Friday, October 29, 2010

The Myths of New Atheism - Part 2b – People are good, religion is evil

The myth of the New Atheism is that it’s not a myth.

I’m using the term “myth” loosely to describe a tenet or dogma that’s not supported by observed fact or deductive reasoning. I have my dogmas, and I’m not ashamed to name them. I wish atheists had the honesty to do likewise.

Last week’s blog was the first installment about the myth that people are good, but religion is evil. I argued that “true” or “pure” atheism had no basis on which to judge something to be objectively “good” or “evil” and that the whole hypothesis of good and evil rests upon a theistic foundation. Without God, “good” and “evil” becomes nothing more than my self-interests verses yours. If you want to call people “good” in an objective sense, then you need to do it in a theistic context, which, of course, the Christian Gospel provides.

So, I agreed broadly with the statement about people being “good”, but I don’t see how it is compatible with pure atheism. It’s more at home in a Christian context.

I’m going to do the same with the statement that religion is evil. Again, I’ll ask that you please follow me carefully here because I’m going to argue that religion is neither good nor evil of itself; it can be (and has been) used evilly, but, more to the point, it cannot deliver.

What’s more, I believe that Jesus and his followers knew this; that religion cannot deliver. It was the major impetus behind the writing of the New Testament. To support this hypothesis, I’m going to have to take you on a journey through some Biblical theology.

The Bible is a big book. In fact, it’s a collection of writings that was put together over a long period of time by a large number of people (contrary to the urban myths that in one of my previous blogs). It’s an unfolding story, and the people in the middle didn’t live to see how the story ended.

Incidentally, one important feature of the story of the Bible is that the later authors could not change what the earlier authors had written because the earlier writings were already in circulation, which blows holes in the commonly held misconception that the Bible had been radically re-written to suit the particular agenda of a minority group some time after Christ (the Catholics, for example).

A legitimate reading of the story from Genesis to Revelation is that it’s the story of the Temple. I know Evangelical Christians like to read it as the story of God’s interactions with humanity, but I would add that the theater of these interactions is the Temple. We understand these interactions better if we see them played out in the context of the Temple.

What’s this got to do with religion? Well, if by “religion”, we mean the rites, self-identity, habits, culture, focal point, authority and legitimacy of a community, then the Temple is the personification of religion.

One problem us Westerners have here is that we’ve got no first hand experience of how the Temple operated or what it meant in the ancient world. We’ve got some vague notion that it was the place where worship happened, but it was much more than that. Here are my observations on some of the important, but overlooked features of the Temple;

• The Temple was the focal point of the city. Think of the Acropolis in Athens. Ancient cities grew up around Temples and they drew on the resources of the surrounding lands to sustain and maintain the activities that revolved around the Temple. They were built on high places as a statement to the worlds, saying “We are here, and these are our gods”. (See Jesus’ assessment in Matthew 5:14 “…a City on a hill cannot be hidden.”). The Temple was the expression of civic pride.

• The Temple symbolized the presence of the gods among the people in a tangible, practical way. The Temple was perceived as the incarnation of heaven on earth.

• The Temple housed the important treasures of the King and his people. Part of the reason Temples were guarded so jealously, was that they were the “banks” of the ancient world. Guarding the Temple was synonymous with national financial security. In this respect, the Temple was like Fort Knox.

• The Temple was the source of fresh meat and food for the city. The livestock that was slaughtered there was divided into ritual sacrifice (burnt offerings and the like), and consumption. In this respect, the Temple was something like the supermarket sitting in the center of town.

• The Temple was the repository of knowledge and the forum for communicating that knowledge to the people. The writings were secured in the Temple, and they were read out and preached to the people in the Temple. In this respect, the Temple was the central library; it was the central repository for the Word of God.

• The Temple was the place of forgiveness, cleansing and healing.

