Questions for thoughtful Christians, By Goldwin Emerson

Questions for thoughtful Christians

By Goldwin Emerson

London Free Press Dec.15 2012

Christianity offers the promise of eternal life for those who believe and accept Jesus as saviour. According to this promise, mortals can become immortal, and those who are saved through their faith and their acceptance of Jesus will exist in a state of eternal bliss. This “good news” promise works efficiently provided believers are not inclined to ask too many questions and are willing to keep their religious faith strong through prayer, reassurance from clergy, and from Christian fellowship.

The Big Bang occurred approximately 13.7 billion years ago. When astrophysicists are asked if the Big Bang was created by God, they reply that astronomy can make no evidence-based comments on this question.

A question arises as to what came before the Big Bang. Consider the musings of an ancient Hindu writer of the Rig Veda, X, 129, the oldest of the 4 Vedas:

Was neither Being nor Non-Being then, Neither Air nor Space beyond.
What was It, forcefully stirring? Where? In whose Keeping? Was it Water deep beyond sound? .........

This creation, where it came from,
Whether a foundation or not, He who
Surveys from highest heaven, Alone knows......... Unless He knows nothing about it?

Christians are less humble about the things the Rig Veda writer and astronomers don’t know. They claim that God, as the prime mover or first cause or uncaused cause, created the universe.

A useful convention employed in science, logic, and legal systems states that those who present a claim are the ones upon whom the onus falls to bring forth evidence in support of their claim.

Here are some questions thoughtful Christians might consider:

1. If humans are at the apex of God’s creation, which began 13.7 billion years ago, but did not appear on earth until approximately one million or more years ago, and if

Jesus came to earth as God’s son only about 2000 years ago to save humankind for all eternity, this hardly seems to be an efficient plan for the salvation of all humankind. Why did God wait for 998,000 or more years before sending his son, Jesus, to offer salvation and eternal life for all humankind?

2. We are off-spring of our parents. We are children of this planet or of the universe. But the universe is finite according to the Christian view. That is, it began about 13.7 billion years ago. As children of the universe, we are mortal and finite. Is it really to be believed that if we accept Jesus as saviour, we are the only living thing that can exceed the bounds of a finite universe and become infinite or eternal? Eternity means having no beginning and no end. (Encyclopaedic Edition Webster’s). If we don’t accept Jesus, or in some parts of the world, have never heard of him, are we still eternal beings? Is eternity for Christians a concept that begins only at birth and continues on timelessly? If so, is this truncated concept of eternity the correct word to use?

3. Christians believe theirs is a religion of humility, favoured by God for all eternity. The various Christian varieties of religion make up about 1.5 billion followers, a number which approximates the number of followers of Islamic religions. That is, in a total population of seven billion, about 80% of the world’s population is not Christian. Does this statistic give Christians pause for thought when they claim that eternal life is to be had only by Christians?

4. Eternal salvation through acceptance of Jesus may lessen the importance that Christians place on what we do here on earth. Such a belief may negate the personal responsibility of taking charge of one’s own ethical growth and development in the here and now. Does it lessen, or does it enhance, the importance of preserving and caring for our planet in favour of a preparation for a promised eternal life elsewhere?

Of course, there are thoughtful and caring liberal Christians who have concerns and “answers” for these questions. Do their answers allow their fellow believers to accept a faith that promises too much on too little rational thought and on little or no evidence?

I have heard various answers to these questions, but I would like to hear yours also.

Good moral path includes scientific thought, By Goldwin Emerson

Good moral path includes scientific thought

By Goldwin Emerson

London Free Press Nov. 17, 2012

Can an atheist be moral? The simple answer is, yes, atheists can be moral, and they can be immoral, just as religious believers can be moral or immoral. It is often assumed that the more religious a person is, the more ethical that person will be. Consequently, the question of whether or not a religious believer is moral is rarely asked, although sometimes it should be.

