Brian Edwards Media

The Sweetest Carrots and the Biggest Stick

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 Regular visitors to this site will know that I am a huge fan of Herald columnist Tapu Misa. Misa combines fierce intelligence with a profoundly compassionate view of her fellow man and woman and provides a welcome antidote to the mindless bigotry of the broadsheet’s other god-bothering columnists. (She would not approve of those last ten words.)

Some time ago Misa found God. These are my words, not hers, but they convey the general idea that she went from being a non-believer – atheist, agnostic, secularist, whatever  –  to being a committed Christian.  

Her columns have not suffered as a result. I rarely find much to disagree with in them. On moral issues atheist and believer often find common ground. But her Easter Monday column, appropriately  headlined Religion Undergoing Startling Resurrection, leaves me scratching my head. In it she takes a poll-driven approach to defend her thesis that ‘Globally, religion is winning and secularism is losing’. It’s a competition apparently and, other than in the West, a lot more people are coming to support our team than support your team. Ya boo sucks! 

In the column she quotes extensively from  Dinesh D’Souza’s  What’s So Great About Christianity:

‘This is the biggest comeback story of the 21st century. God has come back to life. The world is witnessing a huge explosion of religious conversion and growth … The ranks of unbelievers are shrinking as a proportion of the world’s population. Secularism has lost its identification with progress and modernity, and consequently it has lost the main source of its appeal.’

But it’s where this ‘comeback’ is happening that Misa finds really interesting:

‘In 1900, more than 80 per cent of Christians lived in Europe and America, and just 10 per cent of Africans were Christian. Now 360 million (around 50 per cent) of all Africans are Christians. There are more churchgoing Presbyterians in Ghana than in Scotland, more Baptists in Nagaland, India, than in the American South, and more Anglicans in Nigeria (17 million) than in England (two million).

‘And despite the restrictions imposed by the Chinese Government, it is estimated there are now 100 million Christians in China who worship in underground evangelical and Catholic churches. China is projected to become the largest Christian country in the world.

‘Europe once sent missionaries out to the far reaches of Africa and Asia.

‘Now, it’s the other way round, with some 15,000 missionaries from Brazil, South Korea, China and Africa spreading the word in England.’

Meanwhile, Misa tells us, most of the Western world is becoming more secular, with only one in five saying that religion is important in life. But the polls are apparently more encouraging  in America. According to a recent Pew survey (pew survey?):  ‘Some 64 per cent of young Americans had an absolute belief in God, 75 per cent believed in life after death, 74 per cent in heaven, 78 per cent in miracles, 68 per cent in angels and demons, and 59 per cent in hell.’

I’m not entirely sure that I’d advance Americans to support my position on anything. At least half of them seem to me to be mad as hatters. How else can you explain their attitude to gun control or their view that a publicly funded  health service will inevitably lead to the mass euthanasia of the old and the disabled?

But I’m happy to accept the figures. Belief in God and an afterlife may well be on the rise in non-Western societies. The more interesting question is why.

The reason, I suspect is the same as it has always been. Religious belief is about creating meaning from meaninglessness. When people ask, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ they are really asking, ‘What is the purpose of life?’ And by ‘purpose’ they mean some grand design or plan.

My own view is that, beyond recreating itself, there is no apparent purpose or meaning to life. For billions of human beings this is and has always been an unbearable  idea, so demeaning does it seem to our existence as thinking, self-aware beings, the highest life-form on earth. Death in particular seems to deprive living of purpose. Belief in God and an afterlife can serve to restore that sense of purpose.

Marx’s famous description of religion as ‘the opiate of the masses’ seems to me to express it very well.  In lending meaning to the meaningless, purpose to the pointless, religion comforts. ‘O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?’

Nor have I any doubt that the Western decline in religious belief has been a significant factor in what many see as the steep decline in social values and behaviour that even liberals like myself find increasingly alarming. If the Western world is going to hell in a handcart, the ‘death of God’ has certainly had a part to play. God always had the sweetest carrots and the biggest stick – heaven and hell. And His power and authority were absolute. God was the best and possibly the only totally persuasive reason to be good. You can’t fool an omnipotent, omniscient being.