The Israelites were not unique in having a Temple, nor were they unique in claiming that it was divinely commissioned. Even so, their Temple was unique in at least two respects;

• The God it housed was the God of the entire cosmos, not just the city kingdom centered on the Temple

• The Israelites candidly recorded the careers of their Temples (and those records made their way into the collection of writings that we now call the Bible)

It’s this last point I’d like to follow. In brief, the Temple started out as a mobile tent until Solomon got to build a permanent structure in Jerusalem around 950 BC. Though the Temple building was a national success for Solomon, it’s fortunes waxed and waned from there on, mostly waning, despite the warnings of the Old Testament Prophets, until it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC, and the people taken into exile.

Upon the return from exile, a chastened remnant of Israel rebuilt the Temple and consecrated it in 515 BC. Again, it’s fortunes waxed and waned under successive empires until Herod the Great decided to rebuild it in 19 BC (this is the same Herod whom Matthew holds responsible for the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem in Matthew 2:16-18). Herod’s vision, or perhaps the vision of the Jews, was to reform and reconstitute Israel around the New Temple and they embarked upon a lavish building program and missionary effort to impress the importance of the Temple on the Jewish people.

Maybe it was this resurgence of national pride and its inevitable opposition to the powerful Roman Empire that prompted a re-think of what it was all about in Galilee. I can imagine the Pharisees coming up to the provinces from Jerusalem, reading their scrolls to the synagogues, and some of them wondering whether the lessons of the past had been truly learned. Didn’t they know that pride goes before a fall?

Jesus and his followers, I believe, must have pondered this question, and the solution they came up with was truly revolutionary – a stroke of pure genius. They believed that Jesus was the true Temple.

Remember all the functions that I listed for the Temple above. Every single one of these functions is fulfilled in Jesus, according to the New Testament. That is why the writer to the Hebrews writes about the true Temple that cannot be touched and that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:18-28) and John writes in Revelation 21:22 that “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” Finally, Christians had an eternal Temple in which God’s name would dwell forever (see 2 Chronicles 7:16), unlike the stone buildings that had been successively raised and razed in Jerusalem.

OK, so we’ve established that having a Temple cannot save you, not even a God-ordained Temple replete with all the proper rites and furniture. Religion, we can safely conclude, cannot deliver. Furthermore, it will get you into trouble, as the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70 and the diaspora of the Jews testifies.

But why is this so?

The main reason why, and this is an opinion I might actually share with the atheists, is that religion gives a person a sense of entitlement. If I subscribe to this religion and go to that Temple, then I am entitled to land, honor and riches.

If there is one thing the Bible rails against more than any other, it is this sense of entitlement. It persistently and repeatedly warns us against relying on our own sense of worthiness, from Deuteronomy 9:4 “do not say to yourself, "The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness”, to Matthew 3:9 “And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” to Galatians 3:11 “Clearly no one is justified before God by the law” to Ephesians 2:8-10 "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast."

Get the message? You cannot rely on your religion. Those who did so got slaughtered and exiled and they had their Temples destroyed in front of their own eyes, before they got their own eyes gouged out. You’d think we would have learned it by now.

Religion does not deliver. But what does?

Christians like to call Jesus the Son of God. One rather odd feature of the Gospels is that Jesus preferred to call himself not the Son of God, but the Son of Man (Bar Enosh – strictly, the son of a human being). On a quick counting at, the phrase “Son of God” appears about 30 times, in various contexts, including the pejoratives used by the demons. “Son of Man” appears 76 times in all four Gospels, mostly in the context when Jesus is talking about himself.

The reason this is important, I think, is because Jesus wants to impress on his followers that what’s important is not a system of religion, but a person. To put it in religious language, the center of God’s plan is not the system of religion, or a Temple; it’s a person. That person, uniquely, is Jesus Christ. However, he is the true human being as his favorite epithet states. In him we find our true humanity and we become the people we were created to be. Can he deliver? According to the logic of the New Testament, he has already passed through death and having done so, we can pass safely through when we are in him. Jesus delivers when the Temple does not.