Religious adherents deal with some unique and complex issues in deciding moral answers. They are concerned, not only with doing good things for their fellow human beings, but also with pleasing God, and with following principles and dogma according to the persuasions and doctrines of their particular religion. Herein is a potential problem. There is a wide range of religious opinions held on moral issues. Questions concerning birth control, divorce, overpopulation, euthanasia, male-only clergy, same sex marriages, gender equality, respect for racial diversity, free choice about abortion, stem cell research, and other current moral issues in our society often divide religious opinions. In extreme, but not uncommon cases, such divisions lead to conflict and wars among various religious faiths. This despite the fact that many adherents ironically believe we need religion to keep our ideas about morality from going off in all directions.

According to a computer search in Google, there are over 4000 different religious denominations in the world. These accommodate a great deal of diversity of thought, or variations, or sometimes confusion, about moral issues, each claiming to know how God thinks on these matters. Apart from the basic theological question of whether God exists, it is obviously difficult to know with any certainty what God thinks. The proliferation of so many religious denominations, even within the broad groupings of the monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Muslim faiths is, in its self, evidence of these difficulties.

Conscientious atheists are generally open to acceptance of practical results that can be measured and observed. Sciences, including social sciences, offer useful guidance and direction in assessing whether or not people are properly fed or have adequate housing and proper health care. Science can be informative about crime rates and their possible correlations with poverty, or educational levels. These disciplines can help to assess drug problems or spousal abuse. In other words, science can help people see the underlying causes as well as the solutions to moral problems in order to work toward a healthy and caring society.

Often the more difficult and complex the moral situations are, the more scientific knowledge is required in order to understand the implications of issues such as stem cell research, the dangers and benefits of cloning, or the ethics of keeping comatose patients like the USA citizen, Terri Schiavo, on a medical life support system for nearly ten years in her continued vegetative state, this despite the advice of medical doctors. Science can help us determine whether we are being good stewards of our planet earth. Are we depleting our natural resources and polluting our air and water? Is there really climate change, and if so, is it the result of human behaviour? Science can offer relevant information in these ethical matters. In compassionate health care, the scientific advice of psychiatrists and medical researchers is vital.

Of course, science, like religion, doesn’t have the answers to all things, and scientific inventions and discoveries can sometimes be used in unethical ways. Yet, on balance, the growth of scientific knowledge in the past hundred years is quite remarkable. In total, it exceeds the entire body of previous scientific information throughout human history up until approximately 100 years ago. I wonder if the same claim can be made concerning the growth of religious knowledge. In moral matters, science is accessible to both

believers and non-believers. Religions, and in particular, fundamentalist believers, often look upon science unfavourably or with disinterest and suspicion.

Fortunately, thoughtful religious adherents, as well as thoughtful, concerned, non-believers recognize that science is helpful, though not always sufficient to ensure clarity and wisdom in moral matters. A prudent beginning in choosing a good moral path for either religious or non-religious citizens would be to combine a caring, compassionate attitude with the best scientific knowledge we have available.

U.S. gun laws not even on the election radar, By Goldwin Emerson

U.S. gun laws not even on the election radar

By Goldwin Emerson

London Free Press, Nov. 3, 2012

Recently In a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, 12 people were shot to death and 70 others were injured. The massacre follows a pattern in the United States where, on average, there are 20 mass killings annually (Time Magazine, How Guns Won Aug.6, 2012). The response in the United States was predictably one of shock and horror, followed by the question, “Why did this horrible event happen?”

Several studies and surveys indicate the U.S. has a gun ownership rate of almost 90 for every 100 people. This rate far surpasses any other country, with the runner‐up usually coming in around 60 guns per 100 people. And these figures do not include guns controlled by the military, police and other law enforcers.

There are many occasions when normally rational citizens, under stress, in domestic disagreements, road rages, and other frustrations of modern life, become sufficiently upset and irritated to resort to guns. This situation happens more readily when guns are easily available.

The second amendment of the United States constitution endorses the right of citizens to procure and bear arms. This Bill of Rights (the second amendment) has often been challenged since its inception in December 15, 1791, but has always been upheld by the USA Supreme Court with some minor modifications and clarifications. For example, the Supreme Court has reaffirmed that American citizens have the right to bear arms and possess firearms independent of the militia. During the Katrina hurricane disaster, American Coast Guard personnel were permitted to wear their service‐issued heavy firearms off‐base and within the territory affected by Katrina.

There are some regulations in the United States meant to keep heavy rapid‐fire weapons out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. But frequently these regulations do not come into effect until an individual has at least one gun‐related misdemeanor which may or may not result in an individual’s legal prohibition from owning guns.

