Sunday, 3 January 2010

Between Byzantium and Buchan

I've written before about the way photography can produce such wonderful metaphors without having been composed. This is a random photo of my room, which was not composed in any way, and yet which I think says a lot. I love my geological map of North East Scotland and I love my Byzantine flag. I do not see them as opposites, but think they complement each other nicely.

I liked Borges' description of how Eric Lonnrot saw himself 'se creía un puro razonador'; I'd like to think that there is a lot of that in my world view. And I don't think believing in God is unreasonable.

Two of my best friends are atheists/ agnostics, and I have often spoken to them about faith. I enjoy these polite and friendly discussions (superbly summarised by agnostic Jorges Luis Borges 'era librepensador, o, mejor dicho, agnóstico, pero le interesaba la teología, como le interesaban los falaces cubos de Hinton o las bien concertadas pesadillas del joven Wells.' ). Yet I suspect that in our atomised society, personal discussions about faith and its integrity to reason are the exception rather than the rule.

Perhaps this isn't surprising. Britain is a lapsed Protestant society, where the Puritanical nosey-parker spirit is alive and well, though they just don't think they need 'God' to give them permission to poke their snotty noses into other people's business (apologies to wordsmith and judo champion, Vlad Putin).

This is most evident in the celeb status that people like Christopher Hitchens and other nosey parker atheists seem to enjoy in modern Britain. Their view is one that will gain popularity amongst the ignorant, stupid and aggressive everywhere: that believers are childish and stupid and irrational and stopping humanity from achieving great things.

The irony is that Britain is a deeply secular society, yet when I look about I see people mired in depression who take drugs, drink and consume vast amounts of anti-depressants. I do not feel morally superior to these people (maybe quite the opposite) but I do not envy their lifestyle.

That isn't to say that I see myself as an apologist for faith, especially. If a politician says they are a Christian, but generally means that they listen to the voices in their heads rather than reading the words of the Gospel. I am pleased that there is no 'religious right' in Britain, because whilst I share some of their views (that abortion is evil) their bloodthirstiness and hatred of the poor just sets the pro-life cause backwards.

And then there are theological differences even within Christianity. In Orthodoxy we do not believe in God as a legal judge, nor do we believe ourselves to be exalted nor do we believe ourselves to be respectable particularly nor do we believe the Bible to be a literal account of anything (which it couldn't be anyway; if Adam and Eve were literally the first humans, then how could Cain have married someone?)

Yet I do think that things may get difficult for European Christians in the future. The way that the EU crushed democracy in Italy was one example of how things may be changing.

The irony is that many 'new atheists' are themselves very religious, if this means listening to the voices in their heads. Look at Christopher Hitchens and Johann Hari who write dismally inaccurate journalism and get rewarded for it.

As a historian I find this most ironic because I carry out rigorously research and cross-reference fact sources. I could probably technically get away with being less rigorous, there are many semi-myths that are now accepted as facts in history, but I do cross-referencing out of pride. I doubt Johann Hari, the great rationalist, feels such pride:

'Today, every laptop with an internet connection contains more information than the Great Library of Alexandria. At its peak, that library contained 700,000 books, until the Christian Emperor Theodosius I ordered it burned down in 39(12A)D;'

Maybe if you fight monsters you have an excuse to turn into one, but I don't think hating faith is any excuse for creating some porkies to believe in. Even being generous and presuming the date was a typo, there is no evidence that Theodosius burnt down the Alexandrian library. It is a historical fact that later Muslim invaders burnt the library down. But of course, this does not fit in quite so well with Hari's lynch mob world view that bad Christianseses are the enemies of reason.

I don't write this to sound self pitying, but I really think that people who hate religion should try to meet people of faith. I doubt if many would be 'converted', and have never tried converting any of my friends, but I think both can learn a lot from each other.

Of course, in nations that are still predominantly full of believers, efforts to suppress free speech are plain wrong. I hope these Irish atheists are successful.


  1. Hi Gregor

    Thank you for those articles you posted on my site, I really wanted to comment on this post but didn't have time the past week. Here are some points I wanted to make:

    1) I think there existed an oral counterpart to the Torah. The Talmud is a very corrupted reflection. The original tradition was probably lost during the Babylonian exile. This is my hypothesis based on the fact that Semitic religions always had such tradition along side the institutionalised religion.

    2) The circumstances behind the destruction of Alexandrian library are not certain. What is, is that Egypt was a highly unstable place in Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages. The Persians invaded it before the Arabs and before that Romans did. One group cannot be blamed, I think it was gradual.

    3) Atheist would find whatever they can to bash Christians with. I like how they try to prove that Jesus did not exist because we do not have much evidence. If we consider that Jesus was born in a backwater province, in a time when printing press was not around, the wealth of material we have at our disposal is rather rich. No serious scholar thinks that Jesus is a fictional figure but that doesn't bother the atheist and new-age crowd.

  2. Hi Leos

    Good to hear from you. I agree with your first point. Some people say, for instance, that the flood in Genesis was plagiarised from Akkadian sources. But I think it probable they both refer to the same event, but I don’t think Genesis tells what really happened.

    Another thing I find weird is how a lot of atheists claim that it is a mistranslation to say that Isaiah refers to the Saviour born of a Virgin, because the Hebrew text says ‘young girl’. Firstly, the two were probably cognates in Hebrew and secondly, the Septuagint is the older text.

    There is a very interesting book by Carsten Peter Thiede on the historicity of the Gospels, called Jesus: Man or Myth.

    Are you receiving catechism in London?

  3. Not yet, I was really busy in summer, applying for my master's and now I'm overloaded with work. I will seek out catechism courses as soon as I get this burden off my shoulders. I know shame on me, but that's the way it is...

  4. Best of luck with your masters; what's the subject?

    Is it Ennismore Gardens you go to?

  5. It is called Nation, Identity and Power in Central and Eastern Europe and it is an interdisciplinary subject that includes Sociology, Psychology, History and others.

    Yes, Ennismore Gardens...