There’s much, much more than this brief summary provides, so I just want to return to the question in conclusion; is religion evil? Atheism cannot answer the question, but the Christian Gospel can, and does in spades.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Myths of New Atheism - Part 2a – People are good, religion is evil

The myth of the New Atheism is that it’s not a myth.

That is, it's founded purely on observed, deductive reasoning and there's no myth or dogma about it.

Unfortunately for the apostles of New Atheism, in drilling down to the foundations of some of the basic tenets of their faith, I have found that instead of being built on the solid rock of demonstrable, objective science, it may as well be build on aether. Here's another example; 'people are good but religion is evil'.

Please follow me carefully on this because I'm going to agree broadly with the idea.

My contention with it is that it is utterly incompatible with 'pure' New Atheism. The idea actually belongs at home in a peculiarly Christian context. In other words, the New Atheists cannot say this if they want to advance their cause. Christians might say it without contradicting their own world-view, but I advise caution (I hate slogans, even good ones, anyway).

To be more specific, my objection to the New Atheist's use of this slogan is twofold;

1 'Pure' atheism cannot comprehend that good is 'good' and evil is 'evil', therefore it has no logical basis to call people 'good' and religion 'evil'. A better paradigm is found in the Christian Gospel.

2 Jesus and his followers spearheaded a counter-Temple movement. I'll tackle this next week.

Are people 'good'?

My understanding of 'pure' New Atheism is that there is no external, divine influence on the cosmos. Everything is cause and effect. Everything in the cosmos is what it is now purely and wholly because of what it was one micro-nano-second earlier. And where it was one micro-nano-second earlier was because of where it was in the previous micro-nano second, and so on, all the way back to the Big Bang.

Each and every electron, for example, in the entire universe is located where it is located now because of a seamless and uninterrupted chain of events since the Big Bang. That's an unimaginable number of electrons and an unimaginable period of time but, and this is the point, because they all obey natural and reasonable laws with no surprises thrown in by an external deity, their current locations are entirely predictable (we don't have the computational power to do the math for an accurate prediction and we never will).

Another way to look at it is to say that each and every electron, and everything else in the cosmos was always going to end up exactly where it is today. It doesn't have a choice.

This includes all the electrons spinning round the atoms in the electro-chemical impulses in your brain in that great flux that you perceive as 'thought'. Curiously, you don't have a choice either, because those electrons were always going to line up exactly as they have done and coalesce into what you perceive as a choice, ever since the Big Bang.

So, if we were only ever going to make the choices we make, what makes a good choice 'good' and an evil choice 'evil'? What makes Michael Young's attempt to cycle around Australia to raise money for the Cancer Council good, and what makes implementing a policy to systematically exterminate Jews evil? According to the New Atheism, both choices are simply the results of the laws of nature exerting themselves inexorably on the cosmos.

The common response, I suspect, is to call something 'good' if it is beneficial to humanity. The Nazi Holocaust was obviously not good in this context; in fact, we call it 'evil'.

Now, I'm absolutely not going to defend genocides and other atrocities here, but I need to ask the question about why 'beneficial to humanity' constitutes 'good' in an objective sense.

As I have argued above, the impersonal laws of nature have simply acted to bring everything to where it is today. In the process, they threw up human beings, but they also threw up cockroaches, HIV viruses and a host of other creatures. What makes us think that the interests of human beings are more important that these other things, and what happens when their interests conflict?

We like to think we are special. But, according to the New Atheism, that sense of 'specialness' is nothing more than the result of the normal, impersonal forces that shaped our anthropogenic heritage. There's nothing 'special' about the 'special' feeling, and the universe certainly doesn't care one way or the other. Will that 'special' feeling save me from being killed by a tsunami? Of course not! Though, it might give me the motivation to try to get myself saved.

