What do atheists profess?

Charles Cowling

Posted by Richard Rawlinson, religious correspondent


Vale makes interesting points in the thread beneath my Beyond the Abyss post, which discusses the gap between secularist individuality and religious communal ritual:

We (I) believe that community and the communal celebration of key events is important – yet secularism, at least as it finds expression in the west today – tends to be individualistic. Not surprising, perhaps when the only common bond is a lack of belief.
My own feeling, though, is that we are in a transitional phase and will over time evolve new and meaningful rituals to reflect the reality of people’s sense of personal meaning and purpose.

At first these will ape the religious ceremonies we are familiar with – because they are the ones we know. But they will diverge and in time consolidate new norms, patterns and meanings.

Actually, look at any civil ceremonies, the start has already been made’.

I’m trying to be open but find it hard to imagine meaningful death rituals devoid of any spiritual belief in an afterlife. I agree that non-religious funerals help bring comfort and closure, but wouldn’t a truly atheist ritual do this while professing the faith that God and souls don’t exist? Would it not be crucial to celebrate the fact that the deceased, however fondly remembered, is now nothing, incapable of pleasure or pain?

Some political and intellectual atheists can cope with such a nihilistic philosophy, but we seem some way from popular demand for rituals reflecting such secular realities.

Some stats…

Each year, around 500,000 people in the UK die, according the annual mortality statistics published by the Office for National Statistics. Over 30,000 funerals a year are currently non-religious, according to the National Association of Funeral Directors. This is around 6 per cent of deaths, or over one in 20 households affected by death.

This figure is increasing as families turn to celebration-of-life ceremonies rather than services conducted by a priest, either in church or crematorium. There’s certainly a growing willingness to admit non-belief, encouraged by secular educationalists, politicians and media pundits.

Of the four in 10 Brits who claim membership of the Church of England, it’s clear many are secularists, who increasingly see hypocrisy in using their church simply for baptisms, weddings, funerals and the Christmas carol service.

The NAFD has confirmed that most of those choosing non-religious funerals were ‘hatch, match, dispatch’ Protestants. Lapsed Catholics remain more likely to uphold the ceremonial traditions of their forefathers, hedging their bets, so to speak. This is borne out by weekly Mass attendance figures among the genuinely faithful – for the first time in the UK, CofE and Catholic attendance is neck and neck, each attracting between 800,000 and 1m a week, even though the starting pool of Catholics is smaller than those claiming to be culturally CofE.

But just as there are people of half-baked religious faith, so there are ‘atheist-lites’ for whom the fond belief in some sort of afterlife prevents them from totally parting ways with religion-inspired ceremonial.

Funeral direction

The muddled masses are only likely to reach clarity on one side or the other by authoritative guidance. In a nutshell, they need to be evangelised by fundamentalists, not in the nutty Creationist or Islamofacist sense but in the sense of inspirational leaders persuading others of their creed, be it religious or godless.

This is where the problem lies for anyone trying to devise new rituals devoid of quasi-religious elements. In the case of civil funeral celebrants, it doesn’t matter if they settle for a client-driven compromise. Who really cares if high priest of atheism Richard Dawkins disapproves of them perpetuating religious rituals? After all, he’s a biologist, not a philosopher or social worker, and, even then, considered a sloppy intellect by most of his academic peers.

In the case of priests, their vows in the Sacrament of Holy Orders mean they must serve God and the faithful of His Church by obeying and teaching God’s laws, handed down by the Holy Bible and Apostolic Tradition – the Mass with its divine liturgy and rituals as the focal point.

It’s at this point that Catholics must briefly digress – yes, there are priests who attempt sacrilegious ministry, and, of course, a minority who have committed vile crimes in the eyes of secular law, as well as mortal sins against God. But the point I’m making is that the way forward for the Church is not the same as for secular ritualists: a priest who dons layman’s attire for a civil funeral should be defrocked; a civil celebrant’s a la carte service, complete with religious appetiser, offers choice.