But neither the polls nor the geographically shifting patterns of belief tell you anything about the actual existence or non-existence of God. Misa ends her column with a quote from German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg: ‘Secular culture itself produces a deep need for meaning in life and therefore also religion.’

I think that’s probably right. Rationalism dictates a lack of belief in anything that cannot be empirically shown, but it also deprives the rationalist of any ultimate meaning to his or her existence. Given that polarity, it is not surprising that the tide of belief should ebb and flow historically and geographically.

But let’s not confuse the polls with reality or truth. As the politicians like to say, ‘The only poll that matters is the poll on election day.’ Or Judgement Day perhaps.

Till then, some advice for overburdened asses: It’s pretty stupid to go on following a carrot that never gets any closer. Toss your rider off and make a run for it. You’ll be free of him – and the stick.

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22 Comments:

  1. I think Aldous Huxley got it right in “Brave New World” in chapter 17. We can suppress (as a society) the yearning for God by filling it with other things; consumerism, sex, alcohol, gambling, tabloid gossip, food, hobbies, careers, etc. What need of God has modern Western man?

    I guess if I were to tie it into Scripture I would look at the Beatitudes first – Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus says it all really – if life is rich with pleasure now why fear the hell of the afterlife?

    I think the Christian faith is slowly shrinking but coming more committed. Where I live our Catholic school is full of children but less than a handful of families come to Sunday Mass.

    However the number of New Zealand seminarians is increasing. The young people who do stay with the faith are increasingly committed, motivated and educated in their faith.

  2. I have written to Tapu Misa sometimes to show support for some of her writings. Her recent one struck a discord for me. It didn’t seem to fit.
    Tess. I hope you are not suggesting that those who are devout Christians are not the same ones who are materialistic, gossips etc? Only atheists are so? Not sure that Brian Tamaki would be a good model of a humble Christian nor the wealth accumulated by some other Christian churches. God is a human construct to cover the unknown but there are many good, honest, kind people who do not believe in God.

  3. Great post, Brian! I particularly like the last short paragraph. I guess I tossed my rider off years ago (the burden of my father, who was a minister of religion). Since then I’ve been free of him and his stick! Instead I have found great peace and happiness without the requirements of a religion.
    I do, however, have a defined ‘purpose in life’ which I find helps me to gauge where I am ‘at’ on the remained of my journey since completing my reproductive phase. This is “to know myself and be of service to others”. I guess it could be said that that is my own personal religion – certainly works better for me than anyone else’s.

  4. I would be interested to know what caused Tapu Misa to become a committed Christian. Perhaps, as a regular reader of NZH you could tell me.

    I cannot provide you with proof but my feeling is that even in Western socieites there is a resurgence in Christianity; not in the old established churches though but in the evangelical movements such as Destiny (unfortunately) but also other evangelical churches where there is not the same level of venality or cult worship that exists within DC. My son attends one such church, Arise Church, and whilst it is not my cup of tea (I prefer more sedate forms of worship) it has an enormous following amongst young people and has also done wonders for my son in terms of behaviour, maturity and attitude to life.

    I also find it interesting that Christianity flourishes in areas where its followers are persecuted. The strength of Christianity has always been that no matter how many tyrants try to stamp it out it continues to grow, like a hydra. Perhaps in the West we have just become too comfortable.

    Finally I do not regard Christianity as an opiate in my life. To me it is a reason for living and a reason for living life to the full.

  5. @ Ben: “The strength of Christianity has always been that no matter how many tyrants try to stamp it out it continues to grow, like a hydra.”

    And sadly where Chirstianity took root, it often in turn became something of a tyrant itself.

    Personally I believe the meaning or purpose of life is something of a red herring and caused by man’s own vanity. Cursed as we are with self-awareness, I think we are also cursed with a towering conceit that we somehow mean something in the overall scale of things; that we somehow matter and that the world is poorer for our absence. It’s that kind of vanity that leads to the invention of gods, which simply serve to feed our own vanity. We are, after all, the only species I am aware of that have created gods to boost our own sense of self-worth.