If we step outside our own self-interests for a moment, we are faced with the unsettling truth of the Atheistic Cosmos – what right have I got to pursue and defend my interests? Who should we kill; the patient or the malarial protozoa? They both owe their existence to an unknowing and uncaring universe that has no purpose in its existence and no way to know the difference between the human or malarial creature. To assert otherwise would be to insist on an intelligent and purposeful deity, which is strictly forbidden under the rules of New Atheism.

By contrast, the Christian Gospel, following the older Jewish tradition, asserts that when God made the universe, he made it 'good' (Genesis 1:10, 1:12, 1:18, 1:20, 1:25 etc.). In other words, God looked at what he had made and he liked it. Furthermore, he particularly liked the human beings he had made and considered them to be a special part of his good creation (Genesis 1:27-31). Interestingly, he continued to safeguard their interests, even when they lost interest in his (read from Genesis 3:21 to the end of the book), but I digress. Here, we have a logical basis to call the protection of humanity's interests a 'good' thing.

The picture is nuanced by the introduction of sin, which tends to draw people to the wrong thing. However it is complete in the sense that we are created as sentient beings with the capacity of choice and, even though we often choose evil, we have a basis to promote and defend the things that are beneficial to our neighbors. In other words, my neighbor might harm me, but I still have a reason to love him (Matthew 22:36-40).

So, the Christian Gospel lays a rational, logical foundation on which to call people 'good' and to pursue the things that benefit them.

There is no such foundation in New Atheism.

In New Atheism, it's a myth.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Myths of New Atheism - Part 1 - The Myth of Inevitable Progress

The myth of the New Atheism is that it’s not a myth.

Or, technically, it’s not founded on its own myths.

What I aim to do here is to expose some of those myths, as I see them. I concede at the outset that this doesn’t prove the New Atheism to be false, any more than it proves my Christian Faith to be true. However, what I hope to do is to counter the shrill voices of New Atheism that condemn me, and people like me, for no other reason that we hold to our particular mythology.

Mr. Kettle, let me introduce you to Mr. Pot.

(They’re both black, in case you didn’t get it.)

The first myth of the New Atheism is what I call the myth of inevitable progress. It’s more a sentiment than a doctrine, but it still ends up as dogma. It is expressed in a number of ways, but it ends up at roughly the same place – we are better than our parents because…well, just because, OK?

And by ‘better’, it can be ‘better’ in any number of ways. We are more tolerant, better informed, more rational, more reasonable, better communicators. In its crudest form, it’s the voice of the petulant teenager screaming out that his or her parents are stupid idiots (because they have ordered said teenager to tidy up his or her bedroom).

Now, it may just be that we have access to better information and education (though the latter is moot), but the wry commentator will note that not all change is progress. Certainly, this is the case if you look in the broader history of humankind. Nazi Germany thought it was progressing to a new age, the infamous Third Reich, and we know how that story ended.

Kingdoms and Empires rise and fall. On what basis do we say that one is ‘better’ than another? On what objective basis can I claim to be a ‘better’ person than my forebears?

If the New Atheists look to evolutionary theory to underpin this sentiment, they are looking in the wrong place. Specifically, our species has been recognizably distinct for many tens of thousands of years. I’m sorry if my science is a bit vague here, but it’s certainly a very long time when compared to the time span from one single generation to the next. In other words, we (modern 21st Century human beings) are genetically indistinct from those people who hid in caves and told themselves creation myths in the dark. Apart from the chronology, the only thing different between them and us is our access to better technology, and the internet.

If we were to get hold of a caveman, give him a shower and take him through our education system, he would look at the world in much the same way as we do. The question here is not what opportunities that education would open up to him, but how he would use them. Would he be wiser or more stupid than us? Would he be ‘better’ than us? Genetically, he would be indistinguishable from us; same man, different clothes.