As Gloriamundi makes clear in his/her recent blog, ‘What You Need to be a Celebrant’, such choice forms a compassionate collaboration between celebrant and the bereaved. By the same token, the Church is being compassionate and indeed true by being relatively inflexible, as touched on in my post, ‘Individuality in the Requiem Mass?’.

True atheists and theists are dogmatic, not pragmatic. They are not relativists as they believe in orthodoxies: that we are just physical beings, or that our mortal bodies are vessels for eternal souls, saved by the grace of God.

Some religions do indeed seem to be committing slow suicide, but there are also fresh buds, a growing hunger for reverence among many younger Christians. In a parallel world, generations are growing up not even as cultural Christians, meaning they’re less likely to behave as their grandparents would have done when confronted by death.

But this seems more social consequence than conscious movement: has the average person really embraced the belief that a world without religion would be a better place, even if they do prefer living in the moment and banishing thoughts of life after death?

Apathy has wounded religion but a creed that denies belief cannot equal it, certainly not communally. True atheist diehards (die-easies?) will never replace religion as you have to fill a void with something, not nothing.

‘Teach them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen’. (Matthew 28:20)

35 thoughts on “What do atheists profess?

  1. Charles Cowling

    The last time I saw Sweetpea spelt as Sweatpea was in a rather lacklustre flower display at Morrisons….are you trying to tell me something, Richard?

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    I know, I know, I’m insatiable. But this is relevant to the above.

    Research reveals that America is drifting from clearly defined religious denominations to faiths cut to fit personal preferences. ‘We are a designer society,’ says religion statistics expert George Barna in his new book, Futurecast.
    ‘We want everything customised to our personal needs.’

    However, while church attendance, except for weddings and funerals, is dropping, his research discovered, perhaps ironically, that more people claim they have accepted Jesus Christ as their saviour.

    Barna blames individualised faith on the churches for offering boring services. I’m not sure if he’s calling for them to be modernised/personalised even more, or for them to return to traditions of inspiring, beautiful, dignified, sacred and universal liturgy.

    What he does say is individualism is causing fracture. He sees two sides to the one-person-one-religion trend. On the positive: it’s harder to hold on to prejudices against groups. On the negative: you lose the capacity to make connections. Everyone is pretty much on their own. And all this rampant individualism also fosters hostility towards organised groups; government and industry, as well as organised religion.

    To read more: http://www.washingtonpost.com/on-faith/more-americans-designing-a-make-your-own-religion/2011/09/15/gIQAN7yaUK_story.html

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    It was illuminating. Thanks, Rupert, GM, Jon, Charles and Sweatpea. Shame Vale, the instigator, was away. I know it’s quality, not quantity, but we might have had 40 comments, not 30! Next…

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    Jon Underwood

    Great stuff, thanks Richard. Theres a phd in there for somebody!

    Charles Cowling
  5. The Good Funeral Guide – We’d all be better off if we stopped believing in belief

    […] between the GFG religious correspondent, various unbelievers and a handful of don’t-knows [here] it was gripping this morning to sip tea in bed and listen to John Gray arguing that […]

  6. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Well, Richard, that’s a pretty impressive summary, I reckon, on a quick read! Thanks.
    Did you catch “Point of View” on Radio 4 Friday and this a.m.? Should interest you and others in this thread.

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    So is this it?

    To summarise, one contributor distinguishes between Christ’s teaching and its interpretation by the Church, or the major Christian denominations. While some organised religion is reviled, its roots, in their purest form as a force for good, are not necessarily rejected. While some atheists are indeed hostile to the very concept of faith in God, others welcome the flowering of new religions in the hope that they might one day better convey a positive message for the benefit of mankind.

    Liberation Theology is offered in way of an alternative. I would add there are also some 30,000 Protestant sects/splinter groups, each in their own way presenting a way forward which parts ways with Catholicism by deciding what to keep and what to discard. Then, of course, there are the non-Christian religions.