  6. Don, sadly you are right in that Christianity has been turned into something tyranical by man. The perversion of the Christian ideal does not however invalidate it. Mankind is capable of perverting anything that is good, including love.

    I have absolutely no conceit that I mean anything or that the world would be the poorer for my absence and I doubt whether any real Christian would believe such a thing. I have no idea why I have been placed on this earth and like 99% of the population when I die I will be quickly forgotten. But while I am here I can in my own imperfect way try to live up to the ideals preached by Christ. Many gods have been ‘invented’ but it says something for the resilience of this particular invention that it has survived 2000+ years and in spite of all the doomsayers it is in pretty good shape.

  7. Ben: “it has an enormous following amongst young people and has also done wonders for my son in terms of behaviour, maturity and attitude to life.”
    I seem to have read somewhere that the young people who join such Evangelical movements do so for an average of 2 years. Then they try another group or two then fade off. I suppose it answers a need at the time, fellowship, belonging, some answers but not long term. Which is fine but may give such groups illusions of popularity but not long term. Similar to the success rate of a promise of chasity.

  8. I hope you are not suggesting that those who are devout Christians are not the same ones who are materialistic, gossips etc? Only atheists are so?

    I don’t think that being a good person is dependant on believing in God. The Church is full of sinners and belief in God doesn’t guarantee that a person will do good.Satan believes that God exists, it doesn’t make him a good person.

  9. Ian, my son has been part of the church for five years and there are many who have been there longer.

  10. A very erudite discussion. To introduce a Homer Simpson- grade observation…. the donkey in the photo is not having a bar of the elaborate bribe.

  11. Firstly: I’m suspicious of these base statistics. You can play allsorts of games with statistics.

    For example, using New Zealand’s statistics: if you take the results of the 2006 Census of Population and Dwellings, and add all those that responded in the religion section ‘Object to answering’, or didn’t state a religion, and those that answered they ‘Don’t know’ their religion, to the large group of New Zealanders who indicated that they had ‘No religion’ to the religion section of the, you get something like 44.5% of the population not down to belonging to any religious group.

    However, subtracting 44.5% from the whole does not mean that 55.5% of the population goes to divine services in any form of regularity. Or even think about religion much at all.

    The numbers being provided out of Africa would be largely based on missionary claims, as the level of government statistic gathering would vary across the continent, where they do exist. Missionary organisations have had a history of inflating numbers of converts, or claiming for their churches more influence than they have.

    Secondly: this article is based on the idea that Christians are all the same, when all of the groups differ fundamentally on their understanding of the nature of God and salvation, which is the reason we have so many denominations. So therefore, there may be many Anglicans in Africa, but how many of them will reach Salvation anytime soon according to the Pope – none.

    Finally: Just because a bunch of people believe something, without evidence, doesn’t make them right, it just means they believe. Essentially, if every Presbyterian in Ghana was jumping off a cliff, I still wouldn’t think it a good idea.

    Great last paragraph.

  12. 12

    Wallis Grobblestone

    You’re a great fan of Tapu Misa because her views neatly dovetail with your own. But, does she have the self-effacing humility, the razor-sharp intellect and the grounded sensibilities of the Michael Laws and the Garth Georges of this world?

    • You’re a great fan of Tapu Misa because her views neatly dovetail with your own. But, does she have the self-effacing humility, the razor-sharp intellect and the grounded sensibilities of the Michael Laws and the Garth Georges of this world?

      Careful, Kiwis aren’t great with irony!

  13. Ben, My eldest son has been part of the charismatic church for more than a decade. I was only writing of a stat that was published somewhere (?) that showed that the attraction wore off for many. If it works for some then good luck to them. Free choice etc

  14. Baz, the reason the donkey in the photo is not interested in the carrrot is because the photographer has a female donkey to carry the gear and hunger is taking second place to lust.

  15. I’m surprised that no one has noted the most surprising, and worrying, element of that column. She’s reading — and quoting — the ghastly Christian bigot Dinesh D’Souza.

