49 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

Hmm...I did get that implication, but it's a controversial one - that's assuming by 'vision' you mean, Christianity or Islam or Buddhism.

If you mean different interpretations of Christianity, Islam etc, i'd be inclined to agree and I think youre spot on about David Hicks.

I s'pose when it comes down to it, I'm your standard garden variety atheist too, but I can't get over the suspicion that, just maybe, I'm missing something.

At July 17, 2006 4:30 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

I think Hicks is in a terrible pickle, but not for the standard reasons (ie locked up in Guantanamo). As a youngster in a poor, high immigrant area, I watched various religious groups (Christian as well as Muslim and others not so easy to classify) prey on the poor and ignorant in ways I found disgusting.

For a long time, the manager of the local branch of the National Bank made a point of living in the area, mainly so he could understand the people who wanted to make use of his employer's services. He was middle class, and admitted he had trouble grasping just what it was that made the area tick.

Over time, he became good friends with my mum and me. I'll never forget the day he turned up after work at our place in tears. The bank had just exercised power of sale over a Polish immigrant family's home. After going through their financial records, he'd discovered they'd been tithing 30% of their income to one of the local 'churches' (a particularly frothing lot of holy rollers).

Hicks went away to fight in someone else's war. Arguably, he committed treason against Australia. One thing is a dead cert: his religious fruit-loopery started in exactly the same way, and led to a similarly rotten outcome.

No-one ever made a nice documentary about all the Eastern European immigrants ripped off by religious fruit-loops in Logan City and Inala, though. Funny, that.


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