    Another contributor, who professes to be a subscriber to religion, points out all religions evolve from within, changes don’t just come from members breaking away to form alternative ecclesial communities. They reform in line with social and cultural changes, updated to meet the needs of the contemporary faithful. Religions must serve people, not the other way round, says the Dalai Lama.

    Both these views emphasise the flawed, man-made nature of religions, even though the latter contributor believes they originate from the teachings of ‘supra-normal beings’. He’s optimistic that man, perhaps guided by divinity, will constantly improve religions, that selective change, driven by the ‘general public’, equates progress and renewal.

    Another contributor states that many non-religious funerals express neither religion nor atheism. Some humanists, for whom neither religion nor lack of religion feature in their life concerns, simply deal with death and bereavement intuitively, and in so doing respect the memory of the deceased and provide support and comfort for the living. This individualistic, case-by-case approach is reported to work for many, who see the imposition of organised religion’s ritual as arrogance, a desire to dominate and control.

    Conclusions drawn from these cases for godless and semi-religious funerals focus on embracing what’s good for people on their own terms. Those needing the Requiem Mass, fine; those who want something else, also fine. In a nutshell, any argument that opposes either religious or non-religious preferences shows narrow-minded prejudice. While occasionally militant atheists may be guilty of this, it’s more likely to be a charge levelled against those who believe in the divine authority of their particular faith, those who feel compelled to evangelise their perception of absolute truth.

    Moving on, I’d like to add that such a stand is only unacceptable if force is used to deprive choice. Thoughtful debate is good for all. We don’t object to politicians using argument to win votes in a democracy. Today’s Christians don’t, as a rule, force their will on others. Christians and non-Christians have been martyred for their beliefs throughout history. Christians have been killed by fellow-Christians before and after the Reformation, and by non-Christians from pagan Romans to atheist Communists and fundamentalist Muslims who are killing Christians in countries such as Pakistan today.

    In peaceful debate, those who believe in absolute truths might irritate relativists. In turn, believers might seek clarifications about what exactly a non-believer does hold dear. To a degree, my own questions have been answered by the views outlined here. Some atheists do ‘outline a creed in their ceremonies to avoid the metaphysical uncertainties with which so many people live’. Others don’t feel the need, and conclude such an expectation would be too much ‘a mirror-image of the approach to belief and dogma’.

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    Jon Underwood

    Hi Richard

    Instinctively I wouldn’t differentiate between religious institutions and the general public. Though based on the teachings of supra-normal beings they were set up by and now consist entirely of people like you and me, no? They are a societal creation, which can be seen by the way they change across cultures and times. This makes them more not less great in my eyes.

    CofE reference lost on me I’m afraid 🙂

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    ” I have great faith in the wisdom of the general public and would imagine that in time the great religious institutions will adapt their forms to accommodate what people want”.

    How can you call religious institutions great if you clearly don’t think they’re as great as the ‘general public’. You sound so very CofE.

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling
    Jon Underwood

    Hello again. Just wanted to make a couple of points in relation to the above discussion of Buddhism.

    @ Richard – I’ve no problem with Buddhism being described as a philosophy as opposed to a religion, but would question whether it is accurate to describe it as passive. From my perspective following a Buddhist path involves a hell of a lot of graft! Whether this is the best use of energy is open to question, but active engagement in both spiritual and material domains is certainly required.

    @ GM. Yes, Buddhism has a lot of metaphysics that can’t be proven by science. However it is noteworthy that the Dalai Lama frequently asserts the primacy of science. I.e. if a core Buddhist tenet was shown by science to be incorrect, Buddhists should accept the scientific views above the scriptural views. This has resulted in changes to Buddhist understanding in some areas, such as cosmology.

    Didn’t expect to be writing this on the GFG!