Many young people can now have access to computer games in which they may easily “zap” out the life of the imagined “enemy”. There is a built‐in excitement and sense of power that motivates children and teenagers to spend hours becoming proficient, as well as addicted, to these types of computer games.

Many movies, violent stories and television programs present the hero as the person who can shoot the quickest and the most accurately. The power of a gun becomes an immediate “equalizer” for many in everyday life who feel threatened by other students, co‐workers, or domestic quarrels.

In the early days of the American Constitution, bearing a gun, even for military personnel, usually meant owning a single shot musket type gun. For this type of weapon, preparing each shot required inserting gun powder and shot pellets into the barrel of the gun, and pressing the ammunition carefully into place, taking aim and firing....... a procedure which took up to 30 seconds for the experienced soldier, and usually longer for the typical hunter or ordinary citizen. Today, semi‐automatic and fully automatic firearms such as AK‐47s make it possible to fire off over one hundred heavy calibre bullets within a few seconds.

From time to time politicians have vowed to take some meaningful action to tighten gun control laws. In 1992 President Clinton’s crime bill included a section controlling assault weapons. The legislation was strongly opposed by the National Rifle Association (NRA). Political supporters of the Democrats were worried about the Crime Bill losing votes for their party. The crime bill passed narrowly by a 214 to 212 vote, but in the following election many Democrats lost their seats and the Republicans took control of the Senate. Eventually remnants of the original crime bill and Clinton’s gun control bill eroded under the Bush administration. Today, in the present pre‐election speeches, neither major political leader has commented on new gun control measures. In fact, polls indicate fewer Americans want to strengthen controls than was the case previously; this, despite continued annual massacres.

In a country like the United States, where guns are easily purchased, there is a social climate that drives frustrated citizens to make use of such easily attainable weapons. I hope, as Canadians, we do not choose to travel a similarly unwise course.

Long marriage brings insight into successful unions, By Goldwin Emerson

Long marriage brings insight into successful unions

By Goldwin Emerson

London Free Press Sept.15, 2012

Over the years I have observed many different forms of marriage. On one occasion my wife and I were visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. A young Hindu couple had just come from their marriage service to have their wedding pictures taken at the Taj Mahal. As they awaited the arrival of the photographer I asked how long they had known each other. The new husband and wife smiled nervously and explained that they had first met each other just twenty minutes prior to their wedding service. They went on to describe, in a courteous and enthusiastic way that pre‐arranged marriages were the normal custom in India. They assured us that such marriages generally worked out well. Commitments to both the bride and the groom are made to unite the two extended families in supporting their marriage. It was as though they were marrying into each other’s families, and divorces were rare compared to American and Canadian style unions.

My wife and I were married in a Christian church sixty years ago and we are fortunate to have remained happily married. Some attribute the success of our partnership to our Christian marriage, but we are aware that the divorce rate for our type of marriage is indeed about 40%. Today, there are many kinds of marriages performed in Christian churches, including same sex marriages, open marriages, contractual agreements dividing up money and property, and those that divide obligations toward children born in other unions. Of course many of these options were not available sixty years ago. Today such a variety of marriages is accepted in some Christian denominations, but not in others.

Perhaps Canadians can improve our success rate for marriages. I suggest this with some hesitation and speak only as one who has been happily married to the same person for sixty years. Here are some ideas that grew out of those experiences.

* A marriage is helped when the parents of both partners know and respect each other.

* Marriages are likely to be more successful when couples, prior to their wedding, share their opinions on important matters. Do they both want to have children? Will they have joint bank accounts? Will the new mother want to return to work after the children are in school?

* When disagreements develop, discussing things in a respectful and kindly tone can hasten resolutions.

* Partners may have a few activities they enjoy alone, but marriages can benefit by pursuing many activities they enjoy together.

* Mutual respect and a sense of equality are crucial. Even when partners participate in differing tasks, each should acknowledge the value of their partner’s contributions and interests.

* Income earned by one partner should be balanced by the contributions of the other, whether through money, household tasks, child care, gardening, maintenance of property, etc. It helps when partners agree on worthwhile objectives and on positive and constructive ways to use money and time.

