Friday, December 25, 2009

Books that I'm reading

In between body surfing in the Indian Ocean, jogging along the beach and spending time with family, I've also taken time out these holidays to throw myself into a couple of books. These are the ones that I'm presently working through:

Timothy Keller – The Reason for God

The founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan argues that both secularism and religious belief are on the rise in the world today. In order for proper dialogue to occur between believers and sceptics, both sides should take a new, fresh look at the concept of doubt. This book is divided into two parts: the first provides answers to common questions that sceptics have about Christianity, and the second outlines reasons for believing in the Christian message.

Patrick Glynn – God: The Evidence

An atheist turned Christian shares his story of how he found faith, and outlines three lines of evidence for the existence of God: (1) the apparent fine tuning of universal constants, (2) out of body experiences, and (3) the role that religion plays in mental and physical health.

Russel Blackford & Udo Sch√ľklenk – 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists

A collection of 50 essays from academics, writers and scientists who share their reasons why they don't believe in gods. Although most of the writers are from the industrialized West, which is common in a book of this sort, it's refreshing to also read contributions from Africa, South America and India.

Jacob Klapwijk - Purpose in the Living World

I haven't yet started this one, but I'm looking forward to it. This is the first time I've come across a book from a theistic evolutionist. The Professor Emeritus of the Department of Philosophy in Free University in Amsterdam provides a philosophical analysis of the relation of evolutionary biology to religion. Not only does he criticise creationism and intelligent design, but also reductive naturalism. He attempts to bridge the gap between the opposing poles of the evolution-creationism debate.

These books are inspiring my thinking and I am looking forward to writing up my thoughts in future blog posts.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Art of Soul

No philosopher can be an island. You can read a lot and think a lot by yourself, but you can only truly measure the value of ideas when you bounce them off other people. I've been extremely lucky this year to have people who have been willing to challenge my ideas and inspire my thinking. So if you have commented on this blog, sent me emails, or have met with me over cups of coffee sometime during 2009, I want to thank you. Your willingness to discuss ideas has been extremely valuable to me.

But most of all I want to thank a great group of friends from Art of Soul, a film and literature discussion group that Cori and I belong to. Meeting one evening a month, the group discusses
spiritual and philosophical aspects of popular films and books. I want to thank Barbara, Curtis and Melanie (the three founding members of the group), as well as Jacomien, Salomè, Futhi, Sylvia and others for fascinating discussions on topics ranging from violence, peace narratives, the Holocaust, atheism, the meaning of religious belief, and white South African guilt. Some of the ideas I've posted over the last year can be directly attributed to you guys, especially the posts Where is the virtue in martyrdom and Is a person moral if they simply obey the law.

So thank you for your willingness to share, but more importantly, thank you for your willingness to listen.

The Art of Soul crowd at Pappas in Duncan Yard, Pretoria

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Where is the virtue in martyrdom?

I've always been uncomfortable with the idea that it is virtuous to die for one's beliefs. I remember, as a young Christian, listening to stories of brave missionaries, often in totalitarian states, who were forced to renounce Christ or be killed, and then were martyred for choosing the latter. Even then I could not help thinking how silly these missionaries were, for surely one's life is more important than a few words.

In Jill Paton Walsh's fictional novel, Knowledge of Angels, set in medieval Europe, an atheist,
named Palinor, is marooned on a Christian island. Throughout the story he refuses to proclaim belief in God, to the point of being tortured and burnt at the stake by the island's inhabitants. I don't know if I would have done the same; if someone threatened to kill me if I didn't renounce my atheism, I would without hesitation proclaim belief in God. Because, again, I believe that one's life is more important than a couple of words, especially words said without conviction.

After all, what value can one add to the world if one is dead? The Christian who willingly dies for her beliefs renders her beliefs valueless, in a sense that she can no longer turn those beliefs into actual, positive change in the world. The missionary who renounces Jesus lives to see another day, and is granted with the opportunity to continue helping those around her who are in need.

The whole concept of martyrdom seems to be rooted in the idea that standing up for one's beliefs is more important than the value of human life. And this worries me because those who are prepared to die for their beliefs are often prepared to kill for them, too.

So I don't see any virtue in dying for what I believe. In order to add value to my own life and to the lives of those around me, I find it far better to live for my beliefs instead.