    I’d like to to try and get back on topic but I’m struggling! The thing that struck me most in this thread is the Lynch test that Charles mentioned. I have great faith in the wisdom of the general public and would imagine that in time the great religious institutions will adapt their forms to accommodate what people want. Isn’t this something that they’ve consistently done, illustrating the compassion which is their core characteristic?

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    I think many a Buddhist would say that it was not just a philosophy, not that I am suggesting that there is anything ignoble or lacking if it were, but that it has many of the attributes we generally associate with a religion – particularly Mahayana Buddhism of the Dalai Lama sort.

    It believes there are supernatural powers, i.e. inexplicable to scientific method and enquiry and to sensory identification: a human soul or spirit, reincarnation; it has regular rituals to mark the passing of the spirit to another place or plane; it has a body of dogma it regards as holy scripture, etc. I wonder if monotheistic religions have a definition problem with Buddhism, particularly Zen, because it is not so easy to see the God in (some schools of) it?

    You refer to true religions – but I’d prefer to say “truly religious people,” since what you might call true religions have included both the cruellest and foullest of people as well as the best and noblest – as with any human grouping or enterprise, if it’s large enough.

    But even that doesn’t work since it would seem some Muslim terrorists regarded themselves as the truest of the true, even though the Prophet doesn’t advocate the things they did – according to many of their religious leaders, at least.

    Well, I’m heading into a definitions quagmire here, so I’m going to leave this thread here, I think. “By their fruits shall ye know them,” and “show me your hands” remain my exit lines, whether we are talking about atheists, followers of a religion, or just dunnos!

    Charles Cowling
  12. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    Sorry if I sounded defensive. I was at work and just fired off a quick reply. Context is all with such quotes.

    But to answer your latest question, I don’t tend to blame the religions themselves for man’s crimes carried out in the name of creeds: Muslim (9/11), Israeli Jews (Palestine), Christian (Crusades/Ireland), Atheism (Communist genocide) etc.

    True religions are about God’s love and.man’s welfare (peace, respect etc). True humanism is also about ethics. Man’s capacity to sin is the antithesis: greed, power, racism etc.

    However, there is a difference between religion and philosophy (Buddhism is a passive philosophy so the Dalai Lama’s words above “Religions must serve people, not the other way around” do in fact jar with religion. Religions serve God but in doing so serve man. Obedience does not lead to love but love does lead to obedience.

    Enjoy your evening.

    Charles Cowling
  13. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Oh dear oh dear. The comic was referring to the current struggles between elements of the largely Christian USA and its less Christian allies, and Islamic nations or elements within them (the “War On Terror,” the “Axis of Evil”) and also the agnosingly circular strife between Israel and the Palestinians.

    Now such strife may be about oil, it may be about territory, it may be about resisting hegemony, but the leaders of the parties concerned also foreground their religious beliefs, I think you’d agree, Bush in one way, bin Laden in another, the Israeli right in different ways.

    I really should know better than to use shorthand with someone who doesn’t share my world views, so mea culpa thus far, but who the hell said that only “religion” was to blame for eco-crises, and who the hell is denying that atheist leaders have been mass murderers? Not I.

    “This is what I believe.”
    “Fine. Show me your hands. Blood on them, or not?” That might be a crude but useful acid test for any faith/not faith.

    Surely we’ve moved beyond counting up the victims of mass murderers and checking their beliefs to see who wins the battle of the bodies as the most evil, the religious leaders or the atheists? Now that truly is a fatuous way of arguing, historically and morally.

    Would you or would you not agree that it is what people do with their religious beliefs that is of prime importance to people of other faiths or no faith?
    All mixed up with ethnic hatreds, economic rivalries, and other frictions, for sure, but I really don’t think we can pull religious beliefs right out of that frying-pan.

    Charles Cowling
  14. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    ”When the three great monotheistic religions have finished their game, can we have our planet back please?”