* One has to like someone before they can love them, and love can grow quickly or mature over time.

* Disagreements are resolved more by listening than by talking the most or the loudest. Arguments are more likely to be solved through patience and understanding.

* Tell your partner what you like about they dress, look, or accomplish worthwhile tasks. This can be a way of telling them why and how you love them.

* Take time to recognize and celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions.

* Respect your partner’s opinions even when they differ from yours. It helps to talk calmly about such differences. Don’t be anxious if you don’t come to immediate agreement. It takes time to incorporate others’ views.

*Where there are children resulting from a marriage it is important that parents work together in supporting and raising their children. Children are often quick to notice when each parent sets differing boundaries or expectations for proper behavior.

* Kindness, gentleness and patience enhance the success of marriages whether they are based on Christianity, other religions, or on secular humanistic principles.

There are many kinds of partnerships, but the rewards that can come from a happy marriage far outweigh those of other partnerships.

Hope and joy found in the here and now, By Goldwin Emerson

Hope and joy found in the here and now

By Goldwin Emerson,

London Free Press, Aug.15, 2012

As a humanist, I have sometimes been asked by my Christian friends, “What gives you hope?” After a few moments of conversation, it becomes clear that my friends are asking about hope for an afterlife, that is, hope for eternal bliss and heavenly contentment after one’s death.

My Christian friends hope they will be united with God and with their earthly friends who have predeceased them. For many of them, it is hard to imagine anything in their life that could be better and more important than a heavenly afterlife.

I, too, have my hopes for happiness. For me, it is happiness in the here and now that brings me joy.

I treasure loving and being loved by those who are closest to me. I cherish the friendships that are built up by my daily contact with those whom I trust and can depend upon.

The religious values of honesty, charity, and caring are also my secular ethical values. I cherish these values because they are the things that improve this world we live in from day to day. They are practical values that pay off in the here and now. They are worthwhile in their own right regardless of whether or not there is an eternal life beyond.

As a humanist, I too believe in the golden rule of treating others as we would wish to be treated. This is a valuable concept that is stated in some form in all major religions of the world. It is also stated by many of the world’s secular philosophical thinkers in similar language.

In Immanuel Kant’s terms, he believed we ought to act in moral matters so that the maxim of our actions can be universalized. In simpler terms, act each day in a

manner that we would want others to act if they found themselves faced with the decisions we now encounter.

In our everyday lives as rational adults, we realize there are differences between knowing and believing, and in having faith and in having facts. While religion brings hope to its believers, it still depends on trust and wishing something is so, but not knowing it is so.

Even when religious faith is extremely strong, believers are still not assured of their place in heaven. “Many are called, but few are chosen,” the Bible says in Matthew 22:14.

In religion, there is of necessity, strong elements of uncertainty. Thus the language of religion contains ethereal words like faith, commitment, mystery, trusting, praying, worshipping and miracles backed up by rewards, or sometimes by threats of punishment.

In my United Church days, during funerals our clergyman used to say of the deceased, they “had the sure and certain hope of the resurrection”. This was a colourful poetic statement he used without much thought that there was logical inconsistency in his words.

I do not mean that this approach is a bad one. It is probably necessary just as rewards and punishment are necessary in the secular world. When either our religious or secular moral values break down, we turn to law and order, to police forces, to courts of law, and sometimes to armies.

One of the main aspects of secular morality is that we are called upon to consider many issues and problems that humans need to address their attention to solving here and now. In religious circles, God is the centre of value systems; in secular systems, the problems around us we encounter daily become our central ethical issues.

Climate change is now regarded by scientists, and by Pope Francis, as related to the actions or inactions of human beings. Similarly, starvation, poverty, pollution of our air and water, depletion of topsoil crucial to plant growth and food

production, and the over‐use of growth hormones in animal and plant production are ethical problems arising from present day human activities.

Even devout religious believers can hardly expect God to miraculously offer salvation from these human‐made ethical problems.

My happiness and hope comes from humans using their best intelligence to analyze and study solutions for the ethical problems we create. Hopefully, with renewed efforts from humans, both secular and religious, and caring about our fellow humans, we can work together to find good ethical solutions to the problems we face here and now.