    D’Souza, formerly a senior policy advisor to the Reagan White House, is also the author of ‘The Enemy At Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11′, which claims that the US attracted the ire of al Qaeda by embracing the depravity implicit in, among other things, feminism, gay rights and free speech.

    He proposes that if only the modern West could align its values more with with those radical Islam, terrorism would go away. No shit.

    • I’m surprised that no one has noted the most surprising, and worrying, element of that column. She’s reading — and quoting — the ghastly Christian bigot Dinesh D’Souza.

      Than heavens for commentators who read and know lots of things. Disadvantage of being a bibliophobe.

  16. Ben and Ianmac, it has been my experience that very few young people stay in the same evangelical church for more than five years; although dropping out is probably more due to high mobility, and getting sick of hype, than losing interest in religion altogether.

    Tobias

  17. Thank heavens for commentators who read and know lots of things. Disadvantage of being a bibliophobe?

    Oh, me too. I only read about books …

  18. Well, I think Misa despite her convert’s zeal, has not only her God and the Pope’s big battalions and televangelical gombeen men on her side, but also the stats – despite the hoary stricture that there are lies, damned lies – and statistics.

    Apart from Western Europe and it’s former imperial off-shoots mired in Mammonesque material hyper-individualist relative luxury, and the US is of course the Western Anglo-saxon Protestant exception with its near-inexplicable pietism, the rest of the world, the 3 A,s of Asia, Afica and Americas and Oceania are seeing a revanchist and neophytic upswelling of that good ol’ time religion.

    And even the post-Christian West has its para-religious artificial sweeteners such as Wicca, magic crystals, Rastafari ‘erb “communion”, New Age angels retro-indigenous animism, eg Ko Rangi ko Papa … .

    And of course “Darwinian” militant secular materialist atheism ( Don’t think of an elephant! ) is merely another pseudo-religious mock spirituality.

    One could of course cynically speculate that even in the post-Xtian “West”, the recent refugees retro-exodussing to the hitherto-deserted pews are more a function of the economic recession panicking daylight atheists and fickle erstwhile faithful whose spiritual emptiness is subconsciously sourced to empty wallets, due to the Great Recession.

    But we’ll leave the vinegar of sterile cynicism to the puzzled and puzzlingly secular atheistic mediarachiks, eh?

  19. @ PÓD. Well said, fella! Nice to read something, us ordinary folks can get a handle on.

    Was the cabin pressurised, when you went up into the clouds, on your ego trip??

  20. Brian, enjoyed your blog which I’ve just come across. The following isn’t an original response but an extract from my website – which includes writing about “living with faith” – with no need to “believe” or expect anything after life.
    _______________________________________________

    The conservative opinions of fundamentalist, evangelical, literal Bible reading Christians do not represent the views of all Christians. In social justice and political debates, especially, a spectrum of voices from Christian and faith communities needs to be heard.

    Many of us still enjoy traditional forms of worship, but we want and need a human-centered, inclusive and green theology.

    Would you be part of a faith community if you weren’t expected to believe the impossible or become more than fully human?

    Celebrants can facilitate our special life events – naming ceremonies, civil unions and weddings, home blessings, funerals – without a religious or theological content. Yet if we still find value in our faith traditions and wholeness in a caring but non-judgemental community, the church can still be the centre of communal and spiritual life.

    Liberal, inclusive churches can be the centre and sacred space for special events and our day-to-day lives… Progressive, reconciling, transitional – however they’re labeled – still retain people of faith and attract people who wish to live meaningfully but who – as Bishop John Shelby ‘Jack’ Spong puts it – don’t want to check their intellect at the door.

    However, we need new lyrics, new affirmations, and new litanies to replace the outdated concepts in many traditional hymns, prayers and liturgy.

    To this end, some of us are re-interpreting old mythologies, ancient stories, in ways that make sense for our time. Think of Joy Cowley, Lloyd Geering, Ian Harris, Shirley Murray – to name a few…

    For examples and links, check out: http://www.simplesite.com/tempo