    Not troll-like because you’re on your home turf. If you crashed a religious blog with such a fatuous comment, it might be troll-like. Clearly, you can’t blame religion for eco-problems or recent wars. Billions were killed under Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao Zedong. They were all atheists but I would never ever blame atheists in general for such evils, and I’d expects atheists to have a reality check when noting religious influences, both for better or worse.

    Charles Cowling
  15. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Sorry – my last comment here – that should read (faith is surely) “A set of convictions that are outside the possibility of proof.”

    There’s a Radio 4 prog tomorrow evening 20:15, or 50, sorry, have to check it, which is going to argue that the faith vs not-faith argument is beside the point for most of the world’s faith followers, because for them, more important is ritual, cultural context, and many other features of religion than faith itself.

    Dorothy Rowe, I seem to remember, says that why a person believes what they believe is more important than what the belief actually is.

    I’d add: I think it’s what people do with their faiths here and now which, on our crowded planet, is increasingly crucial. Doesn’t Richard’s favourite book say somewhere “By their fruits shall ye know them?” As a comic said not long ago on Radio 4 (OK, I’m mostly retired, does it show?)”When the three great monotheistic religions have finished their game, can we have our planet back please?”

    Hope that’s not too troll-ish for anybody!

    Charles Cowling
  16. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    One of the most common English nouns is ‘time’. And the word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent’.

    Charles Cowling
  17. Charles Cowling
    Rupert Callender

    Ooh, this is good stuff innit?
    Just been to our first, and probably our last networking breakfast. I was last of four people to be given a two minute interview. When asked to give my final thoughts on death to the assembled financial advisors, marketing folk etc I said. “It’s later than you think.” Stunned silence. Well, ask a silly question.

    Charles Cowling
  18. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    Ru and GM

    I acknowledge your experience of varying levels of preoccupation in an afterlife (‘most secular funerals aren’t as preoccupied with an afterlife as you think’). This ‘ecumenical’ dialogue is useful: we agree to disagree but seek to understand without troll-like outright dismissal. Our common ground is the value of goodness, with one side believing in the importance of loving God and neighbour, the other side believing in loving neighbour. Too often, even this difference leads to difficulties comprehending the concept of love resulting from laws: obedience does not lead to love but love does lead to obedience etc.

    Charles Cowling
  19. Charles Cowling
    Jon Underwood

    Really enjoying this debate. Even as a religious subscriber I find myself more drawn to the secularists’ arguments. Am reminded of the Dalai Lama’s words “Religions must serve people, not the other way around.”

    Charles Cowling
  20. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Ru smacks the old nail bang on the head as so often. And Richard, seems to me we are never, ever, likely to be able to prove or disprove the existence of an after-life, because it is a category beyond the usual groundwork of hypothesis and proof. That’s surely what the word “faith” means? A set of convictions that are outside the possibility of belif?

    Even the much-reviled Dawkins says there is probably, or almost certainly, no God. And BTW, although he sneers pointlessly and unpleaantly at, rather than merely arguing against, other people’s beliefs and hypotheses, I don’t know that we’re justified in describing his science as “sloppy. (Maybe you’re thinking of the meme thing?)In his role as an educator on scientific matters, he has helped millions of people towards a better understanding of evolution, and stopped us looking at it down the wrong end of the telescope, as it were. His theology was, apparently, sloppy, but then he doesn’t think it’s a real subject of enquiry.

    Charles Cowling
  21. Charles Cowling
    Rupert Callender

    Richard, I think you’re missing that most secular funerals aren’t as preoccupied with an afterlife as you think. That’s your department. What a good secular and a good religious funeral should bring sharply into focus, is the notion of love and the importance of its centrality to our lives. You think this comes from god, we don’t. It’s a bit like arguing the virtues of a diesel car over a petrol one, while ignoring the distance covered.

    Charles Cowling
  22. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    Gloria mundi

    I love your reply. You get where I’m coming from. No, I don’t want the ‘middle ground to disappear’ as I find it more sensitive to human nature than any militant BHA atheist manifesto, which I cannot see translating into ritual.