What’s worse, and this is something ‘proper’ evolutionists would probably agree on, is the myth that evolution will make me into a better person. Face it; evolution by natural selection will NOT make you into a better person. What it does is that if you’re genetic make-up is better suited to the circumstances in which you find yourself, you’re more likely to pass it on to your progeny than someone who’s make-up is less suited. It’s all about your progeny, not you, and by the time they benefit (several generations into the future), you’ll be dead. You will not benefit one iota. It offers no hope to the individual.

You cannot call on evolution to claim that you are being made into a better person. What’s more, we cannot claim that evolution is making us better as a species, because we have interrupted the process of natural selection. Put simply, instead of being forced by our environment to change our genetic make-up over the generations, we have changed our environment to suit our genetic make-up. The Eugenics movement tried to correct this perceived imbalance, but they went the same way as the Nazis, which is no mere coincidence.

See. I’m appealing to history, which might be a waste of time on some New Atheists because they were the first to discover the universe, stupid.

We could go on with the current misuse of the word. For example, we could say that the personal computer has ‘evolved’ from its humble beginnings.

No it hasn’t. Not in the naturalistic sense. The reason PCs are better now than they were is wholly because an external intelligence (PC engineers) looked at previous generations and figured out how to improve them. Apply this metaphor to the natural world, and you actually argue for Theism (an intervening external intelligence), not Atheism.

So, please, let’s abandon the idea that evolution is somehow responsible for the law of inevitable progress – it isn’t.

It changes stuff, but it doesn’t necessarily make it better. In fact, you could argue that it actually makes it worse through a rather poor exegesis of the Laws of Thermodynamics and entropy.

One of the more insidious expressions of the myth of inevitable progress is the Richard Dawkins doctrine on the evolution of religion. Put simply (and you’ll find this pap all over the internet) Mr. Caveman didn’t have science to explain how the universe worked, so he invented God. The argument follows that now we have the science, we don’t need God. In fact we need to progress beyond the idea of God because…well, just because its progress, OK, and progress is inevitable. God, therefore, is holding us back.

Crucially, Dawkins and his disciples miss the point that its not just about science. If you believe that the purpose of humanity is to produce good science, then Dawkins’ hypothesis might actually work for you. (I’m not convinced, and I don’t see why, in an Atheistic Universe, improving our understanding of it will make any ultimate difference to it whatsoever). However, human beings are more than walking test-tubes – we try to understand our universe for a reason, and that reason is life and living (to put it crudely).

Allow me to illustrate. A few months ago, a friend of mine, Michael Young, set out to cycle around Australia and raise money for Cancer Research. Incidentally, he’s a Christian and I know him because we go to the same church. When he set out, I don’t think he thought to himself, “I’m going to need to invent a God who will fill in the gaps in my knowledge of the route”, which is akin to Dawkins’ simplistic analysis of why religion came to be. What I do think he thought was that by undertaking this venture, some good will come of it (because, ultimately, there is a God who is interested in such things), and I sincerely hope it does. (PS Please donate through Michael's website, if you can.) The former is an enquiry into the nature of the universe; the latter is faith. Dawkins confuses the two in his quest to replace Christianity with a cult of his own making.

I digress, but the myth of inevitable progress ignores the evidence, which is inexcusable for a movement that prides itself on being led by the evidence. And, by evidence, I’m referring to the many, many instances in which faith in God has propelled the advances that we have benefited from today.

For example, the very fact you are reading this has much to do with the Reformation. The Reformers vigorously promoted the learning of reading and writing and the reason, for them, is that they wanted people to be able to read the Bible for themselves, without relying on the Roman Church to read and interpret it for them. In fact the whole premise that we function better in the universe if we understand it finds its origins in the Judaeo-Christian traditions, and we’re talking about traditions that stretch back maybe 3,500 years to Moses and beyond.

Surely, if we are to become ‘better’ people, then we need to allow ourselves to learn from our forebears, and to do that we must abandon our bombastic claims that we are intrinsically better than them. Progress is possible, yes, but it’s not inevitable and it takes a lot more humility and hard work than the New Atheists might acknowledge.

