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On Religion

by Rick Lewis

One of the classic subjects of philosophical debate is God. Until now, philosophy of religion has only featured in this magazine on rare occasions. In Issue 7, however, there was an article by Les Reid arguing that this religion thing is really a bit of a pain in the backside and that it’s time we binned it and got on with something more rational instead. Les’s short, punchy article provoked more letters, articles and calls than any other item so far. I knew you were an argumentative bunch, but strewth! I shouldn’t have been surprised; a glance at the newspapers would have shown me that many, many people do care a great deal about matters of religion – God still has a lot more fans than Nietzsche.

Britain is not famous for outbursts of religious fervour. It is a land where only a small minority of the population actually go to church. Yet in the last few months religion has been hitting the front pages with startling regularity, with several religious controversies running simultaneously. For instance:

1) The separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales has led to debate over whether a divorced king could be head of the Church of England. Various commentators and churchmen have argued that it would be inconsistent with the Church’s views on marriage and that therefore, either Charles should not become King (being passed over in favour of his son William) or else that the link between church and state should be modified or scrapped.

2) In the wake of the James Bulger child murder case, a Government minister accused the Church of failing to do anything about moral education. Church leaders probably should have been flattered by the implication that they could do something about it if they wanted to.

3) The Bishop of Durham upset some believers with a New Year message in which he claimed that the Christmas story was a myth and also that there was no such place as Hell. He rapidly found out that this latter contention at least was false, as 400 demons disguised as tabloid journalists descended on his palace to torment him.

4) Following years of learned dispute between theologians, sabbatarians and trade unionists, Parliament finally passed legislation allowing shops and supermarkets to open on Sundays.

Possibly this is all the result of a marketing campaign by the Church Commissioners’ media advisers, an attempt to boost churches’ box office takings by means of a few well-publicised rows (the film industry does it, so why not the church?). Alternatively, perhaps it is a portent of the forthcoming millennium, and the headlines next week will be full of riders of the apocalypse and the resurrection of the dead.

Belief in a God or gods may (or may not) be beyond philosophical debate. Perhaps you either believe or else you don’t and nothing more can be said. Perhaps. But even then, religion raises many other matters which do certainly call for analysis and we look at just a few of them in this issue of Philosophy Now. We’ve steered clear of the specific rows mentioned earlier, attempting as befits a philosophical magazine to examine some of the more lasting questions raised by religious belief. As well as a short, general introduction to the subject we have a point-by-point reply to Les Reid, and a variety of book reviews and letters. We also have a discussion of the age-old problem of evil, to wit if God is all-powerful, all-knowing and also caring (all of which things we are told he is) then why does he allow such a lot of terrible things to go on in the world? There is some serious, no-joke suffering happening out there. How can God possibly allow it to happen?

As you have a right to expect, the commentators in this magazine address with seriousness and diligence an area of thought which matters intensely to millions of people. What you’ve doubtless come to expect from one of my editorials, on the other hand, is a collection of irritating, flippant generalisations – so here’s another one. Has it occurred to you that not only are preachers’ styles influenced by society’s views of God but that the connection inevitably works the other way around, too? For instance, in 19th Century Wales, preachers tended to be of the fire-and-brimstone type, and consequently people tended to see God as an avenging, Old- Testament sort of deity. Clergymen in Britain nowadays tend to be much more cautious and liberal on theological questions and to be deeply concerned with social issues, which perhaps unfortunately are beyond their direct influence. Consequently the public’s perception of God is now of the sort of deity portrayed in rubber on Spitting Images – a well-meaning, ineffectual bungler. Which would, of course, sort out the problem of evil if it were true.

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