    It’s natural many people are ‘muddled’ and hedge their bets as we can’t yet prove if there is or isn’t an afterlife. I do, however, think the possibility should be explored with an open mind, leaving options open is laudable.

    Thank you.

    Charles Cowling
  23. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    My my, Richard certainly does the old GFG comments rate a favour! The problem I have with a long string of comments is that it is tempting to try to round it all up and provide one big comment of one’s own – or to nip off a particular bit and work away at it. I’ll now fall for both these temptations!

    There is, it seems to me, a basic and irreconcilable difference between Richard’s view of the RC church as the true faith, and what he calls “consumer-driven ritual” i.e. people who want to include some sort reference to – not “religion” as a set of dogma and processes, but perhaps to a “supernatural” existence beyond this physical world.

    So Richard backs the idea of an authority and regards the masses as “muddled” because too many of them can’t join him, or won’t define an atheist position.

    Perhaps he wants the atheists to outline a creed in their ceremonies to avoid the metaphysical uncertainties with which so many people live – but what he is looking for, is perhaps a mirror-image of his own approach to belief and dogma. His own psychology, in fact. (Well, don’t we all, at times?)

    He surely knows that the BHA has a fairly mild and sometimes flexible “manifesto” about not having prayers or hymns in ceremonies, which BHA celebrants sometimes follow and occasionally don’t.

    He must also presumably know that BHA celebrants are enjoined to say a few brief words starting with something like “Humanists have a view of live that…” and of course some/many of them don’t do so.

    In other words, BHA celebrants are expected, to varying degrees, to make their ceremonies godless/atheistical, or at least agnostic, and to explain briefly a godless view of life and death. So the celebrant has to take into account his/her own beliefs, and accept or reject requests for funerals from that position.

    Just as a priest would.

    And it is just that mirroring role with which I am increasingly unhappy.

    Humanism is wider than the BHA. Atheists vary just as RCs do, in their beliefs. Agnosticism is a worthwhile position with a long philosophical history. There are other kinds of spiritualist and spiritual awareness than Christianity or any other variety of established religious orientation. Etc.

    Not everyone who doesn’t follow a clearly-defined path is muddled.
    In my immodest opinion.

    Any good, Richard? Or (unkind thought)do you simply want the middle ground to disappear, so that funerals are either taken by a minister of religion, preferably your own, or they are firmly and clearly identified as atheist funerals? In which case, we’d have more of the former and a lot fewer of the latter.

    An old friend of mine, now a CofE vicar, said, when I told him what I did, “Taking our business.” He was half joking, and he wasn’t speaking about income. I guess from his and Richard’s point of view it’s about souls?

    Charles Cowling
  24. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson


    Faith isn’t ‘arrogance’ if you’re putting ego aside to humbly accept God’s teaching. My stand seems to niggle because I’m not giving you the answer you want but I didn’t evade answering when I said: ‘I believe in absolute truths, and don’t claim to be a relativist’.

    But this debate isn’t about my faith. Vale’s initial comment provoked thoughts on how a fundamentalist atheist would actually evangelise truly godless death ritual (he was replying to a previous blog about the atheist ritualists of the North Texas Church of Freethought).

    I deliberately posed this extreme scenario so that you and others would answer the questions you’ve now fired back at me: ‘What could/should a secular funeral not fail to include?…etc. I’ve said my bit, it’s over to you.

    To move things forward, I hat-tipped Goria mundi’s blog to demonstrate that I’m well aware civil funerals, often with semi-religious references, offer valuable choice as a compassionate collaboration between the celebrant and the bereaved.

    But I wondered if godless ritual could ever go further than saying: ‘We’re here to celebrate the life of X. As we all know, X didn’t have religious faith, and was happy with the idea of nothing after death etc..’

    I’m genuinely interested, whether the answer is choice is all-important in consumer-driven ritual, or that atheism ever has a manifesto of principles relating to keep God out of death rituals. If it does, will such principles ever take off in ritual form, or would that be too close to organised religion?