When I see the kind of propaganda put out by some New Atheists, my mind instantly goes to the petulant teenager. Usually, bound up with these objections, there is some reason to jettison God. It’s usually an objection to the possibility that God could interfere with that person’s life in some way. Heaven forbid that this same God might actually judge that person and (horrors!) decide whether that person belongs in heaven or hell.

The Christian Faith stands in the tradition of God. The progenitors of this ideology certainly did believe in a God who would judge them (along with everybody else), and that made them into the best people that I have ever heard of. As far as the myth of inevitable progress is concerned, our spiritual ancestor pronounced that “No servant can be greater than his master” (John 13:16). I agree, and that’s why I count myself in his family. To me, Jesus of Nazareth is the pinnacle of what it means to be truly and fully human – and he lived 2,000 years ago. Have we really progressed since then? We have changed, but are we ‘better’?

So, what gives us the right to claim that we are ‘better’ than our ‘religious’ Caveman and his colleagues? That’s right, nothing more than a myth. We are better than him because…well, just because, OK.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Vaporware and FUD

At the risk of sounding like a fanboy (which I am), I must admit to being somewhat underwhelmed by a slew of potential products that all promise to beat Apple’s iPad (see here, for example).

Now, I’m not saying that some of these products might actually work, and they might actually work better than the iPad, but before you rush out to buy one (and give Steve Jobs the finger), consider this – you can’t. That’s because they don’t exist. Not yet. They’re vaporware. They’re in development, due for release some time in late whatever.

So, why would producers of consumer goods go to all this hoo-ha about promoting something that doesn’t (and sadly, in most cases I suspect, will never) exist? Partly, the reason has got to do with a sincere effort to produce something that can compete with someone else’s hugely popular thingo. Partly, as one observer wryly put it, it’s all about FUD (that’s fear, uncertainty, doubt). In other words, if Google can get a rumor going that it’s about to launch an iSlate, it might delay a consumer’s choice to buy an iPad, and thus prevent a defection to the opposition.

The moral of this story is that if you put enough FUD out there, you’ll immobilize people who might want to explore something new and they’ll stay at home (with you).

Strangely, this is the story of the Christian Gospel.

No, I’m not saying that the Christian Church is generating all the FUD I see today. It might have done in the past, when the Church had a significant role in western culture, but not today when it has been marginalized and largely discredited. Today, it’s the turn of the forces of modernism and popular culture to throw the FUD at the Christian Gospel and the Church that promotes it.

If my recent TV watching is anything to go by, you can’t get a person with profoundly religious convictions unless he or she is a murderous psychopath. I honestly cannot recall the last time the Bible was quoted on TV fiction unless it was in the context of someone doing something that was unspeakably evil. Add that to the urban myths/infomercials (sorry, documentaries) that are peddled about how unreliable the Bible is and the picture that emerges is that you shouldn’t touch it if you don’t want to get infected with the green death. I get the feeling that TV producers actually fear the Bible because it seems to make people do bad things. It has become the root of all evil (see 1 Tim 6:10, and note the irony).

Of course, my experience, and the experience of my Bible-reading colleagues, is the polar opposite. That’s not an argument to say that everything that anyone has done in obedience to the Bible has been good (and I include myself in this category). But it is an argument against the assertion that everything that the Bible inspires is evil. There’s something more nuanced here than the presence or otherwise of the Bible in a person’s decision-making.

Could it be that people can and do interpret what they receive (from the Bible or other sources) and they often get it wrong? In other words, it’s not simply a question of what is transmitted, it involves the reception as well. Here is my starting point for the old-fashioned notion of original sin and total depravity.

So, what’s our response? Do we throw up counter-FUD to scare people into Church?


(Even if the resulting message is less entertaining)

The antidote to fear-uncertainty-doubt is not more fear-uncertainty-doubt or even, Heaven forbid, religious or anti-religious vaporware.