    Charles Cowling
  25. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    I’m with Sweetpea.

    I think all broadminded, tolerant people would agree that the requiem mass is an admirably well wrought, highly evolved, man-made (that is, confected) expression of a particular belief system. It may fail to make its mark on the intellect of an open-hearted dissenter, but it probably affords emotional emotional satisfaction — because we embrace what’s good for people on their terms, not our own. The mass comprehensively addresses the circumstances of the death of someone in terms of creed. In the words of Tom Lynch, it gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be. You don’t need to sign up to Catholic doctrine to acknowledge that.

    There is an interesting and perhaps even important and fruitful discussion to be had here. What does any funeral need to do in terms of the beliefs professed by the dead person? What bases does it absolutely have to touch? How can it be inclusive of open-hearted people whose own belief differs?

    In short, in what ways do the funerals of atheists and inbetweeners fail to pass the Lynch Test?

    Charles Cowling
  26. Charles Cowling

    It’s not consistency, Richard, it’s stubbornness.

    I sympathize with your plight – you can’t even bring yourself to consider for a moment looking around the lens, because it would feel like a betrayal of your lord and risk a distorted view that could trip you up and push you off the path.

    But religion isn’t satnav. Have a look at the road.

    Charles Cowling
  27. Charles Cowling

    Richard, I wonder that you thank me for my reply, when you pay so little attention to the argument put before you, but instead use the opportunity to expand and further sermonize on your own preoccupations.

    So, I’ll just reply to your first paragraph. You attempt to apply a smoke screen about the respectful way you might behave at a civil funeral, and your happy integration into the secular world of office and pub. This is a red herring in this discussion, since I did not refer to your attendance or behaviour at such an event, or imply a distance from the outside world.

    The matter in hand is your own stated inability to imagine a meaningful death ritual ‘devoid of any spiritual belief in an afterlife’. Now this seems worthy of discussion. What could/should a secular funeral not fail to include? Can it ever be meaningful to anyone? Does it do the things that people need it to do?

    I think you are quite bright enough to understand that my point is very specifically about respecting people’s opinions on a far broader canvas. The suggestion that ‘muddled masses’ needing to be ‘evangelised by fundamentalists’ is not respectful, however much you share a pint with the ‘non-believers’ and leave your blog hat at the door. Your statement displays an arrogance, a belief in a superior knowledge and understanding which you seem to think belongs only to the religiously enlightened. I refer you to my previous answer.

    Charles Cowling
  28. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    Glad to be consistent, Jonathan.

    Charles Cowling
  29. Charles Cowling
    Jonathan, irreligious correspondent

    “would Christ promote abstention from sex outside of marriage, or would He condone promiscuity, contraception and abortion?”

    You see what they mean, Richard? You’re doing it again.

    Charles Cowling
  30. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    Sweetpea, thanks for your reply. Yes, I see things through the lens of my own beliefs. Don’t you? I believe in absolute truths, and don’t claim to be a relativist. However you’d be wrong to conclude that I don’t treat with respect those who don’t share the faith. If I attended a civil funeral, I wouldn’t be wearing my blog hat at the reception. Here, I debate death from a faith perspective. But I also work in a secular office and drink in the pub with agnostic friends, so have plenty of enjoyable camaraderie with non-believers.

    But when debates between theists and atheists occur, I like to at least try to unblock the channels of communication. Above, I sought to explain why South America’s Liberationist Theology could not be reconciled with Christianity because it preached hatred, theft and violence against the rich, even if they were oppressing the poor.

    Christianity is full of such dilemmas. For example, would Christ promote abstention from sex outside of marriage, or would He condone promiscuity, contraception and abortion?
    Catholic doctrine is difficult because its teaching reveals Christ’s way. We often fail because we’re mortal sinners, but the fact we aspire doesn’t make us prigs. It’s a lifelong journey in which the Church reveals God, who loves the sinner, but not the sin.

    Charles Cowling
  31. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    Rupert, I appreciate your comments. I mentioned Dawkins to illustrate his LACK of influence over free-thinking atheists who are not bound by leaders.

    Naturally, I disagree when you say the Catholic Church fails to represent Christ! 🙂 As for Liberationist Theology, it was a Marxist, semi-secular movement (sometimes involving gun-wielding priests) which emphasised the class struggle to the exclusion of the true Christian message.

    The Catholic Church remains the biggest charity in the world but she cannot condone a movement committed to encouraging the poor to despise the rich. Christ proclaims liberation in its deeper sense: liberation from sin. Attempts to satisfy the material needs of people, while ignoring their spiritual nature, such as encouraging them to steal from the rich or to use violence against them, only leads people deeper into sin. Only a materialistic culture can perceive this as progress.

    Charles Cowling
  32. Charles Cowling

    ‘I’m trying to be open but find it hard to imagine meaningful death rituals devoid of any spiritual belief in an afterlife.’

    Well, Richard, perhaps you should get out more.

    While claiming to be trying hard to imagine, you seem most intent on seeing other’s viewpoint only through the lens of your own beliefs. Maybe this is why you’re finding it so hard to imagine a ‘truly atheist ritual’ without an explicit statement of ‘belief’ in the non-existence of God and of the soul. But I think the truth about non-religious funerals is that many don’t express any religious or atheist beliefs at all. As in life, there are people who do not follow either path, and who are content to talk about other things at a funeral – faith or atheism just doesn’t make an appearance. Any why should it, when it has not been there in life?

    This may not make a meaningful death ritual to you, but it does to them. Stretch your imagination as it might, make your evangelical itch flare as it might, this is undeniably the case.
    One of the things we learn as a civil funeral celebrant, whatever our own religious beliefs, atheist beliefs, or indeed an altogether lack of interest in such matters, is that each person is equally valid in terms what we do, and deserving of respect for their opinion. Because, in the end, this is all opinion. Yours and mine and theirs. Why does yours have to take precedence in other people’s lives? Why, apart from a desire to dominate and control people, does this exercise your pen? ‘Muddled masses’ needing to be ‘evangelised by fundamentalists’? Such extraordinarily patronising, paternalistic phrases.

    Charles Cowling
  33. Charles Cowling
    Rupert Callender

    Firstly Richard, those of us who don’t consider ourselves Christian, though personally I always am drawn to the distinction the Quakers make between following the religion of Christ, not the one about Christ, the point the Pythons made so eloquently- is that we are most certainly not represented by one Richard Dawkins. I consider him a faith leader in the same vein as the Pope.

    I also would like to clarify this simplistic divide between religious and secular. I am not anti-religious, quite the opposite, I would like to see new religions flowering, one’s that borrow heavily from many traditions, particularly the teachings of Christ.

    I just think that the programme of radical, clear, social reform put forward by Jesus Christ has failed miserably, nowhere more so, I am afraid than in the arms of the Catholic Church. The brief flowering of what looked like genuine Christianity, Liberation Theology was dismissed by the current Pope in 1985 and brutally oppressed by the dictatorships it was exposing.

    It is interesting to note that modern deniers of the faith like Dr Sheila Cassidy whose latest book is called “Confessions of a lapsed Catholic” aren’t excommunicated, simply bumped off the Famous British Catholic list by someone like Cherie Blair. A very modern X Factor way of consigning someone to the darkness.

    None of this is meant personally Richard, as I’m sure you know. Every time I think that Christianity won’t get up off the mat this time someone like yourself comes along, both in the C of E and the RCC, clearly a good man, and a good priest.

    Charles Cowling
  34. Charles Cowling
    Jonathan, irreligious correspondent

    “…to reach clarity on one side or the other…”

    Er, I dunno Richard, there is no one side or the other for me, I just booted the ball and it was in the back of the net.

    Charles Cowling

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