The antidote is actually the Light of the World (John 8:12), which the People of God has been called to hold up for the benefit of all (Matt 5:14). In one sense, this makes the Christian’s job easy – we are to preach Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor 2:2). In another, this makes the job hard – what does it mean to live as one who bears the light of the world? I guess you’ll have to read the rest of the Bible to figure that out.

Don’t be afraid. Ignore the FUD. It won’t kill you.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Decisions, Decisions

I had something of a revelation recently; people don’t tend to make decisions rationally. Also, they don’t tend to make decisions – they actually see an outcome they want and then frame their decisions to secure the outcome.

I know, I know. Everybody else knows this, but I didn’t (or I have forgotten). Maybe its because, according to the Myers-Briggs typology; I’m an INTJ borderline ISTJ.

More probably, my work as a consultant engineer means that I put in an inordinate amount of analysis and logic into the decisions I recommend to clients. So, my working environment conditions me to backing up my decisions with a body of work, and to having my decisions scrutinized and challenged. I’m OK with that because the decisions I make have big dollar values associated with them. In my mind, the bigger the implication of the decision, the more effort is required to research the issue to come to a conclusion.


The problem with people is that we routinely fail to prioritize, or rank, the decisions that face us in life. The apocryphal tales that come out of the retail business indicate that a person will spend just as long deciding which new toaster to buy as he or she would in deciding which house to buy (the reason it takes longer to buy the house than the toaster is that we’ve got to co-opt the banks into the venture we’ve decided to undertake). Of course, the situation is not helped by an advertising industry that wants us to get worried if we’re not seen driving the new car or if we’re not taking the right diet supplements. God help us if we’re using last year’s toasters!

I could run through the whole gamut of decisions from here – from relationships, to how to vote, to how we need to address climate change and global inequities. Yes! This last one is a real biggie, and we’ve got to jettison the urban myth of the infinitely growing economy.

What, I hear you say? Martin’s getting all political and tree-huggy. And shouldn’t we simply blame global industry (a.k.a. anyone but me)?

Seriously, though, we need to consume less, and we need to distribute our planet’s limited resources more equitably (because they will run out). And I don’t see it happening when the biggest thing on the agenda in the negotiations between the Bank of America and Merryll Lynch on the eve of the global financial crisis was what compensation needed to be paid to the senior executives (as I found out this week). I don’t know the final dollar amount was, but it was enough to bail entire cities. It could have saved thousands of families defaulting on their mortgages. What determined their sense of what decisions were more important than others? The word ‘greed’ seems the most appropriate.

The trouble is, when you listen to CEO John Thain’s “rationale” behind his remuneration, you’d think the guy was making sense. Listen up, he’s a bean counter. He might be a rather good bean counter, but who made the decision to pay him $4 million per year, when actual bean growers have to live off less than $2 per day?

I’m not suggesting that pay and rewards should not be differentiated, but at what point do they become obscene and shameful? Who decides what is obscene and shameful? It seems we have a conflict of interest between the likes of John Thain and the 5,500 (approx) bean growers who collectively earn as much as he does individually? What a bunch of bankers – it seems they pay themselves these amounts not because they deserve it, but because they can.

I could lapse into cynical depression at this point. Can anyone make sound judgments? And what makes a good judgment “good”, or a bad judgment “bad”?

My problem is that I refuse to believe that the best judgments are those that serve my self-interests the best, yet that is how most people will evaluate the decisions they make. They have wisely decided that they will not entrust their self-interests to people who tend to put their own self-interests first.

So, here it is – the ultimate engine of our individual and collective decision-making mechanisms. Self-interest rules! And bugger the world (even if there’s not much of a world left for everyone else after I’m finished with it).

My only hope is to appeal to One who is higher than all these muddied undertows (see Gen 1:2 and Psalm 93:3-4); One who has demonstrated His willingness to abandon His self-interest on our behalf (see Romans 5:8).

The biggest decision I need to make is whether I can believe in Him.